IndyCar

Simon Pagenaud looks to repeat at Phoenix, regain championship

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To paraphrase the late Glen Campbell, by the time Simon Pagenaud gets to Phoenix this weekend, he’ll be dreaming about winning again.

Pagenaud has good reason to think that way: he won last year’s Verizon IndyCar series race at the one-mile oval. And that came after finishing second in IndyCar’s return to the track in 2016 after a 10-year absence.

To say Pagenaud is primed to earn another win – or a podium finish at the very least – is putting it mildly. In this season’s first race on an oval track, the French driver is looking forward to taking the checkered flag once again in the 250-lap sprint.

“I’m very confident going in,” Pagenaud told MotorSportsTalk. “We had a great open test there (in February), our car was behaving really well.

“This is all so new to us because we have this new Indy car. It behaved a lot different than the previous one. It has a lot less downforce and accelerates down the straightaway a lot more, so it’s quite a bit different.

“There’s a lot more to think about when you drive, a lot more adjustments needed, so I think it’s going to be good for the race (the first oval of the season). I’m excited. I think Team Penske has done a great job preparing for these kind of events, so I think we’re in good shape.”

After winning five races en route to the 2016 IndyCar championship, Pagenaud was still very competitive in 2017, but won just twice and finished second to teammate Josef Newgarden by 13 points in the championship battle.

Admittedly, the 2018 season-opening race at St. Petersburg last month was not the new season’s debut the three-car Team Penske operation hoped for.

Newgarden was the highest Team Penske finisher (7th), while Will Power was 10th and Pagenaud was 13th in the 24-car field.

“I know that we may have had a one-off weekend and really, quite frankly, I think it was a one-off,” Pagenaud said. “All three of us had some sort of bad luck at some point in the race, but it didn’t reflect the team performance, but we’ll be back up there very shortly.

“And if not, we’ll work hard and find a way. That’s the way it is at Team Penske. We don’t look back, we only look forward. That’s what I love about this team, that we’re always finding ways (to succeed).

“I know we’ll be fighting for the championship, if not all of us, one of us will be. And I’m hoping it will be me, but right now it’s a matter of cracking the code of the car. We’ll be there soon. It’s like one for all and all for one.”

Pagenaud likes the new-style Indy car for this season, but like several of his peers in the series, he admits he’s still getting used to it.

“It’s quite a bit different,” Pagenaud acknowledged. “It’s the first time since 2012 that the weight has been moved forward that much. The weight has been moved by two percent forward, that’s a lot for us.

“It’s definitely changed completely the characteristics of the car. It’s funny but as a racer, you always think about the next time you’re going to be on-track and how you’re going to drive, what you need to adapt to the car.

“I do think there has to be a little bit of change on the driving style. I wouldn’t say it’s better or worse, for me it’s just an evolution and I have to adapt. It’s what I’m being given, so the goal is to be the best at it and at the moment, I need to improve in it and find ways to do that.”

The overall dynamic at Team Penske is different this season than in years past, as the operation has slimmed down from a four-car team to a three-car team for the first time since 2014.

“I think the biggest difference is Helio (Castroneves) is such a great spirit, he always brings joy, everybody loves him, there’s no trash talk,” Pagenaud said. “He’s just him, everybody knows him and he’s been around the team for almost 20 years. He has big respect.

“He also had a leadership going that we all liked, he was a reference, a benchmark. Now he’s gone, only coming back for the Indy 500. It’s definitely different, but we’ve kept a good atmosphere, have tried to keep it light in the engineering room and to keep that at-ease attitude. To me, he’s an example.”

Pagenaud is in his ninth full season in Indy car racing. Including one season in CART (2007) and eight seasons in IndyCar since 2011, he’s racked up five top-five season finishes in his career, including his championship season in 2016.

He said that 2018 could be the best season of all for both him and the series, given how IndyCar is riding a wave of increased attendance, TV ratings and overall fan popularity and media interest in the sport.

It’s definitely a season he’s looking forward to see how it plays out, both on- and off-track.

“The future is bright, IndyCar is on the rise and I’m excited,” Pagenaud said. “When we were in St. Pete, seeing the crowds and walking through the paddock, having difficulty to get to the driver intro was great, it was phenomenal (he said with a laugh).

“I was really excited. People love the sport, they love the way the cars look right now and we gave them a great show for the first race, and it’s only the first race. I was saying to Mark Miles (President/CEO of Hulman & Company, parent company of IndyCar) the other day that we’re staying true to our value, to what IndyCar is, the fact we like big cars, big horsepower, noise and on-track fights (he said with another laugh).

“And we’re doing that all on the racetrack. I’m just excited to be part of the sport. I’m glad I made the right decision (to come to the series to race) and I’m grateful enough to get a good ride.”

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F1 Preview: 2018 German Grand Prix

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The German Grand Prix continues its biennial presence on the Formula 1 calendar – it’s hosted F1 events in even numbered years since 2014 – as Formula 1 returns to the Hockenheimring this weekend.

