Frenchman Simon Pagenaud was the last European to win the legendary Indianapolis 500 mile race. In an interview with auto motor und sport, the 38-year-old explains the art behind the wild oval drive, why the Formula 1 boom is not a danger and why Romain Grosjean doesn't need his tips.
In Europe, the cliché persists that oval races are just simple "driving in a circle". How do you respond as the winner of the most prestigious oval race in the world?
Pagenaud: When I came to America, I dreamed of winning the IndyCar Championship and the Indy 500. Of course, as a European, it was clear to me that without oval experience, I had a long way to go. However, over the years I have learned to love the sport there. I particularly like the Indianapolis Motor Speedway because my consistent and reflective driving style really comes into its own here. The Indy 500 brings together all the things I love about motorsport. Even qualifying here is a real spectacle, and even if there are only four corners, it's never easy to drive here.
Many oval beginners struggle with the idiosyncratic discipline in the first few years, but over time understand the fascination behind it. How was your learning process?
Pagenaud: I took it slow and gradual. My very first priority was simple: don't hit the wall and bring the car back safely! After all, you can't continue testing without a car. That's how I found the necessary confidence in myself and the vehicles and learned how to develop a setup for ovals. The next level of learning was then understanding the way you race against each other. It wasn't until 2018, a year before my Indy 500 win, that I reached the level it takes to race at the top. It's really like playing chess: you have to know where, how and when to attack. It is very important that you never panic.
You were a guest at the Miami Grand Prix and experienced the current US Formula 1 boom up close. How do you see the rapidly growing formula competition?
Pagenaud: It was a great experience and I met a lot of old friends from my time in Europe. For example, I met Frédéric Vasseur, who was my first team boss at the time. I'm a big fan of the Formula 1 scene and was fascinated by the technology. As an observer, it was also exciting to see how Formula 1 organizes its events. From a sporting point of view, however, I think that the IndyCar has the better product.
As a technology enthusiast, are you sometimes jealous of the F1 cars?
Pagenaud: You have to differentiate here. In Formula 1, but also in the prototype scene, there is a big focus on the development of technology. Due to the great secrecy, many have no idea how advanced cars have become.In the IndyCar, on the other hand, the focus is on the sporty product. The 33 cars at the Indy 500 are pretty much the same down to the last detail. This is where the drivers and the teams make the difference in the race. There are also a lot more strategic options than in Formula 1.
Could Formula 1 even learn something from IndyCar?
Pagenaud: Both series are too different and follow different approaches. In my opinion, they are not in direct competition with each other. It would be a mistake if Formula 1 strayed too far from its fascinating technology.
The qualification for the Indy 500 impressively showed how tight the competition in the IndyCar has become. Do you have an explanation for this?
Pagenaud: With three types of circuits - ovals, circuits and street circuits - we have the most diverse calendar of all formula series. This is where different skills are important for both the drivers and the engineers. The standard is now so high that even the smallest details, which perhaps were neglected six years ago, are analyzed in a complex manner. All the components have to come together in order to be successful. That's why there are so many different winners: You can't do everything correctly every weekend. Winning streaks by one driver have become impossible.
In recent years you drove for the legendary team Penske. In the winter you switched to the reigning Indy 500 winners from Meyer Shank Racing, who are still considered the underdogs despite last year's success. How big was the change?
Pagenaud: Pretty big actually! We had to work a lot during the winter break to prepare the team for the season. Since the team is significantly smaller compared to Team Penske, it not only requires good discipline, but also efficient communication. After a short start-up period, the team has now grown together.
As an IndyCar champion and winner of the Indy 500, you have fulfilled your two big dreams. Why did you still accept such a big challenge?
Pagenaud: I like to compare it to the change from Michael Schumacher to Ferrari or from Lewis Hamilton to Mercedes - even if the consequences for me are of course completely different. I am very excited to support an up-and-coming team and to use my experience to help with the detailed search. The potential is there, but it will be a while before we can fight for victory everywhere.
Could you imagine switching to the management side in the future?
Pagenaud: I've always been interested in topics like performance analysis and I really want to stay in the sport. If Meyer Shank Racing offered me a job on the other side of the pit wall I would be interested immediately.
Will you also be involved in Meyer Shank Racing and Honda's LMDh project?
Pagenaud: I really want to return to Le Mans and have already had talks about it this year. But unfortunately we are driving parallel with the IndyCar on Road America. The dream of winning Le Mans is still there, and if Meyer Shank Racing and Honda want to go there with me, I'll be happy to do so.
Back to the American part of the "Triple Crown": How did your qualifying go?
Pagenaud: I was a bit unlucky in qualifying with my allocated time slot and as the 30th starter I had to do the four laps in very warm temperatures. However, I'm satisfied with 16th place because I had a better performance than the other drivers in this period. Without the rain shower there might even have been a chance of qualifying in the top 12 on Sunday. After I had to start from 26th place last year, I don't want to complain. We can work with this starting position and the speed shown.
Due to the uniform chassis and quite similar engines from Chevrolet and Honda, the cars are close together in the middle field. How can you still work your way up in the race?
Pagenaud: As a team, you have different downforce settings to choose from to differentiate yourself from the competition. The aim is to find a good balance between top speed and cornering speed. Due to various variables such as the track and air temperature, it is very challenging. In addition, you can use the mechanics to intervene in the vehicle balance and adjust the translation.
How can you react to changing conditions in the race?
Pagenaud: The front and rear wings can be adjusted at the stops. There is also a tool called "Weight Jacker" that shifts the weight distribution in the car. As in other series, tire pressure also plays a major role. Because of the oval turns, the outer right tires are much more inflated, which contributes to the desired asymmetry.
Do you have any tips to help fellow countryman Romain Grosjean make his Indy 500 debut?
Pagenaud: I spoke to him during the qualifying days and gave him some tips. But honestly? Romain knows what he's doing. He and I are very different drivers. His mentality and willingness to take risks are higher than mine from the start.