IndyCar: Pagenaud has to weigh his options carefully for 2015 and beyond

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As the marquee free agent in the Verizon IndyCar Series for 2015, Frenchman Simon Pagenaud has to weigh his options carefully for next year, all while maintaining focus on his current championship charge in 2014.

Pagenaud will be at the end of his three-year contract with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports at the end of the year. The team has improved by leaps and bounds over this period.

Led by team manager Rob Edwards, with engineer Ben Bretzman, Pagenaud has thrived first as a rookie-in-name-only during the 2012 season as the only car on a single car team. There were several podiums, season rookie-of-the-year honors and fifth place in the points.

Come 2013, Pagenaud made it up to third in points and bagged his first two wins and the team expanded to two cars with Indy Lights champion Tristan Vautier advancing. But Vautier, despite occasional flashes of promise, generally struggled and the chemistry with Pagenaud was nearly nonexistent as the year went on.

The call to bring in Russian rookie Mikhail Aleshin alongside for 2014 came slightly out of left field, but Aleshin has been one of the pleasant surprises of the year thus far. According to Edwards, in a blog written by veteran motorsports journalist Gordon Kirby, the chemistry is much improved this year as Pagenaud and Aleshin have clicked much better.

“This year Mikhail is on the same learning curve on ovals,” Edwards said. “But the chemistry between Simon and him is really strong and Simon has helped him with that as someone who’s been through it recently. Also, I think we understand how to bring someone through that in an Indy car on an oval having gone through that learning curve recently with Simon. Mikhail has showed he’s a fast driver. His goal this year is to show consistency and to learn ovals.”

Edwards praises Pagenaud’s leadership.

“Simon does a very good job of getting the team around him. When we do well, we do well together, and when we struggle, we struggle together. He’s in the middle of it, working to figure out how to sort it out. He’s very meticulous, very detail-oriented.”

And leadership is a word that should not be taken lightly when it comes to Pagenaud’s future beyond this year.

If Pagenaud was to shift to Andretti Autosport – as is possible given certain rumors – he’d be at direct loggerheads with Andretti’s generally accepted team leader, Ryan Hunter-Reay.

Generally, a team can only have one alpha dog, and the thing that has brought Andretti Autosport back from the doldrums of 2008 through 2010 more than anything has been the chemistry between drivers Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and James Hinchcliffe and their respective crews.

As a fifth entry, Pagenaud would enhance what’s already a quality operation, but he’d definitely upset the status quo. As a fourth – possibly replacing Hinchcliffe, who’s only on a one-year deal for 2014 with a team option for 2015 – he’d be an upgrade over the popular, quick but inconsistent “Hinch.”

The decision could also come down to which team Honda prefers Pagenaud race with. Pagenaud’s history with Honda/Acura is well documented and with Chip Ganassi Racing having switched from Honda to Chevrolet this year, Andretti Autosport has become the “de facto” lead Honda squad. Meanwhile Pagenaud is viewed by many in the IndyCar paddock as Honda’s lead driver.

For competitive balance in the series, Pagenaud at SPM is better than one of the three established “power teams” gaining another superstar. And while Andretti, Hinchcliffe and Carlos Munoz are all very, very good shoes, Pagenaud is a cut above all three of them at the moment. He’s not quite on par with Hunter-Reay, but he’s damn close.

That said, a Pagenaud switch could open the door at SPM for another talented veteran currently stuck in the midpack – think a Justin Wilson type if he was to become available.

As it is, Pagenaud will have to strike the delicate balance for the rest of 2014 between figuring out his own future and trying to hunt down the Team Penske trio – and Hunter-Reay – for the IndyCar title. He currently sits fourth in points, 50 behind points leader Helio Castroneves, heading to Toronto next weekend.

Alex Palou fastest as several go off course during IndyCar practice at IMS

IndyCar Harvest GP practice
Jamie Squire/Getty Images
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Alex Palou paced the opening practice Thursday for the IndyCar Harvest GP at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.

The Dale Coyne Racing rookie turned a 1-minute, 10.177-second lap around the 2.439-mile, 14-turn road course in his No. 55 Dallara-Honda.

Jack Harvey was second, followed by Colton Herta, points leader Scott Dixon and Max Chilton.

PRACTICE CHART: Click here to see the speed rundown from Thursday’s session

FRIDAY AT IMS: Details for watching Race 1 of the Harvest GP

Qualifying for Friday’s race will be at 6:20 p.m. ET Thursday on NBC Sports Gold.

Will Power, who won the pole position for the July 4 race at the track, spun off course with just more than a minute left in the session after the left rear of his No. 12 Dallara-Chevrolet made slight contact with the right front of Alexander Rossi’s No. 28 Dallara-Honda.

Power was among several drivers who went off track, but there were no damaged cars during the session. Marcus Ericsson missed the final 5 minutes of the practice after being penalized for causing a red flag with a Turn 8 spin.

Arrow McLaren SP drivers Pato O’Ward and Helio Castroneves, who is driving for Oliver Askew (who is recovering from concussion-like symptoms), also veered off course as did rookie Rinus VeeKay and Santino Ferrucci.

Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson was in attendance at the session before racing Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway. Johnson will be driving a partial schedule of road and street courses in IndyCar next season for Chip Ganassi Racing.

“Literally, the smallest of details, I can pick up on,” Johnson told NBC Sports pit reporter Kevin Lee. “It’s been really nice today just to see how a session starts and obviously to jump on the radio and listen to how the systems work and then obviously you get into the car and the setup and such. I’m at ground zero right now, a 45-year-old rookie trying to learn my way into a new sport essentially.”

Johnson told Lee his sponsorship hunt to run a Ganassi car “has gone really well. The fact that I’m here today and ingrained so deeply in the team is a great sign of where things are going. Looking forward to getting behind the wheel of a car soon and hopefully having some announcements for the world to see soon, too.”

Fans were in attendance Thursday for the first time this season at IMS, which is allowed a limited crowd of 10,000 for its races this weekend.