Monday, March 13, 2017

All Things Considered Pagenaud Good With Runner-Up Finish

St. Petersburg, Fla. (March 12, 2017) – Sometimes even “well-oiled machines” run into an occasional malfunction.

Things ran pretty smoothly for Simon Pagenaud and his Team Penske crew in 2016 as they rolled to five wins and eight podiums on their way to the 2016 Verizon IndyCar championship. Unfortunately, the 2017 season didn’t start the same way at the Firestone IndyCar Grand Prix of St. Pete, as problems with the new brake system put the team behind as soon as the weekend got started.

But they kept grinding away, and got a little luck too, and as a result, Pagenaud finished the day in the runner-up spot behind Sebastien Bourdais, the same finish he had last year at the start of his championship campaign.

“It was a difficult weekend, certainly one of the most difficult ones we’ve had in a long time,” Pagenaud said. “It was such a well-oiled machine last year and you throw one new component, in this case, the brakes, and it goes back to zero and you go back and start again.”

Pagenaud struggled with the No. 1 car through three practice sessions, then could only manage to qualify for Sunday’s 110 lap race around St. Pete’s 1.8-mile, 14-turn course. The team went to work on Saturday night and the car came to life on Sunday, with Pagenaud saying he felt like he was “back home” in the cockpit.

Like Bourdais, who started 21st, Pagenaud dodged a bullet on the very first lap of the race when he had to work around a Turn 3 accident between Graham Rahal and Charlie Kimball. The team had decided to pit a little earlier than the leaders in a quest to pick up some good track position, and luck was shining on them again when a yellow came out a couple of laps later and Pagenaud was shuffled up to the point.

He led Laps 27-36 and was up front for 13 laps on the day. Needing to save fuel, he wasn’t able to make a run at Bourdais, and finished 10.3508 seconds behind his fellow countryman.

“We regrouped and that’s where this team is incredible. This is a championship team, regrouping and understanding the issue we were having in qualifying,” Pagenaud said. “The car was fantastic in the race. After that we were a bit lucky with strategy, but that was the plan, and thanks to Kyle Moyer and Ben Bretzman for their work on that. We had to save fuel to manage to the end but Bourdais was untouchable.

“We’re happy with second.”

Bourdais "Speechless" After Improbable St. Pete Win

St. Petersburg, Fla. (March 12, 2017) -- When Sebastien Bourdais said down with his Dale Coyne Racing engineer, Craig Hampson, Saturday night to work through strategy for Sunday’s IndyCar Firestone Grand Prix of St. Pete, he didn’t think there was much they could do to fix their predicament.

Bourdais and his No. 19 DCR machine had been one of the quicker cars around the 1.8-mile, 14-turn temporary street circuit, but a first-lap crash in Turn 13 in qualifying Saturday left the 38-year-old Frenchman – and current St. Pete resident -- at the back of the field in the 21st starting position. 

A lot was going to need to go Bourdais’ way if he wanted to get to the front when the green flag fell, so imagine his surprise Sunday when 110 laps later he found himself covered in confetti in Victory Lane and celebrating the 36th win of his IndyCar career. Bourdais was able to take advantage of a yellow flag in the first third of the race to get to the front, then led 69 of the final 71 laps to win for DCR in his first race back with the team he had competed with in 2011.

“I’m speechless to be honest,” Bourdais said. “To come up on top with a lot of family and friends here, and the community supporting me, it’s a great feeling.”

Bourdais and the No. 19 DCR machine had been quick all weekend, but in qualifying Saturday he had a first-lap incident that left him without a time and starting at the back of the field.

 “You are thinking that you are having a great weekend, you have a good car that was on rails, is consistently fast, and you think things are going to go to plan,” Bourdais said. “Then Saturday, I felt miserable about myself because I (thought I) threw it all away. I left the meeting thinking that we were going to do the best we can but there was no way we were going to make any headway.”

The race itself didn’t get off to a very good start, either, as Bourdais had to negotiate a Turn 3 crash involving Graham Rahal and Charlie Kimball. But once he got going, he starting picking up momentum, and was knocking on the door of the Top 10 by the time he made his first pit stop.

