Pagenaud captures pivotal final pole of 2016 at Sonoma (VIDEO)


SONOMA, Calif. – It was a Team Penske party in the final qualifying session of the year for the Verizon IndyCar Series, ahead of Sunday’s GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma (6:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

And among the quartet of Team Penske Chevrolets, championship leader Simon Pagenaud emerged with the Verizon P1 Award at the 2.385-mile Sonoma Raceway, his seventh of the season in the No. 22 Hewlett Packard Enterprise Team Penske Chevrolet.

Pagenaud entered the weekend with a 43-point lead and it will go to 44 over Will Power, who will start fourth as part of a Penske 1-2-3-4. If the French native finishes fifth or better on Sunday, he’ll take home his first championship regardless of Power’s result.

“It’s very gratifying. But we’ve been working on making the car as good as it could be on reds (tires). Every time we put them on, it’s a dream,” Pagenaud told NBCSN’s Jon Beekhuis after setting a lap time of 1:16.2565 that edged Helio Castroneves for the top spot.

The other time a Penske 1-2-3-4 qualifying effort occurred this season was at the 2016 opener at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, when Power led Pagenaud, Castroneves and Juan Pablo Montoya.

Castroneves will start from the second position in Sunday’s race, while Montoya will start third, ahead of Power.

Meanwhile Graham Rahal and Ryan Hunter-Reay upheld Honda’s honor and will start fifth and sixth respectively.

The session report as it transpired is below:

In Q1, Group 1, all three Penske cars in the group advanced. Pagenaud’s 1:16.2530 lap was a new track record, and he ended ahead of Montoya (1:16.3092), Sebastien Bourdais (1:16.6615), Josef Newgarden (1:16.6943), Power (1:16.8252) and Charlie Kimball (1:16.8491).

Those knocked out included Tony Kanaan, who is among those going for third in the championship, the pair of A.J. Foyt Enterprises drivers (Takuma Sato and Jack Hawksworth) and two young Americans in Spencer Pigot and Conor Daly.

The “Hunger Games” type scenario that saw all four Andretti Autosport cars in the second group saw Ryan Hunter-Reay and Indianapolis 500 winner Alexander Rossi advance, with Marco Andretti and Carlos Munoz knocked out.

Hunter-Reay clocked a 1:16.4993 to lead the group, ahead of Helio Castroneves, Mikhail Aleshin, Graham Rahal, Rossi and Scott Dixon, who only barely advanced.

Those knocked out included Andretti, Munoz, Max Chilton, James Hinchcliffe and RC Enerson, the latter of whom had his first really tough qualifying session in three IndyCar races.

Both Andretti and Hinchcliffe felt aggrieved with their underperformance. Andretti told NBCSN that a misfire cost him two tenths and he missed by half a tenth; Hinchcliffe told NBCSN the grip level fell off and by Turn 7, his ARROW Honda “wouldn’t turn.”

In Q2, the quartet of Team Penske drivers all made it through to the Firestone Fast Six for the third time this season (St. Petersburg, Long Beach). Americans Rahal and Hunter-Reay in a pair of Hondas were the interlopers.

Scott Dixon missed by 0.0032 of a second in seventh in the group, ahead of Alexander Rossi, with his third top-10 start of the year, Sebastien Bourdais – who felt he mistimed his final run – Josef Newgarden, Mikhail Aleshin and Charlie Kimball for his 100th start. Aleshin was one spot shy of his sixth straight top-10 starting appearance, with a pole at Pocono joined by four other starts between ninth and 10th.

In the Firestone Fast Six, Dixon pegged Castroneves as the favorite because he had an extra set of sticker reds in reserve.

Castroneves shot to the provisional pole early with a 1:16.4134, then waited to see whether anyone beat him.

And Pagenaud did, on Firestone reds, beating Castroneves with a time of 1:16.2565.

SONOMA, Calif. – Qualifying Saturday for the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma Verizon IndyCar Series event on the 2.385-mile Sonoma Raceway, with qualifying position, car number in parentheses, driver, aero kit-engine, time and speed in parentheses:

