Chevrolet, Montoya, Pagenaud all off to great start in 2016 IndyCar season

(Getty Images)

There may not be anything like a sure thing, but Chevrolet is pretty darn close to it when it comes to racing at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

Not only did Juan Pablo Montoya repeat last year’s win in the season opener this past Sunday, Chevy has some significant bragging rights: it has now won on the St. Pete street course for five consecutive years since the company returned to the IndyCar Series in 2012.

Plus, Chevrolet drivers took three (Simon Pagenaud was runner-up, while Helio Castroneves finished third) of the top-four finishing positions and six of the top-10 (including defending series champ Scott Dixon, who finished sixth) to start the 16-race season, making the corporate folks back in Detroit quite happy.

“Juan Pablo Montoya and his No. 2 Verizon Chevrolet team executed flawlessly to capture their second consecutive win on the Streets of St. Petersburg,” said Jim Campbell, U.S. Vice President Performance Vehicles and Motorsports. “It was great to see Simon Pagenaud take the checkered flag behind his teammate resulting in a 1-2 finish for Chevy in the season’s opening race.

“Preparation for the start of the 2016 season began immediately after the checkered flag at Sonoma (at the end of last season).

“The Chevrolet engineering team, our technical partners, teams and drivers worked tirelessly to identify opportunities for continued improvement to both the Chevy IndyCar V6 engine and the Chevrolet Aero Kit to maximize power, durability and aerodynamic balance.

“While there is more work to do, that teamwork contributed to a strong start to the season.”

Montoya, in a sense, appears to be a man on a mission in 2016. He won last season’s opener at St. Petersburg and led the Verizon IndyCar Series points standings for the first 15 races of the 16-race schedule.

But Montoya lost his title bid to Scott Dixon in the season finale at Sonoma. He claims he doesn’t think about it anymore, but that could be both subterfuge to the media as well as motivation to himself.

“It’s nice to start the year with a win,” Montoya said. “To be honest with you, when you’re in Team Penske, there’s always that pressure that you got to win races. You have to win. You’re in the best car, you got to win races.

“So to start the year with a win, it’s like, ‘Oh, I got that one out of the way’ (he said with a laugh).”

Just like last year’s race, Montoya started fourth. He took the lead for the final time with 25 laps to go in the 110-lap/198-mile race around the 1.8-mile, 14-turn temporary street course.

“To come back here after being down, start the season with a win again, it shows everybody we’re here. It’s good. I feel like we can get a lot of wins this year.”

Runner-up Pagenaud, meanwhile, led 48 laps early on and then followed his Team Penske teammate across the finish line.

“Overall it was a great day,” Pagenaud said. “If you compare to last year, it’s been a massive improvement on the whole 22 crew. I’m super proud to represent HPE in our first race and be here on the podium in second place, leading the race for a while.”

Pagenaud then injected a bit of levity into the post-race press conference, taking a good-natured dig at his teammate.

“Montoya is an old dog,” Pagenaud said with a laugh. “He found a little good trick on me. Fortunately I had a lot of wheel spin compared to last year. I decided to be aggressive on the restarts. Maybe I was too close to T.K. (Tony Kanaan). I think it took quite a bit of aerodynamics out of my car. Had a lot of wheel spin, didn’t go forward. Great job on him to get me.”

Pagenaud now finds himself just eight points (51 to 43) behind his teammate in the standings heading into the second race of the season at Phoenix, under the lights on April 2.

“Overall you have to look at the big picture,” Pagenaud said, adding with another laugh, “the evolution of the whole team, I hope you guys (media) see it now, that you stop saying bad stuff about my team.

“But it’s been awesome. We had so much fun this weekend. We’re just going to keep pushing and I think we’ll be strong this year.”

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IndyCar’s ‘Phoenix’ flying into 2023 season: Romain Grosjean enjoying the pilot’s life

IndyCar Romain Grosjean pilot
Chris Owens/Penske Entertainment

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. – The IndyCar driver known as “The Phoenix” already has taken flight before the 2023 season, and newly licensed pilot Romain Grosjean also got a head start on the opener.

