Post-Baltimore, a look at Pagenaud’s win, second season, and title prospects

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I have to apologize in advance for the lateness of this post. There was so much controversy and drama in the aftermath of IndyCar’s Grand Prix of Baltimore presented by SRT, and so many other surprises in the top five, that I didn’t do a proper look at winner Simon Pagenaud’s race, and for that matter, a detailed look at his 2013 season.

That’s an oversight that needs to be corrected.

For years, Pagenaud has been IndyCar’s star-in-waiting, a driver destined for greatness and championship contention if he hit the right opportunity with the right team. He’s coming close, now, with HP Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports in the No. 77 Honda and engineer Ben Bretzman.

As his second full season in the IZOD IndyCar Series nears a close (third overall, counting his 2007 Champ Car rookie campaign), now’s a good time to do an analysis of how the Frenchman occasionally known as “Jean Girard” has emerged as a title sleeper for the last three races.

OVERALL

  • 2012: 15 starts, 4 podiums, 6 top-fives, 9 top-10s, 63 laps led, 1 DNF, 11.2 qualifying average, 3 Firestone Fast Six appearances, 5th in points
  • 2013: 16 starts, 2 wins, 3 podiums, 4 top-fives, 11 top-10s, 39 laps led, 1 DNF, 12.5 qualifying average, 1 Firestone Fast Six appearance, 3rd in points

On a purely statistical breakdown, those numbers in year two fail to measure up to year one. But I’d expect with three races remaining he can eclipse his first-year stats because the Schmidt team appears to be hitting its stride from an engineering side in the last part of the season. Pagenaud called Baltimore the best combined weekend of the year between himself and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports rookie teammate, Tristan Vautier.

“This weekend I think was probably our best weekend as a race team with two cars,” Pagenaud said right after Baltimore. “Allen (McDonald) was very experienced on Tristan’s car and Tristan was very fast straightaway here. So we started with same setup. We went different directions. One direction was better. We kept going in that direction and we improved both cars at the same time.”

More than outright pace, Pagenaud’s consistency and lack of mistakes has served him best in the first two years. Save for points leader Helio Castroneves, Pagenaud has secured the best finishing record with 15 of 16 races this year in the top-13; he’s always maximizing his result on days his car might not have the measure of a Ganassi, a Penske or an Andretti. And with two wins in the most chaotic races of the year, he’s seized the opportunity when it’s come to him.

Where they’re not quite there yet is qualifying. Entering Baltimore, Pagenaud, shockingly to my eyes, had not made a Fast Six appearance yet this year. He had only the 12th-best qualifying average of full-time drivers. With that now in the bank, and Pagenaud as one of only a handful of drivers with Houston experience (he raced there in both Formula Atlantic and Champ Car), I’d expect the No. 77 car in the top-five there all weekend.

OVALS

  • 2012: 5 starts, 1 top-five, 2 top-10s, 16.8 qualifying average
  • 2013: 5 starts, 3 top-10s, 13.8 qualifying average

Pagenaud ranks third in road and street course points (311 to Scott Dixon’s 326 and Helio Castroneves’ 315) and a respectable ninth in oval points with 120 in only his second year ever racing ovals. Come the 500-mile finale in Fontana, Pagenaud is a sleeper for success as he’ll now have three 500-mile races under his belt and knows how to pace himself from his endurance racing background.

Qualifying on ovals isn’t imperative, but Pagenaud has improved on these disciplines this year. He’s also one of six drivers getting some laps in at a Firestone tire test on Tuesday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway; IMS and Fontana’s Auto Club Speedway are far from identical layouts but additional track time never hurts.

BALTIMORE

source: Getty Images
Simon Pagenaud leads Justin Wilson – Getty Images

Simply, Pagenaud kept his head while others around him wilted. It was a controlled race with opportunistic moves at the right time.

