Pagenaud primed for full title challenge in year three at SPM

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Simon Pagenaud and the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team have already nailed a few items on their to-do list over the last two years in the IndyCar Series.

Rookie-of-the-year, check. First win, check.

Series title? Could well be a check at the end of August.

The first two years of the Pagenaud and SPM narrative have centered on two things: his return to open-wheel racing after a successful four-year sports car sojourn, and the team as the “plucky underdog” punching above its weight, challenging the established Ganassi/Penske/Andretti “big dogs” with higher budgets.

There’s elements of those two that will probably carry over into 2014, notably on the commercial side without a sponsor for departing primary backer HP yet to be determined. There is interest, though, from multiple companies.

But clearly, Pagenaud and SPM have proven enough on the competition side over the last two years to where it’s not a question of if they’ll be challenging for wins. It’s more a question now of how many wins, and whether Pagenaud will advance those last two positions in the standings to win the 2014 crown.

“That’s the goal, for sure,” Pagenaud said in a phone interview on Monday. “We’ve done so well in the last two years. I think the team has done a tremendous job. We have extracted almost the best of everything we can.”

Pagenaud and the technical team, led by his longtime engineer Ben Bretzman, still acknowledge they have more work to do to continue to improve. The team seeks to understand the tires better and Pagenaud, who is widely acknowledged as one of the best racers in the series, could do better in qualifying. The Frenchman made only one Firestone Fast Six appearance in 2013, although he had three other top-six starts on road and street courses in abnormal qualifying formats.

Then there’s the wild card that Pagenaud and SPM should be able to handle better, at least initially, than the other Honda teams: the manufacturer’s switch to a twin-turbo format. The IndyCar Series mandated the switch for 2014 but Honda planned to make the move anyway. Pagenaud already has had three tests with the new powerplant and is encouraged with the progress.

“The starting point was very exciting, promising; Honda has been tremendous to work on the driveability side,” he explained. “We know the tools we’ll need to use to make the twin turbo easier to drive. The baseline is very competitive.

“The single didn’t have any turbo lag … it behaved like a normally aspirated engine,” he added. “Now, with the twin-turbo, the power comes in differently. We’re just trying to understand how to make it smoother. That’s what we’re working on. Once the engine is fully turned up, we’ll see how it is.”

This year Honda loses Chip Ganassi Racing and gains Andretti Autosport, but SPM was the first team to confirm its plans to return with Honda for 2014. Sam Schmidt and team co-owner Ric Peterson announced that news at Sonoma last August.

There’s another wild card too, in the form of Pagenaud’s second straight rookie teammate, Russian Mikhail Aleshin, who replaces Tristan Vautier. Aleshin was a surprise pick in November after one test, but already has a working relationship with Pagenaud from when they raced together in Europe. As Pagenaud describes, the 26-year-old is a no-nonsense, down-to-business driver.

“He’ll fit in well,” Pagenaud said. “He’s got a lot of experience from Formula Renault and GP2, and he got down to business straightaway. He’s very focused. He doesn’t seem to be very emotional – maybe because of his nationality – but he’s a very cool guy. He’ll be pushing me.”

Pagenaud’s next on-track action will be at the Rolex 24 at Daytona, Jan. 25-26, in an Extreme Speed Motorsports HPD ARX-03b. Pagenaud missed the Roar Before the Rolex 24 test earlier this month but, given his history of racing HPD prototypes, will be up to speed in no time.

His next IndyCar test is an aerodynamic test at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana on Jan. 30. Aleshin will have his first oval test at Homestead-Miami Speedway Jan. 28.

Their collective process of continuing the title push – even this early in the calendar year – builds.

