Simon Pagenaud takes first pole position of the season at Honda Indy Toronto
French driver Simon Pagenaud celebrates taking pole position during the qualifying session for the Honda Indy Toronto on Saturday, July 15, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young
Ryan McKenna, The Canadian Press
Published Saturday, July 15, 2017 9:46PM EDT
TORONTO - Simon Pagenaud threw his arms in the air as he entered the press conference room and let out a shriek of excitement.
All Canadian James Hinchcliffe could do was smile as he was interrupted mid-answer.
Pagenaud, the defending Verizon IndyCar Series champion, captured the pole position for Sunday's Honda Indy Toronto after finishing first in qualifying. The Frenchman set a track-record time of 58.9124 seconds Saturday during the final round.
“There's a huge competition within the team,” Pagenaud said. “Obviously, Helio (Castroneves) has been on a tear this year and I need some poles in order to catch up on that competition.
“Last year I was the one that won that competition. But we're just having fun with that, so that's why the entrance was a bit flamboyant.”
It's the first pole this season and in this race for the 33-year-old Pagenaud. The Frenchman earned his 10th career pole and has finished in the top-five twice in Toronto, but never won the race.
His best starting position on the streets surrounding Exhibition Place before this year was second.
“I've just never had the success that I thought I could get for known reasons,” Pagenaud said. “Being able to put a perfect lap together in Toronto is very unusual because it's a very tough track.
“I feel very satisfied that way.”
Pagenaud edged Graham Rahal for top spot with Team Penske teammates Castroneves and Will Power, the defending champion, starting third and fourth. Scott Dixon, who captured the '16 pole position, rounds out the top-five drivers.
Hinchcliffe will start sixth for a second straight year. The Oakville, Ont., native trailed for most of the first round of qualifying but rallied to advance into the second after a crash by rookie Esteban Gutierrez.
After a strong start to the second round, Hinchcliffe fell back but was able to recover on a final shootout lap.
“The last shootout in Q2 is always exciting,” said Hinchcliffe, who's coming off a career best third-place finish here last year. “You're just trying to save your life and give it everything you've got.
“We turned this into a podium last year so fingers crossed we've got a strong race car and things go our way in the race.”
It's been a big turnaround for Hinchcliffe in his hometown race after struggling prior to last year. He won at the Grand Prix of Long Beach in April and finished third in the first of two races at the Detroit Grand Prix in June.
Hinchcliffe credits his Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team's consistency for the shift in success.
“Coming off the best start and best finish last year we wanted to build on that,” he said. “We didn't necessarily roll off the truck that way but we've got ourselves in a position to be at the sharp end.
“It's just hard work. A lot of times we've been quick here, just had the worst luck ever.”
Pagenaud set a track record in the second qualifying round before breaking it again in the third and final one. Power had set the mark last year with a time of 59.7747 seconds.
Gutierrez crashed near the end of the first round, hitting the wall on the straightaway to the finish line. His car caught fire but the former Formula One driver escaped unscathed.
JR Hildebrand connected with the wall while attempting to get past a chicane at Turn 8 during the second round of qualifying, which set up the final lap shootout.
Pagenaud said that the Toronto track's difficulty makes it the most important place to qualify well.
And although he says that race results matter more than poles, it's still a solid feeling to start from the front of the pack Sunday.
“Every race car driver has an ego and I think qualifying is all about ego,” he said. “We all want to be the fastest man.
“From the moment when we start in go-kart, when you manage to do that special lap it's the best feeling in the world.”