Few would argue Simon Pagenaud and Justin Wilson are two of the top drivers in the IZOD IndyCar Series. Additionally, few would argue Josef Newgarden is one of the series’ emerging talents, who hasn’t yet had many opportunities to shine thanks to near consistent mechanical gremlins and bad luck.
So it may come as some as a surprise, then, that all three made the Firestone Fast Six in qualifying for today’s Grand Prix of Baltimore presented by SRT for the first time this year. For Newgarden, it’s also the first Fast Six appearance of his career.
Pagenaud and Schmidt teammate Tristan Vautier both advanced into the Fast Six; each has led a practice session (Pagenaud on Saturday morning, Vautier Friday afternoon) this weekend.
“The engineer (Ben Bretzman) worked really hard on understanding how to control the ride better, and they digged really deep after Sonoma,” Pagenaud said. “Even though it’s a completely different racetrack, there’s a lot of things they understood, and the car is just absolutely fantastic this week. So I’m very proud of the HP team. And being here with Tristan is also a great accomplishment for the team.”
Wilson posted his best qualifying effort since Toronto 2012, when he qualified third. Much of the attention at the Dale Coyne Racing team has gone to Wilson’s younger brother Stefan, who is debuting this weekend.
“To be honest, I didn’t expect it after practice,” Justin Wilson said. “We were 10th in practice this morning, 17th yesterday, so it’s been a bit of a struggle this weekend, but we’ve just kept digging away and fighting back. (We’re) not quite in Will and Scott’s league, but I’ll keep looking at it and see what I can learn as a driver and see what we can learn with the setup and try and get there.”
Newgarden seems to have a torrid love affair with the otherwise controversial Pratt Street chicane. He is using Lucas Luhr’s chassis from Sonoma (nicknamed “Rapunzel”), and has made up most of his time through the chicane in maximum attack mode.
“That’s like the only place I’m good around this circuit I feel like,” Newgarden said. “I’m just barreling it in there, I don’t even care what part I’m hitting. The front’s going everywhere; it doesn’t matter. I’m just flat out through it pretty much.”
Vautier in sixth made his third Fast Six of the season, having also made it at St. Petersburg and Barber, the first two races of 2013. His was a bit more controversial, though. That will be hit in a separate post.
With Pagenaud, Wilson and Newgarden making the Fast Six, 20 different drivers have made it in this year at least once.
Takuma Sato cast a big shadow on the world of IndyCar racing last May when he became the first Japanese driver to win the Indianapolis 500.
But there was another shadow of sorts cast along with Sato’s Indy 500 win: he and the prestigious Borg-Warner Trophy, given to each year’s winner of the Greatest Spectacle In Racing, are virtually identical in size.
The Trophy is the same height as Sato, 5 feet, 5 ¾ inches tall. And the respective weight of both the Trophy and Sato are the same: approximately 113 pounds.
Try putting that on a mantle in your house.
That’s why Sato was so happy to receive the Baby Borg Trophy — a miniature version of the Borg-Warner Trophy — Wednesday night in Detroit. It’s much more manageable for the mantle in his house: 18 inches tall and five pounds.
“It’s such an honor to win the Baby Borg finally, eight months after the race, it’s been an unbelievable journey,” Sato told NBC Sports. “It’s an unbelievable feeling to win the 500 and it has just gone on and on. It’s just a significant moment in my life. It’s been fantastic.
“Right now, I haven’t really decided yet (where he’ll put the coveted Baby Borg). It’s going to my home in Indiana right now. But of course, everybody wants to see it. After that, I haven’t decided, but I’m sure it’ll get a special place.”
Even though the Baby Borg is a pint-sized version of the real trophy that was presented to Sato in victory lane in Indianapolis last May, it also has the same meaning as the big trophy and served to get Sato’s excitement pumping to where he’s already counting down the days to the 2018 Indy 500.
And even more important, it will be the first time he returns to Indianapolis as the defending champion.
“(Winning the 500) has changed my life,” Sato told NBC Sports. “But what I do is exactly the same, to try and be as fast as possible when racing.
“But all the environment, the people, all the cheering and being called an Indy 500 champion, I never imagined how deep and how far it goes, just the power and energy that the Indy 500 had.
“I just never realized how much the tradition and the prestigiousness of it. It’s been fantastic and I’m sure when I go back there to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in four months as the defending champion, it’ll be a whole other dimension. I’m sure it’s going to be a whole lot of pressure, but I’m sure to enjoy the moment.”
Sato, who turns 41 on January 28, will return to the 500 this year, but with a new team. He left Andretti Autosport after last season and returned to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, for whom he previously raced for in 2012.
Now that he’s won one Indy 500, Sato wants to make it two in a row.
“It’s a huge, another task and a new dream,” he said. “I’m excited for the new season and to go for another 500 (win), it’s another completely new dimension. Like Michael (Andretti, who he drove for last season) said, obviously, we’ll be competing against each other in the new season, but tonight we celebrated together. I think it’s going to be a real good season for me. I’d love to get another win there, of course.”
But not if Andretti has anything to say about it.
“He’s not allowed to win again,” Andretti laughed while also speaking to NBC Sports.
Sato enjoyed a victory lap of another sort last month when he accompanied the Borg-Warner Trophy to his native Japan for a two-plus week tour of the nation.
It marked the first time in the Trophy’s 82-year existence that it has ever been outside the U.S.
Everywhere Sato and the Trophy went drew large crowds, from Honda Racing “Thanks Day” at the Twin Rings track at Motegi to a visit to Mount Fuji, a meeting with 850 members of Sato’s fan club, and also included a two-day run in the atrium of Honda’s World Headquarters in Tokyo that had fans lined up for hours to see the Trophy and take photos of it and Sato.
“The reaction was just massive,” Sato said. “For myself, it was a dream come true, but at the same time, for a country with that history, it was an unbelievable moment, particularly the first time when Hiro Matsushita did it (drove in the Indy 500 in the 1990s) so many years ago.
“So many Japanese drivers have tried to win such a historic race, I was just so proud to be part of it. The people were really excited. The passion, I’m really particularly happy to bring it to Japan.
“To go to Japan was a massive commitment by from Borg Warner and Honda. So many Japanese fans were able to see it physically and now they’re really looking forward to this year’s Indy 500 again. It was a great moment to us.”