Pagenaud leaves no doubt about IndyCar title challenge with GP of Indy dominance

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To some gathered in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway press room on Saturday following the inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis, Simon Pagenaud’s victory was viewed as a surprise or his championship challenge was viewed as… well… a surprise.

Neither should be. If anything, the only surprise is that Pagenaud hasn’t won more. Or that it took saving fuel to do it, rather than the outright pace he showed all weekend.

He was only outside the top three in qualifying, and there he slotted in fourth after the session ended due to Hunter-Reay’s accident. It was one of the team’s best weekends yet in IndyCar

Overall, the soon-to-be 30-year-old (May 18) has been nothing short of a stud since he entered North America in 2006, winning the Atlantic Championship as a then-unheralded rookie, starring on occasion in Champ Car in 2007 and then making a triumphant return to open-wheel after a sports car dovetail (where he won races and a championship).

As he now sits third in the championship – same as where he finished in 2013 – Pagenaud is only six points out of the series lead and poised to make that next breakthrough to jump ahead of Will Power and Ryan Hunter-Reay, the 2012 title protagonists widely viewed as two of the Verizon IndyCar Series’ best.

If he isn’t already, Pagenaud must be mentioned in the same breath. The Frenchman boasts the rare combination of a cool confidence, excellent setup feedback, detailed technical development, and quick wits and insights that make him a great quote in the media center. Oh yeah, and he doesn’t make mistakes either, so he’s seemingly always in contention on race day.

“I think we are a championship contender,” Pagenaud said post-race. “It’s fair to say that we are where we want to be, fighting for wins. Being consistent in the championship is what gives you championship wins.

“What the team does really well is the people working in the team are very dedicated and very smart,” he added, of his Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports team. “I think the group on the 77 car is very strong. We’re extracting 100% of what we have.”

And that collective unit is into Year 3, as the evolution has come from rookie with no oval experience that still finished top-five in points to his first two wins last year and third in the points.

“We obviously don’t have the high resources of Ganassi and Andretti and Penske, but we’re a very good group of people that have really open communication,” Pagenaud said. “I think it helps a lot in racing.

“We’re just doing everything we can to check off the bad stuff every weekend. This weekend was pretty much a flawless weekend, a perfect weekend for us.”

Nicer still is the fact that for the first time in several years, Pagenaud has a sense of job security within IndyCar. Although this year is the last of his contract with SPM, he’s done enough to where he could stay on beyond 2014 or move onto one of the so-called big three teams.

It says something after the roughly four-year abyss between his open-wheel stints, where despite starring in sports cars and winning the 2010 American Le Mans Series Prototype class championship, he didn’t know if he’d return.

“I used to stress a lot about my racing career. It’s difficult to make it as a race driver,” Pagenaud admitted. “I’ve been stressing up until last year about my job, security. I’m turning 30, so I’ve got another 12 years hopefully in IndyCar, 10 or 12 years.

“I think I’ve shown speed. I’ve shown consistency. Now I have decided this year to relax and just let my driving do the rest. So I enjoy it.”

And as a Frenchman winning at Indianapolis, there’s a nice symbolism to that, as well. Jules Goux and Rene Thomas won back-to-back Indianapolis 500s in 1913 and 1914, so Pagenaud would love to match the latter a century later.

“I’m very proud to be the [third] Frenchman to win in Indianapolis in history and the first to win the Indy Grand Prix,” he said. “It’s incredible to be near the pagoda. I can’t even think what it could be with the Indy 500.”

He’ll get the chance starting today with practice beginning in the No. 77 white and red Lucas Oil car, which shifts liveries after his Charter Communications/Oculus colors depart after the GP of Indy.

Indy Lights: Chad Boat to make Indy Lights debut with Belardi

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Belardi Auto Racing, which currently fields entries for Aaron Telitz, Santi Urrutia, and Shelby Blackstock in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, announced on Tuesday that USAC standout Chad Boat, son of former Verizon IndyCar Series race winner Billy Boat, will make his Indy Lights debut with the Brian Belardi led-outfit. Boat will contest the July 9 race at Iowa Speedway, a track he has previously raced on in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, and will return for the August 26 event at Gateway Motorsports Park.

