IndyCar: Aleshin, Pagenaud rock it for SPM on GP of Indy Thursday

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You expect Simon Pagenaud of Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports to be in the top five in a practice session for the Verizon IndyCar Series.

But rookie teammate Mikhail Aleshin? Not yet, anyway.

The Russian rookie, into his fourth weekend of his first season, was best of the proverbial “threats to the establishment” in Thursday for the Grand Prix of Indianapolis.

Driving the No. 7 SMP Racing Honda, Aleshin clocked in fourth in second practice at 1:10.6681, a time which was fifth in the combined time sheets (Sebastien Bourdais, who led first practice, ranked third combined). The rest of the top five in second practice included teammate Pagenaud, defending series champion Scott Dixon, and race winners Will Power and James Hinchcliffe.

Aleshin has shown promise and potential in his first three races, and while his best finish is only sixth and best start 11th, he’s quickly acclimating to both IndyCar and racing in America.

Consider he hadn’t been to the U.S. before his initial seat fit with Schmidt’s team last November, ahead of his first test at Sebring International Raceway.

“I’d never raced here, so I had no point to come,” Aleshin joked during a press conference with assembled reporters after Thursday’s practice.

“But of course I’d heard of this race and this track, it’s very popular,” he added. “Everyone in the world knows about the Indianapolis 500. And when I did my ROP test, I understood why it was so special.”

He’s a fan of the road course for this weekend’s race, as well.

“I got the half day of testing in; I really like this track,” he said.

As for Pagenaud, he gave a lowdown on how the IMS road course will race with different downforce configurations likely to play a key role. He also compared the circuit favorably to Brazil, which was brought up as a similar course given the long straights there.

“First off, this is the smoothest track we’ve been to,” he said. “I think it will be better (than Brazil) for passing, with such a long straight line. Pick a level of downforce different to the competition and see how it goes.”

Pagenaud and Dixon, who posted the fastest lap of the day in second practice, were the only two drivers who finished in the top five in both sessions. In normal, dry circumstances you’d expect both of them – perhaps Aleshin as well – to make the Firestone Fast Six.

But with rain likely tomorrow, there’s a good chance all bets are off. Still, doesn’t take away from the job the SPM duo did today.

Helio Castroneves ‘hustling’ for IndyCar, IMSA rides; talking with four to five teams

Helio Castroneves IMSA IndyCar
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As his season gathers steam, Helio Castroneves said his prospects for finding new rides for 2021 in IMSA and IndyCar also are gaining momentum.

The three-time Indianapolis 500 winner said Monday he is optimistic about landing in either or perhaps a combination of both series when Team Penske and Acura end their DPi partnership after this season.

“A lot of people I spoke with, four to five teams, are interested,” Castroneves said. “Whether it’s doing Indy 500 only, whether it’s pushing to do full time or do the sports cars as well. It’s been a very nice conversation.

LOOKING AHEADTeam Penske drivers seeking new rides for 2021

“I have a lot of respect for all the teams that have been talking, and I feel the same feedback. We just have to wait for their (sponsor) connections, and I’m also looking for some connections on my side as well, so hopefully we’ll be able to put this together and get something very soon.”

Given two decades of success with Penske in IndyCar and IMSA, Castroneves’ resume hardly needs burnishing. But the Brazilian has combined with co-driver Ricky Taylor in the No. 7 Acura DPi to win the past two overall victories at Road America and Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta.

But Castroneves, who doesn’t have a manager, said he has been working the phones hard rather than wait for the strong results to bring in the calls.

“At this point, I feel like I’m the one who needs to be talking to them because people need to know I want to continue racing and understand my desire,” Castroneves, 45, said. “There is opportunity, no question, in both (IndyCar and IMSA), which I’m really happy about it. However, because of the COVID-19, a lot of things sometimes have to be a little delayed. But I’m excited. Whatever the opportunity and whatever destiny guides me, whether IndyCar or sports cars, trust me I’ll be as happy as it could be and doing my 100 percent like I always did.

“It’s like politics, you need to be out there, good news or bad news. People have to make notice of your presence. I’m hustling. I want to continue to keep it going. Hopefully, we’ll have good news very soon.”

The news has been all good lately on track for Castroneves and Taylor, who hope to continue their run Sunday at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

The No. 6 duo has surged to sixth in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship standings, 10 points out of the lead with four races remaining. After thinking there was “no hope” to be competitive after opening the season with three consecutive poor finishes, Taylor now sees an opportunity for a happy ending.

“With the program going away, Helio has won all the big races and given so much back to the team and left such a mark, he’s really part of Penske history,” Taylor said. “For me, it’s been an opportunity of a lifetime to be a part of it. I’d like to leave my little mark as well. Helio has won everything except for a championship.

“Obviously, we’ve won races already together, but we can win a championship now. I think if both of us can do that together and both win our first championship for ‘The Captain,’ that would be an absolute dream come true, and we can tie a bow on it and be happy.”