Pagenaud banks third straight top-five despite fuel saving frustration

Photo: IndyCar
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With finishes of second, fifth and third in the first three races of 2017, defending Verizon IndyCar Series champion Simon Pagenaud is off to a pretty good start.

Except that because of his unreal start to 2016 when he finished second twice and won in Round 3, it seems like far less by comparison.

Pagenaud finally put together his most complete start-to-finish weekend of the new year at Barber Motorsports Park in the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, starting and finishing third in the No. 1 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet.

This result comes after a perhaps lucky 14th to second run in St. Petersburg and then a comeback from 21st and last to fifth in Long Beach two weeks ago.

The Frenchman made the most of the worst pit stall in pit lane this weekend, because after incurring that penalty for qualifying interference at Long Beach two weeks ago he’d be right at pit in and be compromised compared to those near pit out.

That made his team’s performance throughout the weekend all the better, even if Pagenaud was frustrated to be in fuel save mode for the final stint.

“It’s been a good weekend. We unfortunately carried a penalty from Long Beach. So starting every qualifying session, practice at the back of the pack puts you in a bad rhythm,” Pagenaud explained in the post-race press conference. “So I’m very happy we were able to transform that into good qualifying results, and also a good result in the end of the race.

“It was pretty eventful. At the start of the race, I feel like we were a little too aggressive with the racecar. We adjusted. At the end, I was really good. I saved quite a bit of fuel at the end to make it.

“It was frustrating, I got to say. I just wanted to go.”

The day was weirder for Pagenaud because he was the only one of the four Team Penske drivers who didn’t lead a lap. Eventual race winner Josef Newgarden led the final 14 laps en route to his first win with the team, while Will Power dominated with 60 laps led before his late race puncture resigned him to 14th. Helio Castroneves finished fourth and led two laps on a pit cycle.

Pagenaud never got higher than third, where he finished. He noted a difficulty in the tire wear at the start of the race, as rain washed all the rubber down from earlier in the weekend, comprising five different types of tire manufacturers over the six series racing at Barber.

“The rain was the biggest effect last night. It really cleaned off the track,” he said. “The first stint personally was very difficult for us, quite a bit of tire wear. Balance wasn’t what we expected. Then the track got better toward the end, and the tires hung on better, I think.

“Yeah, it was different to yesterday, for sure. A lot of less tire degradation. Last year felt like we had a lot more tire degradation, too.”

Even though his title defense has been overshadowed so far in 2017 by all three winners, Pagenaud’s still in a good spot through three races. Pagenaud and Scott Dixon are the only two drivers with three top-five finishes in every race so far this year.

Pagenaud sits fourth in points, 11 behind his old Peugeot LMP1 teammate Sebastien Bourdais who leads the championship, and just four off Newgarden, who took the headlines on Sunday with his first win for his new team.

Still, not a bad day for the guy who heading into the race, discovered how to speak “Southern.”

Jack Miller wins the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix as Fabio Quartararo stops his downward points’ slide

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Jack Miller ran away with the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix at Motegi as Fabio Quartararo stopped his downward slide in the championship when a last-lap accident from his closest rival in the standings caused Francesco Bagnaia to score zero points.

Starting seventh, Miller quickly made his way forward. He was second at the end of two laps. One lap later, he grabbed the lead from Jorge Martin. Once in the lead, Miller posted three consecutive fastest laps and was never seriously challenged. It was Australian native Miller’s first race win of the season and his sixth podium finish.

The proximity to his home turf was not lost.

“I can ride a motorcycle sometimes,” Miller said in NBC Sports’ post-race coverage. “I felt amazing all weekend since I rolled out on the first practice. It feels so awesome to be racing on this side of the world.

“What an amazing day. It’s awesome; we have the home Grand Prix coming up shortly. Wedding coming up in a couple of weeks. I’m over the moon; can’t thank everyone enough.”

Miller beat Brad Binder to the line by 3.4 seconds with third-place Jorge Martin finishing about one second behind.

But the center of the storm was located just inside the top 10 as both Quartararo and Bagnaia started deep in the field.

Quartararo was on the outside of row three in ninth with Bagnaia one row behind in 12th. Neither rider moved up significantly, but the championship continued to be of primary importance as Bagnaia put in a patented late-race charge to settle onto Quartararo’s back tire, which would have allowed the championship leader to gain only a single point.

On the final lap, Bagnaia charged just a little too hard and crashed under heavy braking, throwing away the seven points he would have earned for a ninth-place finish.

The day was even more dramatic for the rider who entered the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix third in the standings. On the sighting lap, Aleix Espargaro had an alarm sound, so he peeled off into the pits, dropped his primary bike and jumped aboard the backup. Starting from pit lane, he trailed the field and was never able to climb into the points. An undisclosed electronic problem was the culprit.

For Quartararo, gaining eight points on the competition was more than a moral victory. This was a track on which he expected to run moderately, and he did, but the problems for his rivals gives him renewed focus with four rounds remaining.

Next week, the series heads to Thailand and then Miller’s home track of Phillip Island in Australia. They will close out the Pacific Rim portion of the schedule before heading to Spain for the finale in early November.

It would appear team orders are not in play among the Ducati riders. Last week’s winner Enea Bastianini made an aggressive early move on Bagnaia for position before the championship contender wrestled the spot back.

In his second race back following arm surgery, Marc Marquez won the pole. His last pole was more than 1,000 days ago on this same track in 2019, the last time the series competed at Motegi. Marquez slipped to fifth in the middle stages of the race, before regaining a position to finish just off the podium.

In Moto2 competition, Ai Ogura beat Augusto Fernandez to close the gap in that championship to two points. Fernandez holds the scant lead. Alonso Lopez rounded out the podium.

Both American riders, Cameron Beaubier and Joe Roberts finished just outside the top 10 in 11th and 12th respectively.