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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.

Hamilton hits back to lead second F1 practice in Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - SEPTEMBER 30: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during practice for the Malaysia Formula One Grand Prix at Sepang Circuit on September 30, 2016 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton responded to the pace shown by Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg during opening practice in Malaysia on Friday morning by topping the afternoon session at Sepang.

Hamilton arrived in Malaysia trailing Rosberg for the first time in the Formula 1 drivers’ championship since the middle of July, the German’s run of three straight wins giving him an eight-point advantage in the standings.

Hamilton finished almost half a second off Rosberg in FP1, but managed to up his pace in second practice to record a fastest time of 1:34.944, enough to finish two-tenths of a second clear of the field.

Rosberg followed his teammate home in second place as Mercedes once again gapped the rest of the pack, pointing towards a significant advantage over one lap in qualifying.

Sebastian Vettel led Ferrari’s charge in third place, finishing 0.6 seconds off Hamilton’s fastest time, but was able to run the Mercedes duo closer during the long-run stints on the soft tire.

Kimi Raikkonen underpinned Vettel’s pace in the second Ferrari, finishing fourth ahead of Red Bull’s Max Verstappen in P5.

Sergio Perez followed in sixth place for Force India ahead of Fernando Alonso, who is set to start from the back of the grid this weekend after making changes to his power unit to accommodate new upgrades from Honda.

Daniel Ricciardo ended the session eighth for Red Bull, while Nico Hulkenberg and Jenson Button rounded out the top 10 positions.

The session saw Kevin Magnussen head back out on track following his firey exit from FP1, the Renault crew producing a rapid turnaround to get the singed R.S.16 car ready to head out midway through FP2. The Dane eventually finished 19th in the classification.

Pla powers to unofficial lap record at Petit Le Mans night practice

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BRASELTON, Ga. – Cooler conditions produced the fastest lap times yet this weekend for the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season finale in night practice, and Olivier Pla kept the No. 60 Michael Shank Racing Ligier JS P2 Honda at the top of the charts.

A 1:13.541 is an unofficial lap record for IMSA (note times were quicker in the American Le Mans Series, but we’re talking post-mergification in 2014 when ALMS and GRAND-AM came under one roof) as Pla dropped the hammer Thursday night in the car he shares with Ozz Negri and John Pew, in Shank’s 250th and last scheduled prototype start. It also gave Shank a Thursday three-practice sweep of the top of the timesheets.

“I’m very happy with the performance today. I love this track, Road Atlanta, and the car has been great from the beginning. We just kept improving the car during each session. All of the changes we made were very positive so thank you to the team for that. I think it’s looking good for the race,” Pla told IMSA Radio.

Other class leaders at night included 2015 IndyCar driver Stefano Coletti, in the third Starworks Motorsport entry in Prototype Challenge, Dirk Mueller in GT Le Mans in the No. 66 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT and Marco Seefried in GT Daytona in the No. 44 Magnus Racing Audi R8 LMS.

Night practice, like the two day sessions that preceded it, was largely uneventful – a welcome departure from last year’s nightmarish day of crashes and rain on Thursday.

A final pre-qualifying practice occurs on Friday before qualifying later Friday afternoon.

Session three times are linked here.

Stefan Johansson’s latest blog: Rosberg’s ascendance, Pagenaud’s title

SOCHI, RUSSIA - MAY 01:  Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP speaks with his team-mate Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP as he celebrates his win on the podium during 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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Stefan Johansson’s latest blog entry previews the forthcoming Formula 1 title battle between Mercedes AMG Petronas teammates Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton, recaps the IndyCar title just won by Simon Pagenaud, and addresses some other topics from both worlds as well.

Per usual, it’s the latest conversation with Jan Tegler live on Johansson’s website, and continues with what we’ve been chronicling throughout the year on NBCSports.com.

On the Rosberg vs. Hamilton title title, Johansson notes that the narratives around the two keep popping up depending on who’s winning and losing on-track.

“Nico really dominated this one, no doubt,” Johansson wrote of Rosberg’s peerless weekend in Singapore. “He had a flawless weekend throughout qualifying and the race and never put a foot wrong.

“But what’s funny is that again some of the pundits are back saying that Lewis is finished because he’s partying too hard, he’s not focused, etc. I say leave the guy alone. What we’re seeing is the normal, natural dynamics over the course of a 21-race season. You’re going to have good and bad races.

“Rosberg was certainly off-the-boil too for a few races mid-season and the pundits were saying he’s not mentally strong enough and this and that. The changing of momentum back and forth is completely normal but I guess some people just don’t have enough to talk about. Because there is effectively only two of them at the moment with a realistic chance of winning and they are so incredibly closely matched all the time it doesn’t take a lot for the momentum to swing one way or the other.”

