Pagenaud leaves no doubt about IndyCar title challenge with GP of Indy dominance

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To some gathered in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway press room on Saturday following the inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis, Simon Pagenaud’s victory was viewed as a surprise or his championship challenge was viewed as… well… a surprise.

Neither should be. If anything, the only surprise is that Pagenaud hasn’t won more. Or that it took saving fuel to do it, rather than the outright pace he showed all weekend.

He was only outside the top three in qualifying, and there he slotted in fourth after the session ended due to Hunter-Reay’s accident. It was one of the team’s best weekends yet in IndyCar

Overall, the soon-to-be 30-year-old (May 18) has been nothing short of a stud since he entered North America in 2006, winning the Atlantic Championship as a then-unheralded rookie, starring on occasion in Champ Car in 2007 and then making a triumphant return to open-wheel after a sports car dovetail (where he won races and a championship).

As he now sits third in the championship – same as where he finished in 2013 – Pagenaud is only six points out of the series lead and poised to make that next breakthrough to jump ahead of Will Power and Ryan Hunter-Reay, the 2012 title protagonists widely viewed as two of the Verizon IndyCar Series’ best.

If he isn’t already, Pagenaud must be mentioned in the same breath. The Frenchman boasts the rare combination of a cool confidence, excellent setup feedback, detailed technical development, and quick wits and insights that make him a great quote in the media center. Oh yeah, and he doesn’t make mistakes either, so he’s seemingly always in contention on race day.

“I think we are a championship contender,” Pagenaud said post-race. “It’s fair to say that we are where we want to be, fighting for wins. Being consistent in the championship is what gives you championship wins.

“What the team does really well is the people working in the team are very dedicated and very smart,” he added, of his Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports team. “I think the group on the 77 car is very strong. We’re extracting 100% of what we have.”

And that collective unit is into Year 3, as the evolution has come from rookie with no oval experience that still finished top-five in points to his first two wins last year and third in the points.

“We obviously don’t have the high resources of Ganassi and Andretti and Penske, but we’re a very good group of people that have really open communication,” Pagenaud said. “I think it helps a lot in racing.

“We’re just doing everything we can to check off the bad stuff every weekend. This weekend was pretty much a flawless weekend, a perfect weekend for us.”

Nicer still is the fact that for the first time in several years, Pagenaud has a sense of job security within IndyCar. Although this year is the last of his contract with SPM, he’s done enough to where he could stay on beyond 2014 or move onto one of the so-called big three teams.

It says something after the roughly four-year abyss between his open-wheel stints, where despite starring in sports cars and winning the 2010 American Le Mans Series Prototype class championship, he didn’t know if he’d return.

“I used to stress a lot about my racing career. It’s difficult to make it as a race driver,” Pagenaud admitted. “I’ve been stressing up until last year about my job, security. I’m turning 30, so I’ve got another 12 years hopefully in IndyCar, 10 or 12 years.

“I think I’ve shown speed. I’ve shown consistency. Now I have decided this year to relax and just let my driving do the rest. So I enjoy it.”

And as a Frenchman winning at Indianapolis, there’s a nice symbolism to that, as well. Jules Goux and Rene Thomas won back-to-back Indianapolis 500s in 1913 and 1914, so Pagenaud would love to match the latter a century later.

“I’m very proud to be the [third] Frenchman to win in Indianapolis in history and the first to win the Indy Grand Prix,” he said. “It’s incredible to be near the pagoda. I can’t even think what it could be with the Indy 500.”

He’ll get the chance starting today with practice beginning in the No. 77 white and red Lucas Oil car, which shifts liveries after his Charter Communications/Oculus colors depart after the GP of Indy.

Helio Castroneves: ‘I have nothing to lose’ Sunday in bid for 4th Indy 500 win

All photos: IndyCar
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You might say Helio Castroneves comes into Sunday’s 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500 with a “less is more” philosophy than he’s had in years past:

* No pressure

* No worrying about points

* No worrying about winning a championship

Take away all those things and the very popular Brazilian driver could be in the best position he’s ever been to achieve the biggest goal of his career:

Winning a fourth Indy 500, making him a member of motor racing’s most exclusive club, joining legendary drivers A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears as the only drivers to conquer the legendary Indianapolis Motor Speedway four times each.

