Simon Pagenaud earns his place in Indianapolis 500 history

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INDIANAPOLIS – When Simon Pagenaud arrived at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 10 to begin preparations for the IndyCar Grand Prix followed by the Indianapolis 500, the driver from France was presumably racing to save his ride at Team Penske.

Pagenaud had a 22-race winless streak and had not won a race since the 2017 season finale at Sonoma Raceway. A plausible scenario of speculation had Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi taking over Pagenaud’s No. 22 Chevrolet in 2020 because both drivers are in the final year of their contracts.

Rossi is extremely loyal to Honda, but who turns down a ride offer from Roger Penske?

Seventeen days later, Pagenaud, 35, has gone from being a driver with a long winless streak to the hottest driver in the NTT IndyCar Series. He won his first race in 23 attempts with a May 11 victory in the IndyCar Grand Prix, followed that the next week with the pole positions for the Indy 500 and won the 103rdIndianapolis 500 on Sunday.

It was an epic battle between Pagenaud and his supposed heir apparent in Rossi. The two drivers traded the lead over and over throughout the final 13 laps until Pagenaud made the race-winning pass in Turn 3 near the end of Lap 198.

A lap and a half later, Pagenaud was the Indy 500 winner.

The celebration began at Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s “Yard of Bricks” and lasted well into the night. The Team Penske celebration was at Punch Bowl Social in downtown Indianapolis, a popular nightspot that feature games and other events.

According to his fiancé, Hailey McDermott, they returned home shortly after midnight because a very busy week is ahead for the newest Indy 500 winner.

“My timeline has been busy,” Pagenaud said Monday morning at the scene of his greatest victory. “I haven’t had much time to myself. But I tell you, it’s all so sweet. Such great emotions, being able to savor the biggest race in the world. It’s quite amazing.

“It’s been a phenomenal following by the media. Yesterday we actually had seven hours of nonstop media after the race. I got back to my motorhome at 10 p.m. Got a quick steak, because I was a little hungry, then straight to celebrate with Team Penske downtown. Short night, but I feel real energized. I’m just feel so blessed and grateful for what happened obviously.

“This morning, I woke up after two hours of sleep, going to the photos, with no bags under my eyes surprisingly. It’s the sweetest photos you can do with your team, with your family. It’s great to be able to take that moment with them and just keep memories because it’s once in a lifetime, these kind of experiences.

“Obviously super proud. It’s good to be here.”

NBC’s first telecast of the Indianapolis 500 generated a 15 percent increase over last year’s telecast on ABC.

The telecast delivered a 3.86 overnight rating, (vs. 3.35 on ABC last year) and the best in three years. The overnight rating peaked in the final quarter-hour at 4.56 when Pagenaud outdueled Rossi to win his first Indy 500.

This was the highest overnight for a Sunday afternoon sports event on NBC in more than four months (Jan. 6, NFL Wild Card, 22.9) and the highest overnight for a sports event on Sunday.

The overnight rating does not include digital consumption. Final viewership, including digital, is expected later today.

Pagenaud woke up to about 700 text messages. He also said his emails have “blown up” with congratulatory messages.

“It’s quite phenomenal,” he said. “I had a lot of messages from friends. Obviously, when everybody woke up France, it was kind of a shock. Obviously a lot of messages from all my friends in America and other countries.

“What an incredible day. It’s difficult to fathom still. I haven’t had time to watch the race. That’s what I usually do. I go home always, I study the race, I look at it. If it’s a win, it’s obviously more enjoyable. Really want to watch this one and take the time for it.

I have other duties right now. I have to represent. I’m very proud to be an Indy 500 champion. I’ll do my best, like I do in the racecar, give it my 100 percent, be the best I can to represent you guys, represent the sport. To be honest, it’s the biggest spectacle in racing.”

One of those messages was from the President of the United States, who placed a phone call to team owner Roger Penske in Victory Lane. After speaking with President Trump for a few moments, Penske handed the phone to Pagenaud.

“President (Donald) Trump called me yesterday,” Pagenaud said. “I hope (French) President (Emmanuel) Macron will call me, as well. We’ll see what happens.

“I’m very lucky with Fred Lissalde, the CEO of BorgWarner is French. He said to me today, said it several times, ‘We’re going to take the Borg-Warner (Trophy) to France, celebrate there.’ That’s a phenomenal thing to do. I’m very thankful he wants to do that.

“BorgWarner is phenomenal for the sport. A trophy that exists since 1933. To think I’m going to be on it, we’re going to take it to France, probably the first time — must be the first time it’s ever going to happen.

“Again, I’m very blessed. That would be really cool to take it to the Champs-Elysées, celebrate with French people. We’ll see what happens.”

The victory has made Pagenaud a sports hero in France. He became the first Indianapolis 500 winner from France since Rene Thomas in 1914.

Pagenaud joined the ranks of Formula One’s Alain Prost of Formula One and rally racer Sebastien Loeb as great racing drivers from France.

“Those are big names, big names,” Pagenaud said. “Sebastien Loeb to me is the greatest driver ever. Rally is pure instinct driving, no calculation, just pure driving, being able to listen to the instruction and do it, in the dust, gravel, snow, tarmac, it’s special. You have to give it to him. I’m a big fan of Sebastien.

“Alain Prost was fighting with my idol (Ayrton) Senna, so it’s very special to be compared to them. I’ve got a lot to accomplish still. I don’t think of myself like that. I’m going to set myself more goals. That’s my nature.

“We’ll see when it retire, I can reflect on it later.”

