Pagenaud: More comfortable and confident for second Indy 500 start

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Rookies get all the attention at Indianapolis. And then they become sophomores, where they’re now wiser fools and more grown up.

Simon Pagenaud’s among the crop of second-year drivers at Indy, and the Frenchman’s undoubtedly more comfortable this go-around in the No. 77 HP Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports Honda. For one thing, this race last year wasn’t just his first Indianapolis 500, but also his first oval race – ever.

“We’ve come such a long way since Indy last year,” he explained during the Indy 500 media day on Monday in Milwaukee. “My comfort level is there with the way the racecar feels. Last year the team was very conservative with me and I hit my stride slowly. I wasn’t very comfortable yet.

“But after a few oval races, I saw I got up to the task pretty quick. Now we found a setup exactly right for me. It’s a bit aggressive. It suits me really well.”

One of Pagenaud’s greatest assets is his ability to adapt to changing circumstances quickly. He had the tutelage of veteran Townsend Bell a year ago in the SHM stable, but now has a rookie teammate for the full season in countryman Tristan Vautier, and a last-minute addition with Katherine Legge in a third car for the 500.

The additional efforts in the Schmidt team aren’t a distraction to Pagenaud, as he’s focusing on his setup first and making sure that setup can transfer to his teammates if need be.

“The essential thing is finding a setup that suits me,” he said. “And I guess it must be really good, because we put it on Katherine’s car and she was flat in four laps! It highlights the good job they’ve been doing.

“It’s a bit of a stretch to have three cars, and it’s very different to last year. But the team is well focused on the goals and what we’re doing. I’m working with Ben (Bretzman), Tristan with Allen (McDonald), Katherine with an Indy Lights engineer (Chris Finch). It doesn’t change much, so long as we don’t get distracted.”

Although Honda’s lacked the outright speed compared to Chevrolet thus far this month, Pagenaud isn’t worried because of the projected gains it’s looking to find on Carb Day. Additionally, Pagenaud’s pace is close to the longtime Honda flag-bearer, Target Chip Ganassi Racing, so that’s an additional boost. No pun is intended given the cars will have the turbo boost reduced back to 130 kPa on race day after an increase to 140 kPa, an additional 40 horsepower, for qualifying.

“I think we’re really happy with it. We’re pretty close to the red (Target) cars, so I think that’s a very good indication of how the team has been working,” he said.

“We all hoped we’d be further up the grid but have a great hope for the race! Honda is always very good for long races. You saw Dario won from being last last year after the first stop. As long as the car is good and it is, I feel confident.

“The nice thing about our car, the balance is so nice. We can be fairly aggressive. The trick part about the Indy 500 is to pick the right level of downforce.”

Seasoned IndyCar observers know Pagenaud and the HP’s team’s ability, and a good run on Sunday will go quite a ways to building his stature outside the bubble.

F1 Preview: 2018 Australian Grand Prix

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Save for two occasions, in 2006, and 2010, the Australian Grand Prix has served as the season-opening event for the FIA Formula 1 World Championship since 1996, and this weekend’s event will be the 21st time that the city of Melbourne has kicked off the Formula 1 campaign.

The 2018 season is the fifth one of the current hybrid power unit era, the second season of the current aero regulations, and the second under Liberty Media’s guidance.

Last year saw titans Mercedes AMG Petronas and Scuderia Ferrari duel for supremacy for most of the season before Mercedes distanced Ferrari late in the season to take the constructor’s title and the driver’s title, with Lewis Hamilton, who is now tied with Sebastian Vettel on four world championships apiece.

Four drivers on the grid have Formula 1 world championships to their name: Hamilton, Vettel, Kimi Raikkonen, and Fernando Alonso. Scuderia Toro Rosso’s Brendon Hartley also has a world championship to his name as a two-time titlist in the FIA World Endurance Championship.

So, what can viewers expect from the 2018 curtain-raiser in Australia? A handful of things to watch are below?

2018 Australian Grand Prix – Talking Points

Does Anyone Have Anything for Mercedes?

Only on one day during pre-season testing did a Mercedes driver lead the way – Lewis Hamilton was fastest on the final day of Week 1 at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya.

However, all indications were that was by design, with the team focusing the majority of the second week, if not the entire second week, on long runs with their W09 EQ Power+ chassis.

Such a decision is an ominous one, in that it indicates the team is very comfortable with the amount of speed in the car and did not see a need, or desire, to show their hand during testing.

With that in mind, the Mercedes duo of Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas may yet again have the best and fastest cars, and the team looks poised to potentially make it five constructor’s and driver’s championships in a row.

Ferrari and Red Bull Look to End Mercedes Reign

The biggest threats to Mercedes are undoubtedly Ferrari and Red Bull, the only other teams to win in 2017.

And both teams displayed a lot of pace during testing, particularly in the “one-lap speed” category. Ricciardo set a lap record around the Catalunya circuit during the second week, only for Vettel to supplant that mark later in the week. Teammate Kimi Raikkonen led the way during the final day of testing.

It is unknown how that pace will translate over the course of a race distance. Mercedes appeared to have an edge on both Ferrari and Red Bull over long runs and race simulations, but there is also a theory that neither Ferrari nor Red Bull had their true long-run form on display.

Still, if a team is going to knock off Mercedes, it will likely be either Ferrari or Red Bull.

McLaren on the Rebound?

Put simply, the previous three seasons for McLaren F1 Team were a bit of a disaster. Their partnership with Honda yielded point totals of 27 (2015), 76 (2016), and 30 (2017) in a three-year venture that was defined by poor reliability and underwhelming power.

The relationship hit a boiling point last year and both entities parted ways ahead of the 2018 season, with McLaren signing a new power unit deal with Renault.

Testing went better than in previous years, though the team continued to battle reliability problems. However, all issues appeared to be minor, needling issues rather than more significant, foundational problems, as the other Renault teams (Red Bull and Renault Sport F1 Team) had solid runs with few reliability issues.

The car does appear to have speed in it, so if the reliability problems are behind them, McLaren could be in for a rebound season.

Stuck in the Midfield Again

Formula 1’s battle amongst the midfield is set to be as fierce as ever as a host of a several teams have a chance at being “best of the rest.”

Sahara Force India has been the frontrunner from the the midfield teams each of the last two years, finishing fourth in the constructor’s title in both 2016 and 2017, though if the steady conflict between drivers Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez continues through 2018, it could hamper their efforts significantly.

Renault Sport F1 Team and Haas F1 Team look to improve on their 2017 form, while Toro Rosso is in a new partnership with Honda power units…and has experienced a surprisingly smooth pre-season as Honda’s 2018 platform looks significantly better, with the team enjoying a solid run of testing with few, if any, reliability problems.

Williams Martini Racing and Alfa Romeo Sauber appear to be at the back of the pack entering the season, but both could battle for points finishes if those ahead of them falter.