Fulfilling a dream several years in the making, the Andretti Autosport plunged into aviation training over the offseason. Since beginning with online studying last August, Grosjean quickly progressed to earning his licenses for multiengine planes and instrument ratings while completing 115 hours of flight time.

He has landed twice at Albert Whitted Airport, whose primary runway also doubles as the front straightaway on the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg street course.

“Just to land on the start-finish line, that was pretty cool,” Grosjean said during IndyCar Preseason Content Days ahead of the Feb. 2-3 test at The Thermal Club. “The air traffic control guy was like, “Yeah, left on Acre Five, turn, and then back. I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s the last corner of the racetrack, I’ll take it and go back to the pit lane. He was like, ‘Oh, yeah, yeah, that’s true.’ So it was quite funny.”

Grosjean, 36, said he had wanted to become a pilot since he was 30 but was discouraged by Europe’s complicated and time-consuming licensing process (“to go to ground school twice a week, and with our life, it’s impossible”). He was inspired again last year by (now former) teammate Alexander Rossi, who flew to some 2022 races after earning his license a couple of years ago.

“I thought that was pretty cool,” said Grosjean, who had grown “bored of waiting in the airports.”

He plans to fly to nearly all the races this year (“if the weather is good enough, I’ll be flying”) and jokes about being “commercial by the end of the year, so then I can take Roger (Penske). Roger can pay me to fly him around to races if things go bad with racing.”

Grosjean’s social media has been filled with posts about his new hobby, which afforded him the opportunity recently to take his wife to Key West for lunch from their home in the Miami area. The trip took 37 minutes there and 41 minutes on return and highlighted why Grosjean loves flying: “Freedom. Freedom to go anywhere you want, anytime you want. It’s the beauty of it. We can go to the Bahamas for a day if we want to. Anywhere. I think that’s just great to know that you can do whatever you want.”

It’s reminiscent of the cross-country trip across the Midwest in an RV that Grosjean took with his family during the summer of his 2021 rookie season.

“There’s one thing that I told my kids, and I told my friend about America, and for me, that’s the biggest difference between Europe and here, is here everything is possible,” said Grosjean (whose “Phoenix” nickname was derived from a brush with death in his final Formula One start). “If you have the wish, if you give yourself the possibility of doing it, everything is possible. It is different in Europe. Much more boundaries on the way. Much more steps that you need to do in a certain order. But if you want to be extraordinary (in the United States), if you want to do something different, you don’t need to do those steps because you can work through.

“Yeah, I like doing things, and when I do them, I like doing them well. But here I think just the opportunity of driving the RV, flying planes, for my kids to do whatever they want to do, we love that here. Yeah, it’s been the best discovery for us.”

The Swiss-born Frenchman already has flown himself to a race this year, jetting up the Florida coast for his Rolex 24 at Daytona debut last month. It was his debut as a Lamborghini factory driver, and his new deal will continue with the Twelve Hours of Sebring and possibly the Petit Le Mans while he also helps develop the automaker’s new hybrid prototype (LMDh) for next year.

Grosjean, who finished a disappointing 13th in the 2022 points standings with one podium for Andretti in his first full season, said IndyCar will remain his priority in 2024.

But he hopes the IndyCar schedule will afford racing in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship endurance races and perhaps another his longest plane flight yet — a return to the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

“I’ll keep my fingers crossed like that we get the weekend off from IndyCar,” said Grosjean, noting that 10 IndyCar drivers were in the Rolex 24. “I think it would make a lot of sense. I think for both series it’s amazing. If we can get Le Mans, it’s also amazing because it’s just cool.

“I remember Mario flying across the Atlantic doing Monaco and the Indy 500, and those guys, they were racing everywhere, Formula 3, Formula 2, Formula 1. They were doing the races in opening of the Formula 1 race, and I think that’s very cool for us. So yeah, looking forward to the project. There’s going to be a lot of development coming on. By the time we finish the IndyCar season, the LMDh will be here in the States, and that’s when I’m going to spend a lot of time on it.”