“We’re extremely pleased to announce the addition of Chad Boat to our stable of drivers for the Iowa and Gateway Indy Lights oval races this summer,” team owner Brian Belardi detailed. “It’s exciting to have a second-generation driver running with us, and we’re certainly looking forward to getting Chad on track in Iowa.”

The younger Boat has become a star in his own right in USAC, winning Rookie of the Year honors in both the USAC National Midget and Sprint car divisions. The 25-year-old will pilot the No. 84 entry, with sponsorship from Pristine Auction.

“I grew up watching my dad race Indy cars, so having the opportunity to run Indy Lights this year is absolutely surreal,” said Boat. “I have to thank Belardi Auto Racing for giving me a shot behind the wheel of the No. 84 Dallara, as well as Pristine Auction for their continued support in my racing career. I can’t wait to get to Iowa Speedway.”

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Mercedes, Ferrari go conservative on Austrian GP tire picks

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Pirelli has confirmed all 20 Formula 1 drivers’ tire picks for next weekend’s Austrian Grand Prix at the Red Bull Ring in Spielberg, with most opting to stack up on ultra-softs.

As it does for every grand prix, Pirelli will bring three compounds to Austria next week, electing for the softest possible combination of ultra-soft, super-soft and soft tires.

In the regular pre-race release of each driver’s tire picks, Pirelli revealed that Force India, McLaren and Red Bull have gone down the most aggressive routes, stacking up on the ultra-soft tire.

Title contenders Mercedes and Ferrari have gone down a more conservative route, favoring additional sets of the super-soft compound.

Ferrari drivers Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen will take seven sets of ultra-softs to Spielberg, while Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas will have eight sets at their disposal through the weekend.

Graham Rahal survives Road America to finish eighth

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Graham Rahal and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing faced a roller coaster of a race during the Kohler Grand Prix at Road America on Sunday.

He was a rocket off the initial start, jumping from sixth on the grid up to fourth exiting turn 1, but was almost immediately ordered to surrender a position for blocking. He quickly slipped back to sixth, and then began plummeting down the order as he battled an oversteer condition that saw his car chew through its rear tires more quickly than others.

Forced to abandon the planned three-stop strategy, he and the No. 15 Gehl Honda team switched to a four-stop plan that saw him drop well outside the top ten at times.

However, they kept plugging away and rebounded nicely in the second half of the race to eventually finish in eighth. While he would have liked to finish higher up the order, Rahal knows that he and the team got everything they could out of it.

“The car was a handful today. I knew about five laps in that I didn’t have the pace for a three-stop strategy,” Rahal revealed post-race. “We tried as best we could to work with what we had during the race and overcome it. I would have obviously liked to have finished better, but eighth is about as good as we could do today. We struggled with a very loose race car all weekend and just couldn’t put a dent in the problem. We worked awfully hard but just missed it this weekend.”

The eighth-place finish keeps Rahal in the championship hunt. Rahal now sits seventh in the standings, 11 points behind fifth-place Josef Newgarden and 72 behind championship leader Scott Dixon.

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Ed Jones continues steady run with seventh at Road America

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Dale Coyne Racing’s Ed Jones has made waves in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season with a string of solid performances that belie his rookie status.

And Sunday’s Kohler Grand Prix at Road America was no different.

The 22-year-old battled an oversteering car most of the weekend at Road America, and had to navigate a little carnage late in the race as Alexander Rossi and Ryan Hunter-Reay both fell through the field with front wing problems.

However, Jones weathered all storms to finish an impressive seventh, his fifth finish inside the top 10 this year, and his best finish since his third place at the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade MotorOil.

“It was a really tough race,” Jones said of the effort. “We had a loose car yesterday. It was loose, but fast, for qualifying, and today again the car was really loose. I was hanging on the whole race, but the team had some good pit stops and we were able to move up.

“Obviously, the strategy was pretty similar to everyone else. Everyone was aggressive out there. It was hard racing but we came out with a seventh place and we moved up a little bit in the points.”

The seventh-place run sees Jones maintain his position in the top ten in the championship. He currently sits tenth in the standings, three points ahead of Chip Ganassi Racing’s Max Chilton.

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