The plan was to pit early and hope for a yellow flag to get track positon, and that’s exactly what happened. With the leaders stretching the fuel window a little longer, they were caught out on a Lap 26 caution that flew as the result of contact between Mikhail Aleshin and Tony Kanaan. That flipped the field and sent Bourdais – as well as Pagenaud, who after starting 14th was on the same strategy – to the front, where they stayed the rest of the race.

“We wanted to pit on the (early) side of the window because we didn’t want to get caught up by a yellow, then everyone in front of you except for one guy gets caught up and next thing you know we are P2,” Bourdais said. “What happened Saturday is pretty irrelevant at that point. At that point in my head I was thinking I was happy with where I was at.”

With the exception of Laps 55-56, which were led by Takuma Sato, Bourdais and Pagenaud led the rest of the race, with Bourdais passing Pagenaud for good on Lap 84.

Pagenaud was content with his runner-up finish as he had brake difficulties all week that led to a poor qualifying effort as well on Saturday. He and Bourdais were teammates when the pair raced in France a decade ago, and was happy to see his friend and countryman win in his first outing with his new team.

“It’s 1-2 for the French! Sorry for the French Revolution, guys,” Pagenaud said. “When everything is right (Bourdais) is one of those guys that is hard to touch, and (Sunday) he showed his strength. He won Champ Cars four years in a row, he’s one of the greats.”

Bourdais’ win breaks a tie with Bobby Unser for sixth all-time, and moves him just three behind Al Unser, Sr. for fifth.

Scott Dixon battled back from a mid-race mechanical hiccup to finish third, while Ryan Hunter-Reay and Sato rounded out the Top 5. James Hinchcliffe, who led 21 laps and dominated the race up until the Lap 26 yellow, finished ninth.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Live From St. Pete

Good morning!

Good morning from St. Pete! I'm putting my sportswriter hat on and will be live blogging the events from the media center -- except for the times I go out and actually watch some of the race. When I'm in the media center I'll be watching the TV feed and listening to the IndyCar Radio broadcast.

While I'm sure much of what I report will be a bit redundant to some, it will also be sprinkled with my own commentary. This is the editorial part of my coverage today, so I'll throw a lot of my opinions in here. I'll have the more serious stuff out later tonight or tomorrow when I get home and sleep until noon to catch up on what I have lost this week.

If you ever want to work in racing, there are two things you need to know: 1) you won't sleep a lot and 2) you will do a ton of walking, especially if you work in one of the developmental series as we don't get the best paddock assignments.

The media center actually runs right along the straight between Turns 9 and 10, which has already seen some action today. During the IndyCar warm-up this morning, Ryan Hunter-Reay lost his brakes and crashed hard into the tire barriers. Walking in I saw him riding back to the paddock on a scooter so it looks like he will be OK.

The car sustained some pretty heavy damage, so we will see if they decide to fix it or go to the backup car. His shunt no doubt will bring more concern among the teams, as this weekend they have experienced lots of problems with the new brake package.

Warm-up is over and the Indy Lights race is about to begin. Here's hoping for a fast and safe day of racing.

More on the warm-up

Looking at the time sheet from this morning, it appears that Scott Dixon is the early favorite to win the race, and Honda might been resurrected.

Dixon turned a lap of 1;01.9292, while Helio Castroneves was second and defending champ Simon Pagenaud was third. Again, who knows what everyone was working on this morning, but Dixon has been fast in every session this weekend. He has finished second three times here, but surprisingly has never won.

If you look at the combined results from all sessions, Honda has the six fastest times and seven of the top 9. As I blogged about earlier in the week, Chip Ganassi pretty much always gets what he wants.

Castroneves will be interesting to watch today. He's won three times at St. Pete and has stood on the podium six times in 11 starts, but after a sub-par qualifying effort he will begin the race in the 16th starting position. With teammate Pagenaud starting 14th, does Penske Racing take one of them off-strategy in an effort to get them to the front? Both will be starting the race on black tires.

Speaking of tires, the top 13 starters will go on alternates, as will Marco Andretti (starting 15th) and Sebastien Bourdais (21st). Mikhail Aleshin (17th), Ed Jones (18th), JR Hildebrand (19th) and Conor Daly (20th) will start on blacks.

Indy Lights

Pole-sitter Colton Herta, who finished second in the Race 1 yesterday, took the lead into the first turn and never gave it up to pick up the first Mazda Road to Indy win of his career. Santi Urrita was second and Pato O'Ward finished third.

