On Saturday night, 32-year-old Frenchman Simon Pagenaud drove away with the checkered flag at the 250 lap Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix at Phoenix Raceway in Avondale, AZ. Team Penske drivers led all 250 laps of the race. This Phoenix Grand Prix victory marks Team Penske's 450th win, their 189th series victory, their 100th win in open wheel racing on an oval, Simon Pagenaud's 10th win overall, and his first win on an oval.
"This is my best win! Because it's so strategic to win on an oval. You have to really study what the others are doing, how your car's responding, adjust it during the race to be good at the end, and today was just exactly a perfect day. So I couldn't be any happier," Pagenaud said on Victory Lane. When asked about about never racing on ovals until a few years ago, he said "I had to relearn everything. Oval, to me, was completely unknown. When you're 25 years old and you have to relearn everything it's not easy." Pagenaud expressed gratitude toward Townsend Bell for his help in preparing for oval racing.
Continuing the trend of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series, the Phoenix Grand Prix became the third of the four races this year to begin with a caution on the first lap. In just the second turn of lap 1, Mikhail Aleshin lost rear grip and spun out of control, collecting championship points leader Sebastian Bourdais along with Marco Andretti, Max Chilton, and Graham Rahal, ending the race for all five drivers. All of the cars lost in the lap 1 incident were Honda powered vehicles. The caution status lasted for 22 laps (just over 20 minutes).
After the restart, Helio Castroneves kept the early lead, with Will Power in 3rd. Simon Pagenaud moved up from 5th into 4th position, passing JR Hildebrand with an aggressive approach to the restart.
Pagenaud passed Power at lap 70 with a good move into turn 1. Pagenaud spoke after the race of his appreciation for his teammate giving him room once the overtaking proved imminent. "It was great respect between teammates. Will was struggling a little bit on the exit of [turn] 4, and my car was phenomenal all night out of 4, and I was trying all night to time a run - time a run - he had a slight mistake and I took my chance. But he gave me plenty of room. Between teammates that's what you want to see. And I gotta say, hat off to him"
During the pitstop exchanges around lap 78, Pagenaud dropped to 3rd as Power took the lead.
On lap 138, the race leaders Power (in 1st), Castroneves (in 2nd), and Hildebrand (in 4th) entered pit lane under green. But seconds later on lap 139 Takuma Sato ended his night with a hard hit into the outside wall of turn 4, causing the course caution lights to illuminate once more. As a result, having chosen to stay out on course while the leaders had pitted was fortuitous for Pagenaud, who gained a lap on the field. (On the paddock just after the race, Roger Penske himself said, "We got lucky on the yellow."
In a somewhat confusing turn of events, Pagenaud was able to make his pit stop under the caution, and the entire rest of the field was given a waive-around, to allow the race leader not to be stuck at the back of the pack on the restart. The lapped traffic wound up having the effect of protecting Pagenaud's lead, and the application of the blue flag would be a source of some controversy after the race.
With 43 laps to go, JR Hildrebrand was able to pass Helio Castroneves to take 3rd position when Helio was slowed momentarily by Newgarden, whose car made contact with Ryan Hunter-Reay's. Hildrebrand held that 3rd spot until the finish, putting serious pressure on Will Power who held onto 2nd place.
Regarding the matter of not requiring cars to give way to the competitors on the lead lap other than the race leader, race officials had stated in the drivers' meeting earlier Saturday that the blue flag would apply only to cars a lap down to the entire field. Kanaan and Dixon, notably, defended their positions between the other three drivers on the still on the lead lap late in the race and the race leader Pagenaud. After the race, 2nd place finisher Will Power politely expressed his dissatisfaction at the press conference, saying, "IndyCar was letting the leader -- getting people out of the way for the leader and then not us. We just sat there while he got past everyone. So I don't -- it made a bad race of it, honestly. The fact we just had to sit in traffic, you couldn't pass. But there was a blue flag for the leader and miscellaneous other cars. Strangely enough they decide to let cars go so we could race. It was really strange. I don't understand the rule on what it is, whether they just decided they want certain people to race or not. But that's what was going on."
Third place finisher JR Hildebrand agreed somewhat with Power, explaining, "Usually when you're lapping cars on a road course, there are guys that are at the back, they're struggling, there's no stress to let you by. We're racing against guys that are racing even harder than we were at times. So that ends up becoming a difficult thing to kind of manage. [...] Then I sort of agree with Will, there was a little bit of inconsistency when we were catching up to guys that were already a lap down, were going multiple laps down to try to figure out how that procedure exactly was meant to work. In the end for us, I can only say positive things for our race. We look forward to being able to make good on that going forward from here."
On the topic of the lucky caution, Pagenaud explained how it wasn't 100% luck. One might have noticed that his pit stops were a little later than the rest of the top leaders' during this race. "I think my car, the Menards car, was definitely a step above everybody else. I saw it very early in the race. We were able to save fuel being behind Will, behind Helio. That helped us to stretch our window. We were a little lucky with the yellow that came out, but that's because we were able to stretch it, and it worked for us."
This early season win lifts Simon Pagenaud to the top rung of the drivers' championship standings. Due to being knocked out of the race in Aleshin's four-car pile-up, previous points leader Sebastian Bourdais slipped to fourth on the drivers list. Another consequence of that lap 1 crash that might be looked back on as the season unfolds is the loss of five Honda powered cars' worth of points in the Manufacturer Points Championship.
Watch for more IndyCar racing as the storied month of May begins:
- Grand Prix of Indianapolis - a road course race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway - May 13
- Indianapolis 500 Qualifying Day 1 - May 20
- Indianapolis 500 Qualifying Day 2 - May 21
- Indianapolis 500 Mile Race (the 101st running) - May 28
Additionally, keep an eye out for several support races for the Indy500, including IndyLights racing, Mazda Road to Indy racing, plus USF2000 and Pro Mazda racing during the month of May.
Photos by Bradford Jones