IndyCar

Simon Pagenaud looks to repeat at Phoenix, regain championship

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To paraphrase the late Glen Campbell, by the time Simon Pagenaud gets to Phoenix this weekend, he’ll be dreaming about winning again.

Pagenaud has good reason to think that way: he won last year’s Verizon IndyCar series race at the one-mile oval. And that came after finishing second in IndyCar’s return to the track in 2016 after a 10-year absence.

To say Pagenaud is primed to earn another win – or a podium finish at the very least – is putting it mildly. In this season’s first race on an oval track, the French driver is looking forward to taking the checkered flag once again in the 250-lap sprint.

“I’m very confident going in,” Pagenaud told MotorSportsTalk. “We had a great open test there (in February), our car was behaving really well.

“This is all so new to us because we have this new Indy car. It behaved a lot different than the previous one. It has a lot less downforce and accelerates down the straightaway a lot more, so it’s quite a bit different.

“There’s a lot more to think about when you drive, a lot more adjustments needed, so I think it’s going to be good for the race (the first oval of the season). I’m excited. I think Team Penske has done a great job preparing for these kind of events, so I think we’re in good shape.”

After winning five races en route to the 2016 IndyCar championship, Pagenaud was still very competitive in 2017, but won just twice and finished second to teammate Josef Newgarden by 13 points in the championship battle.

Admittedly, the 2018 season-opening race at St. Petersburg last month was not the new season’s debut the three-car Team Penske operation hoped for.

Newgarden was the highest Team Penske finisher (7th), while Will Power was 10th and Pagenaud was 13th in the 24-car field.

“I know that we may have had a one-off weekend and really, quite frankly, I think it was a one-off,” Pagenaud said. “All three of us had some sort of bad luck at some point in the race, but it didn’t reflect the team performance, but we’ll be back up there very shortly.

“And if not, we’ll work hard and find a way. That’s the way it is at Team Penske. We don’t look back, we only look forward. That’s what I love about this team, that we’re always finding ways (to succeed).

“I know we’ll be fighting for the championship, if not all of us, one of us will be. And I’m hoping it will be me, but right now it’s a matter of cracking the code of the car. We’ll be there soon. It’s like one for all and all for one.”

Pagenaud likes the new-style Indy car for this season, but like several of his peers in the series, he admits he’s still getting used to it.

“It’s quite a bit different,” Pagenaud acknowledged. “It’s the first time since 2012 that the weight has been moved forward that much. The weight has been moved by two percent forward, that’s a lot for us.

“It’s definitely changed completely the characteristics of the car. It’s funny but as a racer, you always think about the next time you’re going to be on-track and how you’re going to drive, what you need to adapt to the car.

“I do think there has to be a little bit of change on the driving style. I wouldn’t say it’s better or worse, for me it’s just an evolution and I have to adapt. It’s what I’m being given, so the goal is to be the best at it and at the moment, I need to improve in it and find ways to do that.”

The overall dynamic at Team Penske is different this season than in years past, as the operation has slimmed down from a four-car team to a three-car team for the first time since 2014.

“I think the biggest difference is Helio (Castroneves) is such a great spirit, he always brings joy, everybody loves him, there’s no trash talk,” Pagenaud said. “He’s just him, everybody knows him and he’s been around the team for almost 20 years. He has big respect.

“He also had a leadership going that we all liked, he was a reference, a benchmark. Now he’s gone, only coming back for the Indy 500. It’s definitely different, but we’ve kept a good atmosphere, have tried to keep it light in the engineering room and to keep that at-ease attitude. To me, he’s an example.”

Pagenaud is in his ninth full season in Indy car racing. Including one season in CART (2007) and eight seasons in IndyCar since 2011, he’s racked up five top-five season finishes in his career, including his championship season in 2016.

He said that 2018 could be the best season of all for both him and the series, given how IndyCar is riding a wave of increased attendance, TV ratings and overall fan popularity and media interest in the sport.

It’s definitely a season he’s looking forward to see how it plays out, both on- and off-track.

“The future is bright, IndyCar is on the rise and I’m excited,” Pagenaud said. “When we were in St. Pete, seeing the crowds and walking through the paddock, having difficulty to get to the driver intro was great, it was phenomenal (he said with a laugh).

“I was really excited. People love the sport, they love the way the cars look right now and we gave them a great show for the first race, and it’s only the first race. I was saying to Mark Miles (President/CEO of Hulman & Company, parent company of IndyCar) the other day that we’re staying true to our value, to what IndyCar is, the fact we like big cars, big horsepower, noise and on-track fights (he said with another laugh).

“And we’re doing that all on the racetrack. I’m just excited to be part of the sport. I’m glad I made the right decision (to come to the series to race) and I’m grateful enough to get a good ride.”

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IndyCar: Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama Recap

Photo: IndyCar
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After two days, with both featuring a lot of rain, the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama is finally in the books for the Verizon IndyCar Series.

With Mother Nature intervening with rain and fury over both days, it’s understandable if there’s a sense of relief that the weekend at Barber Motorsports Park is behind us.

Still, as is usually the case, Barber produced plenty of thrills, and a few spills, across the weekend of racing.

A recap of big stories to emerge from the weekend is below.

