Team Penske won the final three races of the 2020 NTT IndyCar Series season. In fact, they won five of the final six races at that. But, last weekend we hit the midway mark of the 2021 season and so far, they’re winless. Does that end this weekend?
“I think we’re making big progress through the season,” Simon Pagenaud said on Wednesday. “I think we started off on the wrong foot in Barber. I think we made big improvements. We were very focused on Indianapolis. As you saw in race trim, we were competitive, fighting for the win, which is what exactly the team wanted. So that was a big improvement from 2020.
“I feel like it’s just super, super competitive. It’s just difficult to hit perfectly every weekend. So that’s where we’re at. This weekend we should have won the first race. Josef could have won the second race. Obviously we have the pace. I felt personally on our car we had pace all weekend. We had something similar to Scott happen, qualifying two, right behind Ferrucci when he crashed on a good lap.
“It is what it is. At the end of the day we have to scrap the points, continue to score points like that. Realistically we’re fifth in the championship right now, in good striking distance.
“I have confidence. It’s just very difficult to win a race right now for everybody I think. But you got to wait for your time. When you can’t win, you just got to do the best you can, just score points.”
At Road America, they’ve been pretty stout. Josef Newgarden has five top 10’s in six tries including three podiums. Will Power has four top fives, three of which top twos in six starts while Simon Pagenaud has three top 10’s in his last five starts.
Can they pick up a win in Sunday’s race?
What’s frustrating for them is, it’s not like they’ve been too far off this year. In eight races run this season, they’ve had the runner-up finisher five times.
In fact, they had both races in their grasps last weekend in Belle Isle.
On Saturday, Power had the strategy call early to get to the lead among the drivers on his sequence. While he sat in 10th at the time of the Lap 25 caution for Felix Rosenqvist’s crash, the top nine drivers had to pit and was going to hand him the lead.
Power, dominated the rest of the way until that late yellow for Romain Grosjean’s crash on Lap 64. The race was red flagged and his No. 12 Chevrolet wouldn’t refire. Race ruined.
On Sunday, Newgarden qualified on the pole and dominated in leading the first 67 laps of the race. The first pit call to have to pit just in case of a caution for Dalton Kellett stalling on pit road and then the final caution in the end caught Newgarden out as he had to settle for second again.
Now, they’re 0-for-8 heading to Road America. That further adds to the frustration for them as they entered Belle Isle frustrated from Indy.
They went 4-6-8-11 in the GMR Grand Prix, then 3-12-20-30 for the Indy 500. On Saturday’s Race 1, they finished 10-12-19-20.
Since they’ve been so close, Newgarden said last weekend that he wouldn’t change a thing. Eventually wins are going to happen if they keep doing this.
“Yeah, totally. I don’t think anything needs to change,” agreed Pagenaud. “Sometimes in sport it has to come your way, then you look like a superstar. Sometimes you working really well and things just don’t work out, you look like an idiot (smiling).
“It’s difficult because, like I said, I think there — Pato is on a tear right now for example. I believe it could happen to us very quickly. It’s just a matter of everything aligning well.
“Performance is there, which is the most important thing. After that we just have to execute. I feel like the momentum is coming, especially on the 22 car. I really do.”
The last time they started the season 0-for-7 was 2013. They won the eighth race of the season and four of the final 12 overall that year. Pagenaud said that he thinks this season is going pretty well and that it’s extremely difficult to win now. He sits fifth in points and right there in the mix for a title still as we reached the midway mark of the year. It’s just all about putting it all together and making a run, something that appears that they’re very much capable of.
“I think it’s going pretty well,” he said of his season. “You have to understand who is strong when and how to win a championship. The goal for us was to win Indianapolis. We gave it a good run. We finished third, half a second behind Helio. The best man won that day. But we were right there. I think mission was almost accomplished. You have to also be proud sometimes of a good effort, which I am, for my team.
“Now we’re focused on the championship. We’re fifth. We’re in a good position. We’re not far from Pato. Certainly we need to win races. To win a championship, you’re going to need to win races. I think we’re right there.
“The momentum is growing within our team on the 22 side. As you saw, Team Penske, we almost won. We really should have won that race, race one. Performance is there as a team. I think the boys are just rolling right now.”
Another wrinkle to this is that you’re just not given much track time to get it right. If you unload the slightest bit off, you’re toast. Without any testing either, the gains to make up are hard.
“That’s a great point because with less practice, especially Detroit for example, you can’t make big changes because the driver and the machine is everything for lap time,” Pagenaud told me. “Even though you need a car that handles well, the driver, for him to squeeze some time out of it, the less changes the better. That’s my opinion.
“We’re finding that we make small changes, changes that you know exactly what they’re going to do so you can be competitive in the next session and not have to relearn the behavior of the car. That’s really what I find is happening with these shorter weekends.
“So, yeah, you need to unload well. Sometimes I tell you you have to agree with the fact that it’s not perfect, just squeeze the best out of it. That’s probably why a top five is so important right now. If the car is not perfect, you have to be satisfied with it no matter what.”