Is Simon Pagenaud On A Short Leash?
One of the most popular drivers among fans for Team Penske, may also be sitting on the hottest seat. I’m not talking about Helio Castroneves, who is one of the most popular drivers in the Verizon IndyCar Series; nor am I referring to former champions Will Power or Juan Montoya. I’m talking about team newcomer Simon Pagenaud.
Keep in mind, this is pure speculation on my part. But am I crazy to think this way? Some will say yes, but I don’t think so. Then again, crazy people are always the last to know that they’re insane. There are facts to back up my theory, but I’m relying more on a gut feeling more than anything else.
Although Pagenaud is still relatively new to IndyCar, he is not exactly a young man. He will turn thirty-two before the running of this year’s Indianapolis 500, making him just three years younger than Will Power.
Simon Pagenaud drove in Champ Car for the 2007 season, finishing a respectable eighth for Team Australia. After the merger with IndyCar in 2008, Pagenaud ran sports cars in ALMS for a few years. 2011 was Pagenaud’s first year to drive in IndyCar, when he drove a couple of races for Dreyer & Reinbold and one for HVM.
With the arrival of the new DW12 for the 2012 season, Pagenaud landed a full-time ride with Sam Schmidt Motorsports. He didn’t win a race that season, but he finished a very respectable fifth in the season championship on his way to winning IndyCar Rookie of the Year. The following year, 2013, was Pagenaud’s breakout season. He won two races and finished third in the championship standings. In 2014, his third and final year with Sam Schmidt, Pagenaud finished fifth in the final point standings, while winning two more races – one of them being the Inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis.
The consistency and winning attitude that Pagenaud showed in his three years with Schmidt, made him a very attractive free-agent for the 2015 season. Many pegged Pagenaud to go to Andretti Autosport, since he had such strong ties to Honda over the years. Instead, in a surprise move, Pagenaud ended up in a fourth full-time car at Team Penske.
Keep in mind, Roger Penske never had much of a history in running three full-time open-wheel cars. In fact, 2010-11 was the first time in history he had run three full-time cars in two consecutive seasons. When Penske expanded to three cars again in 2014 in order to make room for Juan Montoya, it raised eyebrows. When Team Penske expanded to four full-time cars for the first time ever in 2015 in order to make room for Pagenaud, it really caught everyone’s attention.
At the time, I wondered if Team Penske was biting off more than it could chew. Chip Ganassi and Michael Andretti both have experience running four cars, but the fourth car seldom has had much success. Just ask Graham Rahal about those early years of expansion with Ganassi. Charlie Kimball experienced no success until the years that Ganassi only ran three cars. When Andretti Autosport condensed to three cars in 2012, they won a championship with Ryan Hunter-Reay.
We are now one year removed from wondering how things would go for Pagenaud and Penske in 2015 – it was his worst year in IndyCar. He did not win a race and finished a forgettable eleventh in points – his first IndyCar season to finish lower than fifth. He managed one pole, at Fontana where he finished ninth; and two podiums – third in the first race at Detroit and at Mid-Ohio. Other than that, there wasn’t a whole lot to cheer about.
Tim Cindric put a good face on it, and some of it is true – this was a brand new team that was put together for a newcomer to the team. It takes a while for chemistry to form. But there was not a whole lot of improvement from the first half of last season to the second half. Pagenaud’s average finishing position in the first-half was 11.25, compared with 10.0 for the second-half. That’s not what I call a dramatic improvement. It may take quite a while to build chemistry, but if I’m not mistaken – didn’t Pagenaud bring his engineer with him from Schmidt? Perhaps there’s more to this chemistry thing than I realized.
The feud between Pagenaud and Will Power in previous seasons is well-documented. Does that have anything to do with it? Probably not. They are both professionals and I think that feud was more for the media than anything that was actually deep-rooted.
I’m wondering if it’s the talent around him. Remember – this team was assembled late in the process. Is the top team that has been together for a few years at Schmidt, better than a newly assembled fourth team at Penske? That’s quite possible. Just because all crew members are wearing Penske shirts, does not mean they are all of the same caliber. And remember, Pagenaud’s car carried sponsorship from Penske Truck Rental for a lot of races – meaning it was being funded from one of Penske’s companies rather than an outside company like Verizon, Hitachi or PPG. The Pagenaud team may have been forced to cut corners that the other teams didn’t.
But whether it was poor funding or poor chemistry; those are poor excuses for a team that sets the standard that other teams try to emulate.
Despite his reputation for constantly striving for perfection, Roger Penske has shown a remarkable level of patience for most of his drivers. As they head into their fiftieth season of competition, I can only recall one driver that The Captain gave up on after only one season – Kevin Cogan, in 1982. I think Penske will continue to show patience with Pagenaud throughout this season.
I’ve said it before – Team Penske is in a period of transition. There is a good chance that Helio Castroneves and/or Juan Montoya, who are both now north of forty, will retire soon. That would leave Will Power, who is thirty-five now, as the leader of the team. I have a gut feeling that at least one of those drivers will not be driving full-time for Penske in 2017.
I’m thinking that Roger Penske and Tim Cindric have a close eye on Josef Newgarden as the long-term future. As he was this past offseason, Newgarden will be a free-agent at the end of the 2016 season. I would bet money that Newgarden is driving for Team Penske in 2017. Where would that leave Pagenaud?
Roger Penske doesn’t pay his drivers to finish the season mid-pack in the points too many times. If Pagenaud doesn’t win a race or two this season, the patience may be wearing thin at Team Penske, especially if they need a seat for Newgarden. If I were Pagenaud, I would be getting nervous. He needs results quickly, starting with this weekend in St. Petersburg. A win to start the season could go a long way in solidifying Pagenaud’s future at Team Penske. If his season starts off in a lackluster fashion much like last year, the powers-that-be at Team Penske may be re-thinking the whole four-car concept. Pagenaud may find out he is on a shorter leash than he realized.