1. (22) Simon Pagenaud, Chevrolet, 01:16.2565 (112.594)
2. (3) Helio Castroneves, Chevrolet, 01:16.4134 (112.362)
3. (2) Juan Pablo Montoya, Chevrolet, 01:16.5400 (112.177)
4. (12) Will Power, Chevrolet, 01:16.6659 (111.992)
5. (15) Graham Rahal, Honda, 01:16.7149 (111.921)
6. (28) Ryan Hunter-Reay, Honda, 01:16.9132 (111.632)
7. (9) Scott Dixon, Chevrolet, 01:16.5700 (112.133)
8. (98) Alexander Rossi, Honda, 01:16.5840 (112.112)
9. (11) Sebastien Bourdais, Chevrolet, 01:16.6115 (112.072)
10. (21) Josef Newgarden, Chevrolet, 01:16.8142 (111.776)
11. (7) Mikhail Aleshin, Honda, 01:16.8909 (111.665)
12. (83) Charlie Kimball, Chevrolet, 01:16.9627 (111.561)
13. (10) Tony Kanaan, Chevrolet, 01:16.9481 (111.582)
14. (27) Marco Andretti, Honda, 01:16.9288 (111.610)
15. (14) Takuma Sato, Honda, 01:16.9661 (111.556)
16. (26) Carlos Munoz, Honda, 01:17.0314 (111.461)
17. (41) Jack Hawksworth, Honda, 01:17.0823 (111.387)
18. (8) Max Chilton, Chevrolet, 01:17.1310 (111.317)
19. (20) Spencer Pigot, Chevrolet, 01:17.3052 (111.066)
20. (5) James Hinchcliffe, Honda, 01:17.1926 (111.228)
21. (18) Conor Daly, Honda, 01:17.6771 (110.535)
22. (19) RC Enerson, Honda, 01:17.3264 (111.036)

Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Formula One embrace the United States

Verstappen Perez United States
Fatih Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Last week, Red Bull Racing revealed its new car, the RB19, and a new relationship with Ford Motor Co. in an event in New York City complete with drivers Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and team principal Christian Horner.

It’s the first Formula 1 team to launch in the United States for 2023, but even that small move of the needle reflects a major shift in the attitude of both F1’s management and their teams – and the extent to which the American audience has fully embraced the sport.

“It’s something fantastic and unique, for the sport to be able to break it into the U.S,” Perez told NBC Sports. “The market is huge and it’s a huge opportunity for everyone involved, for the drivers, for the team. It’s always a huge market.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Sergio Perez finished fourth in the Unites States Grand Prix, but he was first with the fans.  – Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

In 2023, Formula 1 will race three times in the United States and five times in North America. The Circuit of the Americas will host their 11th consecutive race in October before heading south to Mexico City. Miami returns for a second time in May on a temporary street course around the Hard Rock cafe and the third addition is in downtown Las Vegas in November.

With the Canadian Grand Prix on the schedule for June and the Brazilian Grand Prix in November, American fans are now in the ballpark of Europeans, who have eight events on the continent and one in England.

In 2022, Verstappen won every race in North America. He was kept from sweeping the hemisphere only by George Russell, who won in Brazil. That fact is less remarkable when one considers that Verstappen won 15 times in the season – nearly two-thirds of the races on the schedule.

By the time Formula arrived in Austin, Texas, for Round 20 of 23, Verstappen already had wrapped up his second consecutive championship.

“Sometimes it can be hard to replicate the season, but I think it’s the same as with the car, right? You always try to improve it,” Verstappen told NBC Sports. “And I always look at the little details that even when you have had a good race, you could have done better. And then of course you also learn from the bad races. So we always try to look for these little improvements and general experience you gain year after year.

“You try to do better, but of course it also depends a lot on the package you have.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Max Verstappen United States Grand Prix win was one of 15 for the drivers and 17 for Red Bull.
(Gongora / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Now Verstappen’s thoughts inevitably will turn to establishing a dynasty, and America will again play a pivotal role.

“I just enjoy what I’m doing,” Verstappen said.  “After the years in Formula One, when you have to be on top of your game and you gain a lot on your experience – in that sense nothing really can get to you anymore. Every year you just try to do the best you can. But a lot depends on the material around you. It’s always a bit of a guess. Start the season as fit as you can be and be well prepared. But if you don’t have the car, you’re not going to win the championship.”

Perez added two wins to Red Bull’s total, at Monaco and the Marina Bay Street course. With two of the US 2023 races on street courses, Perez hopes to close the gap on Verstappen and potentially be his chief rival for the championship.

“The strategy is clear; it is to maximize the potential of the car – and we believe we have a good car, but how good?,” Perez said “We don’t know what the competition is doing. We just give our best in building this car and we hope that it’s good enough to get us to win races.

“I think we have to work together as a team. At the same time. We both want to win the championship. It’s just having good compromise. The competition will be really strong out there, so we really need everything we possibly can get from each other.”

Formula One returns to the United States for Round 6 and the Miami Grand Prix on May 7.