In 1913, Jules Goux of France drank six bottles of champagne en route to his victory in the third Indianapolis 500. Pagenaud enjoys a good red wine, but on Sunday, he preferred the taste of milk.

“It was definitely amazing to drink the milk,” Pagenaud said. “To me tradition is everything, just like red wine can be. Tradition is everything. Being able to drink the milk yesterday was better than any wine or any champagne.”

Pagenaud arrived in Indianapolis fighting for his job. He leaves the capital city of Indiana leading the NTT IndyCar Series championship and is the hottest driver in the series.

He will be honored at Monday night’s Indianapolis 500 Victory Celebration at the JW Marriott in Indianapolis, where Pagenaud was awarded more than $2.6 million.

His springtime trip to Indiana has given the 35-year-old a renewed focus heading into this weekend’s doubleheader in Detroit – the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix.

“Tuesday morning, it’s back to business,” Pagenaud said. “I’ve got to focus on the championship. It’s been my goal the whole year. I’ve said it coming in, that I want to fight for the championship this year again. I want to do it again. I’ve done it once. I can do it twice. It’s just a matter of putting everything together, being consistent.

“I think it’s a year where you have to be consistently up front. Obviously we already have two wins. Realistically you want a minimum of three to have a good chance for the championship. We are almost right there. But you need consistency in the end.

“I think we’re ahead of the program. We’re already leading the championship now. The cars are behaving really well. It’s improving. It’s going to keep improving throughout the season as we go through.

“I’ve got a lot of expectation. Certainly feel like we have everything going in the right direction right now with Team Penske. The development is good. My teammates, we’re pushing each other really well. It’s fun.

“I enjoy my job more than ever. I’ve got so much drive. My motivation is the highest it’s ever been. I’m hungry. I want to win.

“Now I’m free. I can really focus on winning and going forward.”

Winning has allowed Pagenaud to free his mind of the challenges that come without a victory in more than one full season. His victory two weeks ago in the IndyCar Grand Prix started a roll of momentum that swept him to victory in the 103rdIndianapolis 500.

He is heading to Detroit at full throttle. He has a one-point lead over teammate Josef Newgarden, who finished fourth behind Pagenaud, Rossi and Takuma Sato in the Indy 500. Pagenaud has a 22-point lead over Rossi.

Pagenaud has gone from afterthought to legitimate championship contender over the past 17 days in Indianapolis.

He doesn’t expect to slow down anytime soon.

Hamilton, Bottas clock fastest times as F1 testing starts

Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty IPhoto by Mark Thompson/Getty Imagesmages
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MONTMELO, Spain — Mercedes drivers Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas sent an ominous signal to their challengers after clocking the two fastest lap times on the first day of Formula One’s preseason testing.

Hamilton set the top time of Wednesday’s opening session’s of 1 minute, 16.976 seconds, after he took over from Bottas behind the wheel of the new Silver Arrow for the 2020 season. Bottas’ best effort was 0.337 seconds slower.

The Mercedes duo also completed the most laps of any team with 173.

Sergio Perez of Racing Point was the third fastest, followed by Max Verstappen in his Red Bull.

Hamilton enters the season as the clear favorite as he seeks to equal Michael Schumacher’s record of seven world titles and surpass the German’s mark of 91 career wins. Hamilton has six titles and 84 wins.

“It’s been a good day and a really good start for all of us, considering we had a long break,” Hamilton said. “So to come back and clock in over 170 laps just shows how hard everyone has been working over the winter.”

In last year’s preseason testing, the Mercedes cars were slower than the rival Ferraris. But they beat them come the first race of the year and never lost their advantage.

Hamilton and Bottas had nine one-two race finishes last season as they dominated the field to finish first and second in the overall points standings.

Wednesday’s eight hours of running went smoothly for all teams, with no accidents or breakdowns and good weather ideal for high speeds.

The only setback was for Sebatian Vettel, who couldn’t run as scheduled because of an illness.

Charles Leclerc took Vettel’s place and settled for the 11th best time of the 15 drivers who drove.

Leclerc, who finished fourth ahead of Vettel last season, said that his team had changed strategy.

“Last year in testing we were great but the first race was a little less great, and I think we have learned a few things on this,” he said. “This year we have started trying to focus more on ourselves and on trying to learn the car as much as possible during these first few days and then focus on performance later on.”

Verstappen finished third last season and is expected to again be biggest challenger to Mercedes’ dominance along with the two Ferraris.

Verstappen focused on accumulating 168 laps as Red Bull’s sole driver on the track. Alexander Albon will get his turn with the Red Bull on Thursday.

Williams’ George Russell was the first car to take the track, ensuring his team got off to a better start than during last year’s preseason when its car wasn’t ready to run until the third day of testing.

This year’s rules have not varied much ahead of the massive overhaul of regulations set to take effect in 2021 with the goal of shaking up the pecking order and closing the gap between the three traditional title challengers – Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull – and all the rest.

This season’s tweaks feature fewer tests days to compensate for the record-breaking 22 races on the calendar, including a new Vietnam GP and the return of the Dutch GP. Preseason testing has been reduced from a total of eight days to six, and the mid-season test has been eliminated.

Cars will now sport shark fins on the engine cover with the number of the driver to help fans identify them better. Drivers have been given more control of the go sequence at the starting line, and those large screens that crews would wheel out to shield cars from the view of snoopy rivals during tests have been banned.

Alfa Romeo and Haas unveiled their cars early on Wednesday in the pitlane to complete the presentation of the new vehicles for this season.

Testing continues on Thursday and Friday at the Barcelona-Catalunya Circuit, home to the Spanish GP, and again from Feb. 26-28.

The season-opening Australian GP is on March 15.