Pagenaud’s Lap 69 will go down in history as one of the race laps of the year, if not the last several years. It began with a perfectly-timed maneuver on Marco Andretti into Turn 1, followed by holding off Andretti’s repass attempt in Turn 3, and then an excellent level of gamesmanship in forcing countryman to Sebastien Bourdais at the outside of Turn 8.

“I’m not going to open the door. I’m going for a race win. I need this for the championship,” he said about the Bourdais battle. “But always clean; I want to always say, he’s a good friend, he’s very clean, and we both race and we both race for different teams and when it’s time to go for the win, you go for the win.”

CAN HE WIN THE TITLE?

Pagenaud is 70 points back of Castroneves and, like fellow Honda driver Dixon, in a spot where he has absolutely nothing to lose over the last three races. But like Dixon, he needs Castroneves to fail to finish one if not both races at Houston to have a realistic chance.

Closing that number of points can be done, though. Dixon’s three-race win streak earlier this year from Pocono to Toronto vaulted him from 92 back of Castroneves to just 29 back (332-240 after Iowa to 425-396 after Toronto 2), a gain of 63 points. And that was with Castroneves finishing in the top-10 in all three races.

Add a sprinkle of bad luck for the Team Penske driver and it could well be a three-horse race for the 2013 IndyCar title, yet.

IMSA: Porsche doubles up at Lime Rock Park

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Porsche has enjoyed a perfect day in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship’s first GT class-only race of the year, with a GT Le Mans and GT Daytona sweep between its two 911 variants at the Northeast Grand Prix at Lime Rock Park.

The new mid-engined Porsche 911 RSR has claimed its first global victory since its debut at the Rolex 24 at Daytona this year, following through on a run of poles in both IMSA and the FIA World Endurance Championship over the last month.

Dirk Werner, who claimed the new Porsche’s first pole at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park last time out, now has the car’s first win and shared it with 2015 GTLM class champion Patrick Pilet. The pair shared the No. 911 car.

That led a 1-2 in class, with the polesitting Gianmaria Bruni falling to second behind the sister car in the No. 912 car he shared with Laurens Vanthoor.

Porsche’s last GTLM win was also a 1-2, set last September at Circuit of The Americas and with the No. 912 car ahead of the No. 911 car that race.

The No. 67 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT pitted from third place for a splash of fuel with just over five minutes remaining in the race, costing Richard Westbrook and Ryan Briscoe a podium finish. That dropped it behind an intense battle between the No. 24 BMW Team RLL BMW M6 GTLM and No. 3 Corvette C7.R, which had been for fourth but got promoted to third as a result of the Ford’s pit stop. The No. 67 Ford fell to fifth.

Martin Tomczyk in the BMW he shared with John Edwards held off Antonio Garcia in the Corvette, who shared that car with Jan Magnussen.

Meanwhile to complete the banner day for Porsche, the No. 73 Park Place Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R took its first win with the 991-spec GT3 variant of Porsche’s models. It’s the team’s first win since the 2015 Petit Le Mans season finale, when Spencer Pumpelly, Patrick Lindsey and Madison Snow shared the car.

Lindsey and Joerg Bergmeister took the victory in GT Daytona, Bergmeister adding to his impeccable run of form at Lime Rock Park with his seventh win at the track. Bergmeister and Thomas Blam achieved a wealth of success with Flying Lizard Motorsports at Lime Rock and Blam, Park Place’s race strategist, now has helped deliver another win for the pair. It also comes following an earlier incident in practice this weekend, and a rebuild of the car by the Park Place crew.

Incidentally, Snow was the one who posed the biggest threat to the No. 73 car this race on this occasion. The veteran youngster – if a 21-year-old can be called a veteran – took the pole in the No. 48 Paul Miller Racing Lamborghini Huracán GT3 and led early and handed off to Bryan Sellers. Continuing the sort-of-Flying Lizard theme, Sellers drives for K-PAX Racing in Pirelli World Challenge and that team features a technical partnership with the Lizards.

