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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A viewer’s guide to the 2023 Rolex 24 at Daytona: What to watch in the debut of GTP

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The 61st Rolex 24 at Daytona could put an unbelievable twist on one of motorsports’ most famous adages: Money buys speed, how fast do you want to go?

Money is being burned at an ungodly rate for the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season opener, but the correlation between cash and performance might be completely disjointed after 24 hours on the Daytona International Speedway road course.

The debut of a new premier hybrid prototype category has some of the world’s largest automakers flocking to the Grand Touring Prototype (GTP), where annual budgets have been estimated at $15 million per for the new Le Mans Daytona hybrid (LMDh) cars.

With nine GTP cars starting the Rolex 24 at Daytona across Acura, BMW, Cadillac and Porsche, it’s safe to say the manufacturers have committed at least nine figures to launching what many are calling a new golden age for sports car racing.

But there’s no guarantee that any of the cars will finish the race. In fact, some are predicting it’s inevitable that all will spend at least some significant time in the Daytona garage repairing a high-tech car that never has raced for 24 consecutive hours. And in an era of pandemic-related supply-chain worries, there are major concerns that full repairs will be impossible even if necessary.

DETAILS FOR THE 61ST ROLEX 24How to watch, entry lists, schedules for the IMSA season opener

FIVE THINGS TO WATCH IN GTPRolex 24 at Daytona kicks off new golden era for sports cars

It’s added another layer to the pressure involved with one of the most prestigious races in the world.

“From a manufacturer perspective, this is high-stakes motorsports,” Wayne Taylor Racing No. 10 Acura driver Ricky Taylor told NBC Sports. “This is as big as it gets. To debut at the Rolex 24 is such a high-stakes event and puts such a big test on everybody. The pressure all the manufacturers and teams are under is immense. Once we get through it and survive, there’ll be a sigh of relief. But until then, we all feel the eyes of the manufacturers on us.

“It’s going to be a pressure cooker for sure.”

Along with “unpredictability” and “reliability” being buzzwords the past two weeks at Daytona, there also has been some wistful predictions that this year’s Rolex 24 will be a throwback to a bygone era when endurance races truly were a survival of the fittest instead of the fastest.

After turning into a series of 24 one-hour sprint races for many years, no one is predicting that drivers will punish their equipment with so much at stake and so few safety nets.

“This race is going to be like races from the bloody ‘70s and ‘60s,” pole-sitter Tom Blomqvist of defending race winner Meyer Shank Racing told NBC Sports. “So it’ll be like when you watch that ‘Ford vs. Ferrari,’ and they’re coming into the pits repairing serious things and still going out and coming back. It’s going to be like that, mate.

“Yeah, we don’t know. We are not 100 percent confident that our car is as reliable as it needs to be. We definitely would have liked another year. All season before we came here to this race. But everyone’s in a similar boat. Some manufacturers are further down the line than others in terms of mileage. We’re still finding things popping up here and there that we didn’t see or suspect. It’s going to be a tough race without a doubt. I’m almost certain that we’ll be spending some time in the garage. Hopefully we get lucky, but let’s say we’re not going to be surprised if we are back in the garage at some point. We don’t want to jinx anything, but it’s prepare for the worst and hope for the best sort of thing.”

Teammate Simon Pagenaud said the race will be “the 24 Hours of the Mechanics. It’s going to be a team that’s able to repair the car the fastest way possible. It’s a little more like it used to be about reliability and making sure you take care of your equipment.

“We don’t have enough time yet to be able control fully the reliability, and we haven’t done enough laps to be able to say what’s going to break first or second. You’re going into it with a bit of jitters not knowing. It’s going to be definitely a very, very different race, I think.”

Here’s a viewer’s guide of some topics to keep an eye on during the 61st Rolex 24 at Daytona:

Testing time: Though announced in January 2020, LMDh cars have been on track since only about a year ago. Porsche was the first to commit and has logged more than 30,000 kilometers of testing. Cadillac also has done significant real-world testing, but Acura admittedly has done little endurance testing, and BMW has tried to play catch up since being the last automaker to commit to the project.

