By John Bombatch
To say Simon Pagenaud’s start to the 2016 IndyCar Series racing season has been a good one would be an understatement. The Team Penske driver from Montmorillon, France went out and won three of the first four races. Now he’s hoping to continue his racing success this weekend at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in Lexington, Ohio.
“It’s been really good. It’s been incredible to see the no. 22 team developing into what it’s becoming now,” Pagenaud said on Wednesday in a phone interview. “Last year, was a year of getting together and figuring out what we needed to do to become stronger. And this year, I think we are showing a lot of our strengths and our potential. I would say we still have a pretty unlimited potential. We’ve been leading the championship pretty much all year. I feel like we’re really competitive and really strong.”
Pagenaud opened the season with a top qualifying position and a runner-up finish on the street course in St. Petersburg, Fla. He was second in the oval race in Phoenix a couple weeks later, then he reeled off three consecutive wins — on the Long Beach street course, the Barber Motorsports road course and then on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s infield road course.
All three wins came on either a road course or a street course. So what kind of a track has become his favorite?
“Well, I’ve come to really love the ovals,” Pagenaud said. “I’m actually really enjoying it, and we’re becoming more and more successful on ovals. We had really good results in Phoenix (second) and Iowa (fourth). At Indy we were running really strong until we had a mechanical issue (19th). … I love how technical oval racing is. Obviously, street and road course racing is my strong suit, and with the Penske cars, it’s always a pleasure to be running those tracks as well.”
He enjoyed the recent test session on Mid-Ohio’s twisting 13-turn 2.258-mile road course in the rolling hills just outside of Mansfield. His favorite turn takes advantage of those hills. Turn 11 is an off-camber lefthander that banks away from the driver’s view, making it almost a blind turn at 180-plus mph.
“It’s a very fast lefthand turn where you need to be very precise. And you need to turn into the corner without seeing the corner, and so it’s a bit blinding,” Pagenaud explained. “I really like the sensation there of being on the very very edge of grip, while sliding around at almost full throttle.”
He’ll have to be on the edge of what his Chevrolet-powered Dallara Indycar can do, if he wants to maintain his points lead. His Penske teammates — 2014 series champion Will Power of Australia, and former “Dancing with the Stars” winner (and three-time Indy 500 winner, of course) Helio Castroneves of Brazil — are second and third respectively in the current points standings.
Pagenaud doesn’t see any added pressure in fending off his teammates.
“It doesn’t change anything, really. Personally, I’m focused on myself and my team, and getting the best out of the situations. On the car no. 22 side of things, we’ve got five poles and three wins. So at this point, I’m just focusing on trying to get the best out of my car on every race day. Whoever is behind me, is behind.
“We shouldn’t bury (Scott) Dixon, because he’s always going to be a threat. And he’ll be strong this weekend and for the next few weekends to come.”
Dixon, of the Chip Ganassi Racing team, is the series’ defending points champion. He’s currently fourth in the points standings and has won five times at Mid-Ohio.
The Honda Indy 200 takes place on Sunday at Mid-Ohio. Practice takes place Friday and Saturday, with qualifications also on Saturday. The race is set for a 2:45 p.m. start time on Sunday. Tickets for the race weekend can be purchased at midohio.com.
“I’m at a very good spot both mentally and physically, and my car is very competitive. So I have a very high confidence level right now, and I have a lot of trust in the whole 22 team, so my thought is ‘Let’s go and try to win it!’ I’m out to garner as many points as I can, and if we can win, for sure,” Pagenaud said.
John Bombatch can be reached at 937-372-4444, Ext. 2123. Sunday’s race will be televised live on CNBC at 2 p.m.