Rain Drops Keep Falling on My Head…

Mother Nature was ever present on Sunday and Monday, dropping a lot of rain on Barber Motorsports Park. Photo: IndyCar

Rain races can be very fun and entertaining…if they’re able to run. Sadly, that just wasn’t the case on Sunday.

The undulating and picturesque Barber Motorsports Park is one of the most striking road courses in the country, and often produces some of the best racing anywhere. But, the nature of the track and its dramatic elevation changes can make it susceptible to standing water in heavy rains.

And that’s the exact scenario that played out on Sunday, with heavy and persistent rain hitting the track late in the morning, and hanging around the entire day.

While INDYCAR officials and Barber track crews worked tirelessly on Sunday to disperse the standing water, the rainfall was simply too heavy for them to make any impact.

While very unfortunate, postponing the finish of the race to Monday was the right decision, as several drivers explained.

“It’s tough because we have so many people that come out here to watch us,” said eventual race winner Josef Newgarden following the Sunday postponement. “We want to put on a good race. We want to put on a show. So calling the race, running around behind the pace car not running, it’s tough, it’s tough to do that. But I think it was the right thing in the end. When we started the race, the conditions were OK. You could run at that level of rain. Then, it intensified right before that first caution. I think when the caution came out, it got to a point where it was just too much.”

Graham Rahal echoed Newgarden’s sentiments, also emphasizing poor visibility as a big factor in making the conditions too treacherous.

“It was a tough beginning, but when we kind of got going it was OK and kind of fun to challenge for a while, but visibility was a major issue (on Sunday), no doubt. I’m glad that the series postponed it. I would have like to get it in (on Sunday), but that’s life,” he explained.

Rest assured, Firestone makes a strong rain tire, and IndyCar teams, drivers, and track crews are more than equipped to handle a rain shower from Mother Nature. But, Sunday’s weather was simply too extreme.

Newgarden Shines in the Rain and the Sun

Josef Newgarden in Victory Lane at Barber Motorsports Park. Photo: IndyCar

About the only thing as powerful as Mother Nature during the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama was Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden.

Last year’s IndyCar champion was quickest at the end of Friday’s practices, scored the pole on Saturday, and led all but nine laps across Sunday and Monday.

And his leads were always decisive. He quickly gapped the field when racing started on Sunday, holding down a gap of as much seven seconds over teammate Will Power in the early laps. And on Monday, he gapped the field by as much as 27 seconds during the second half of the race.

Only outside circumstances could have prevented Newgarden from getting to Victory Lane…and that nearly happened. A late rain shower in the final minutes created split strategies across the field, with Newgarden among those opting for rain tires, while Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay and Dale Coyne Racing’s Sebastien Bourdais gambled by staying out on slicks.

Hunter-Reay, however, jumped into the pits soon after for rain tires, a move that helped him eventually finish second, while Coyne and Bourdais gambled that the track would not get wet enough to force them to pit.

Alas, with only a few minutes remaining and the rain getting heavier, conditions became too slick and Bourdais was forced to pit, handing the lead back to Newgarden and dropping Bourdais to fifth.

“More hectic than you would want at the end,” Newgarden quipped when asked about conditions at the end of the race. “It seemed like it was pretty straightforward all day. We weren’t having yellows. It was dry. Then that rain made it very nerve-racking.

Newgarden added that pitting for rain tires, and doing so early, was their best option, even though it opened the door for others to jump ahead.

“I think for us we did the only thing we could,” he said of their strategy. “We went to rains as soon as it intensified. We had to. I think it was the right thing to do, just because we’re in the lead, we have the most to lose by not putting on rains early.”

The victory, Newgarden’s second of 2018, moves him back into the championship lead with 158 points, 13 ahead of Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi.

Misc.

  • Ryan Hunter-Reay enjoyed a solid weekend following a troublesome day at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. The Andretti Autosport driver ranked in the Top 10 through practice, qualified a strong fourth, and ran a very clean race to finish second, his best finish of 2018, and he now sits only three points out of third place in the championship – he is currently sixth, with 113 points.
  • While teammate Robert Wickens has made more headlines, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ James Hinchcliffe is having one of the best early-season efforts of his IndyCar career. With finishes of fourth, sixth, ninth, and second to his name through four races, Hinch sits fifth in the standings on 118 points, and is keeping himself well within reach of the championship lead. A race win would do wonders for his championship standing, but the consistent start puts him in a good position heading into the month of May.
  • Conversely, four-time champion Scott Dixon has yet to finish on the podium in 2018 – his best finish is fourth at ISM Raceway. Still, at seventh in the standings with 107 points, Dixon is within striking distance despite the quiet start.
  • Elsewhere, Will Power and Simon Pagenaud have had comparatively disastrous starts to their seasons. Power has hit the wall in three of the first four races, while Pagenaud only has a best finish of ninth, coincidentally at Barber this weekend, through four races. Power sits tenth in the championship on 81 points, while Pagenaud languishes down in 15th on 66.
  • He made not have made many friends out there, but Zachary Claman De Melo gave viewers some thrills after the Monday restart, pushing his way through the field despite being two laps down. It also created one of the highlights of the race, with he and Spencer Pigot going for a slide through Turns 7 and 8 (video below). For his efforts, Claman De Melo recorded the fastest lap of the race on his way to finishing 19th.

The Verizon IndyCar Series now has two weeks before their next race, the INDYCAR Grand Prix on May 11-12. However, the series will be plenty busy, with testing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway kicking off next week.

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