Herta, of course, is the son of Bryan Herta, who won the Lights title in 1993, won four times in CART and IndyCar and has two Indy 500 wins as an owner. Colton leaves St. Pete with the points lead and will be back on track in a Lights car at Barber in April.

While his name and early racing success. naturally brings high expectations, Herta said he's focusing on development and knows they aren't going to win all of the races. And besides, since he only turns 17 in a couple of weeks, it's going to be a couple of years before he can think of moving up the final step of the MRTI ladder.

"I have plenty of time (to get there)," he said. "To come out of a this weekend with a championship lead, we just have to work at keeping it going."

A member of the media asked Herta if he told the instructor when he went to get his driver's license that he was a race car driver. Herta said he did not, but did mention that he passed his behind the wheel test the first time, unlike his dad, who needed two tries.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Friday at St. Pete

St. Petersburg, Fla. -- After a crazy first practice session that saw Marco Andretti with the fastest time, Honda powering eight of the 10 fastest cars, and five Chevys sitting in the bottom eight, order was restored in the afternoon session as teams geared up for Saturday qualifying at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Pete.

Thanks to an off-season switch to Honda by Chip Ganassi Racing, Honda place six cars in the Top 8, and while there were a lot of surprises in the morning session, the names on the top of the speed chart later in the day were more than a bit familiar.

Scott Dixon, who surprisingly enough does not count a win at St. Pete among his 40 career victories, covered the 1.8-mile, 14-turn circuit in one minute, 2.5591 seconds to lead the way, while teammates Tony Kanaan (1:02.8545) and Charlie Kimball (1:02.8748) were third and fourth, respectively.

The only driver who managed to break up the Ganassi monopoly was Team Penske's Will Power, who was second-quick at (1:02.8146). St. Pete resident Sebastien Bourdais, driving on his "home track", was fifth-best (1:02.9056) in his return to Dale Coyne Racing.

With all of the teams on different strategies and agendas as far as what they wanted to accomplish Friday, Dixon wasn't interested in "winning Friday", instead he and the team want to focus on building through the weekend.

"Friday doesn't pay anything and doesn't mean anything," Dixon said. "Hopefully we can continue to improve the car for tomorrow and the race on Sunday. (Saturday) should be interesting once everyone turns it up."

Power rebounded quickly from a crash in Turn 10 in the first session, which was a bit of deja vu as he crashed in the same place in the same session a year ago. That incident eventually led to Power missing the race, but this time he just suffered damage to the right rear of the car and will be in the mix to win for the fourth time on the streets of St. Pete.

Despite the speed chart looking like Honda "dominated" the session, the reality is that it was more parity than anything else. As is usually the case in IndyCar less than one second separated Dixon from Spencer Pigot, who was 18th on the grid in 1:03.4909.

"The grid looks pretty nicely mixed up with Honda and Chevy, which is great for competition," Power said. "It could make for a really competitive year."

IndyCar qualifying will begin at 2:55 this afternoon.

Track changes: Much of the circuit was repaved since last year's race, with the rest of the repaving scheduled between now and 2018, and the changes were met with positive reviews

"The track is nice and smooth, it’s a nicely done street course," Power said. "It’s kind of set the standard for what street courses should be. 

"We have a lot of lanes (now) to pass on. The bodykits have made the racing tougher, and closer. But the tires degrade quickly, which makes for good racing. I think we’ll have a good race."

The teams were thrown for a bit of a loop Friday morning when they arrived at the track to find that Turn 3 had been changed overnight as the result of several incidents in support series practice sessions the night before. About 180 feet of curbing was added to the corner to round it off in an effort to keep cars from impacting the wall on exit.

Dixon was very complimentary of the effort made to have the turn ready by Friday morning, and said the change should help some of the other series racing here, For the IndyCar machines, it narrowed up the corner and could take someone by surprise.

"It's different through Turn 3 because it used to be a flat corner," Dixon said. "(The change) was made more for the car with less downforce, but it made the corner tricky, and it's something that could catch you out at any moment."

Looking long term: After a New York Times piece ran Friday that pointed out the postivie growth of the series IndyCar announced Friday that long-term contracts had been secured with all four series manufacturers: Dallara, Firestone, Chevy and Honda. 

That type of commitment had been missing for quite some time in open wheel racing, and both Power and Dixon, whose careers overlap both the split and unified series era, feel that securing such deals will only benefit open wheel racing's future.