Johansson also acutely notes how Sebastian Vettel has taken advantage of 2017 Pirelli tire testing to perhaps gain a leg up on the competition next year.

He writes of Vettel and Scuderia Ferrari’s test runs on the newer 2017 rubber, among other things, “What’s more interesting is that Sebastian Vettel has been doing every test lap for Ferrari that has been available. I guarantee you that this will give him an advantage next year. Every time you run a car you gain some level of knowledge. Racing and F1 in particular is no different than any other business in that it relies on human interaction and relationships to get the best results.

“The fact that Pirelli has Vettel doing testing, making every single run he can make will pay off. I’ve done lots of tire testing in the past and it’s absolutely the best way to move things forward for driver or a team performance.”

On Simon Pagenaud’s IndyCar title, Johansson praised the 32-year-old Frenchman who’s come into his own this year:

“Pagenaud ended the season in a pretty impressive way. There’s no doubt that he went to Sonoma to win the race as well as the championship. He did a superb job all weekend and the Penske team definitely has the momentum now. Ganassi had the momentum for several years but it seems to have swung toward Penske now. They also have four very strong cars with any one of them capable of winning any race under right circumstances, Ganassi doesn’t have that at the moment.”

Johansson still said Scott Dixon, the 2015 and four-time champion, put together a barnstorming 2016 campaign – but it was one undone by horrific luck.

“As I’ve said, it’s weird but Scott had his best year for many years in some ways. If everything had gone his way, he could have won three races where he had mechanical failures which are almost unheard of now in IndyCar. But he had engine problems at Detroit, Road America and St. Petersburg. There were also a few strategic errors all adding up to a Championship finish that was his lowest for quite some time. If all that hadn’t happened he would have almost dominated the season.”

There are several more great nuggets within Johansson’s latest blog, which you can view in its entirety here.

Previous linkouts to Johansson’s blog on MotorSportsTalk are linked below:

Additionally, a link to Johansson’s social media channels and #F1TOP3 competition are linked here.

Rosberg leads Mercedes 1-2 in shorter Malaysian first practice

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - SEPTEMBER 30: Nico Rosberg of Germany driving the (6) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during practice for the Malaysia Formula One Grand Prix at Sepang Circuit on September 30, 2016 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Despite a near-20-minute red flag for Kevin Magnussen’s fire in pit lane, the Mercedes AMG Petronas pair needed less time to retain their usual positions on the top of the scoreboard for this weekend’s Malaysian Grand Prix.

Nico Rosberg, who regained the championship lead with his third win in a row two weeks ago in Singapore, topped the timesheets at 1:35.227 on Pirelli’s soft tires, which was 0.494 of a second clear of teammate Lewis Hamilton.

The profile of the Sepang International Circuit has changed this year owing to a resurfacing and the angles and lines to some of the corners are different compared to years past. And the race shifts back to October for the first time since 2000.

Juan Pablo Montoya’s race lap record is 1:34.223 set with Williams in 2004 and pole times in the V10 era were in the 1:33s. On harder tires – Pirelli has brought the three hardest compounds on offer with the soft, medium and hard tires this weekend – and times aren’t far off.

In the 90-minute session, Rosberg did have an off with 15 minutes to go; Hamilton had a monster lockup with about 53 minutes to go and Carlos Sainz Jr. went off course just following the session restart.

Magnussen’s pit fire though was the story of the session. The Dane pitted, then scrambled to exit his Renault when smoke and flames emerged from both the airbox in the engine cowling and then from the engine bay. His crew worked wonders to extinguish the flames.

Behind the Mercedes teammates at the top of the charts, Ferrari’s pair of Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel were next followed by Fernando Alonso’s McLaren in fifth. Red Bull teammates Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen were sixth and seventh, ahead of the Force India teammates Nico Hulkenberg and Sergio Perez. Perez is hoping a resolution on his F1 future will be revealed sooner rather than later.

Romain Grosjean’s struggles with Haas F1 Team continued as he radioed that “something must not be right” with the car after a late off in the session. He was an unlucky 13th.

Further down the order neither Felipe Massa of Williams or Jolyon Palmer in the second Renault were able to eclipse the two Saubers, and languished in 18th and 19th.

Free practice two runs from 2 a.m. ET on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App, via streaming at f1stream.nbcsports.com for participating providers. Leigh Diffey is back in the booth with David Hobbs and Steve Matchett, with Townsend Bell in the pits. Set your DVRs, or brew some coffee.

Times from FP1 are below: