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

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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.

Button to start Monaco GP from pit lane after floor change

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Jenson Button will start his one-off comeback Formula 1 race in Monaco from the pit lane after McLaren opted to change the floor on his car after qualifying.

Button was drafted in by McLaren for the Monaco Grand Prix weekend following Fernando Alonso’s decision to race in the 101st Indianapolis 500, with the Briton previously stepping away from F1 at the end of last year.

Despite having no prior testing heading into the weekend, Button was quick to tame the McLaren-Honda MCL32 car, taking it to ninth place in qualifying.

A 15-place grid penalty for changes to his power unit resigned Button to the back of the grid for the race, prompting McLaren to make setup alterations overnight and favor a pit lane start for Button.

“As the floor is different from the one originally used in qualifying the competitor is required to start from the pit lane,” the FIA race stewards said in a bulletin ahead of the race.

Marcus Ericsson has also been handed a five-place grid penalty for a gearbox change. The Sauber driver’s qualifying position remains unchanged, though, by virtue of finishing 19th.

The Monaco Grand Prix is live on NBC and the NBC Sports app from 7:30am ET on Sunday.

2017 Monaco Grand Prix – Starting Grid

1. Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari
2. Sebastian Vettel Ferrari
3. Valtteri Bottas Mercedes
4. Max Verstappen Red Bull
5. Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull
6. Carlos Sainz Jr. Toro Rosso
7. Sergio Perez Force India
8. Romain Grosjean Haas
9. Daniil Kvyat Toro Rosso
10. Nico Hulkenberg Renault
11. Kevin Magnussen Haas
12. Stoffel Vandoorne McLaren
13. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes
14. Felipe Massa Williams
15. Esteban Ocon Force India
16. Jolyon Palmer Renault
17. Lance Stroll Williams
18. Pascal Wehrlein Sauber
19. Marcus Ericsson Sauber
PL. Jenson Button McLaren

Wolff can see Hamilton finishing F1 career with Mercedes

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Mercedes Formula 1 chief Toto Wolff says he can see three-time world champion Lewis Hamilton completing the rest of his career with the team, something he did not think would happen one year ago.

Hamilton has raced with Mercedes since 2013, claiming two F1 drivers’ titles in that time and the majority of his grand prix victories.

Hamilton is currently in the second of his three-year contract with Mercedes, and will be 33 upon its expiration at the end of next season.

Speaking to the Daily Mail, Wolff said he could see Hamilton remaining at the team “forever”, believing their relationship to be stronger than ever.

“If you would have asked me the same question one year ago, I would not have been very optimistic, but now it is different,” Wolff said.

“I have the feeling that it can’t be much better in a different place, for him and for us.

“This is very strong now, and I am not speaking only about on-track performance because there are going to be difficult moments, but I am speaking about the relationship.

“After five years, this relationship has become so strong in a way that it wasn’t last season. For Lewis it will be important to see whether we are competitive or not.

“But at the moment there is such a solid basis that I can imagine it going on forever.”

Wolff believes there has been a shift for Hamilton in the wake of Nico Rosberg’s departure from the team at the end of 2016 following the German’s world title win.

Hamilton and Rosberg enjoyed a frosty rivalry that saw them clash a number of times on-track, with the latter’s exit helping to ease some of the tension within the team.

“Definitely the biggest positive development I have seen between 2013 and now happened over the winter and after Nico left the team,” Wolff said.

“Drivers are sometimes viewed within teams as contractors and they will always look after their own agenda rather than the team’s interest.

“But Lewis is now in his fifth year with us and that has changed. He has become a part of the team.

“I would not use the world team player because that goes against the DNA of a racing driver, but I think he has realized, acknowledged and respects the whole effort that is happening in the team.

“Somehow it has become natural, he towards the team, and the team towards him. We have built a trustful relationship.”

WATCH LIVE: Monaco GP on NBC, NBC Sports app from 7:30am ET

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Formula 1 hits the streets of Monaco today for one of the most hotly anticipated races of the year – and with the grid shaken-up, we could get a Grand Prix that lives up to the hype.

F1 MONACO GRAND PRIX LIVE STREAM

Kimi Raikkonen sprung a surprise on the F1 paddock by charging to his first pole in almost nine years, ending a drought that dated back to the French Grand Prix in 2008.

The Finn will head up the second all-Ferrari front row in the space of three races, with drivers’ championship leader Sebastian Vettel sitting second.

Vettel’s chief title rival, Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton, starts all the way back in 13th after a woeful qualifying that saw his car setup problems cost him dearly.

Valtteri Bottas gave Mercedes some cheer by running to third on the grid, with the Red Bull duo of Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo starting fourth and fifth.

You can see a full run-down of what to watch for in today’s race in our Sunday preview.

You can watch the Monaco Grand Prix live on NBC and the NBC Sports app from 7:30am ET. CLICK HERE for NBC live stream.

F1 Countdown begins at 7am ET on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app, and runs until the NBC coverage begins. CLICK HERE for NBCSN live stream.

You can also try out a new ‘Mosaic View’ for the race that includes the race simulcast, in-car cameras, driver tracker and pit lane cam. CLICK HERE to watch the Mosaic View live stream.

Leigh Diffey, David Hobbs and Steve Matchett will be on the call on the ground in Monaco, with pit reporter Will Buxton providing updates and interviews throughout the race.

Also be sure to follow the @F1onNBCSports Twitter account for live updates throughout the race.

Ferrari F1 drivers Raikkonen, Vettel free to race in Monaco

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Ferrari Formula 1 drivers Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel will be free to race and fight each other for victory in Sunday’s Monaco Grand Prix following their front row lock-out in qualifying.

Raikkonen stormed to his first F1 pole since the 2008 French Grand Prix on Saturday afternoon, edging out Vettel by just 0.043 seconds in the final stage of qualifying.

The result came at a time when Raikkonen has faced criticism for failing to match Vettel for pace through the opening five rounds of the season.

While Vettel has two wins and three second-place finishes to his name, Raikkonen has finished on the podium just once, and is yet to finish ahead of his teammate.

Vettel currently leads the F1 drivers’ championship ahead of Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton, who starts 13th in Monaco after a disastrous qualifying session on Saturday.

While Ferrari has history in throwing its support behind one driver for the championship early in a season, both Raikkonen and Vettel stressed there would be no team orders in play in Monaco, leaving the pair free to fight so long as it is clean and fair.

“We know what we are doing, we are racing for the team and, you know, we have certain rules and respect against each other,” Raikkonen said.

“We are allowed to fight but obviously, we have to do it as clean as we can and not take each other out.

“I don’t know why people expect that it is something different tomorrow than it’s been the last two years.

“Nothing has changed. Just try to make a stupid story out of nothing.”

Vettel added: “I think we have done enough races so we know what to do normally in the first corner. We’re here to race, we’re here to race each other.

“The start is important here, the first corner is important, the race is important! The start is the beginning of the race, but not the end so we’ll see.

“We know that pole is important in Monaco, so we’ll see what happens.”

The Monaco Grand Prix is live on NBC and the NBC Sports app from 7:30am ET, with F1 Countdown starting at 7am ET on NBCSN.