Like his car number, Castroneves has won the Indy 500 three times. He wants to change that number to four times in Sunday’s 102nd Running of the Greatest Spectacle In Racing. Photo: IndyCar.

“For sure, I definitely don’t have much to lose in terms of points, championships, and things like that,” Castroneves told MotorSportsTalk earlier this week. “I don’t have to think that I don’t have a car to win, I’m not going to risk that much because there are still championship points (to earn if he was still racing full-time in the series).

“Not that I did that before, but if the situation occurs, people just need to know I have nothing to lose this time.”

Castroneves three prior triumphs in the 500 came in his first two years in the field – 2001 and 2002 – and again in 2009. In addition, he has finished twice in the last four editions of the Greatest Spectacle In Racing in 2014 and 2017.

Coming so close last year, losing to Takuma Sato by .201 of a second, is something Castroneves hasn’t forgotten about. To come so close to No. 4 has only made him more hungry to get it done on Sunday.

“Yeah, but if it were easy, we would likely have had more than four wins by now,” he said. “We’ve had opportunities in the past, the last four years we were really competitive, we were right there, especially in ’14 and ’17, we were right on it.

“Last year, I thought it was going to be the hardest 500 for me and look what happened: we were battling to the end for a victory,” Castroneves said. “It’s not just about trying hard, it’s about being there at the right place at the right time.

“And this place, Indianapolis, I’ve always said the track winds up choosing who is going to be the winner. Hopefully, with safety and luck, we’ll be part of it and be on the right side.”

Team owner Roger Penske decided after last season to put Castroneves and Juan Pablo Montoya as the chief drivers of Team Penske’s new two-car effort in the IMSA WeatherTech Championship sports car series.

When the announcement was first made, many feared that Castroneves had run out of chances to get that elusive No. 4 at Indy.

But Penske sweetened the deal for Helio to go sports car racing by promising he’d field a car for him at Indy. And Penske has proven to be a man of his word, giving Castroneves everything he needs to finally win No. 4.

“I feel we’ve prepared as much as a team, we’re doing everything possible in relation to preparation,” Castroneves said. “The preparation we had in the previous year helps us tremendously to give us an opportunity fighting there for a win, and that’s what we’re looking for.”

Castroneves has taken to the new style Indy car with aplomb. During the first week of practice leading up to last weekend’s qualifying, he was consistently one of the fastest drivers in the field.

The 43-year-old even topped the speed charts in the Fast Nine last Saturday before ending up eighth in the following day’s pole qualifying.

As a result, he’ll start Sunday’s race from the middle of Row 3, anchoring Team Penske’s four-man Top 8 starting lineup effort in the 500. When the green flag drops, to his left will be Danica Patrick and to his right will be four-time IndyCar champ and former 500 winner Scott Dixon.

And millions of others right behind him, so to speak.

“I feel the sense that everyone wants it to happen,” he said of winning No. 4. “We’re talking about being part of history here. The last guy to do it was Rick Mears in the ‘90s (1991).

“I mean, how cool would that be if I would be in the position and to see No. 4 in my era. I hear a lot of the fans, even those supporting different drivers, all saying ‘Man, I want to see you win No. 4.’ That just shows how special this place is.

“(The Indy 500) is part of a lot of people’s lives. I just would be very fortunate to hopefully to have this generation see someone do No. 4.”

While he’d rather not think about missing out on a fourth win at Indy for a ninth straight year, Castroneves is using reverse psychology somewhat.

He’s going into Sunday’s biggest race in the world fully believing he will finally win No. 4.

And if he does, forget the idea that he would never come back to race at Indy again.

“Not at all. Why? You’re so close to getting four, and then when you get four, you stop it? It doesn’t make sense.

“I think I still have at least four or five more years, there’s no question about it. As long as Roger (Penske) gives me the opportunity, I’m going to be going for it, for sure.”

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