Despite having raced all over the world, Verizon IndyCar Series points leader Simon Pagenaud never had set foot on the grounds of Watkins Glen International. And the native of France had no plans of visiting the fabled Finger Lakes road course anytime soon.
That all changed last spring, when the planned Labor Day Weekend IndyCar Series race in Boston was cancelled for various reasons and literally overnight Watkins Glen stepped in as the replacement race. The IndyCar Series visits Watkins Glen this weekend capped by Sunday’s IndyCar Grand Prix At The Glen.
Pagenaud, who drives the No. 22 Team Penske Chevrolet, arrives at The Glen as the IndyCar Series points leader, 28 ahead of Team Penske teammate Will Power. Pagenaud came to The Glen this past June to perform a tire test for Firestone and is hopeful what he learned that day will help him this weekend.
“It’s an amazing place, not just the track but the area,” Pagenaud said. “It reminded me of my hometown in France, so beautiful and hilly. It’s very historical for IndyCar as well.”
Pagenaud learned a lot at the June tire test.
“The grip level, especially with the new tarmac, is incredible,” he said. “It’s very challenging physically. It’s the fastest road-course track we go to where we can really extract the best out of the Indy Cars. At The Glen you have very little brake application. You try to flow the speed through the corner and basically carry the momentum. Momentum is very important on that track.
“We pull 5½ G’s (G-Force) at The Glen so you can only imagine how difficult that is on the body. It will be the highest lateral G’s we see all season long.
Firestone requested the team test the track and provide information on what tires would be best for the race.
“Each track has certain specifics so you have to bring a tire that suites that track,” Pagenaud said. “The tire that we have at Long Beach is very different then the tire we may bring to Watkins Glen. They have to make sure the temperature range is the right one with no tire blisters and no possible punctures.
“Firestone collects information on the tires they bring. We did a lot of laps June 20. It’s a blind test. The drivers don’t really know what tire we will be getting so we don’t get an advantage. We just give Firestone feedback and then they decide relative to temperature range and tire wear, which tire to bring to the race.”
So far in 2016, Pagenaud has four wins and six pole starts.
“It’s been a dream season so far,” he said. “We’ve showed a lot of strength in the races. The Verizon IndyCar Series is so unpredictable in the results. You can be very strong and not have the luck of the draw. With the four wins I’m very happy.”
Pagenaud came to Team Penske in 2015 but failed to post a victory last season.
“Time is everything in racing,” said Pagenaud. “The team in 2016 is the exact team as 2015. We’ve just grown together. Last season was our first year as a team. The No. 22 team didn’t exist before so we had to build it and just get going. I think last winter was very useful for us and understanding how to get better and improve.”
Pagenaud acknowledged that The Glen will be key to his championship bid.
“It’s one of the most important dates on the schedule because it’s the race before the last race of the season so it’s going to create a lot of suspense. When we leave The Glen we will know who is vying for the championship going into the final race at Sonoma.”
Unlike Pagenaud, teammate Helio Castroneves, who drives the No. 3 Team Penske Chevrolet and is currently fourth in IndyCar points, has raced at The Glen in six previous IndyCar events. He also took advantage of the June test and compared the old and newly paved Glen surface.
“On the new surface I believe we’re talking about three seconds faster than the old asphalt,” said Castroneves. “The car is also faster. When you do the carousel almost flat out with the red tires, oh man it’s unbelievable. The G-forces that we’re pulling in the corners is absolutely incredible. It’s difficult to put into words. It’s very physical.”
Although Castroneves is one of the winningest drivers in IndyCar history with 29 victories, including three Indy 500s, success has been hard to find at The Glen. In six Glen events, Castroneves has earned three poles but has only a single top-five with an average finish of 11th. He has finished at The Glen on the lead lap just three times.
“That’s the challenge of the IndyCar Series,” said Castroneves. “If a yellow comes out at a point or you’re pushing too much and you end up making a mistake, which I do remember that in Turn 11 once. So there are several scenarios that happened before but certainly not the one that we wanted, which is a winning race. That’s why we’re still here. I want to change those statistics around and show we can visit Victory Circle.”
Victories have been hard to come by lately for Castroneves. He won at least one IndyCar race each season from 2000 through 2014 with the exception of 2011. He did not win a race in 2015 or this season.
“Certainly 2015 was a year that we were knocking on the door for many races, but this year not much difference,” said Castroneves. “We’re top-five in the championship so it shows we’ve been competitive. I cannot believe we did not get a win yet.”
Castroneves has been impressed with Pagenaud.
“Simon has been our leader most of this year,” Castroneves said. “He’s a super nice guy, and a good driver. He shows experience, coolness and speed. I’m very glad he’s part of our team although some of the races I’ve finished second he’s finished first, which took a win away from me. On the positive side he makes me better.”