It’s not very often an IndyCar champion and Indianapolis 500 winner still capable of achieving those feats comes on the IndyCar driver market.
Simon Pagenaud’s exit from Team Penske to join Meyer Shank Racing was as intriguing as any IndyCar driver move in recent years.
Pagenaud’s Penske future has felt on uneven ground for the last two off-seasons but in the wake of a coronavirus shortened 2020 Pagenaud stayed on for another year.
Now the move’s been made. He’s going to MSR alongside Helio Castroneves and in place of Jack Harvey for 2022.
While Pagenaud ended up winless in 2021, he was a contender for Indianapolis 500 success despite how bad Penske had been over the event – almost failing to qualify with Will Power and the affiliated Paretta entry for Simona De Silvestro. That aside, Pagenaud once again faced a season in set-up no man’s land with his driving style.
He told The Race last year of his battle to overcome the characteristics introduced by the aeroscreen device and with little testing to work this out 2021 was another tough year.
Rumours were rife over the season as to what Pagenaud might do. Some speculated that team owner Roger Penske might move Pagenaud over to his empire’s new Porsche sportscar programme given his success in endurance racing, while word that Pagenaud could leave completely became stronger and stronger.
So The Race asked Pagenaud, in the wake of all the rumours surrounding his future, what had actually brought about his move.
“First of all, I would say that it’s been seven years at Team Penske and it was an incredibly successful time. You look at the stats, we won the championship, the 500 and a sportscar championship as well,” says Pagenaud, in an exclusive interview.
“So, we got it done, we definitely got it done and the relationship was amazing.
“I should say ‘relationships’ because I made friends. I met some incredible engineers, some incredible people that really take it to the next level when it comes to racing so I had the chance to gather so much experience, and so much knowledge within the industry.
“It was an interesting time for me where I had the chance to discuss with Mike Shank and the offer they gave me was the project that they were thinking about most of all. It wasn’t about financial [reasons] to be honest.
“The project that Mike Shank had for me was very attractive. It’s definitely a different environment. We’re talking about a two-car team with Helio, which was very positive already, to have a team-mate like Helio that I knew and worked with in the past.
“But the vision that Mike Shank and Jim Meyer have for the race team that is a young team, with a lot of resources, was very attractive.
“Because I could take a very different role in this team and work really hard with them to bring my wealth of experience, and try to help elevate the team to a top team contender on a regular basis.
“So that was really what attracted me.
“I’ve had the chance to do so many good things in my career and accomplish a lot of my dreams and it was ‘what about the next step, what can I do in my industry to hopefully become even more special?’
“So this opportunity just became very attractive to me and I can’t discuss any offers or contracts from Penske, what it may or may not have been, it’s just not something I can do.
“But what I can say is I definitely had something very attractive from MSR.”
Reading between the lines, it’s easy to see Pagenaud enjoyed his time at Penske but, perhaps, this new challenge was something he needed at this stage of his career.
It’s a risk to join this team at this stage. Of course, it won the Indy 500 with Castroneves this year, but the car Pagenaud will drive has had a lot of misfortune and some driver and team errors that have added up to one podium in 47 races – even if that tells a misleading story.
However, the potential is there. Mike Shank brings a wealth of motorsport experience and a studious approach as the team never bites off more than it can chew.
It has a pioneering technical deal with Andretti Andretti where it gets personnel and attends the engineering debriefs while also getting cars from the team.
Jim Meyer brings the professional backing and was key to bringing on board F1 owner Liberty Media as a partner.
While the 500 win was a surprise given it was the first race the whole team did together with the second car, it shows the potential here and all of the ingredients make this an attractive place to be.
For Pagenaud, it means he’s no longer just turning up at the factory or to drive the car and do a bit of cheerleading for his #22 group. He’s invested in the vision like it’s shares in a business, and he’s here to bring his experience and ability to elevate this team beyond savvy start-up and towards series leader.
“From the very beginning what’s really exciting for me is to be able to be involved at a different level,” adds Pagenaud.
“Definitely, I think Penske had so much infrastructure in place that my role was to drive the racecar.
