Pagenaud hopes to carry momentum into Houston

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Simon Pagenaud and his Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports team have proven that they’re capable of mixing it up for race wins with the IZOD IndyCar Series’ big boys. But can they take a championship from them?

Pagenaud won the series’ most recent race back in Baltimore, but at 70 points behind IndyCar points leader Helio Castroneves, the driver of the No. 77 HP Honda can’t afford to falter in either of this weekend’s events at the Shell/Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston (Sat., 3 p.m. ET and Sun., 1 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

However, the Frenchman believes he is in good shape to capitalize upon any mistakes from Castroneves or second-place Scott Dixon in the season’s final doubleheader.

“I enjoy my position right now,” Pagenaud said in an INDYCAR teleconference on Wednesday. “I enjoy it because nobody saw us coming. That’s pretty enjoyable…I’m actually excited to be here seen as the underdog. But I really don’t feel like one.

“I feel like I have all my chances. It’s up to me to drive as hard as possible this weekend and score maximum points to catch up on any of them.”

To get himself into this position, Pagenaud has had an impressive second half of 2013 with a win, two podiums, three Top-5s and six Top-10s in his last seven events.

One wonders how much closer he’d be to Castroneves and Dixon in the standings if he didn’t have a mechanical failure in the season opener back in March at St. Petersburg. But at this point of the championship, you can’t dwell on the past but on the present.

And at the present, Pagenaud is one of the hottest drivers in the paddock.

“The beginning of the season was tough, but it helped us as a team to just focus on what was essential,” he said. “We bounced back. Lately, we’ve been the strongest team, strongest combination with the most points scored in the last three [races].

“We just need to keep going. I think we’re going to keep the ball rolling. I’m just very, very excited right now – so excited, anxious to drive, and I’ve got nothing to lose. It’s very simple for me.”

As for Houston specifically, Pagenaud is one of several ex-Champ Car drivers with past experience racing on the 1.7-mile Reliant Park circuit that will be used for this weekend’s events.

However, that experience only consists of a single start in 2007. That race did go well for him as he finished fifth, but Pagenaud isn’t sure how much help his prior knowledge will be.

“It was quite a while ago,” he said. “I remember the track being all concrete and quite bumpy, which should be similar to Baltimore. I’m hopeful that we’re not going to have to change the HP car too much to be fast.

“…There isn’t much testing on a doubleheader. You want to unload and be fast straight away. I really hope that’s going to be the case so we have a good chance to fight back in the championship.”

Position of F1 start lights altered to compensate for safety halo

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — The position of start lights will be altered on Formula One tracks this season, in a bid to ensure the drivers’ line of vision is not impeded by the controversial halo protection device.

The halo is a titanium structure introduced this year in a bid to ramp up driver safety, forming a ring around the cockpit top. It is designed to protect the drivers’ head from loose debris and offer better safety during eventual collisions.

Although drivers largely understand the need for it, very few like it. They are worried it impedes visibility, it looks ugly and also that fans will no longer be able to identify a driver properly from his race helmet. Drivers also take longer to climb in and out of their cars.

Formula One’s governing body has addressed concerns and asked every circuit “to make the lights at a standard height above the track,” FIA race director Charlie Whiting said.

“Pole position seems to be the worst case scenario with the halo,” Whiting added at the season-opening Australian GP. “Maybe the driver can’t quite see the lights, or see only half of them, and he might have to move his head too much.”

The new start lights were positioned lower for Friday’s first two practice sessions at Albert Park. Drivers were also allowed the rare chance to rehearse grid starts at the end of both sessions.

“We haven’t normally allowed practice starts on the grid here because it’s quite a tight timetable,” Whiting said. “What I thought would be a good idea was to give the driver sight of those lights, rather than for the first time on Sunday evening.”

A repeat set of lights has been moved from its usual position halfway up the grid to a more convenient position to the left.

“Those repeat lights were normally halfway up the grid, and they were fitted round about 2009, when the rear wings became higher on the cars,” Whiting said. “But now the wings have been lowered, there’s no need for those halfway up the grid.”