Responding Like a Thoroughbred

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Before we get started, I wanted to acknowledge that it was eight years ago today that Dan Wheldon was fatally injured in the 2011 season finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. I chose not to write about it as I have a few times on this date because there is only so much one can say every year before the words start sounding hollow – and I certainly don’t want that to happen. But I will keep Dan Wheldon and his family in my thoughts today and hope each of you will do the same. – GP

It may seem that there have been a lot of recent posts here regarding McLaren’s upcoming fulltime IndyCar program in 2020. Well, it’s not your imagination. Last week, there were two posts here that were at least partially about the questions surrounding Arrow McLaren SP’s status. The week before that, there was one.

There are a few reasons for that. First of all, from a financial standpoint the seat or seats that are open with McLaren are probably the ones most lucrative for a driver of the remaining open seats. Secondly, there is a lot of drama and intrigue surrounding this team. No one really knows if James Hinchcliffe will be a part of the team (I still say he won’t) and the manner in which they have joined the series has ruffled a few feathers in the paddock. Lastly, we are about three weeks into the IndyCar offseason and there are few fresh topics to discuss at this time of year.

Plus, the rumors keep swirling around this team. They are the offseason gift that keeps on giving. The latest rumor has newly crowned Indy Lights champion Oliver Askew joining the team in the car recently vacated by Marcus Ericsson, who was signed to a third car at Ganassi last week. That one makes sense, for both sides. Askew is undeniably talented, but he will be a rookie. He needs some seasoning, just like Colton Herta did this past season. Yes he won two races, but he also made his share of rookie mistakes. That’s why they are called rookies.

For now, McLaren is publicly saying that they plan to have James Hinchcliffe in the primary car for 2020. Even if it happens, it is only because Hinchcliffe has one year remaining on his contract with the team that McLaren took over (and yes, I see this as a takeover). Hinch will be a stop-gap to 2021. Word has it that they don’t really want him there, and he doesn’t want to be there. But a lack of better alternatives for both parties may force an unhappy marriage for next season until their divorce can be finalized. That’s when they plan to make a big splash with a driver signing.

Rumor has it that the driver they are targeting for the 2021 IndyCar season is Simon Pagenaud.

My question is…why would he do that?

Those connecting the dots point to the fact that he drove for the forerunner of this team from 2012 through 2014. When he started, it was Schmidt-Hamilton Motorsports and by the time he left it was Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. The dot-connectors also point out his previous relationship with Gil de Ferran, who will be spearheading the McLaren IndyCar effort.

They also point to Pagenaud’s status with Team Penske, before he swept the Month of May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway this past spring. After winning the 2016 IndyCar championship and finishing second to new teammate Josef Newgarden in 2017, Pagenaud went winless in 2018 and finished a forgettable sixth in points. Prior to his magical Month of May, Pagenaud had been equally unimpressive in the first four races of 2019; finishing seventh, nineteenth, ninth and sixth respectively. It wasn’t disastrous, but it also didn’t help that Newgarden had a win, two second-place finishes and a fourth in that time period and was leading the points, while driving for the same team.

Whispers were becoming louder and louder that Pagenaud’s seat was in jeopardy and that he was driving for his job. From what we’ve heard since then, those weren’t just rumors. But Pagenaud responded by winning the IndyCar Grand Prix, then the pole for the Indianapolis 500 before the crowning achievement of winning the Indianapolis 500. By the time the series left town and headed for Belle Isle, Pagenaud was the points leader and was confirmed to return to Team Penske for 2020.

Decades ago, I once heard a coach say that if you put a whip to a thoroughbred, he responds. If you put a whip to a jack-ass – he bucks. Pagenaud responded. He also followed up with another win at Toronto later in the summer, validating his return to Team Penske for next season.

We don’t know of any of the politics that go one behind closed doors at Team Penske. The Captain keeps such a tight lid on such things; we were more likely to know what went on with the Politburo prior to the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.

