IndyCar: Pagenaud has to weigh his options carefully for 2015 and beyond

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As the marquee free agent in the Verizon IndyCar Series for 2015, Frenchman Simon Pagenaud has to weigh his options carefully for next year, all while maintaining focus on his current championship charge in 2014.

Pagenaud will be at the end of his three-year contract with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports at the end of the year. The team has improved by leaps and bounds over this period.

Led by team manager Rob Edwards, with engineer Ben Bretzman, Pagenaud has thrived first as a rookie-in-name-only during the 2012 season as the only car on a single car team. There were several podiums, season rookie-of-the-year honors and fifth place in the points.

Come 2013, Pagenaud made it up to third in points and bagged his first two wins and the team expanded to two cars with Indy Lights champion Tristan Vautier advancing. But Vautier, despite occasional flashes of promise, generally struggled and the chemistry with Pagenaud was nearly nonexistent as the year went on.

The call to bring in Russian rookie Mikhail Aleshin alongside for 2014 came slightly out of left field, but Aleshin has been one of the pleasant surprises of the year thus far. According to Edwards, in a blog written by veteran motorsports journalist Gordon Kirby, the chemistry is much improved this year as Pagenaud and Aleshin have clicked much better.

“This year Mikhail is on the same learning curve on ovals,” Edwards said. “But the chemistry between Simon and him is really strong and Simon has helped him with that as someone who’s been through it recently. Also, I think we understand how to bring someone through that in an Indy car on an oval having gone through that learning curve recently with Simon. Mikhail has showed he’s a fast driver. His goal this year is to show consistency and to learn ovals.”

Edwards praises Pagenaud’s leadership.

“Simon does a very good job of getting the team around him. When we do well, we do well together, and when we struggle, we struggle together. He’s in the middle of it, working to figure out how to sort it out. He’s very meticulous, very detail-oriented.”

And leadership is a word that should not be taken lightly when it comes to Pagenaud’s future beyond this year.

If Pagenaud was to shift to Andretti Autosport – as is possible given certain rumors – he’d be at direct loggerheads with Andretti’s generally accepted team leader, Ryan Hunter-Reay.

Generally, a team can only have one alpha dog, and the thing that has brought Andretti Autosport back from the doldrums of 2008 through 2010 more than anything has been the chemistry between drivers Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and James Hinchcliffe and their respective crews.

As a fifth entry, Pagenaud would enhance what’s already a quality operation, but he’d definitely upset the status quo. As a fourth – possibly replacing Hinchcliffe, who’s only on a one-year deal for 2014 with a team option for 2015 – he’d be an upgrade over the popular, quick but inconsistent “Hinch.”

The decision could also come down to which team Honda prefers Pagenaud race with. Pagenaud’s history with Honda/Acura is well documented and with Chip Ganassi Racing having switched from Honda to Chevrolet this year, Andretti Autosport has become the “de facto” lead Honda squad. Meanwhile Pagenaud is viewed by many in the IndyCar paddock as Honda’s lead driver.

For competitive balance in the series, Pagenaud at SPM is better than one of the three established “power teams” gaining another superstar. And while Andretti, Hinchcliffe and Carlos Munoz are all very, very good shoes, Pagenaud is a cut above all three of them at the moment. He’s not quite on par with Hunter-Reay, but he’s damn close.

That said, a Pagenaud switch could open the door at SPM for another talented veteran currently stuck in the midpack – think a Justin Wilson type if he was to become available.

As it is, Pagenaud will have to strike the delicate balance for the rest of 2014 between figuring out his own future and trying to hunt down the Team Penske trio – and Hunter-Reay – for the IndyCar title. He currently sits fourth in points, 50 behind points leader Helio Castroneves, heading to Toronto next weekend.

Vettel ‘not looking for excuses’ after P4 in Baku qualifying

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Sebastian Vettel will start fourth for Sunday’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix (9 a.m. ET, NBCSN) with a thus far off the boil weekend for Scuderia Ferrari.

Vettel, who leads the Formula 1 championship by 12 points over Lewis Hamilton heading into Sunday’s race at the Baku City Circuit, had a pre-qualifying engine change and didn’t appear to have the pace of the Mercedes AMG Petronas pair this session.

But for Vettel, he didn’t seem too worried about the lack of pace today or the potential race pace differential between Ferrari and Mercedes on Sunday.

“I don’t want to look for excuses. We were not quick enough,” Vettel told NBCSN’s Will Buxton after qualifying.

“The gap to Mercedes was bigger than anyone expected. Us and Red Bull looked a good match all weekend.

“Overall they felt a little more confident and they found a bit more in the car. I wouldn’t worry too much. It’s not ideal. But the pace should be good for tomorrow’s race.”

Asked whether Mercedes’ pace was too much, Vettel replied, “Today they did, but not tomorrow!”

Vettel was second this race last year and is keen to go one step higher on Sunday. Although from fourth, he’ll have to get past the Finnish pair and proverbial sparring partners Valtteri Bottas and Kimi Raikkonen to do so. Hamilton has the pole.

“Well, we start P4 – so if we improve by one that’s a podium,” Vettel deadpanned.

“Mercedes will be quick tomorrow, but I have no doubt we can be a match. Let’s see what we can do tomorrow.”

