SONOMA, Calif. – The 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season is in the books and Simon Pagenaud is officially its champion following a remarkable drive to win Sunday’s GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma at Sonoma Raceway.
The 32-year-old Frenchman started the day on pole and came in with a 44-point lead over Team Penske teammate Will Power, needing only to finish fifth or better to clinch the title. But from the drop of the green flag the driver of the No. 22 Hewlett Packard Enterprise Chevrolet left little doubt what the game plan was – to win.
The second-year Team Penske driver yarded the field in the opening 10 laps, pushing out over second-place by 4.5 seconds and doubling that mark by Lap 30, impressively over title rival Power.
However, on Lap 36 the championship picture became clear and full tilt in favor of Pagenaud after his Aussie teammate slowed with a clutch problem. The issue plagued any hopes Power had of a comeback after his No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet dropped eight laps down, inherently forfeiting the Astor Cup to the series points leader.
The race then fell into the hands of Pagenaud’s strategist, Kyle Moyer, who put the fate of the afternoon in a three-stop strategy and caused his driver to push the fuel mileage to the absolute limit.
The call added a new player to the game in the form of Graham Rahal.
The No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda driver managed to climb to within a second of Pagenaud, but in the end the pace proved too much as the race winner cruised to a 3.25-second margin of victory.
Pagenaud’s mindset coming into the weekend was to be on the offensive and not the defensive. In turn, he wasn’t concerned in the slightest about being overly aggressive on “Championship Sunday.”
“I never thought about it,” Pagenaud said. “I just thought that it’s been working. I think my aggressive side is different than some of the other drivers’ aggressive side.
“I think my balance is just a little different in my head than some of the other drivers. I don’t crash much. I think at some point you need to realize your qualities and your weaknesses. I think that’s one of my qualities.”
The nine-time series race winner added that finding the “right level” can be tough, and that’s what has helped him throughout the season.
“How do you push that limit just to the right level? That’s what’s tricky,” Pagenaud said. “But certainly this year I’ve been on offensive mode. It’s been working for me.
“Certainly some race I’ve been more aggressive than others and it paid off. But today, honestly, I was aggressive with the car to get lap time out of it to get away from the people, but it wasn’t about passing people and being aggressive that way. It made it a lot easier.”
That aggressiveness helped put an exclamation point on an already impressive season. The newly crowned 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series champion ended the season with series highs in wins (five), poles (seven), laps led (406), races led (12) and tied for most podiums (eight) with Power, en route to claiming his first title by 127 points.
Many championship runs have a turning point in the season. For Pagenaud, it came in the form of limiting the “bad” days.
“To me, the biggest point this season was when it was bad. Obviously we always see the good days,” Pagenaud said. “(Gil) de Ferran told me, ‘If you have a bad day and nobody notices, that’s when you can win a championship.’
“Watkins Glen was one of those days, one of those weekends where I honestly had no pace. I didn’t do a good job. I just couldn’t find a way around this racetrack.”
In the end, INDYCAR’s newest champion just feels fortunate to be living out his dream.
“I just feel so blessed to being a human that has been able to live his dream and get to this,” Pagenaud said. “I basically accomplished all the dreams I had. Obviously (winning) the Indy 500 is next.
“But this was my kid dream, so I’m very emotional inside even if it doesn’t show. Maybe it will show a bit later.”