“I am hoping that I can do more than that, and pick a different level.
“Basically, it’s something that I’ve always been into. I love team sports, and I feel like the vision they have in this team is very much modern in many ways, it’s open discussion, everybody knows what’s going on at any time.
“There’s no secret being kept from the mechanics or the engineers and I really liked the vision of things, which is very new, very different.
“And I felt like it could be an environment where I can thrive in. So, those were also reasons why this was such an interesting project.”
Obviously Shank’s love of sportscars has played a role in the deal too, he’s made no secret of his desire to head to the Le Mans 24 Hours and that’s something Pagenaud is keen to do as well.
It’s incredible what Penske is losing. A fabulous sportscar racer as it looks to develop a top-level Porsche prototype, a champion and 500 winner, who will now be in its rival Andretti team’s engineering debriefs and is going to a team which already won the Indy 500 this year, which Penske hasn’t done since Pagenaud achieved it in 2019. The list goes on.
With his particular set-up style, Pagenaud now faces fewer barriers to getting the car he needs. With three other Penske cars pulling in a similar direction, at times Pagenaud may have been the odd one out but at MSR he’s likely to get more freedom.
“It’s going to be a different environment because it’s two cars only and with two cars you have a little less information, but you can be more focused on one thing at a time,” he says.
“So I was attracted by that reducing a little bit and being able to hone in a little bit more on what I wanted, rather than focusing on what the team-mates may like.
“Sometimes in a different situation, you think it’s better to be a big team because you have more info, but then when you get the information you have to treat it and understand it, and then use it. It’s a whole process and sometimes when you’re in a big team, it’s difficult.
“The weekend is so quick these days, we have sometimes one practice, qualifying and race on one day. So it can be overwhelming at times, it has been for me. But if it’s used right, it can be very positive.
“Now, it’s going to be a simpler situation and environment because of two cars and being with Helio, who I know really well and know how he works and we work really well together.
“So in that sense I feel like we can really just focus on ourselves, not worry too much about the rest. And it might simplify a lot of things and I look forward to that.”
Of course, he gets the best of both worlds in this situation because it’s a smaller team but he also has access to the Andretti debriefs where a super team of Castroneves, Colton Herta, Romain Grosjean and Alexander Rossi will assemble next year.
There’s no doubt that’s going to be a tricky group to manage at times next season with plenty of egos in the room.
Pagenaud’s main excitement for this new style of team comes from a different place though, maybe one you don’t expect. Learning from a younger driver.
“Definitely a big interest of mine is to see what’s the big secret in Colton, that’s for sure,” laughs Pagenaud, addressing Herta’s ability to dominate race weekends in 2021.
“Very excited to discover that.
“I know Alexander because we work together in the Acura programme. So, same here, it’s a pretty good relationship. And in Romain Grosjean, we’ve known each other for a while, and look forward to what he can bring from his F1 experience and learning from that could be quite interesting.
“Now, it’s obviously an alliance so I have to understand how this all works. I’m gonna have to work with a new engineer, first time in 12 years I have a new engineer by my side.
“We’ve had an amazing journey with [engineer] Ben Bretzman, so will have to relearn, work on my relationship skills, which I’m sure will not be a problem!
“But it’s going to be different, there’s going to be a lot of new things, it’s definitely going to be some adjustments.
“I’m not saying it’s all going to be groovy right away. There’s going to be a lot of adjustments, a lot of learning, but I’m excited about that.
“I’m excited that something new and I’m challenging myself with, with new environments.”
Expectations have to be tempered about what can be achieved here in the short-term, but we know that the car has been quick and in regular podium contention at least on pace.
We know the team has a good set-up, a great management team and the resources to be successful. Pagenaud is still good enough to win races and championships, and with a fresh approach and responsibility to become a leader not just a driver in this team, it all points to an exciting period ahead.
Even if it isn’t all “groovy right away”.
However you slice this, Penske’s loss – a big one – is going to be Meyer Shank’s gain.
The only question is going to be just how much Pagenaud can impact this team in and out of the car, and how big of a leap it can take.