Hamilton: Baku F1 pole ‘one of the most exciting laps’ of the year

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Lewis Hamilton believes that his charge to Formula 1 pole in Azerbaijan on Saturday was “one of the most exciting laps” of the season as he headed up a front-row lock-out for Mercedes.

Hamilton bounced back from a mistake on his first Q3 run to take P1 by four-tenths of a second, moving clear of Ayrton Senna to sit second on the all-time record list with 66 pole positions to his name.

Hamilton struggled throughout the Baku weekend in 2016, and despite coming under pressure to overhaul Mercedes teammate and provisional pole-sitter Valtteri Bottas, the Briton was able to charge it into a stunning final lap.

“That was one of the most exciting laps I’ve had all year,” Hamilton said in parc ferme after qualifying.

“A lot of pressure obviously. The first lap I had the time but made a mistake in the last corner. We’d been struggling to get temps in the tires.

“It was all or nothing. The lap got better and better. I knew Valtteri ahead was on good lap. I came from last corner, saying: ‘Please be enough!’ I’m ecstatic!”

Hamilton made no secret of how much the result and lap meant to him, but he is still anticipating a tough race in Baku given the challenging nature of the high-speed street circuit.

“As I said, I’m so pumped with that. That’s how qualifying should be,” Hamilton said.

“I’m so thankful to put a lap together like that.

“Tomorrow will be a long hard race but today is in the best position to start.”

Hamilton dominates Azerbaijan F1 qualifying for 66th career pole

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Lewis Hamilton moved clear of racing hero Ayrton Senna in the all-time pole position record list by taking the 66th of his Formula 1 career in qualifying for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix on Saturday in Baku.

Hamilton banished the difficulties of his 2016 race in Baku to break the existing pole record time with a lap of 1:40.593, giving him pole by four-tenths of a second ahead of Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas.

Despite clipping the barrier at Turn 8 with his right-rear tire, Bottas was able to lay down the initial benchmark in Q3, with his lap of 1:31.274 being one-tenth of a second faster than Hamilton’s best effort after the Briton ran wide in the final sector.

Hamilton began to work up a faster lap time, only for his charge to be halted by red flags with three minutes to go in the session when Daniel Ricciardo clipped the wall at Turn 6, sustaining a puncture in the process.

The stoppage left drivers with just three minutes to get back out on-track and get their tires up to temperature, with Hamilton managing to tame his Pirelli super-softs better than the rest.

Kimi Raikkonen led Ferrari’s charge in third place, but was a distant 1.1 seconds off Hamilton at the top. Teammate and F1 championship leader Sebastian Vettel was fourth ahead of Red Bull’s Max Verstappen.

Force India’s impressive form of late continued as Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon qualified sixth and seventh respectively, while Lance Stroll took eighth for Williams, outqualifying teammate Felipe Massa for the first time. Ricciardo rounded out the top 10 after his shunt.

Toro Rosso suffered a double drop-out in Q2 as Daniil Kvyat and Carlos Sainz Jr. struggled for straight-line speed, qualifying 11th and 12th respectively ahead of Haas driver Kevin Magnussen.

Nico Hulkenberg finished 14th for Renault, while Pascal Wehrlein led Sauber through to Q2 in P15 despite the current state of flux at the team following CEO Monisha Kaltenborn’s exit.

Already facing a combined grid drop of 75-places, McLaren-Honda drivers Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne’s struggles continued as they were both eliminated in Q1, finishing 16th and 19th respectively as they failed to make up for the power deficit of the Honda engine.

While Haas got one car through to Q2 after a late lap from Magnussen, teammate Romain Grosjean’s struggles under braking continued as he ailed to P17 ahead of Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson.

Jolyon Palmer propped up the timesheets in P20 after failing to get out in qualifying due to the engine fire that sidelined him in final practice.

The Azerbaijan Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 8am ET on Sunday.

Herta on pole for second Indy Lights race at Road America

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – Colton Herta rebounded from a tough Friday dogged by persistent mechanical issues where he was barely on track, and a 13th place start for race one, to take the pole for Sunday’s race two (9 a.m. ET online on IndyCar.com; 11:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN) for the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires at Road America.

The 17-year-old excelled in the cooler conditions this morning for qualifying in his No. 98 Andretti/Steinbrenner Racing Dallara IL-15 Mazda to post a time of 1:52.0034 for the top spot at the 4.014-mile circuit. He’ll start only 13th for today’s first race.

Freedom 100 winner Matheus Leist, who enjoyed his maiden IndyCar test here last week with Andretti-Herta Autosport, was back in his Carlin car and is second on the grid, just 0.0223 of a second off Herta’s time.

For Sunday, points leader Kyle Kaiser made it three teams in the top three for Juncos Racing, with Zachary Claman De Melo and Santiago Urrutia completing the top five on the grid.

Americans Neil Alberico and Aaron Telitz are sixth and seventh with Nico Jamin in eighth.

Leist’s pole time for today’s first race was 1:53.1760 with qualifying in warmer conditions, set yesterday afternoon.

Leist, Alberico and Ryan Norman will lead the field to green, which comes online today at noon CT and local time, 1 p.m. ET, online at IndyCar.com.

Weekend results are linked here.