Words are important to Simon Pagenaud. He’s precise and meticulous about what he says and does, how he approaches life. So, if you ask him about defending his Verizon IndyCar Series championship, he’ll politely restate it for you.
He’s not defending a past championship. He’s attacking the next one.
“I keep hearing about a title defense, but I’m actually attacking another championship,” Pagenaud said. “‘Defense’ is not the right word because you’re back to zero this year. Last year is over. We won it and now we want to win ‘17. Everybody is on the same level field.”
When practice begins Friday morning for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Pagenaud (above showing off his championship ring) will begin his attack. He sees his 2016 championship as a continuation into 2017. The momentum is there. It’s just a matter of continuity. And for that, he must attack.
“The mental side of things, to me, is 85 percent of it,” Pagenaud said. “Obviously we talk about physical attributes and talents, but the mental side of things is what commands your feet and hands. Going into a season defending is the wrong way to look at it. I’m attacking.”
Words are also important in his approach with his teammates on the No. 1 PPG Automotive Refinish Team Penske Chevrolet. His vocabulary regarding the team and the car are designed to be positive at all times.
“He’s very mental with his approach, even with the words we use to describe the race car – what words we use and what terminology we use to try to stay positive and make sure his confidence is as high as it can possibly be,” said Ben Bretzman, Pagenaud’s engineer. “He’s always going to be looking ahead, so using words like ‘attacking’ and ‘fighting’ to win another championship is really important to him. His drive is hungrier now than it ever has been.”
The championship helped Pagenaud in a variety of ways, but more than anything it erased the anxiety he felt in 2015. Then, in his first year with Team Penske, he didn’t finish better than third in a race and came home 11th in the final standings. It wasn’t what he expected from himself. The pressure began to mount.
Now, he’s back.
“I just feel more confident,” Pagenaud said. “A lot of my natural anxiety is gone. I feel like I can trust myself more in my abilities. I’ve done it once, so I know I can do it again. … I don’t have the feeling of swords above my head. That’s very nice.”
As he approached 2016, Pagenaud placed pressure on himself to perform. So did Bretzman.
“There was some anxiety or a rush to do well in 2016,” Bretzman said. “It was in the back of our minds. We knew the performance was there in ‘15, so it was more about tying a race weekend together. That’s why we did so well in 2016. From setup day to the checkered flag, we made it a race weekend what it needed to be for him.”
It showed throughout the season. Pagenaud was runner-up in the first two races – St. Petersburg and Phoenix, then won three in a row – Long Beach, Barber and on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course – to take control of the championship. He won two more races – Mid-Ohio and the finale at Sonoma – to clinch the title.
The anxiety of 2015 was gone, but not forgotten. In fact, anxiety serves a motivational purpose.
“I think all drivers have some level of anxiety,” Pagenaud said. “I think that’s what drives me. I can’t speak for everyone, but it’s what drives me. Being anxious makes me work harder. It gives me the desire to do more. Preparation for me is the key to success. The more I’ve prepared, the better I feel on race day. That’s definitely my approach.”
If anything, the 32-year-old Frenchman realizes the significance of 2016, knows in the back of his mind how fickle and fleeting racing can be, and wants only to stay positive and sharp in order to carry it forward into 2017.
“He wants more,” Bretzman said. “He wants to stay there. He wants to be the preeminent Indy car driver, so he’s going to keep pushing as hard as he can. He also knows he’s at the top of his game right now. He doesn’t want to lose it. He’s going to stay there as long as he can. He’s very much mentally driven on how he approaches it, and terminology is a big part of that to him.”
So continue the attack, champ. And continue to choose your words carefully along the way.
“The goal is to always improve,” Pagenaud said. “Every morning, I wake up and try to improve.”
The 14th Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg opens the Verizon IndyCar Series season for the seventh straight year. Practices of 45 minutes are scheduled Friday for 11:15 a.m. and 3 p.m. ET, as well as 10:50 a.m. Saturday. Three rounds of knockout qualifying, culminating in the Firestone Fast Six, begin at 2:55 p.m. Saturday. A final 30-minute practice starts at 9 a.m. Sunday, ahead of the race that airs live at noon ET on ABC and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network. All weekend sessions except the race will be streamed live on Indycar.com.
For more information about Team Chevy, visit Chevy.com/Racing.