Simon Pagenaud looks to repeat at Phoenix, regain championship

IndyCar
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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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Lessons learned in three rounds of Extreme E pay huge dividends in the Copper X Prix for Tanner Foust

Foust Copper X Prix
McLaren Racing
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To paraphrase the Grateful Dead, what a long, unique trip it’s been for Tanner Foust in his first season with the Extreme E series as he took his early season lessons to Chile to compete in the Copper X Prix. And he’s learned his lessons well.

In February, McLaren announced they would expand their motorsports program with an Extreme E entry. They signed two talented rally drivers in Foust and Emma Gilmour – and paired them for the opening round in Neom, Saudi Arabia with just a few days of testing under their belts. Baked by the Arabian desert sun, it was trial by fire.

The duo performed well in their debut, advancing into the final round and finishing fifth. As Extreme E headed to another desert halfway across the globe for Round 4, it was a good time to catch up with Foust and ask about McLaren’s progress. The Copper X Prix was held this past weekend in one of the most extreme regions in the world: the Atacama Desert.

MORE: McLaren considering Kyle Busch for Indy 500

“The shock going into the first race was the speed,” Foust told NBC Sports. “It was much higher than we had tested. We spent a lot of time around 100 miles per hour [in race trim] and our testing speeds were more in the 60 to 70-mile range. Then, once we sort of got around that, the car got updated so you can drive it even faster.”

In rally racing, some incidents are out of a driver’s control. Even peeking around another car can be dangerous because of potholes that have recently been gouged in the ground or large bushes that seem to sprout up between laps. A couple of rollovers brought Foust back to earth – but the pace was there and that was important.

“We had some challenges this season,” Foust said prior to the Copper X Prix. “We had a good start; made the final, which is a difficult thing to do in this series. I had two rolls in the first three events, but I have improved each time. Now we come into Round 4 in Chile in a pretty strong position. We have competitive times as a team. We are communicating really well and have our heads around this Odyssey vehicle.”

Foust’s words proved to be prophetic.

He won the Crazy Race – Extreme E’s version of a Last Chance Qualifier – and did so after passing the field. It was the same manner in which he qualified for Saudi Arabia’s finale, but this time things would be better. There were those hard-earned lessons on which to lean – and Foust had reps under his belt. He was not going to be caught off guard by any random obstacles.

Tanner Foust passed Sebastien Loeb heading to the Switch Zone in the Copper X Prix. (Photo by Sam Bagnall / LAT Images)

In the Copper X Prix finale, he pressured one of the best rally drivers in the history of the sport.

Pitching sideways through a tight left-hander late in his stint, Foust put his McLaren Extreme E Odyssey at the head of the pack in front of Sebastien Loeb as they headed to the Switch Zone. There, he would turn the car over to his co-driver Gilmour.

The Extreme E series pairs male and female drivers with both taking a turn behind the wheel.

After the driver change, Gilmour lost the lead momentarily to Loeb’s teammate Cristina Gutierrez, but as they charged toward the finish line, she surged ahead and crossed under the checkers first.

“What an improvement for the team over this year,” Foust said after the race. “We have struggled through some of the events, being in our first year in competition. We showed true pace this weekend; overtaking Sebastien Loeb was a highlight.

“Emma put in a great run in the Final. I was fortunate to go from last to first in the Crazy Race and then first in the Final but with some flag penalties, we had 20 seconds added to our time, which put us into fifth. It was a great feeling crossing the line first, I love this wide style track and the NEOM McLaren Odyssey was fantastic here.

“Hopefully we can continue that momentum into Uruguay.”

Loeb and Gutierrez were elevated to the top of the podium, but no one can take away the feeling of crossing under the checkers first.


Racing Responsibly

Since cars were first invented, racing has played a socially responsible role by improving safety. As Earth reaches a tipping point with climate change, racing needs to adapt to these new needs and requirements, which is where Extreme E’s unique strategy becomes increasingly important.

The Extreme E experience is more than simple racing. Each race is accompanied by a legacy program designed to offset damage done by climate change and to erase the footprint caused by the events.

Foust, a biology major from the University of Colorado, was given the chance to rekindle his interest and give back to the environment ahead of the Copper X Prix.

The Atacama is the oldest desert in the world at 150 million years. It is the driest place on earth and has the highest degree of ultraviolet light. And yet somehow life perseveres through underground rivers with oases dating back to Incan times. Foust participated in preparing a local habitat for the reintroduction of a critically endangered water frog to Chile’s longest river, the Loa, which snakes its way through the desert.

“I’m loving the experience,” Foust said. “I’m putting on a lot of Chapstick, a lot of sunscreen. What a fascinating part of the world. I never would have come here otherwise.

“I honestly am very honored to be a part of this sport. I am a huge believer in the fact that motorsports has done us good in the last 100 years. I think we benefit every single time we put our seatbelts on and drive down the road to the lessons learned in racing since the turn of the century. And I really hope motorsports continues that tradition.

“I think that motorsports like [Extreme E] does it in a responsible way, a gender-neutral way and a carbon-neutral way.”