until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League


What to expect from IndyCar’s long-awaited international return

by Jack Benyon
7 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

When the US announced that, from June 12, pre-departure Covid testing wasn’t necessary 24 hours before flying into the country anymore, the IndyCar paddock made a metaphorical leap of joy.

If we say on average, per each IndyCar entry there are 50 people associated with that car and team, that’s well over 1300 Covid tests that needed to be done in a 24-hour window before flying back from Toronto, so the removal of that rule withdrew any worry that the race wouldn’t be possible.

That’s not just significant because the Canadian street circuit is a well-loved track with plenty of IndyCar history. It means a country that had two races on the calendar as recently as 2012 now hosts its first race since 2019 when Simon Pagenaud – the Frenchman then driving for Team Penske – defied a messy race and dominated from pole position to become victorious on Bastille Day.

Big sporting events have been hit hard in Canada during the pandemic. So too has IndyCar’s bid to head abroad, as the championship hasn’t ventured outside of the US since that last 2019 Toronto race.

With 17 out of its 25 full-season drivers being from outside the States, perhaps this weekend signifies something much bigger than just a return to Toronto.

It’s a reminder of what opening up to a new audience can achieve and how IndyCar can benefit from racing internationally.

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“It’s a shame, I really enjoyed the international races and wish we were racing in France and England, all over Europe would be really cool,” Meyer Shank Racing driver Pagenaud tells The Race in an exclusive interview ahead of his attempt to defend that 2019 race win.

“But it is what it is. I talked to a Canadian media [member] yesterday. And he was asking me about the interest of IndyCar because they feel like they’re getting further and further away from IndyCar as fans.

“But I must say, every time we go to Toronto there’s such a great crowd, I just think we need to continue to fulfil the desire from the fans and make sure that we go to Canada at least.

“We used to have three races in Canada, and now it’s only one. So, like I said, it’s a shame because we had such a great following and fans that were very much into the sport.

“I hope we will keep going in that direction, meaning more races in Canada.”

It certainly feels like the appetite is there from Canadian sports fans to welcome motorsport back, a spectacular crowd for Formula 1’s Canadian Grand Prix earlier this year is proof of that.

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Pagenaud believes it’s just as important to go to races where the fans come out in their droves and are passionate as much as it is important to go to races with significant history, maybe even more.

“What means the most frankly for me personally is when the fans and the attendance makes you feel relevant in your sport,” Pagenaud says.

“Meaning that, when you go to a track, and it’s 3000 people, you wonder why, what’s going on, and why the fans are not interested.

“So when you go to a track like Toronto, and it’s such a big crowd, and everybody knows your name, and everybody knows what you’ve been doing in the past, it gives you a big, big smile on your face and a lot of enthusiasm going forward.

“So I think that’s why it’s always such a classic for IndyCar.”

Of course, the track itself is the key reason why the location is so revered.

It’s a lot of low-speed technical corners that look simple from the outside, but judging the traction on its changeable surfaces and how rubbered-in the track is impacts every input on the steering wheel and pedals.

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Apart from the braking after the long back straight, you might look at the track map and think it looks straightforward but that couldn’t be further from the truth.

“It’s extremely technical,” confirms Pagenaud, someone known for his attention to detail in the series and therefore the perfect person to outline the challenges of this track.

“It has very low speed corners and it’s all second gear, first gear corners with the exception of Turn 6s in third gear.

“It’s all about the right amount of brake pressure, the right spot to manipulate the balance of the car.

“It’s one of my specialities, low-speed corners, technical-speed corners, so I look forward to it every year.

“It’s also an interesting grip. The grip changes a lot. You go from asphalt, to concrete, concrete to asphalt, and really the technique that you use, you don’t use it at any other tracks, so it’s unique.

“I enjoy that diversity and the fact that you have to be creative.”

Three-time Toronto winner Will Power backs Pagenaud up, adding: “There really isn’t a track that we go to that’s like that.

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“It’s near impossible to get a good balance in the car, so it’s a lot of compromise. I feel like it’s a real driver’s track. It’s pretty hard.

“The track is just difficult because there are so many different levels of grip. Like, you never feel in the track, on top of the track, it’s sliding. The car never handles well. It’s kind of difficult to tell your engineer what to do because there’s so much compromise.

“Maybe it’s a track that it’s easy to make a mistake on. That’s why maybe veterans or people being around a bit longer don’t end up making mistakes. That might be the reason that you’ve seen champions win.

“It’s a tough track. A lot of mayhem can happen there, a lot of mayhem.”

Intriguingly, 13 of the 25 drivers on the grid will race at Toronto in IndyCar for the first time including the reigning series champion Alex Palou, so experience of the technicality of the track is at a premium and should provide some proper fireworks come race day.

Especially as there are only two practice sessions before qualifying, totalling two hours and 15 minutes. That might sound like a lot of practice, but the teams don’t have enough tyres to run for that duration effectively, and because it’s a tough and bumpy street circuit with plenty of track rookies, the likelihood of red flags zapping time away increases even more than earlier in the year where it has been a repeat problem.

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Pagenaud is the perfect example that even if you have great experience of the track and you feel like the skills to conquer it are one of your specialities, it can still take seven attempts to win there – mainly down to how the strategy can catch you out, as he recalls while talking about his 2019 win ending that draught.

“It was a fantastic weekend,” he adds.

“One of my most dominant weekends with the pole, and the race win. Car was fantastic.

“But also everything went our way. It’s a track where I’ve always felt extremely competitive. But up until then, a lot of our chances got taken away by yellows.

“Like in 2017, while leading the race, or even in ’15 and ’14, we had tremendous performance, but never got it done.”

He might well be a good bet for an outsider victory in 2022.

Pagenaud has shown strong pace as he continues adapting to his new team, and a double top 10 for MSR at Mid-Ohio for a team that only expanded to two full-time cars this year was really significant.

The road course package is its weakest element, but by having Pagenaud and Helio Castroneves in the top 10 it was best of the rest behind Ganassi and Penske, which is its immediate goal in the short term.

His old team Penske has won all three of the street course races so far in 2022 with each of its drivers getting a win. But Shank has a technical alliance with the Andretti crew that dominated those tracks in 2021 and still has been strong this year.

“Our biggest strength is the street course package, we have an extremely good car on street courses and I hope I can close the deal because the car is just so good,” says Pagenaud.

“So I’ve got two more chances with Toronto, and Nashville. We’re on pace, I know we’ll be in the top five. I’ve no doubt about it.

“So if we have a chance to win a race it will be one of those two.”

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