Here’s what drivers said after Sunday’s INDYCAR race was postponed until Monday

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Here’s what several drenched drivers had to say after Sunday’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama was postponed until Monday morning (11:30 a.m. ET, LIVE on NBCSN):

JOSEF NEWGARDEN (No. 1 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet, 2017 Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama winner, 2018 pole winner): “It’s tough because we have so many people that come out here to watch us. We want to put on a good race. We want to put on a show. So calling the race, running around behind the pace car not running, it’s tough, it’s tough to do that. But I think it was the right thing in the end. When we started the race, the conditions were OK. You could run at that level of rain. Then, it intensified right before that first caution. I think when the caution came out, it got to a point where it was just too much. There was too much puddling and pooling of water on every straightaway. Then the rivers started flowing, high-speed compressions in Turns 1 and 2, fast corner, 12 and 13, fast corner where the river starts to form. Just tough. I mean, look, we love racing in the rain. It’s got nothing to do with not wanting to run in the rain, not being able to do that. It’s that this type of track with this water level was too much to race today. We’ve run here in the rain before, but it intensified to the point where you’re starting to get in a situation where it’s going to take it out of the drivers’ hands. What happened with Will (Power), I don’t think is a driver error. I don’t know how anyone is going to drive hydroplaning on the front straightaway. I think you would have had that for the rest of the track, too. A tough situation. Thanks for the fans that came out and supported us. Hopefully we’ll get some people back tomorrow and we’ll get the show in and put on a great event.”

MATHEUS “MATT” LEIST (No. 4 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet):
“Tough day so far. We had some problems with our radio and fuel alarm, but otherwise the car was alright. It was just too dangerous out there, we couldn’t see anything, so I think they made the right call. Hopefully we’ll have a good race tomorrow.”

WILL POWER (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “It’s just a real shame for everyone on the Verizon Chevy team. The car was good and we were doing our best out there, but it was really hard to see anything in front of me. The conditions were just so bad. As soon as I got to the frontstraight, the car just came around, and I tried to keep it off the wall, but it was hydroplaning and there was nothing I could do. I feel bad for the team and for the fans in this weather. Just too bad. Hopefully our luck can turn around when we get to Indianapolis.”

TONY KANAAN (No. 14 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “Very difficult day for us. In the race we were 13th at the time and we had some electrical issues, so that caused us to pit and we lost a lap. Not the ideal situation, but we don’t give up. There’s still a race tomorrow and we’re going to go for the most points. Anything can happen.”

GRAHAM RAHAL (No. 15 Mi-Jack Honda): “It was a tough beginning, but when we kind of got going it was OK and kind of fun to challenge for a while, but visibility was a major issue today, no doubt. I’m glad that the series postponed it. I would have like to get it in today, but that’s life. We will go racing tomorrow.”

ALEXANDER ROSSI (No. 27 Kerauno / MilitaryToMotorsports.com Honda, Verizon IndyCar Series points leader): “I think definitely the right decision was made to red flag the race. It’s a very difficult position for everyone to be in. It’s never the result that you want, but safety is obviously a priority. I think everyone did a good job considering the conditions of looking out for each other. Not being able to see is not doing anybody any good. It is hard for everyone, but glad that we’re all in one piece and try again later.

TAKUMA SATO (No. 30 Mi-Jack / Panasonic Honda): “As you could see on TV, if you couldn’t see the car, it was probably three times worse in the cockpit on the main straight or any straight. You had to completely trust the guys that they were accelerating. Never the less, I made good progress on the short stint and I made up a few positions.  The car was working well, but also was aquaplaning a lot, too, so I have to respect INDYCAR’s decision for everyone’s safety. Now we really need to concentrate on having a good car for tomorrow. I’m sorry for the fans that sat in rain all day, but thank them for their support.”

RENE BINDER (No. 32 Binderholz tiptop timber Chevrolet): “It was a short day. In the beginning the conditions were not that good, but afterwards the conditions started to improve. The race was stopped, then restarted, and I think the conditions were not too bad at that point. Unfortunately, it was red flagged again and then cancelled for the day. It would have been nice to get halfway, but we will come back and try again tomorrow.”