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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.

Folger to make MotoGP debut with Tech3 in 2017

JEREZ DE LA FRONTERA, SPAIN - APRIL 22: Jonas Folger of Germany and Dynavolt Intact GP  rounds the bend during the MotoGp of Spain - Free Practice at Circuito de Jerez on April 22, 2016 in Jerez de la Frontera, Spain.  (Photo by Mirco Lazzari gp/Getty Images)
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Yamaha Tech3 has confirmed that rising German talent Jonas Folger will make his MotoGP debut with the team in 2017, stepping up from Moto2.

Folger, 22, finished sixth in last year’s Moto2 riders’ championship, and already has one pole position and two podiums to his name after four races in 2016.

The Kalex rider will make the jump up to MotoGP for 2017, joining the Yamaha satellite team on a one-year deal with an option for a second.

“I am super excited about the news and I still can’t believe this is happening,” Folger said.

“I have been racing for years in the motorcycling world championship and to make the move up to the premier class is a dream come true plus I’d like to thank all my sponsors that have stuck by me all these years.

“Furthermore, it’s an honor to make this step with Yamaha, Hervé Poncharal and Tech3 team who have such a long and deep history in the paddock. I will try my absolute best to repay the faith the team has put in me, and I’m really looking forward to the new adventure.

“However, I will remain completely focused for the rest of the year in the intermediate class but I can’t wait for Valencia where I will sample the Yamaha YZR-M1 for the first time.”

Folger will get his first taste of the Tech3-run Yamaha bike at the traditional end of season MotoGP test in Spain this November.

Hamilton asks fans to trust and respect Mercedes team

SOCHI, RUSSIA - MAY 01:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP leaves the paddock after the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on May 1, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Three-time Formula 1 world champion Lewis Hamilton has called on his fans to trust and respect the Mercedes team amid unfounded allegations of sabotage in the past two races.

Hamilton suffered an issue on his power unit in qualifying for both the Chinese and Russian Grands Prix, helping teammate Nico Rosberg on his way to a streak of four successive victories to start the season.

Mercedes F1 boss Toto Wolff responded to claims on social media that the team was deliberately hindering Hamilton’s efforts by calling the accusers “lunatics”, before Mercedes itself wrote an open letter to its fans in response to the claims.

Hamilton has now issued a message of his own via his Facebook page on Friday:

Dear All,

I want you to know how grateful I am for all of your support. I’d like to ask that you please trust in my team, as I do. This is my family. These guys have been the greatest, hardest working people for me, and that is why I am now 3x World Champion.

Please don’t put any more thought into my team doing anything unjust towards me, and understand that it would be in no ones best interest for that to be the case. We’ve had the best 3 years together, and whilst it’s not going to plan right now, all will unfold in its own time.

I trust these guys 1000% and my mechanics are incredible, the best in the business. I respect them so please do the same. They are the guys that are going to make winning this championship possible.

Thank you once again.

Hamilton will bid to end Rosberg’s winning streak and get back into the title hunt when F1 arrives in Europe next weekend for the Spanish Grand Prix.

Button confused by Red Bull’s decision to drop Kvyat

SOCHI, RUSSIA - APRIL 30: Jenson Button of Great Britain and McLaren Honda in the garage during final practice ahead of the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 30, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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2009 Formula 1 world champion Jenson Button questioned Red Bull’s decision to drop Daniil Kvyat for Max Verstappen as of the Spanish Grand Prix, saying the team has “short memories”.

Red Bull announced on Thursday that Kvyat would be returning to Toro Rosso, its B-team, as of the next race in Barcelona, with Verstappen moving in the opposite direction.

The decision sparked mixed reactions on social media, with many pointing out that Kvyat had been on the podium just three weeks ago in China.

Button made the exact same point in a couple of tweets sent from his Twitter account on Thursday.

IMS confirms 100th Indy 500 reserved seats are sold out

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Indianapolis Motor Speedway officials have confirmed Friday that the 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil will have a sellout crowd, with confirmation all reserved seats have been sold.

“Every Indianapolis 500 is special, but the buzz surrounding the 100th Running has been building for nearly a year, ever since the checkered flag fell on the 99th,” IMS President J. Douglas Boles said in a release. “Our fans are the best in sports and their incredible support of this year’s race will make it a truly historic day for ‘The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.’”

Further information is linked here, via the IMS website.