Only Porsche and Cadillac can claim to have simulated the duration that cars will face this weekend. Porsche Penske Motorsport conducted a 36-hour test that managing director Jonathan Diuguid confirmed was “slightly higher” than 24 hours consecutively. Gary Nelson, team manager for Action Express, confirmed the No. 31 Cadillac ran for a full 24 hours at Sebring International Raceway last November. Acura also had attended the session but cut the test short after mechanical problems.

–Tortoise and hare: Every manufacturer has at least two cars, which creates opportunities for divergent strategies. When his team won the 2010 Rolex 24 at Daytona, Nelson said it was pushed hard by Chip Ganassi Racing’s prototypes in this tactic to wear down the competition.

“In old-school endurance racing, they’d call one a rabbit,” Nelson told NBC Sports. “He’d try to run the guts out of everybody to keep up with him, while the other (car) just followed around. There’s potential for something like that. I don’t think it’s in our playbook, but potentially there are people in these corporate offices, these manufacturers coming in, because they advanced through racing in the ‘80s and ‘90s and now they are managing these motorsports programs for these corporations. It’s very possible there’s someone from that era will say we’re going to have one rabbit, one tortoise. That’s very likely.

“We see that, I don’t think we take the bait. I think we stay with the plan.”

–LMP2 overall win? If mechanical problems do crop up for the GTP cars, the door will be opened for a victory by a car in the junior LMP2 prototype class. The LMP2 cars lap a few seconds slower and will need to make roughly nine extra pit stops than the GTP cars.

But according to NBC Sports analyst Calvin Fish, those factors would leave LMP2 cars about an hour behind GTP. That means if major mechanical problems befall all the GTP cars, an LMP2 likely would be leading. Diuguid said it would take over an hour to change out the major components on the hybrid system.

“If you have to change the gearbox, a suspension component or a hybrid component, your opportunity to win is probably over,” Diuguid said.

Nelson also predicted that teams will be more aggressive with making brake changes. Though his car’s brakes made it 24 hours last year, they generally require at least one swap. Nelson believes that will happen anywhere between the sixth and 18th hour – but probably on the early end in a concept similar to short pitting in NASCAR.

“We’re hoping our brakes make it all the way and haven’t seen anything that told us they won’t,” Nelson said. “A few years ago, we were changing brakes on anything between 6 and 18 hours. If everybody had to change the brakes in past years and you’re the last to do it, you have the least amount of time to gain it back.”

–Electric pit stops: Though it’s not IMSA-mandated, teams are using electric power only to enter and exit the pits for myriad reasons. The practice allows for a more efficient acceleration and deceleration that helps ensure hitting the speed limit. And it puts less strain on gearboxes that will be stressed over 24 hours.

–New tire strategies: With teams restricted to about a dozen fewer sets of tires, teams will be double-stinting for fuel only without opting for fresh rubber.

Nelson said the Action Express Whelen Engineering team was planning to make its tire changes coincide with its driver changes (unlike the normal practice of changing tires on most pit stops).

–Three’s the magic number: More than half the GTP teams are employing a trio of drivers instead of the maximum four that has been popular with many teams in past years. Though Colton Herta is listed as the fourth driver on BMW’s two cars, the IndyCar star might only drive one.

The shift comes as Penske and Porsche plan to field full-time entries in the World Endurance Championship, which allows only three drivers per car.

–GTD battles: Mercedes dominated qualifying, but there have been charges of sandbagging by the Ferrari and Porsche GT favorites.

That isn’t the case with defending GTD Pro class winner Pfaff Motorsports, whose No. 9 Porsche struggled to make laps in practice.

Women in racing: Led by the all-female Iron Dames lineup, there will be several opportunities for women to reach the podium or take a class victory at the Rolex 24 at Daytona. Sports car ace Katherine Legge is teamed with Sheena Monk on the No. 66 for Gradient Racing.