Bergmeister’s longtime co-driver Patrick Long, another past Flying Lizard driver, then finished third in class in a one-off drive with Canadian Daniel Morad. The pair brought the No. 28 Alegra Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R, the Rolex 24 at Daytona class winner, home in third for the car’s first podium finish since the Rolex 24 win.

The No. 57 Stevenson Motorsports Audi R8 LMS, which won at CTMP, was fourth while the No. 93 Michael Shank Racing Acura NSX GT3’s podium run ended in fifth, but in a strong fight back drive from Andy Lally after Katherine Legge was involved in a couple of incidents in her stint – contact with both the No. 16 Change Racing Lamborghini Huracán GT3 and No. 75 SunEnergy1 Racing Mercedes-AMG GT3.

Lally held off points leader Alessandro Balzan in the No. 63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 GT3, the car he shared with Christina Nielsen, while these two’s podium streak also came to an end after six consecutive races.

Busch’s historic Indy chase includes hope for 500-600 double

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Indianapolis is quickly becoming Kyle Busch’s favorite racing venue.

Ten years ago, he met his future wife, Samantha, at the 2.5-mile oval.

Last year, he pulled off a rare sweep by winning both poles and both races on Brickyard 400 weekend. It’s the last time Busch celebrated a Cup win and now that he’s back at the historic 2.5-mile oval, he doesn’t want to wait until next September to make a return trip. He’d like to add a May stop to his already full 2018 schedule ad attempt the fabled double bill of the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600.

“I had it (a deal) done last year, sold it and everything,” Busch said when asked about competing in the Indy 500. “I had a boss that said no.”

Busch, the 2015 Cup champion and two-time defending Brickyard champ, hasn’t given up on his dream; he’s just putting it on hold temporarily this weekend as he chases history and tries to end a 12-month victory drought.

He couldn’t have picked a better place to come. Over the past two years, Busch has been the most dominant stock-car driver at Indy.

The two-time defending Brickyard champion has led 168 of the last 189 laps here, including a record 149 out of 170 last year when he won from the pole. He also won the 2015 and 2016 Xfinity Series races from the pole, giving him four consecutive wins at Indianapolis.

When the track opened for Xfinity practice Friday, Busch’s car was near the top again – even with restrictor-plate motors.

Busch still had the third-fastest car in the first two practice sessions, turning a fast lap of 166.162 mph as overcast skies cooled the track. The Xfinity qualifications and race will be held Saturday, the same day Busch and the other Cup drivers also will take their first laps.

Even as Busch talks about winning an unprecedented third straight Brickyard, the thrill of taking a shot in IndyCar’s marquee race – and trying the 1,100-mile Memorial Day weekend double – remains a major attraction for the 32-year-old driver.

“I thought I had a great opportunity to do it (in May), but I’m kind of glad it didn’t come together because (Fernando) Alonso kind of stole the headlines the last time it was done,” Busch said. “It would be fun. It would be a unique opportunity. The thing that scares my boss is that I’ve never driven those cars.”

If he goes for it, Busch would start the day in Indianapolis for the 500 then fly to Charlotte, North Carolina, for the 600-mile Cup race. His brother, Kurt Busch, tried that in 2014 and finished sixth at the Indy 500 before a blown engine knocked him out of the NASCAR nightcap.

It would be the first time brothers have attempted the marathon.

Alonso had never driven an IndyCar or even on an oval before May. Yet the two-time Formula One champ spent most of May’s race in contention before a blown engine knocked him out with 20 laps to go.

Busch thinks his experience – and success – at the Brickyard would make him just as competitive.

In 12 Indy starts, Busch has 10 top-10 finishes. He is one of four Cup drivers with at least two Brickyard titles and last year joined seven-time Cup champ Jimmie Johnson as the only back-to-back race winners. Johnson won in 2008 and 2009.

Somehow Busch has fought through the sweltering mid-summer temperatures and found the secret to winning on this narrow, low-banked oval where passing is tough.

