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.

Mario Andretti says Colton Herta could be next American star in F1

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Mario Andretti’s last Formula One victory is also the last by an American driver in more than 42 years on the international open-wheel road racing series.

If you had told Andretti that while he was celebrating on the Grand Prix of the Netherlands podium on Aug. 27, 1978 at the Vandzoort circuit, he wouldn’t have believed it.

“Absolutely not,” Andretti told Kyle Petty during the most recent “Coffee With Kyle” episode (video above). “It’s a shame. Somehow we have so much talent here, and either there’s no invitation or something there. But I think it’s time to give some of this young talent that, in my opinion, is absolutely capable.”

The Dutch GP was the last of Andretti’s 12 victories in F1 and came during his championship season. No one since has come close to matching his success in F1.

Mario Andretti drives his Lotus-Ford to victory in the 1978 Grand Prix of the Netherlands (Bernard Cahier/Getty Images).

Andretti’s son, Michael, took a full-time ride with McLaren in 1993 but left with three races remaining in a season marred by crashes and mechanical problems.

Scott Speed was the last American to run a full F1 season in 2006, and Alexander Rossi made the most recent F1 start by a U.S. driver in 2015. Rossi has said he has no desire to return to racing in Europe after winning the 2016 Indianapolis 500 and becoming an IndyCar championship contender.

But Mario Andretti believes Andretti Autosport has another rising star with F1-caliber ability.

“Colton Herta is one that comes to mind,” Mario Andretti said. “As a young lad, his dad sent him to Europe, he was doing Formula 3, and he knows most of the circuits there. He’s trained. He’s showed in his rookie season and won some premium races at COTA (and Laguna Seca), beat two of the very best Indy has to offer (in) Will Power and Scott Dixon.

“This is one kid I’d love to see him get a break over there to fly the U.S. colors again.”

Herta, 20, seems interested in exploring an F1 leap over the next few years. After winning Sept. 13 at Mid-Ohio from the pole position (his third career victory in the NTT IndyCar Series), the No. 88 Dallara-Honda driver is ranked fourth in the standings in his sophomore year and regarded as one of the series’ top prospects.

Herta recently told RACER.com “I’d love to give Formula 1 a crack” but said he also would be happy driving in IndyCar and IMSA.

A naturalized U.S. citizen who told Petty about spending several years with his family in an Italian refugee camp before coming to America, Mario Andretti said F1 brought an enormous sense of patriotic pride.

“Formula One is like the Olympics in a sense,” he said. “You’re in a different country, a different continent. When you earn that highest step of the podium, they play your national anthem. That’s when you take nothing for granted. You feel like I’m representing my country, and the proudest moments are those.

“I’d just like to see some other American drivers experience that. It’s time.”

Mario Andretti with four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon and six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton before the Nov. 22, 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images).

During the “Coffee With Kyle” conversation, Andretti also discussed:

–His versatility as a winner in IndyCar, sports cars, NASCAR and Formula One;

–His 1967 Daytona 500 victory and how he enjoyed racing with crew chief Jake Elder at the famed Holman-Moody team;

Mario Andretti Colton Herta
Mario Andretti and Kyle Petty saluted “The King” by wearing their Richard Petty-style hats during the latest “Coffee With Kyle” (NBCSN).

–Why he delayed his entry to F1 for a few years because of his earnings power in IndyCar. “I always say I’d race for free, but at the same time, you’re thinking of family and the future,” he said. “It was in the back of your mind that you can’t give up the earning power of IndyCar. That kept me from going full time in Formula One, but I always said that sometime in my career, I’d have to devote a period to Formula One.”

–On what it was like racing in an era when driver deaths were more prevalent. “If you’re going to do this, you’re not going to dwell on those negatives,” Andretti said. “There’s no way. You knew it was present. Especially in the ‘60s at the beginning of the season at the drivers meetings, you couldn’t help but look around and say, ‘I wonder who is not going to be here at the end of the season.’ We’d lose four to five guys. In ’64, we lost six guys.

“It’s something if you dwell on that, you’re going to take on a different profession. It’s a desire and love to want to drive that overcame all that and then the confidence it’s not going to happen to me. And then you pray.”

Watch the full “Coffee With Kyle” episode in the video above or by clicking here.

Mario Andretti looks on before the 103rd Indianapolis 500 on May 26, 2019 (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).