But if we were hearing the murmurs about his employment status heading into last May, you know Pagenaud was hearing them – and feeling the pressure. Some say the pressure is too great at Team Penske and Pagenaud would be better off elsewhere. Baloney!

Pagenaud is a racer, a series champion and an Indianapolis 500 winner. You don’t accomplish those things by wilting under pressure. Instead, you thrive on it.

Unless Pagenaud cares about nothing other than the biggest paycheck possible, why on earth would he leave Team Penske to go into such an uncertain situation at McLaren. About the only thing certain about the first few seasons at McLaren is that it will be a rocky road. Keep in mind, that this new “alliance” between Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and McLaren combines two teams that were shocking non-qualifiers for the last two Indianapolis 500s.

At Team Penske, you are well-paid and you have access to the best equipment and personnel in the business. You win races, championships and the Indianapolis 500. The current driver lineup at Team Penske has three series champions and two Indianapolis 500 winners. Josef Newgarden has never won at Indianapolis, but he partially makes up for it with two series championships in the three years he has driven there. His time to drink the milk will likely come sooner than later.

I may be wrong, but I think most drivers value winning over money. And if you are on a team that has won the Indianapolis 500 eighteen times and three of the past four IndyCar championships – how much money do you ask to leave that behind?

Everyone has their price, but is Simon Pagenaud at a point in his career where he wants to leave behind the opportunity to win more championships and Indianapolis 500s just to chase a bigger paycheck? It’s not like Roger Penske pays minimum wage.

If Pagenaud were to go to McLaren for the 2021 season, he would be thirty-seven years old at that year’s Indianapolis 500. To me, that’s a little long in the tooth to hit the re-set button on your career and go to a situation that sounds anything but stable.

When he was driving, I was always a big fan of Gil de Ferran. I liked his driving style and the way he carried himself outside of the car. But as much of a fan I was in his driving days, I can’t say that his post-driving career has duplicated his success inside the cockpit. His run in ALMS (with Pagenaud as his driver) was probably the pinnacle of his success in his post-driving career. His run with Jay Penske with de Ferran Dragon Racing was unremarkable at best. He has had various worldwide roles with Honda, but now finds himself working with Chevy – who he only drove for one year in his entire IndyCar career, in 2002.

McLaren showed itself to be way too top-heavy last May when they failed to qualify at Indianapolis. It was a comedy of errors as the car of Fernando Alonso faced one setback after another. Zak Brown and Gil de Ferran played key roles in that debacle. Did they learn anything? Time will tell.

Simon Pagenaud should be very grateful that I am not him, but if I was – I would stay put at Team Penske. Most drivers don’t intentionally walk away from Roger Penske. Ryan Hunter-Reay chose to stay with Andretti Autosport after being courted by The Captain following his 2012 championship. He won the 2014 Indianapolis 500, but he has had a non-spectacular, if not solid, career since then. If given truth serum, I wonder what he might say today about his decision to not go to Penske. In five years or so, we may be asking the same thing about Alexander Rossi.

Team Penske is where drivers go to spend the remainder of their careers. Rick Mears joined Team Penske as a driver in 1978 and is still employed by the team to this day. Al Unser spent his last fulltime years at Team Penske and had two more championships to show for it. He also raced in four more Indianapolis 500 one-offs after that, that led to his fourth “500” win. Helio Castroneves drove fulltime for Penske from 2000 to 2017 and is still chasing his fourth “500” win with the team each May. Will Power will likely close out his driving career with Penske and I would be shocked if Newgarden ever left.

The dot-connectors say that Pagenaud has just been given one extra year with Penske and he wants more security than that. Seriously? If you want security, go work for the government. Successful racers want to race where they have the best chance of winning. Period. They aren’t in it for a steady big paycheck. They want to win. If this is Pagenaud’s mindset, then perhaps he should go chase the paycheck and leave the winning environment at Penske for the almost certain dumpster-fire at McLaren.