The German fans will undoubtedly be joyful in Sebastian Vettel entering his home race in the championship lead, by nine points over Lewis Hamilton. Yet, somewhat surprisingly, Vettel despite being one of the most successful and decorated drivers of his generation, Vettel has won in Germany only once (2013, at the Nurburgring) and he has never won at Hockenheim.

Conversely, Hamilton has won in Germany three times, including twice at Hockenheim (2008 and 2016).

As such, Vettel will hope to add to his points lead over Hamilton with a win on home soil, though Hamilton may be equally as motivated after watching Vettel his own home race at Silverstone two weeks ago.

Nevertheless, their 2018 championship duel will most certainly continue to be closely fought.

Talking points ahead of the German Grand Prix are below.

A Different World in 2018 vs. 2016

Nico Rosberg during the Formula One Grand Prix of Germany at Hockenheimring on July 31, 2016 in Hockenheim, Germany. Photo: Getty Images

The Formula 1 landscape looked completely different back in 2016, the last time Formula 1 visited the Hockenheimring. Bernie Ecclestone was still the chief executive of Formula 1.

Nico Rosberg was partnering Lewis Hamilton in the Mercedes team, and was on his way to a driver’s championship that year.

Vettel and teammate Kimi Raikkonen were in the midst of a slump as Ferrari went winless in 2016.

The world was still getting to know a then 18-year-old Max Verstappen, the young Dutchman having won the Spanish Grand Prix in May that year.

And the cars looked completely different, with skinnier and taller rear wings and taller rear tires highlighting the appearance differences.

In 2018, Vettel and Ferrari might be the strongest combination. Rosberg is long from Mercedes, and Valtteri Bottas is doing his best to shine in the wake of Hamilton’s enormous shadow.

Verstappen is still a rising star, though he has come under fire at times for overly aggressive driving and his Red Bull teammate Daniel Ricciardo has garnered more headlines this year, with a pair of race wins alongside his status as an F1 free agent after 2018.

In short, the Formula 1 landscape is hardly recognizable from what it was back in 2016. And even though Hamilton won that year, followed by Ricciardo and Verstappen in second and third, very little will carry over from that race two years ago.

Hamilton, Mercedes Look to Take Back Momentum from Vettel, Ferrari

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND – JULY 08: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes WO9 leads Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF71H on track during the Formula One Grand Prix of Great Britain at Silverstone on July 8, 2018 in Northampton, England. (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)

The seesaw championship fight has tilted back in the favor of Ferrari, with Vettel leading Hamilton after finishes of third and first in Austria and England. Hamilton, meanwhile, DNF’ed in Austria and came home second in England after spinning on Lap 1.

Hamilton trails by nine points, but this is hardly an unfamiliar position for Hamilton in 2018 – he started the year trailing Vettel until he took the championship lead for the first time after the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.

Both teams have had multiple swings of momentum this year – Vettel won the opening two races before finishes of eighth in China (he spun after contact with Verstappen) and a pair of fourth place efforts in Azerbaijan and Spain before getting two more wins in Canada and England.

Hamilton, meanwhile stumbled out of the gates somewhat with finishes of second and third before taking a fortuitous win in Azerbaijan and two dominant wins in Spain and France before the misfortune in Austria.

All told the ebb and flow of the 2018 season seems to change with every race, and while Vettel now leads Hamilton again, things could change this weekend.

Raikkonen Trying to Fend off Ricciardo, Bottas

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND – JULY 06: Kimi Raikkonen of Finland driving the (7) Scuderia Ferrari SF71H on track during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Great Britain at Silverstone on July 6, 2018 in Northampton, England. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Kimi Raikkonen is somewhat of a forgotten man this Formula 1 season, but he does rank third in the championship at the moment, 10 points ahead of Ricciardo and 12 points ahead of Bottas.

However, both Ricciardo and Bottas are likely thought to have had better seasons – Ricciardo has the aforementioned wins (at China and Monaco) and the only thing that has kept Bottas from the top step of the podium is a string of horrendous luck.

However, Raikkonen, to his credit, has picked up the pieces whenever others around him have faltered, and he has six podium finishes through 10 races.

However, in order to fully silence any critics, and maybe even keep his Ferrari drive, Raikkonen would do well to get a win in 2018.

Misc.

  • The driver challenging Raikkonen’s position within Ferrari is Sauber’s Charles Leclerc. The Ferrari junior driver has five points finishes, and that could have been six if not for a pit stop error at Silverstone that caused him to leave his pit stall with a loose wheel – it forced him to retire. Leclerc’s star is on the rise, and he could shine again in Germany.
  • Nico Hulkenberg is the “other” German driver on the grid. And though he has a 24 Hours of Le Mans win to his name, he is yet to finish on the podium in an F1 race. The Renault package may not be a podium threat in usual circumstances, but if he stays clean and others falter, he could sneak in there…and doing so in his home race would make that overdue podium even sweeter.
  • After a pair of eighth place finishes, Fernando Alonso has helped McLaren at least stop the bleeding after a dismal stretch of races from Monaco through France in which the team scored zero points. However, the team still has a long way to go, and Germany could be another weekend of struggles.

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