French driver Simon Pagenaud called winning the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series Championship “incroyable.”
Loosely translated, it means “incredible, unbelievable and unreal,” said an emotional Pagenaud last week, following his victory at Sonoma Raceway in northern California the other weekend that secured the title for him and his 79-year-old team owner Roger Penske, the Birmingham racing legend.
Pagenaud, 32, scorched to the win — and championship — in the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma in his No. 22 Hewlett Packard Enterprises Chevrolet to give Team Penske its 14th Indy car title.
He later celebrated with Team Penske colleagues and members of his family who had flown from France to California to watch him win his first IndyCar Series crown.
“We had a great night,” said Pagenaud, who will be on a whirlwind media tour for the rest of the week in America, starting in New York City on Wednesday. “Everyone was there, the whole team, drivers, families. We then had a more secluded party in a house we had rented in Sonoma for the No. 22 team, some Chevrolet folks and my family. It finished a bit late,” he said.
Pagenaud, who joined Team Penske in 2015 and struggled to find speed throughout the year, had an incredible 2016, made sweeter because his iconic team owner is celebrating 50 years this season as a team principle in motorsports.
“This is just a dream come true,” said Pagenaud, who won five of 16 series races this season. “It is just sinking in today. I can’t believe believe I’m living this life.”
Pagenaud said he never doubted himself, even after stumbling mid-season following a rocket-like start to 2016.
“I never did question my ability to win,” said Pagenaud. “I was asked by the French media if I ever considered failure. No, I never did. I never thought about it. If you start thinking you are going to trip down the stairs, you are going to trip down the stairs. I can’t think that way, I only think about winning.”
Pagenaud repaid Roger Penske, known in racing and business circles as “The Captain,” for his faith in him in winning the title.
Always fast in series he’d competed in, including junior open-wheel formulas and sports cars, adding a fourth car for Pagenaud at Team Penske for the first time in the organization’s history was a gamble.
Paying it off for Penske
It paid off for Roger, who has won 16 Indy 500s as a team owner.
“I’m very happy I could do what Roger and Tim Cindric [Team Penske president] were hoping I could do, and that’s win races and a championship,” said Pagenaud, who went winless in 2015. “That’s what you get hired to do. I couldn’t in 2015, but I got my revenge in 2016 and proved I was worth the risk.”
Pagenaud said he was “on a cloud all the time” during the last IndyCar race, when he streaked ahead at the start from pole and crushed the field. Graham Rahal (Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing) finished four seconds back in second and Penske team-mate Juan Pablo Montoya was third.
“My mind worked so well with my body,” said Pagenaud. “Mentally, I had the strength to be on the top of my game.”
Pagenaud plans to go on a media tour of France next week and “spread the word on IndyCar.”
Pagenaud thanked teammates Will Power, who finished second in the championship, Helio Castroneves, and Montoya for his success.
“Will and I have raced each other since 2005 in Europe,” said Pagenaud. “He has always been one of the fastest guys. Helio is the best teammate you can expect. He is always there for you.”
Montoya, the 2000 and 2015 Indy 500 champion, may not be at Team Penske next season.
He is rumored to be leaving, possibly being replaced at Penske by IndyCar young guns Josef Newgarden or Alexander Rossi.
Pagenaud said he had no knowledge of Montoya going anywhere, and had praise for the former Formula One and NASCAR driver.
“I hope Juan Pablo stays,” Pagenaud said. “I think he has been a great asset to the team. He personally helped me tremendously on the ovals. He has been an amazing guy to have on the team. I hope we have four cars next season and Juan Pablo stays.”