Simon Pagenaud competed in his first Indianapolis 500 last season and turned in a pretty solid effort. He started 23rd and finished 16th for Sam Schmidt Motorsports and parlayed that success to IndyCar Series Rookie of the Year honors last season.
Despite racing in the 24 Hours of Le Mans and in several prestigious events in the competitive Formula 1 ladder system, Pagenaud called last year's 500 the most intimidating race he's ever been in, during a media session prior to Sunday practice at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The primary reason for this, he says, is the unpredictability of open-wheel oval racing compared to every other discipline he's sampled over the years.
"It's probably the toughest because, honestly, as a road racer, you don't know what to expect on the first turn," Pagenaud said. "You don't know what to expect off a full stint. You don't really know. The whole month, the whole two weeks last year, I learned but you can never really get close to a 20-car pack (in practice.)"
Pagenaud called his first stint in last year's race a "cold shower" and that the opening stages taught him to be a lot more aggressive. He dropped to 28th before lap 30 before employing a more aggressive style for the remainder of the race.
Pagenaud added that as a road course driver he had to learn to enjoy oval racing before he could become successful at it.
"And now I have (learned to enjoy it,) so that's a good thing crossed off the list," Pagenaud said. "The second thing was to understand the level of aggression you can have with the other drivers. Initially maybe I was too respectful ... so it took me a little while to understand."
Despite the relatively strong finish, Pagenaud says he didn't learn to fully appreciate oval racing until the Iowa race in June. It was at this point of the season that he first gained an awareness of how to set up and clear a pass at high speed. He's looking to take that awareness to Indianapolis for the rest of the month where perhaps a better Pagenaud will result in a better finish.
"Indy was a big learning curve and step one," Pagenaud said. "I'm not ready yet, but I don't think you can ever be ready for Indy."