Pagenaud primed for full title challenge in year three at SPM

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Simon Pagenaud and the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team have already nailed a few items on their to-do list over the last two years in the IndyCar Series.

Rookie-of-the-year, check. First win, check.

Series title? Could well be a check at the end of August.

The first two years of the Pagenaud and SPM narrative have centered on two things: his return to open-wheel racing after a successful four-year sports car sojourn, and the team as the “plucky underdog” punching above its weight, challenging the established Ganassi/Penske/Andretti “big dogs” with higher budgets.

There’s elements of those two that will probably carry over into 2014, notably on the commercial side without a sponsor for departing primary backer HP yet to be determined. There is interest, though, from multiple companies.

But clearly, Pagenaud and SPM have proven enough on the competition side over the last two years to where it’s not a question of if they’ll be challenging for wins. It’s more a question now of how many wins, and whether Pagenaud will advance those last two positions in the standings to win the 2014 crown.

“That’s the goal, for sure,” Pagenaud said in a phone interview on Monday. “We’ve done so well in the last two years. I think the team has done a tremendous job. We have extracted almost the best of everything we can.”

Pagenaud and the technical team, led by his longtime engineer Ben Bretzman, still acknowledge they have more work to do to continue to improve. The team seeks to understand the tires better and Pagenaud, who is widely acknowledged as one of the best racers in the series, could do better in qualifying. The Frenchman made only one Firestone Fast Six appearance in 2013, although he had three other top-six starts on road and street courses in abnormal qualifying formats.

Then there’s the wild card that Pagenaud and SPM should be able to handle better, at least initially, than the other Honda teams: the manufacturer’s switch to a twin-turbo format. The IndyCar Series mandated the switch for 2014 but Honda planned to make the move anyway. Pagenaud already has had three tests with the new powerplant and is encouraged with the progress.

“The starting point was very exciting, promising; Honda has been tremendous to work on the driveability side,” he explained. “We know the tools we’ll need to use to make the twin turbo easier to drive. The baseline is very competitive.

“The single didn’t have any turbo lag … it behaved like a normally aspirated engine,” he added. “Now, with the twin-turbo, the power comes in differently. We’re just trying to understand how to make it smoother. That’s what we’re working on. Once the engine is fully turned up, we’ll see how it is.”

This year Honda loses Chip Ganassi Racing and gains Andretti Autosport, but SPM was the first team to confirm its plans to return with Honda for 2014. Sam Schmidt and team co-owner Ric Peterson announced that news at Sonoma last August.

There’s another wild card too, in the form of Pagenaud’s second straight rookie teammate, Russian Mikhail Aleshin, who replaces Tristan Vautier. Aleshin was a surprise pick in November after one test, but already has a working relationship with Pagenaud from when they raced together in Europe. As Pagenaud describes, the 26-year-old is a no-nonsense, down-to-business driver.

“He’ll fit in well,” Pagenaud said. “He’s got a lot of experience from Formula Renault and GP2, and he got down to business straightaway. He’s very focused. He doesn’t seem to be very emotional – maybe because of his nationality – but he’s a very cool guy. He’ll be pushing me.”

Pagenaud’s next on-track action will be at the Rolex 24 at Daytona, Jan. 25-26, in an Extreme Speed Motorsports HPD ARX-03b. Pagenaud missed the Roar Before the Rolex 24 test earlier this month but, given his history of racing HPD prototypes, will be up to speed in no time.

His next IndyCar test is an aerodynamic test at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana on Jan. 30. Aleshin will have his first oval test at Homestead-Miami Speedway Jan. 28.

Their collective process of continuing the title push – even this early in the calendar year – builds.

James Hinchcliffe on Andretti: ‘It’s certainly the place I want to be’

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Since before the start of the 2020 NTT IndyCar Series season, James Hinchcliffe tirelessly has worked to ensure the future would include a full-time return in 2021.

And with an opportunity to run the final three races this season with Andretti Autosport, there seems a surefire (albeit unlikely) path.

“If I go out and win all three,” Hinchcliffe joked with IndyCar on NBC announcer Leigh Diffey in an interview Friday (watch the video above), “it would be hard for them to say no, right?”

Regardless of whether he can go unbeaten at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course next weekend or the Oct. 25 season finale at St. Petersburg, Florida (where he earned his first career win in 2013), Hinchcliffe will have the chance to improve his stock with the team that he knows well and now has an opening among its five cars for 2021.

All three of Hinchcliffe’s starts this season — the June 6 season opener at Texas Motor Speedway, July 4 at the IMS road course and the Indianapolis 500 — were with Andretti, where he ran full time in IndyCar from 2012-14.

“Obviously, the plan from January 2020 was already working on ’21 and trying to be in a full-time program,” he said. “I’ve really enjoyed being reunited with Andretti Autosport, and everybody there has been so supportive. It’s been a very fun year for me on track. It’s been kind of a breath of fresh air in a lot of ways.

“It’s certainly the place I want to be moving forward. We’ve been working on that, working on those conversations. Genesys has been an incredible partner in my three races. We’ll be representing Gainbridge primarily, but Genesys will still have a position on our car in the last three.”

Gainbridge is the primary sponsor of the No. 26 Dallara-Honda that was vacated by Zach Veach, who left the team after it was determined he wouldn’t return in 2021. Hinchcliffe can empathize having lost his ride with Arrow McLaren SP after last season with a year left on his deal.

“You never want to earn a ride at the expense of somebody else in the sense that has happened here with Zach,” Hinchcliffe said. “I feel bad that he’s not able to see out the last three races of his season. I’ve got a lot of respect for him off track. He’s been a teammate this year, a colleague for years before that and honestly a friend for years before that. I’ve got a lot of time for him and his family. I understand a little bit of what it’s like in that position and what he’s going through.”

Hinchcliffe is ready to seize the moment, though, starting with the Oct. 2-3 doubleheader race weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He had been hoping to add the Harvest Indy Grand Prix to his schedule and had been working out for the possibility.

“Then last week I had given up hope (and) was resigned that wasn’t happening,” he said. “I told my trainer, ‘I think we’re done for this year.’ Three days later, this call comes. I’m glad we didn’t make that decision too early. I feel great physically.

“I look at it as a great opportunity to continue to show I’ve still got what it takes and should be there hopefully full time next year on the grid.”

Watch Hinchliffe’s video with Leigh Diffey above or by clicking here.