Critical Improvements Ensured Pagenaud’s Pole

Simon Pagenaud apexes Toronto Indy turn

Simon Pagenaud found speed in crucial areas of Toronto’s city streets during qualifying Saturday to secure his second pole of 2019 and the 12th of his NTT IndyCar Series career.

Entering knockout qualifying for this year’s edition of the Honda Indy Toronto, Pagenaud looked to be the driver to beat having laid down the fastest time on the combined practice timesheet. The Frenchman’s 59.3651-second lap, set in Practice 3, was one of 12 revolutions of the temporary street circuit quicker than a minute during the session but was still nearly one-tenth of a second clear of second-fastest Felix Rosenqvist.

Lap times for 21 of the 22 drivers fell considerably in qualifying with only rookie Santino Ferrucci losing time relative to Practice 3. The improvements ranged from three-tenths of a second for Carlin driver Sage Karam to a massive 1.8-second gain for Ed Carpenter Racing’s Ed Jones, who made just his second Firestone Fast Six appearance in 2019.

Pagenaud’s delta from Practice 3 to the third round of qualifying was 0.9358 seconds. Going even quicker than his already-superior practice pace, the current Indianapolis 500 champion was fast enough to top the Firestone Fast Six and earn his first non-oval pole since the 2017 Toronto event.

Section data from the Fast Six paints a picture of where Pagenaud improved the most. The section that comprises Turn 3 at the end of Toronto’s long backstretch as well as Turn 4 represented his biggest gain. There, he was 0.2455 seconds quicker in qualifying than in Practice 3. Other areas Pagenaud darted through significantly quicker were Turns 1, 5 and 11 — all critical areas of the track that proved to be trouble spots for some drivers throughout the weekend.

By maintaining speed through these critical sections and avoiding the pitfalls that befell other drivers, Pagenaud picked up enough time to offset the sections of the track where he lost ground from practice to qualifying: the frontstretch, backstretch and Turn 9. The numbers suggest that sacrificing some straight-line speed for faster cornering was a winning combination for the Team Penske driver.

While starting position is important in Toronto — the lowest starting position of a winner is 13th — starting from pole doesn’t necessarily equate to victory. Pole winners have gone on to win the race on the streets of Exhibition Place just seven times in the 33 races dating back to 1986, a feat most recently achieved by Sebastien Bourdais in 2014. The 21% success ratio for pole winners demonstrates that starting near the front is more valuable than starting from pole.

Should Pagenaud find himself in position to be the eighth driver to convert his pole into a win at the historic street circuit, he’ll earn his third victory of 2019 and give a boost to his bid for a second series championship. Entering Sunday’s race, the 10-time Toronto starter has 342 points, putting him 60 markers behind championship leader Josef Newgarden. In the 12 races held since Toronto returned to the IndyCar schedule in 2009, the eventual series champion won the race six times. At 50%, the correlation between Toronto winner and eventual champion is much stronger than wins from pole.

Pagenaud’s proven speed through practice and qualifying should give him an edge but the unpredictable nature of the tricky Toronto circuit can easily shake up a race and move those on alternate strategies to the front and limit the ability to win on speed alone.

The 11th round of 2019 will begin at 3:42 p.m. EDT, when Pagenaud is scheduled to take the green flag to kick off 85 laps of racing on the 1.786-mile circuit. Whether he maintains the lead nearly two hours later will complete his Toronto story and add to his season-long quest to become a two-time IndyCar champion.