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Defending IndyCar champ Pagenaud eager to have some fun at Indy

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Simon Pagenaud can quickly recite his favorite and least favorite venues on IndyCar’s schedule.

Toronto has been nothing but trouble over the years. Indianapolis, on the other hand, has been fun.

It helps, of course, when Pagenaud comes to town in May with three major titles – reigning series champ, current points leader and defending IndyCar Grand Prix winner. He also has some momentum and is expected to contend for at least one more victory at Indy this month.

“The goal is to win. If you don’t win, then you probably should do something else,” Pagenaud said Thursday. “For me, it’s just a dream come true. You always want to be fighting at some level, and it’s exactly what you hope for.”

The 32-year-old Frenchman has been the most dominant driver in the series over the last 14 months.

A year ago, he won more races (five), more poles (seven) and had more top-five finishes (10) than anyone else. He also finished the season leading more laps and more races, running away with a 127-point win over Team Penske teammate Will Power in the final standings.

He can’t quibble with the encore, either.

Pagenaud has finished in the top five in all four races this season and grabbed the points lead after winning at Phoenix in late April. He’s done all this while dealing with more challenging obstacles than he had in 2016.

Pagenaud spent the offseason trying to turn himself into a better oval-track driver. After countless hours studying data, reviewing races and working on his race-day mentality, Pagenaud already has seen a payoff.

“Whether it’s hitting the pits faster or being able to manage your tire wear better or to have a better qualifying lap, things like that,” he said. “To me, the biggest improvement I could make was going to be on ovals and so I spent a lot of time on that, and I think it’s working.”

The first big test will come May 28 when he hopes to be starting near the front of the 33-car starting grid for the 101st Indianapolis 500, a race that hasn’t been kind to Pagenaud.

In five previous Memorial Day weekend starts on the 2.5-mile track, three with Sam Schmidt’s team and two for Roger Penske, Pagenaud has one front row start and has never finished higher than eighth. It’s simply not good enough in Pagenaud’s mind.

“After winning the championship, my No. 1 goal is winning the 500,” he said.

Practice for this year’s 500 begins Monday, with qualifying scheduled for May 20-21.

But it’s Saturday’s race, the IndyCar GP, in which Pagenaud has really excelled. He won the inaugural road-course race in 2014, was knocked out of the 2015 race with a bad gearbox and became the first two-time winner last season after taking the pole. It was Pagenaud’s third consecutive victory.

If he can do it again, Pagenaud can enjoy a couple more weeks in Indy with an even bigger lead in the standings.

“There are a few races where you know have bad luck and races you know you have good luck,” Pagenaud said. “For me, the bad luck has always been in Toronto and the good luck is always in the Indy GP. It (Indy) suits my style really well. It’s about braking and traction out of the corners, which suits me really well.

“The grand prix is my specialty and I have a lot of confidence going in and we feel like we can win that.”

More AP auto racing:

Toyota No. 8 car wins the 24 Hours of Le Mans for third consecutive year

24 Hours of Le Mans

LE MANS, France — Toyota Gazoo’s No. 8 car comfortably won the 24 Hours of Le Mans by five laps Sunday to secure a third straight victory in the prestigious endurance race.

It was also a third consecutive win for Swiss driver Sebastien Buemi and Japan’s Kazuki Nakajima driving. Brendon Hartley was the other driver, having replaced two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso.

Buemi and Hartley sat on the side of the car as Nakajima drove toward the podium. Hartley won for a second time after tasting success with the Porsche LMP Team in 2017 before an unhappy season in Formula One.

The Swiss team’s Rebellion No. 1 featured American driver Gustavo Menezes and Brazilian Bruno Senna – the nephew of late F1 great Ayrton Senna.

It finished one lap ahead of Toyota Gazoo’s No. 7, with Rebellion’s No. 3 finishing in fourth place.

For much of the race it looked like Toyota’s No. 7 would win after leading comfortably from pole position. But late into the night the car encountered an engine problem and the 30-minute stop in the stands proved costly.

The race was first held in 1923. A total of 252,500 spectators attended in 2019, but there were none this year when the race started three months late because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

“We miss the fans,” New Zealander Hartley said. “I look forward to seeing all the fans again.”

In other divisions:

United Autosports won the LMP2 division with the entry of Filipe Albuquerque, Paul Di Resta and Phil Hanson.

–In LMGTE Pro, the victory was claimed by Aston Martin Vantage AMR of Maxime Martin, Alex Lynn and Harry Tincknell (who drives for Mazda in the DPi division of IMSA).

–TF Sport won the LMGTE Am class.

The Toyota No. 7 took pole after former F1 driver Kamui Kobayashi narrowly edged out the Rebellion No. 1 team in qualifying.

In damp and humid conditions Mike Conway got away cleanly from the start, while Senna held off Buemi.

After nearly seven hours, Toyota’s No. 8 fell back after a 10-minute stop in the stands to fix a brake-cooling problem on Kazuki Nakajima’s car. Rebellion’s No. 1, driven by Frenchman Norman Nato, took advantage to move into second place behind Toyota’s No. 7.

Then came the decisive moment at 2:40 a.m. as the No. 7 – also featuring Argentine Jose Maria Lopez – encountered a turbo problem. When the car came back out it was back in fourth.

“We had a few problems early in the race,” Nakajima said. “Later they had a bigger issue than us.”

Rebellion’s No. 1 encountered a problem on the hood at around 9 a.m. and the change took six minutes, allowing the Rebellion No. 3 (Nathanael Berthon-Louis Deletraz-Romain Dumas) to close the gap.

It was becoming a tight battle between the two Rebellion cars behind Toyota’s No. 8.

At 12 p.m. Rebellion No. 3 with Dumas behind the wheel was only one second ahead of No. 1 driven by Menezes. Then both cars came in for a driver change with Deletraz swapping for Dumas on a lengthy stop, and Nato for Menezes as Rebellion No. 1 suddenly moved ahead of its team rival.

Dumas, a winner in 2016 with Porsche, appeared unhappy at the strategy decision to bring his car in first and the length of the stop. There were tense explanations in the team garage.

Colombian Tatiana Calderon, an F1 test driver with Alfa Romeo, was in the Richard Mille Racing Team in the LMP2 category. She was joined by German Sophia Florsch – an F3 driver – and Dutchwoman Beitske Visser. They placed ninth out of 24 in their category.