But I don’t think Simon Pagenaud is like that. I think he is a thoroughbred. He proved that to us this past May. I predict that Pagenaud will stay with Team Penske until he is ready to hang up his helmet – on his own terms.

George Phillips

12 Responses to “Responding Like a Thoroughbred”

  1. “almost certain dumpster-fire at McLaren”, I think this may be unduly harsh but time will tell. There’s a lot of egg to be washed off of a lot of faces and McLaren have deep pockets but granted that isn’t always the answer as they’ve found out. Agreed their entry was a bit bullish but I wish them well.

  2. Agree with Trevor, they fell on their faces and I expect they’ll put all their resources towards ensuring that doesn’t happen again. If they can keep egos in-check I think they will not repeat what happened in May.

    I find it striking how quickly we all went from two years ago saying “Oh wow, McLaren might join! How awesome!” to them probably being the most disliked team on the grid before ever officially turning a wheel in anger. Very curious to see how this rollercoaster turns out.

    • To clarify, I think if they stick with it – over time they will be successful. But I think over their first two to three seasons, they will struggle even if they keep the egos in check. Just as they found out in May, this near-spec series is harder than it looks. Just ask Trevor Carlin how tough it is, and his team came in humbly knowing what to expect. They are still struggling going into Year Three. McLaren has given the appearance, thus far, that they will succeed based on their name and how much cash they can throw at a problem. But since this post is about Simon Paqgenaud’s future, why would he want to have to carry this team through those struggles into his forties to close out his career? It doesn’t make sense. – GP

      • Could be. I tend to think they learned from their lesson in May and will do some actual preparing during the winter. Forgetting to bring a steering wheel, sending the backup car off for a paintjob, and then sticking the wrong gearset in the car for qualifying had more to do with a complete lack of preparation than this spec-series being so difficult (in my opinion). If Carlin had Macca money I suspect they’d be a lot closer to the pointy end. With the magnitude of the international embarrassment they endured in May I’d have to presume they’re doing serious homework and will show up at St. Pete with a respectable performance. Let’s not forget there will be a lot of SPM employees still involved and they know how to win races on occasion. They will also have pre-season testing which should give them time to find a convenient place to store the steering wheel during travel.

        Or they could be a dumpster fire. Either way, it should be interesting to watch! 🙂

  3. Bruce Waine Says:

    Add to the equation the knowledge that a Penske driver could deliver to your team in short order………….

  4. In the 5 years from 2013 to 2017 Castroneves only won 3 races. It doesn’t sound like Roger has that quick a trigger finger.

  5. Simon is becoming/is a great social media asset to the Penske organization. It appears he is taking Helios spot as a fan favorite. WillyP and JoeNew don’t seem to have the charisma yet compared to what Simon has shown this year . Penske is still a business so I assume Simons personality helps with sponsors . I don’t see Simon leaving Penske voluntarily.

  6. billytheskink Says:

    I suppose everyone has a price, though it is difficult to see McLaren offering a high enough one to snag Pagenaud away from Penske. Rare is the driver who leaves Penske on their own, and rarer is the driver who is more successful after driving for Penske than they were with the team. (Mario Andretti and… maybe Tom Sneva?)

    I do think it is fair to point out that there is an air of prestige surrounding the name McLaren that, for someone who grew up following Formula One in Europe as Simon did, even Penske does not possess. Is that enough to wrest Pag away from the Captain? Probably not.

    A solid 2020 for the McLaren team, in whatever form it takes, will do wonders for their ability to attract Pagenaud or another successful veteran in 2021, though.

  7. Matthew Lawrenson Says:

    I won’t hear anything against The Pag, if only because he liked a tweet of mine this week about his dog Norman becoming an NYSE stock trader. See? We English guys can be shallow too.

  8. I think the chances of Norman being on the ticket for The 500 next year are pretty high.

    • Matthew Lawrenson Says:

      I’ve placed a bet on Norman driving the 4th Penske in the 2020 Indianapolis 500. I’ve wagered on worse.

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