SPEEDWAY - With 20 laps to go in Saturday’s IndyCar Grand Prix, Simon Pagenaud was in sixth place in what became the final restart of the race.
On a normal day, that position would be the death knell to a driver’s ability to win a race on just about any circuit, much less the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, which is noted for being a track very kind to the frontrunners.
This was no normal day on the IMS road course and as it turned out. Pagenaud was not driving a normal car either.
Pagenaud spectacularly cut a swath through the field, running nearly a second quicker than any of his competitors in wet conditions. On the penultimate lap, Pagenaud passed leader Scott Dixon in Turn 9 and pulled away to win a wild and crazy IndyCar Grand Prix by 2.04 seconds in his Team Penske Chevrolet.
It was Pagenaud’s third career win in the event, but unlike his previous two, which were processional in nature, this victory was hardly typical.
“The car was amazing all day. At times, I thought people was saving fuel. I didn’t understand why we had so much pace,” Pagenaud said. “When the rain started? I started to attack right away. I noticed our car was much better under braking. I could really attack and I gained confidence. A lot of people struggled with tire wear. We didn’t. It was incredible the pace we had in rain conditions.”
The threat of rain loomed over the event, and when precipitation eventually arrived, it morphed it out of all recognition to its usual look where the leader is rarely threatened.
There were 10 lead changes among six drivers.
Rain was just fine with Pagenaud, who is comfortable driving in the wet stuff.
“I always hope for rain because I love driving in it. It’s such a fun exercise. You can’t calculate as much. You have to balance with your feet, your hands and you have to dance with it. Instinct driving comes out. In the dry, it’s repetitive. In the wet? It’s like dirt racing. It’s a lot of fun in the rain,” Pagenaud said.
Pagenaud also had little trouble with grip in low-speed turns. That was not the case for his competitors, particularly Dixon, who took a big lead off the final restart, but who could not push his advantage to more than six seconds.
“I knew with about 10 laps to go we were going to get hosed. The front tires? I don’t know if changed the front wing or whatever on the [last] pit stop, but we just had no front grip. We had to stop the car too much to keep time,” Dixon said.
The rain crept in slowly, creating doubt among the teams when they might have to change from the regular slick tires to wet tires. The middle portion of the race was run in these mixed conditions with drivers trying to maintain grip on their slicks.
A shower with 30 laps to go finally changed conditions to the point where wet tires made more sense. Helio Castroneves spun in the wet conditions which brought out the fateful yellow flag.
After the alternate pit strategies all played out, Dixon — who had been the most dominant car since Lap 10 — was in front.
Pagenaud went about his work methodically. He picked off Spencer Pigot in Turn 14 for fifth one end of the front straightaway and then passed Ed Jones in Turn 1 for fourth at the other end with 16 laps left. Matheus Leist was passed for third in Turn 2 with 11 laps to go. Jack Harvey was bested with six laps to go in Turn 1.
All the while, Dixon’s grip was failing him. Still, Dixon had a 3.8 second lead at the time Pagenaud took second and Pagenaud was out of push-to-pass boost.
It didn’t matter. Pagenaud never made a mistake and reeled Dixon in, picking up a whopping 2.2 seconds on his first lap in second place behind Dixon. With two laps to go, Pagenaud caught up to Dixon. The two made light contact entering Turn 8 after Dixon lost grip entering the slow-speed turn, but Pagenaud made the pass on the outside and pulled away.
“With two laps to go, I didn’t think I’d get him, but I pushed my braking zones again and found a little bit more pace in the car in the last two laps. I didn’t plan the pass, it just happened. He didn’t have a good drive out of [Turn] 7, so I took it,” Pagenaud said.
Harvey, a part-time driver for Meyer Shank Racing, finished third and was in contention all day. It was a breakout IndyCar effort for the English driver.
“Hopefully, this is that springboard for us, not only for the rest of this month, but for the future and our team,” Harvey said.
The race intrigue was evident from the start. Alexander Rossi, starting 17th, was clipped from behind by Patricio O’Ward when the green flag fell, effectively knocking Rossi out of contention. On Lap 11, rookie Marcus Ericsson lost grip entering Turn 14 and hit the outside wall. On the restart, Dixon took the lead from pole sitter Felix Rosenqvist and would go on to lead a race-high 39 laps.
Until the rain fell in earnest, the remaining race was a cat-and-mouse strategy game between a group of Dixon, Harvey and Pagenaud on a traditional pit strategy against a group consisting of Josef Newgarden, O’Ward and James Hinchcliffe on an alternate pit strategy. In the end, the rain largely evened those strategies out.
For Pagenaud, the win was significant. It ended a 26-race winless streak that dated back to 2017.
The action switches to the oval next week when Indianapolis 500 practice begins.