Driver and Engineer

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Over the course of a 500-mile race, there are many factors that determine success. Of course you need a great car and a talented driver, but there are also countless calculations that occur behind the scenes that nobody sees, each of which can have a huge impact on the outcome of the race. The relationship between a driver and a race engineer is paramount to a team’s success. In the last eight years, driver Simon Pagenaud and race engineer Ben Bretzman have risen through the racing ranks together, and are now have one of the fastest cars on the IndyCar circuit. They enter the final race of the year, Sunday’s GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma, with the opportunity to repeat as IndyCar champions. Before they hit the track, we asked Simon and Ben to talk about their special bond.

Ben Bretzman

I think by now, just based on the amount of time we’ve spent with each other the past few years, we’d probably be considered common-law married in some states. For sure in North Carolina, at least.

Simon Pagenaud

I should tell my fiancée.

Ben

We have to talk a lot in order to do our jobs. And I like that we both have a similar passion and focus that makes us both always want to talk about how we can make our car better. A lot of times we’ll think of things late at night that end up helping us during a race. I like those texts. The ones you send me of you working out, I don’t care for as much.

Simon

I just want you to know I’m working hard.

Ben

Yeah, I know that because you literally caption the photos, “See I’m working hard!”

Simon

Usually our exchanges are much more boring than that. A lot of our texts are about work. We’re always challenging each other’s thinking — and we both enjoy that because we know we’re both always working toward the same thing.

 

Simon

We raced against each other before we ever worked together.

 

Ben

Yeah, I grew up — like most kids who were into go-karting — with dreams of becoming a driver. Unfortunately, I ran out of time, talent and money. I still knew I wanted to be involved in racing, so I went to college to become an engineer. I started interning at age 18 while I was still in school, and kind of advanced along from there.

 

Simon

In 2009, he was working for Highcroft, a sports car program in Connecticut, and they invited me in for an interview. I’d never interviewed for a drive before.

Ben

I’d never actually been in a situation where I interviewed a driver before. I had been on different teams in the same series as Simon for years and I recognized his talent. So when I joined Highcroft, I pushed to hire him partly because I was sick of trying to beat him.

Simon

I really wanted the job.

Ben

I remember we hit it off pretty quickly. Even though he’s from France and I’m from Florida — which is not France — we clicked immediately. We looked at racing the same way.

Simon

I thought I was in good shape, but at one point during the interview, Ben asked me a question that made me wonder if I did actually have the job. He said, “Would you rather test or race?”

Ben

Haha. Oh, yeah.

Simon

I thought it was trick question. Of course I like racing. And then he told me that he liked to test. He said he liked to search for the real details related to improving the car. And I was worried that that was some kind of dealbreaker.

Ben

Yeah, this guy’s not gonna work out.

Simon

I got the job.

Ben

Do you remember, what the first race we won was?

Simon

Was it 2009?

Ben

No, I think it was 2010. We won Salt Lake, Laguna Seca and Long Beach.

Simon

Oh, Long Beach. That was the best one.

Ben

It was a sports car race, so we ran two drivers with one car. That was the race where our other driver got a penalty, right?

Simon

Yes.

Ben

Haha. Oh, yeah. I remember our car was really fast in the corners, but we were really slow — like 20 mph slower than the leaders — on the straightaway. Somehow, I honestly don’t really know how, Simon got us back near the lead at the end of the race. I’ll never forget the final lap, we were on a straightaway and Simon’s just out there in this slow car just pulling out all the stops. He was moving back and forth, flickering his lights. The works. In the final corner, the leader got a bit squirrely and went sideways and Simon snuck past him to win the race. Unreal.

Simon

We drank a lot of tequila that night.

Ben

Yeah, that was when we were sponsored by Patrón so we drank a lot of tequila all the time.

Simon

Great celebration, horrible morning.

Ben

Man, we used to be a lot more fun.

Simon

Oh, yeah. We used to go to Vegas whenever we won.

Ben

Then I got a kid and house payments. So yeah, don’t get out as much anymore.

Simon

I have a small dog at home and want to be a good role model.


Ben

The relationship between a driver and an engineer can go bad in several ways. One way is that engineers can sometimes be pretty stubborn. It’s a product of the way they look at the world almost. If you’re very analytically driven, the idea of not just following what the numbers tell you seems irrational.

Simon

I’ve had a lot of race engineers in my career, and I learned very quickly that there are some very, very good engineers, and there are engineers who have the reputation of being good but aren’t there to help you as a driver. They’re focused on what they’re doing, and it’s less of a partnership.

Ben

My thing has always been that the most vital source of data I have is sitting in the driver’s seat. Everything else is only to help contextualize the information that my driver is feeding me — and Simon is better at giving me that information than anybody I’ve ever been around. He’s like a human computer.

Simon

People who don’t follow racing don’t really understand how technical everything is. But there’s also a lot of room for creativity. I appreciate that I can bring ideas to you and usually get you to try them. Because of that, I’m never left wondering if we did everything we could to win a race. I know that we’re both always willing to change in order to make our car faster.

Ben

What’s more important than learning something on your own is learning something together. I might know something isn’t right, but if Simon doesn’t come to the same conclusion on his own, my knowledge doesn’t mean as much. When we both come away having learned the same lessons from a situation, we can grow from there. And each race, we get a little better at communicating and understand things together. And you’ve definitely gotten better at understanding American sarcasm over the years.

Simon

I’ve learned how to pick up on certain tones more, yeah.

Ben

Oh, have you?

Simon

See, sarcasm.

Ben

Our first ever oval race together was the Indianapolis 500.

Simon

In 2012. Big race.

Ben

You start three-wide there. I think we began 18th or 19th? Somewhere near the middle of the pack. By the end of the first lap, we were almost dead last.

Simon

By the end of second lap, definitely dead last.

Ben

I remember I just kind of threw my hands up and figured, Alright, I guess we’ll start working from here.

Simon

It was like we lost the race in the very first corner. We suck much less now, fortunately.

Ben

Yeah, that’s a good thing.

Simon

I think that kind of race, to come out flat like that, it could shattered a driver’s confidence. But you didn’t let that happen. You’re able to tell when I’m not feeling confident just by looking at me. You always know the words to use in order to lift me back up.

Ben

This sport is almost 90% confidence. It’s like … my relationship with Simon is that I’m the coach, he’s the quarterback. I have to give him the right scheme to succeed, and he needs to embrace that scheme fully in order to run it as well as possible. If either one of us aren’t up to our jobs, we’re done.

Simon

Having his trust makes me the driver I am. When Ben tells me, “Listen, I’m going to set the car up this way, and I need you to go into this corner full throttle” — even if I don’t know if it’ll work, I’ll do it. No question.

Ben

I recognize that there are things Simon can do that I just can’t. I’ve seen how good he is and how good he can be, so part of my job is always reminding him of that. Reminding him that he makes those split-second reads better than anyone else.

Simon

We’ve worked together for so many years now, that it would be really hard — maybe impossible — to replicate this kind of thing with anybody else. My career would be finished by the time I got that kind of chemistry with another engineer, so in a way saying we’re married isn’t too far off.

Ben

For the record, I always like the pictures you text me of your dog.

Simon

That’s good to know.

The Drive of My Life

Nothing gets you ready for the final few miles of a Sunday at Indy. Unless you’ve been there before. In the 2012 race, I was there. And I thought I had it.

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