Last Sunday, Penske driver Simon Pagenaud stunned at the oval track in Indianapolis by scoring pole position, but he hasn't let it go to his head: "Like at Le Mans, pole position is symbolic. For a brief time, I'm the fastest racer at the Indianapolis 500, it creates buzz for a day, but the pole at Indy or Le Mans does not guarantee a great result at the finish line on Sunday. I was delighted, with a perfectly set up car in terms of power and aerodynamics, I barely had to turn the wheel and the car floated on air. It was magical. The worst part was watching the other performances and waiting on those results."
In 2010, Pagenaud was thrilled when he secured the pole at the 24 Hours of Le Mans with teammates Bourdais (qualified in 7th position at this year's Indy) and Lamy. "In motorsport, three circuits are considered legendary: Indianapolis, Le Mans and Monaco. So naturally to get pole position is quite emotional. At Le Mans, the high is shared and that makes it a little different. In IndyCar, it's all on you. In endurance racing, the pressure is on multiple sets of shoulders."
Like the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the Indianapolis 500 is much more than the race itself, with festivities kicking off a good two weeks before the main event. After his pole position, 2016 IndyCar champion Pagenaud promoted his discipline in St. Louis, Missouri before returning to Indianapolis for various activities, parades and car shakedowns. This Sunday, during the start ceremony at the Indianapolis 500, which includes various traditions and rituals, how will he be feeling...relaxed, nervous, focused? "I've learned a great deal from the 24 Hours of Le Mans. There, the start ceremony and procedure are intense and spectacular, they energise you and make you focus. For my first participations, I cut myself off, I put on blinders like for horses because I didn't want to be distracted by everything going on around me. Then my experience at Le Mans taught me to look at things more positively. Now, I thoroughly enjoy moments like that. I absorb the energy from the ceremony and the crowd. The driver I am today is in large part thanks to Le Mans (four participations, Ed.)."
How does one prepare mentally and physically for a 24-hour race on a very long circuit in a car shared with two other drivers with four classes of cars on the track, as compared to a two-hour sprint on an oval circuit at dizzying speeds up against a pack of professionals at exactly the same level?
‘’Driving a single-seater at Indianapolis is extremely complicated and stressful because you always have to be on the edge, understand the wind, the air flow, all while paying attention to what's going on in front of and behind you. In terms of focus, it's very demanding, but there's a flow, like a waltz with the same rhythm.
Le Mans is physically demanding. It's all quite brutal, you're in a closed cockpit where every bump quickly becomes painful because your seat is not exactly molded for you like it is in single-seaters. In IndyCar like at Le Mans, you have to know how to manage traffic, though one is more intense than the other. At Indianapolis, I can do a lap in 39 seconds, I even feel like a hamster on a fast wheel sometimes, but at Le Mans, sometimes you get in the car, hit the track and feel like you're off on the open road (on a 13.626 km circuit with 3:30.00 laps approximately, Ed.).
At Indianapolis, with the surrounding grandstands in a confined space, I've gone full bore in the pit straight before and hear the engine echoing off the walls. Le Mans is much more vast. Yet, there is a place at Le Mans that makes me think of Indianapolis (it's not the Indianapolis corner!, Ed.), and that's the Porsche curves. You can feel the speed like you can in a smaller space, between very close walls, where the smallest mistake may cost you your car. Now, I'm going into the Indianapolis 500 in pole position feeling more calm. I have better perspective, I've grown as a driver. I have to say the 24 Hours of Le Mans has really had a hand in my progress."
Simon Pagenaud finished second at the 2011 24 Hours of Le Mans after an intense and spectacular battle on the track with the Audi driven by Benoit Tréluyer, Marcel Fässler and André Lotterer. The last hours were riveting, especially the moment he was nearly touching wheels with Benoît Tréluyer.
On Sunday at the Indianapolis 500, Pagenaud will reunite with a special individual expected to make the trip from Le Mans to cheer him on: President of the Automobile Club de l’Ouest, Pierre Fillon.
The last French driver to win the Indianapolis 500 was René Thomas in 1914.
The start will be given on Sunday at 12:45 (local time).