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IndyCar 2017 driver review: Simon Pagenaud

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MotorSportsTalk continues its annual review of the Verizon IndyCar Series drivers that raced in 2017 with this year’s runner-up, Simon Pagenaud. Carrying the No. 1 for the first time in his career, Pagenaud had an excellent encore campaign to his title season of 2016 that in almost any other year would have netted a repeat – but was marginally short at a couple of occasions.

Simon Pagenaud, No. 1 Team Penske Chevrolet

  • 2016: Champion, 5 Wins, 7 Poles, 8 Podiums, 10 Top-5, 12 Top-10, 406 Laps Led, 3.9 Avg. Start, 6.1 Avg. Finish
  • 2017: 2nd Place, 2 Wins, 1 Pole, 6 Podiums, 13 Top-5, 15 Top-10, 187 Laps Led, 8.6 Avg. Start, 5.3 Avg. Finish

Evaluating Simon Pagenaud’s 2017 season is a real challenge. On one hand, Pagenaud turned in a year that, more than 90 percent of the time, should have been enough to defend his title. He completed every single lap of competition, won twice, and was the series leader in top-five and top-10 finishes. Pagenaud was the king of picking up valuable points at nearly every opportunity, and together with longtime engineer Ben Bretzman and strategist Kyle Moyer, executed at nearly every round.

And yet, it was the mere fraction of races when Pagenaud didn’t exert his inner lion from last year that he’ll look back on and realize that was where his title defense was lost, even as he was the best-finishing champion in his championship defense his year since the introduction of the base Dallara DW12 chassis in 2012.

Three occasions stick out in the latter category and it’s any of these three that could have been enough to erase the 13-point gap. At Texas, Pagenaud drove smartly while most of the field lost its head and finished third – but those were 15 points lost to Will Power, who won. At Toronto, Pagenaud was the dominant Penske driver all weekend from his lone pole position of the year, but he and Helio Castroneves got caught out by Tony Kanaan’s incident that brought out a full-course yellow. He ended seventh, which was his fourth worst finish of the year. And of course at Gateway, he left the door open just enough for Josef Newgarden to barge through, and the resultant 25-point swing as he dropped to third shifted a would-have-been 18-point deficit to Newgarden to 43. Alas, the “what if” game is dangerous to play.

Where Pagenaud excelled this year was in overcoming adversity from qualifying struggles, which was the biggest surprise of his season. The absolute qualifying star of 2016 with seven poles, and an eighth inherited when Power was forced out of St. Petersburg, only managed the one pole this year, along with a 4.7-average grid spot drop year on year from 3.9 to 8.6. Only twice was Pagenaud Penske’s top qualifier – at Toronto and Pocono – and he only made four of nine Firestone Fast Six rounds. Some circumstances dropped him back outside his control, namely the opening two street races in St. Petersburg and Long Beach, the latter where he got a penalty for impeding and started stone last. Pagenaud admitted at the end of the season that sustaining pace and setups was a challenge; by trying to improve what was optimal pace from 2016, the No. 1 team actually took a step back performance-wise.

All that said, minor critiques are easy to overlook in a year where Pagenaud represented IndyCar well as defending champion. His personality came out a bit more, namely in the Team Penske “Penske Games” digital series, with his “hula hoop on a regular day” line even becoming a T-shirt. His two wins were statement drives for his career – Phoenix as he finally won an oval and was ebullient about it, and Sonoma after a brilliant strategic effort to win pushing despite making an extra stop. It was a great season all told, if just that fraction off his 2016 title campaign.

Ferrari teammates Vettel and Raikkonen fastest in rainy final practice at Australian GP

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Ferrari drivers Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen went one-two in the final practice session ahead of qualifying at the water-logged Australian Grand Prix on Saturday.

Vettel set a best-lap time of 1 minute, 26.067 seconds, more than 2.4 seconds faster than his teammate in second.

Both Ferrari drivers switched from their intermediate tires to the super-fast, ultra-soft tires for the final few laps of the session, testing conditions on the track after a day-long downpour left it slick and filled with small puddles.

Mercedes drivers Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton did not opt to try out their soft tires, sticking to the intermediates for the entire session. They had the seventh- and eighth-fastest times, after topping the leaderboard in practice in dry conditions on Friday.

The heavy rains subsided by early afternoon, allowing the track to rapidly dry during the third practice session and making conditions safe for drivers to test their soft tires.

Still, only a few drivers completed a timed lap with the softer compounds, with Mercedes, Red Bull and most of the others staying with their intermediates.

Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson had the third-fastest time of the session on ultrasoft tires, followed by Red Bull’s Max Verstappen on intermediates.

Hamilton remains the favorite to capture his fifth straight pole position at the Australian Grand Prix in qualifying later Saturday. He had the fastest laps on ultrasoft tires in the two practice sessions on Friday, though Verstappen was right behind him.

Verstappen and Vettel both slid on the slick track early in the third practice session, but maintained control and completed their runs without incident.

Verstappen’s teammate, Daniel Ricciardo, had the sixth-fastest time of the session. The Australian’s chances of winning his fifth career Grand Prix on his home track in Melbourne took a hit late Friday when he was assessed a three-place grid penalty for Sunday’s race.

The Australian driver was penalized for driving too fast under red-flag conditions during Friday’s second practice session because of debris on the track.