INDIANAPOLIS — Simon Pagenaud is confident. That’s a dangerous mindset that he’s in for the 32 other drivers that are taking part in Sunday’s 107th Running of the Indianapolis 500 (11 a.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network).
There’s a fine line between being a good driver in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES and among the greats. Pagenaud is one of the greats. He’s a world class driver with 204 career starts, 15 wins, 12 poles, 38 podiums, 71 top five finishes, 133 top 10’s and 1,313 laps led. He’s finished an astounding 93% (189-for-204) starts. I would never doubt his talent and in a place that rewards drivers of Pagenaud’s caliber, I say watch out already this Sunday.
He won the 2016 championship. He won the 2019 Indy 500. He knows what he’s talking about.
“I feel like I can win,” the Frenchman said on Thursday morning. “You know, if I didn’t feel like that, I probably wouldn’t be here with you today. I do feel like I can win. I’m confident in my chances more than usual.”
Pagenaud said that his car in practice has given him reason to feel like this. While he doesn’t feel like they have the true top speed, rarely does that matter here. This race is 500 miles and it’s not all that common for the best car to drive to victory lane in the shadows of the Pagoda.
You have 200 laps to where anything could go wrong. You have multiple pit stops. In and out laps. Traffic. Changing conditions. Everything is stacked up against you here.
“Yeah, it’s a good point,” Pagenaud told me. “It should just such a tough race. “It’s not that speed isn’t important because it really helps you position yourself, but there’s so many details you know you need to get every pitstop perfect you need to get every single person positioning into your box. Perfect.
“You need to get the gears, right you need to get your restarts right. I mean there’s so many things, condition changes, and you need to make zero mistakes over 500 miles. It’s the balance between being 100% intense and on the limit and being just right for the win and the margin is very, very small.
“And with the level that the series has right now with the talent and the teams and the drivers, that’s gotten even narrower, so the margin between being perfect and making mistake is terribly small.
“I think obviously, you need several components to win the race. Fastest guys one. Second, you need the team to do a perfect job in the pits. Strategy to be on point and you that you need to bring your A++ game and you need lady luck to help you a bit so you know I think that’s the key but this place it’s this little bit of a mystery. You know, it’s probably the only place in the in the world that has a bit of mystery.”
That’s why he’s so confident. He knows his car is capable. He knows he’s capable. He knows that the more times that you visit this place, the more you know and the more you know, the more you can expect the unexpected.
“Well, I can tell you is personally I can only tell you about my personal experience and personally I feel every year when I come back, especially that since I won, I feel like I have a better understanding of the game,” he told me. “How to play the game right to me. It’s so tactical. And you know the road course you react to situation here you have to anticipate everything. If you react to too late you’re either going to hit the wall or you’re going to be dropped back at the back because strategy was bad. So you just got to be able to see the game from the top. You know, it’s a chess game and act accordingly with the experience accumulated through the years. For a rookie is very hard because you have no idea you’re flying blind, basically.”
That’s why when he hears multiple drivers admit that they’re struggling with tires and vibrations and he knows that he’s not dealing with any of that, it adds to his confidence.
“I’m focused on okay, I don’t have the top speed. What do I need to do to still pass people and be there and I think we figured it out. We still have some work to do on making sure we cover all our bases before the race, understanding what downforce we need to be at for the race, depending on the condition. That’s the last question I need to answer.
“But already kind of know what I need for the race.”
Pagenaud said he wants to be in the top five by Lap 150. In the top three by Lap 170
“And then if I’m there guys, you better count on me,” he says.
I always count on Pagenaud and he always delivers.