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.

George Phillips

19 Responses to “Is Simon Pagenaud On A Short Leash?”

  1. I think it is very likely that Penske will have a new look next year. There has to be no doubt that the Captain has his eye on Newgarden.

  2. tonelok Says:

    RP does not do anything slipshod. i think he is preparing for JPM and HCN to retire eventually then bam, he has Power, Newgarden (if your theory proves true) and Pagenaud. That is a pretty impressive lineup. His two senior drivers are showing no signs of waning however.

  3. Ron Ford Says:

    Simon’s ability to make a great ratatouille may enhance his job security a bit.

  4. DZ-groundedeffects Says:

    Interesting topic about which I had given little thought. I agree that Simon did have a rather lackluster season last year, yet still managed to beat half of the field in points. Not shabby and I think he’ll only go up from there this season.

    I have to also wonder, in a 4-car team, if one car is automatically put on an ‘alternate race strategy’ to cover all bases. In the case of Team Penske, I’d guess the slowest qualifier of the 4 might be the most logical choice for that which he was more often than not. In a season where most races chaos did not reign, it would stand to reason that an alternate strategy would be mostly a disadvantage.

  5. SteveK51 Says:

    The team was pretty open in acknowledging that Simon was the test mule later in the season, taking risky setups and strategies to benefit the other three who were still contending for the title. So I’d hardly say those results were representative of his true potential.

    • This is quite true, and I think that the #22 team doing some “different stuff” in the latter part of the season definitely compromised some of their results. In addition to that, Simon was very much told to “stay out of the way” late in the season, leading to stuff like the pit incident at Sonoma where he unwittingly blocked Josef Newgarden out of his pit stall. That sort of thing (pausing for even a couple seconds in the pits in order to let your championship contending teammate out of his stall, or even just trying a slightly different car setup) will cost you a couple seconds, and that in turn can and will cost you a position or two. That adds up.

      Listening to his episode of the Dinner With Racers podcast was pretty enlightening. Simon said that he didn’t realize when he signed with Penske that as a driver he’d be expected to take on such a leadership role within the team. He figured he’d be relying on well established Penske processes and setups, and that he would be basically another employee. He said that it was well into the second half of the season before he got comfortable with being the one pushing the team forward, and that he also knows this will be a big thing for him this year. Knowing that, I expect a pretty big season from Simon this year.

  6. Robin Miller indicated a couple of weeks ago that Tim Cindric isn’t a fan of Newgarden and is likely blocking a move to Penske, which would most likely be in the works now for 2017 or 2018. So take that for whatever it may be worth…

  7. billytheskink Says:

    Roger does not historically have as quick of a hook as some (*cough* Ganassi *cough* *cough*), but I would not be surprised to see him part ways with a driver who fails to win races over the course of multiple seasons.

    That said, I would be quite surprised if Pagenaud does not win at least one race this season.

  8. I don’t like Simon, but considering the fact two of his teammates are over 40, I can’t imagine he’s in too much danger of losing his ride. I would imagine that Helio and JPM retire and that in the end Penske is a 3 car team with Newgarden or Hinchcliffe as the 3rd driver.

    • My thoughts exactly. He is safe for now as this is a long term move and they need to build the bench with two drivers 40 years old.

  9. I think a lot of it will depend on the status of Helio and JPM after this season. I would like to think he’ll have a better season this year.

  10. Brian McKay Says:

    Good blogging, George

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