With nothing to lose, IndyCar title contender Pagenaud charges into Fontana

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Pre-season, I wrote this was the year Simon Pagenaud was meant to establish himself as a Verizon IndyCar Series title contender from start-to-finish in the 2014 season.

It’s not that his third place in 2013 was unexpected, but it owed more to a second half surge than a consistent run from start-to-finish.

You could say it’s almost mission accomplished for the Frenchman thus far as the driver of the No. 77 Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports Honda still has a shot at the title Saturday night in the MAVTV 500, while driving the MAVTV-backed car.

Still, it’s a long shot.

Pagenaud enters the weekend 81 points behind Team Penske teammates Will Power and Helio Castroneves, and he’d need something close to a miracle to keep Team Penske from claiming its first title in eight years.

A win is his only option, and even then he’d need Power to finish 21st or 22nd in the 22-car field, and Castroneves a more achievable fourth or worse.

But a win on ovals would be the next logical step in Pagenaud’s career, as he’s ascended rapidly in his third season back in the sport since 2012. He was high on confidence after a seventh-place finish, after starting 16th, in Milwaukee two weeks ago.

“When people talk about ovals, they tell you it’s all about momentum and timing,” Pagenaud said at the time. “But until you really get it for yourself, those are just words.

“In sports car racing, you learn all about fighting against other types of cars that are slower than you in various corners. Learning how to navigate around those cars is all about timing and momentum, too.

“Today, I finally made the connection between the two. It was a big step forward for me personally as a driver on ovals.”

It’s not the only step forward he has made in 2014.

His qualifying has been better – an 8.3 average is a three-plus spot gain on his 11.6 mark of a year ago – and he has a 7.2 average finish with only one DNF (Detroit race one).

He’s finished in the top-12 on each of the five oval races so far, so he’s getting there in terms of his oval development. He still has two wins, same as he did a year ago.

And lastly, he hasn’t, outwardly anyway, allowed his free agent status to negatively affect his driving. He remains as committed and focused to the current task at hand as the rest of us ponder what his next move will be.

Pagenaud is in IndyCar’s top tier, no question, and while a championship is still a long shot, he’s done enough this year to give himself a chance going into the finale.

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F1 2017 driver review: Lance Stroll

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Team: Williams

Car No.: 18
Races: 20
Wins: 0
Podiums: 1
Best Finish: P3 (Azerbaijan)
Pole Positions: 0
Fastest Laps: 0
Points: 40
Championship Position: 13th

Lance Stroll’s arrival in Formula 1 at the start of the 2017 was a far from smooth one despite a significant private testing program being undertaken in the months leading up to his grand prix debut.

Even with older hand Felipe Massa at Williams, Stroll looked uneasy behind the wheel of the FW40 car through the opening run of races as he failed to reach the checkered flag in any of his first three starts.

The Canadian was left deflated after his first decent effort in Bahrain was cut short after a clash with Carlos Sainz Jr., calling it his “rock bottom” moment – but things would turn around on home soil.

Stroll produced a stunning fight through the field to take an excellent P9 in Canada, proving his talent seen in Formula 3 the previous year and shushing many of his critics.

Better would follow two weeks later in Baku when Stroll became the youngest rookie in F1 history to score a podium, dodging a crazy race to finish third. It would have been second had he not lost a drag race against Valtteri Bottas to the line.

Stroll’s form then fluctuated greatly. He was sublime on occasion, the best examples being Monza, when he started a remarkable P2 on the grid and ended as the top midfielder in P7, or Mexico where he took a brilliant sixth.

But there were too many weekends he was a little anonymous. Sure, Williams didn’t have the best car this year, but perhaps a little better was expected from Stroll.

2018 will be an even bigger challenge as he looks to the lead the team when a new teammate arrives – and at only 19, it is a lot to handle. Nevertheless, there are positive signs to be found; you just need to look for them a little.

Season High: Taking a shock podium in Baku after dodging chaos in front.

Season Low: A poor opening two races in Australia and China.