In Simon Pagenaud’s own words, the reigning Verizon IndyCar Series champion is no longer a “messy bush.”
But the Team Penske driver from France is by no means fully grown after breaking through with five wins to celebrate a first series title in his second season driving for Roger Penske.
He’s still refining himself, which means more trimming and shaping in the 2017 season that begins in six weeks.
“It’s like you look at a messy bush a long time ago and then you trim the bush as you go and you end up defining it and making it the way you want to make it at the end,” Pagenaud said during the recent INDYCAR media day. “So I think that's where we're at right now, basically designing the bush, and it's really cool. It’s a really good time.”
He’s made the celebratory rounds this offseason. Pagenaud was the toast of about 500 at the Team Penske Christmas party, an ironic reversal from a year earlier when he just blended in at that bash after a disappointing team debut.
He also went home to France to not just bask in the glow of the accomplishment but share it with family and friends. A decade ago, Pagenaud turned to his father, Christian, for a 10-year loan that provided the driver a last chance to prove himself in North America. That it paid off made this homecoming even more meaningful.
Meanwhile, Team Penske didn’t rest on sweeping the top three points positions in 2016 with Pagenaud, Will Power and Helio Castroneves, looking to get even stronger with the hiring of fourth-place points finisher Josef Newgarden. The rising American and winner of three races the past two years for Ed Carpenter Racing replaced two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Juan Montoya, who will return in May for a one-off ride in the 101st Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.
Pagenaud expects Newgarden to be a contender right away because he is stepping into a ride that has already won an Indy 500 with Montoya in 2015. Pagenaud needed the 2015 season to sort out his new team and make changes to set them up for the title run a year later.
Team Penske’s offseason moves sent a message that, even when on top, it doesn’t stand pat. Pagenaud understands.
“I think it's about being disciplined,” he said of the team’s 2017 approach. “It's easy to relax after you've won one time, but it's about being disciplined. Myself, it's to reflect on '16 and see how I can improve myself physically, mentally, all the aspects of driving, the craft basically. I can definitely improve on a lot of those things.
“And then there's the race team. I'm basically the quarterback on my team and it's about looking at every race, every practice, every qualifying, and trying to see how we could have done better each time and then tackle the weekend that way, with a new strategy going in that would basically put us at a better level to start the weekend.”
As dominant as Pagenaud appeared last season, he was by his own standards not without fault. He pointed to a lesson learned in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, where he finished second to Montoya. It stuck with him.
“I kind of lost the race on my own there, and I think it set the tone for me for the year,” he said. “I realized I had to be even more aggressive to win races, so it was a good first race. The first five races of the season were really strong for us and I think that's where we put a stamp on the championship there.”
Pagenaud flashed an amused grin when asked what other trimming still needs done to perfect that bush that serves as a metaphor for his self-assessment of ability.
“There's always different departments you can work on, right?” he said. “There's myself as a driver, how do I improve myself as a driver? But I like to look at it as me being part of my team and the whole team working together well, gelling well and making sure — one of the big things for us having won is not to rest on our laurels and keep going, keep pushing to get more. So being hungry is going to be very important for everybody, not just me but the whole team.”
He points to oval qualifying as a point of emphasis in 2017. Although he won the pole for the Iowa Corn 300, Pagenaud started 10th, eighth, 14th and sixth at the other ovals.
“What I can do better myself is obviously, I think if you look at my craft, we didn't qualify well on the speedway this year, so we need to improve that,” he said. “One of the reasons being is maybe we need a different approach in how we approach qualifying. But if you look at 2015, we qualified well, (but) we didn't race well on the speedways. It's about adjusting that. It's about understanding — obviously we've raced better this (past) year, but we can do better.”
Pagenaud will certainly do better in one respect. A spoil of his 2016 championship, the he will drive the No. 1 Chevrolet this season.
“Running the No. 1 is a tradition for our team that rewards our partners for their support and trust in our abilities to push the extra mile,” Pagenaud said. “I’m excited to run the No. 1 and very proud to be reminded that my team is the champion during each race of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series. I can't wait for the challenge that 2017 will bring.”