Busch’s success puts him in rare company.

The only driver in track history to win four straight races at Indy is Michael Schumacher, the former Formula One superstar who won each U.S. Grand Prix from 2003-06 on the speedway’s road course. Nobody else has captured three consecutive major race titles at Indy, and if Busch extends his winning streak to five on Saturday, it would break Schumacher’s record.

A win Sunday would also give Toyota its 100th Cup victory, assure Busch of a spot in NASCAR’s playoff and give Joe Gibbs Racing its second win in two weeks after starting the season 0 for 17.

“It’s pretty cool to come in here and have a chance to go for three in a row,” Busch said. “But it’s frustrating that it’s been 365 days since we’ve won one of these things.”

And he would rather not have to wait even longer to give Indy a shot next season.

“I’m good,” he said when asked if he’d trade his Brickyard wins for an Indy 500 crown. “I’d just like to have a shot to go and earn it myself.”

Stroll: Baku F1 podium ‘proves I can be here’

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Lance Stroll is pleased to have answered his critics with his recent Formula 1 displays, believing his podium finish in the Azerbaijan Grand Prix proves he deserves his place on the grid.

Stroll, 18, stepped up to F1 from Formula 3 with Williams for 2017, aided by financial support from his billionaire father, Lawrence.

Stroll had a rough start to life in F1, failing to finish any of his first three races or score points until the seventh race of the year in Canada.

This kick-started a three-race run in the points for Stroll, the highlight being a charge to third place in Baku after rising through the order in a frenetic race.

Speaking to the official F1 website, Stroll said the timing of his points finish in Canada was of little consideration to him, having always had confidence in his own ability.

“If it comes earlier or later, you almost cannot influence it. But I knew that I was capable of doing results so I wasn’t panicking,” Stroll said.

“I knew that it was all a matter of time. But to really do it in Canada, that was great. A great day, the home race.

“It is much more about other things [than confidence]: me improving the way I drive or me working with the team. We have changed a lot on the car since Baku and that helped me a lot in my performance.”

The result saw Stroll become the second-youngest podium finisher in F1 history, only trailing Max Verstappen and sitting ahead of the likes of Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel.

“It proves that I can be here!” Stroll said. “I did it with a Williams, not a Mercedes!”

Wehrlein not concerned that Sauber performances are overlooked

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Sauber Formula 1 driver Pascal Wehrlein has no concerns that his performances for the backmarker team are being overlooked as he bids to secure a seat further up the grid in the near future.

Wehrlein is part of Mercedes’ junior program, and was an option for the championship-winning marque for 2017 following Nico Rosberg’s shock retirement.

Mercedes eventually signed Valtteri Bottas from Williams, placing Wehrlein at Sauber after his 2016 team, Manor, folded during the off-season.

Wehrlein has led Sauber’s charge through 2017, taking eighth place at the Spanish Grand Prix despite racing in a car lacking upgrades and with a year-old engine.

While a career haul of just six points may seem paltry, Wehrlein is comforted by the fact he has lacked the car with which to fare much better.

“My target is to one day be in a team where I can win races, get on the podium regularly and fight for championships,” Wehrlein told the official F1 website.

“Right now I don’t have these tools to make it happen. The weekends where we score points are very, very special for us because we don’t have the car to finish in the top ten often, only if the stars are in the right place!

“And then we have to take the opportunity and bag the points. I am very happy that when the chance was there I was able to grab it. I want to be there when it counts.

“I think it gets noticed that I have scored points in cars that under normal circumstances don’t score points. I don’t worry about that.”

Bottas has flourished since joining Mercedes, taking two race wins and becoming an unexpected contender in the title race alongside teammate Lewis Hamilton and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel.

When asked if he was worried about Bottas’ success, Wehrlein said: “No, because I cannot influence such a decision.

“Worrying about things that you cannot influence is wasting your time and wasting your strength and efforts.

“Yes, Valtteri is doing a good job and he deserves it.”