“Just what makes that little old ant/Think he’ll move that rubber tree plant/Anyone knows an ant, can’t/Move a rubber tree plant…”
To the uninitiated, Simon Pagenaud doesn’t seem like a championship contender. Running for a single-car team with only one full year of major-league open-wheel experience under his belt, he’s been listed as a rookie by the IZOD IndyCar Series despite playing substitute driver in three different races last season.
But such thinking would fail to take into account his extensive background in road/street course racing, which is always nice to have in a series with multiple disciplines but especially critical to have this year with just five ovals on the docket.
Such thinking would also fail to take into account that his team, Schmidt-Hamilton Motorsports, played a critical role in helping Bryan Herta Autosport – now Team Barracuda-BHA – shock the world and win the centennial running of the Indianapolis 500 last year.
And finally, such thinking would take into account that simple thing known as confidence.
“Why not?,” says Pagenaud, a 27-year-old that hails from Poitiers, France and now resides in Indianapolis. “I think, you know, the chemistry on the team is pretty amazing. It's the first time in my career I've had such a great opportunity to showcase what I can do, but I'm also a lot more ready than I used to be in the past.
“I think it's just very good timing for me, and if we keep doing what we are doing at the moment, then why not? I think we can definitely fight in the top six and if we are consistent, then maybe that would be good for being well placed in the championship.”
“But he's got high hopes/He's got high hopes/He's got high apple pie, in the sky hopes…”
It’s early yet, but Pagenaud has a reason to be confident. While he and his fellow Honda-powered pilots seem to be at a slight power deficit to their counterparts from Chevrolet, he managed to carry over his impressive pre-season pace to the first race of the season in St. Petersburg, Florida.
A 10-spot penalty for an unapproved engine change during Friday practice threatened to put a damper on things, however. On tight street courses such as the 1.8-mile circuit in St. Pete, track position is gold and despite making the Firestone Fast Six in Saturday qualifying, Pagenaud had to start 16th last Sunday.
“That was scary to begin with,” he admitted. “I mean, we had a great car, a great race car that we knew was our strength, and we wanted to do as well as possible.”
But while a good starting position went away, he still had a fast car.
After pitting early, Pagenaud methodically moved through the field and broke into the top 10 at Lap 35. By the time of his second pit stop of the day on Lap 47, he was in seventh position. And while said stop saw him come out in 11th, the Frenchman jumped back into the top 10 as he and much of the field went in for green flag service around the 30 laps to go mark.
From there, it was just a matter of holding off Will Power for sixth to make up all the positions he had been penalized.
“I went into the race thinking to go through Turn One fine, and then from there, work my way through,” Pagenaud said. “But I take my hat off to the team. We did a fantastic pit stop and the strategy was pretty amazing.
“They really got me up there and we didn't make any mistakes. We got out of trouble and with what we had in hand, I think we got the best results we could achieve.”
“So any time you're gettin' low/'Stead of lettin' go/Just remember that ant/Oops, there goes another rubber tree plant…”
While Pagenaud was a little surprised at how well things have gone in the early stages of the year, he knew he and his No. 77 HP Honda would be “in the mix” as he put it. In his eyes, the team is just as motivated to perform at a high level as he is in his first full-time run in open-wheel since driving the final year of Champ Car with Team Australia.
“I think there is a very positive attitude,” he said. “I don't know if it's me bringing it or all of the people around me. I think it's a common attitude, and that's the right way to go racing. I think we are just very happy to go racing, very happy to work all together, and it helps everybody to go forward. We are going to try to keep that spirit on.”
Also helping Pagenaud is not one, but two former series drivers: The team’s namesakes, Sam Schmidt and Davey Hamilton. Having veteran competitors that can understand just about any situation he finds himself in is something he believes is an edge in his favor.
Considering Schmidt and Hamilton’s prominent roles in the early, all-oval years of the IZOD IndyCar Series, it also won’t be as easy to discount Pagenaud completely when the series heads for the speedways. He’ll have a lot to learn though about the art of turning left, and his first lesson will be on the biggest stage of them all: The Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“My approach is just to respect the place, because it has to be respected, I think,” he said while also mentioning IMS as “daunting” and “the most impressive racetrack in the world of all [he’s] seen”.
But while the Brickyard beckons, it’s still off in the distance. Next up is a trip this weekend to the rolling hills of Barber Motorsports Park (Sun., 2 p.m. ET on NBC Sports Network), where he made his first series start last year subbing for an injured Ana Beatriz at Dreyer & Reinbold Racing.
This time, he returns with a new car and a new team, on a new adventure.
And those same ol’ high hopes.