Pagenaud: More comfortable and confident for second Indy 500 start

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Rookies get all the attention at Indianapolis. And then they become sophomores, where they’re now wiser fools and more grown up.

Simon Pagenaud’s among the crop of second-year drivers at Indy, and the Frenchman’s undoubtedly more comfortable this go-around in the No. 77 HP Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports Honda. For one thing, this race last year wasn’t just his first Indianapolis 500, but also his first oval race – ever.

“We’ve come such a long way since Indy last year,” he explained during the Indy 500 media day on Monday in Milwaukee. “My comfort level is there with the way the racecar feels. Last year the team was very conservative with me and I hit my stride slowly. I wasn’t very comfortable yet.

“But after a few oval races, I saw I got up to the task pretty quick. Now we found a setup exactly right for me. It’s a bit aggressive. It suits me really well.”

One of Pagenaud’s greatest assets is his ability to adapt to changing circumstances quickly. He had the tutelage of veteran Townsend Bell a year ago in the SHM stable, but now has a rookie teammate for the full season in countryman Tristan Vautier, and a last-minute addition with Katherine Legge in a third car for the 500.

The additional efforts in the Schmidt team aren’t a distraction to Pagenaud, as he’s focusing on his setup first and making sure that setup can transfer to his teammates if need be.

“The essential thing is finding a setup that suits me,” he said. “And I guess it must be really good, because we put it on Katherine’s car and she was flat in four laps! It highlights the good job they’ve been doing.

“It’s a bit of a stretch to have three cars, and it’s very different to last year. But the team is well focused on the goals and what we’re doing. I’m working with Ben (Bretzman), Tristan with Allen (McDonald), Katherine with an Indy Lights engineer (Chris Finch). It doesn’t change much, so long as we don’t get distracted.”

Although Honda’s lacked the outright speed compared to Chevrolet thus far this month, Pagenaud isn’t worried because of the projected gains it’s looking to find on Carb Day. Additionally, Pagenaud’s pace is close to the longtime Honda flag-bearer, Target Chip Ganassi Racing, so that’s an additional boost. No pun is intended given the cars will have the turbo boost reduced back to 130 kPa on race day after an increase to 140 kPa, an additional 40 horsepower, for qualifying.

“I think we’re really happy with it. We’re pretty close to the red (Target) cars, so I think that’s a very good indication of how the team has been working,” he said.

“We all hoped we’d be further up the grid but have a great hope for the race! Honda is always very good for long races. You saw Dario won from being last last year after the first stop. As long as the car is good and it is, I feel confident.

“The nice thing about our car, the balance is so nice. We can be fairly aggressive. The trick part about the Indy 500 is to pick the right level of downforce.”

Seasoned IndyCar observers know Pagenaud and the HP’s team’s ability, and a good run on Sunday will go quite a ways to building his stature outside the bubble.

Coyne transitioning from underdog to Indy 500 threat

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For most of the team’s existence, Dale Coyne Racing has been the Chicago Cubs of American Open Wheel Racing – a team whose history was more defined by failures, at times comically so, than success.

The last decade, however, has seen the tide completely change. In 2007, they scored three podium finishes with Bruno Junqueira. In 2009, they won at Watkins Glen with the late Justin Wilson.

The combination won again at Texas Motor Speedway in 2012, and finished sixth in the 2013 Verizon IndyCar Series championship. That same year, Mike Conway took a shock win for them in Race 1 at the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit.

Carlos Huertas scored an upset win for them in Race 1 at the Houston double-header in 2014, and while 2015 and 2016 yielded no wins, Tristan Vautier and Conor Daly gave them several strong runs – Vautier’s best finish was fourth in Race 2 at Detroit, while Daly finished second in Race 1 at Detroit, finished fourth at Watkins Glen, and scored a trio of sixth-place finishes at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, Race 2 at Detroit, and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

And 2017 was set to possibly be the best year the team has ever had. Sebastien Bourdais gave the team a popular win in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and then rookie Ed Jones scored back-to-back top tens – 10th and sixth – at St. Pete and the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach to start his career.

But, things started unraveling at the Indianapolis 500. Bourdais appeared set to be in the Fast Nine Pole Shootout during his first qualifying run – both of his first two laps were above 231 mph –  before his horrifying crash in Turn 2.

While Jones qualified an impressive 11th and finished an even more impressive third, results for the rest of the season became hard to come by – Jones only scored two more Top 10s, with a best result of seventh at Road America.

But, retooled for 2018, the Coyne team is a legitimate threat at the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500.

Bourdais, whose No. 18 Honda features new sponsorship from SealMaster and now ownership partners in Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan, has a win already, again at St. Pete, and sits third in the championship.

And Bourdais may also be Honda’s best hope, given that he was the fastest Honda in qualifying – he’ll start fifth behind Ed Carpenter, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, and Josef Newgarden.

“I think it speaks volumes about their work, their passion and their dedication to this program, Dale (Coyne), Jimmy (Vasser) and Sulli (James Sullivan) and everybody from top to bottom. I can’t thank them enough for the opportunity, for the support,” Bourdais said of the team’s effort.

Rookie Zachary Claman De Melo has been progressing nicely, and his Month of May has been very solid – he finished 12th at the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the IMS Road Course and qualified a strong 13th for the “500.”

“It’s been surreal to be here as rookie. I’m a bit at a loss for words,” Claman De Melo revealed after qualifying. “The fans, driving around this place, being with the team, everything is amazing. I have a great engineer, a great group of experienced mechanics at Dale Coyne Racing.”

While Conor Daly and Pippa Mann struggled in one-off entries, with Mann getting bumped out of the field in Saturday qualifying, Daly’s entry essentially puts three Coyne cars in the race – Daly’s No. 17 United States Air Force Honda is a Dale Coyne car that has been leased to Thom Burns Racing.

Rest assured, the days of Coyne being an “also ran” are long gone, and a Coyne car ending up in Victory Lane at the biggest race of the year would complete the Chicago Cubs analogy – the Cubs won a World Series title in 2016, and an Indy 500 triumph would be the crowning achievement in Coyne’s career.

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