"You can see the momentum and the continuity (building)," Power said. "The drivers, teams and manufacturers shows strength in the series. There was once a time where we had different drivers every year, but now we have the same drivers, the same teams, and it’s heading in a great direction."

Dixon agreed, but like many he hopes a third engine manufacturer could be added to the mix as well.

"Kudos to everyone in the series and Jay( Frye) as well," Dixon said. "It shows that the manufacturers know that this is the right place to be. As we have all spoken about, if we can get an addition of one more (OEM) it will be ideal, and hopefully that will happen."

Monday, March 6, 2017

Fearless Predictions, 2017 Edition

Last week I spent over an hour recording a podcast, only to discover 1) I had editing problems and 2) I didn't really like it. While that goes completely against my "garage" sound philosophy, I thought I rambled a bit too much and went off on a few too many tangents.

I know...rambling and tangents. I never do that kind of stuff!

So here I am instead, blogging my 2017 predictions instead of talking about them. Trust me, this version will be just as good.

My first prediction…Simon Pagenaud is going to repeat as the series champion. Out of all of my predictions, I think this is the one that will more than likely happen. After all, ou are talking about a guy who right now is at the absolute apex of his driving abilities and is the perfect Penske driver in that he takes a very measured and methodical approach to his racing. I think he is a lot like Rick Mears in that sense – minus being absolutely omnipotent at Indy – in that he is patient and confident in his abilities and that of the car. Most importantly, the guy just doesn’t beat himself, and that’s what separates him from someone like, say, Will Power, who could probably have at least one more championship if he could keep his head into every race.

If Simon doesn’t win the championship then I could see 7-8 other drivers competing for the title, given how things might develop over the season. I think the big wild card will be how the Hondas perform, and I was reading today that they feel they have made up some ground. Then there the Ganassi factor. I don’t see Chip mailing in this season and hedging on things being better with the new cars next year. He doesn’t work that way. So there is something there that makes me feel like they will figure out a way to close up the gap. That will be something to watch early on this year.

I’m sticking with Penske for my second prediction that Josef Newgarden will win the Indy 500. Yes, I know that totally goes against my normal MO if sticking with one driver until he wins the race, and in this case I have hitched my wagon on the James Hinchcliffe train the last couple of years. But if you want to go on recent performance, it's hard to bet against Newgarden. He qualified second and finished third at IMS last year, and absolutely dominated the Iowa race (with mega props to Ed Carpenter Racing and JR Hildebrand for that). And, since Iowa in 2015 he has five top-4 finishes on ovals. As tough as he has been on ovals over the last couple of seasons, now he has the resources of Team Penske behind him. How can he not be the favorite?

If I had to pick a darkhorse in the title mix, I'm going with Carlos Munoz. AJ Foyt racing made the switch to Chevy this year, which is huge, and I thought Carlos did a nice job last year with Andretti, all things considered. I also think he's in the position to take the next step in his career. One metric I’ve always look at with a driver is where they stand after about 50 races. A lot of drivers, like Josef Newgarden and James Hinchcliffe for example, or even Simon, have shown a real uptick in their careers once they hit that 50-race threshold.

Of course there are several reasons for that, including working their way up the ladder in terms of competitive teams, and learning what it takes to contend on a weekly basis in such a competitive series, but if you research it, there is just something with that number. Sunday will mark Munoz' 54th career start, so I’m guessing an uptick will be coming from him as well.

Not only that, when you look at Foyt, one of the things that sticks out to me the last couple of years is that they seem to be really getting it together on the business side of things thanks to Larry Foyt, but you really have to go back to almost 2011 and Vitor Meira to find a really good full-time driver in that stable. Not to bash on Takuma Sato, but if you are looking to contend for a championship, he’s not your guy, and let's not even get started on Jack Hawksworth. But now the team has two good drivers in Munoz and Conor Daly, so everything seems to be pointing up for that team.

It's hard to call it a comeback because he's been here for years, but I look for JR Hildebrand to completely resurrect his career this year.  I’ve written and talked a lot about JR in the past as I think he got dealt a bit of a bad hand a couple of years ago and I respect how hard he has worked to make his way back. 

I don’t really subscribe to the whole “we need Americans in IndyCar” sort of thing, but we need drivers like JR. He’s smart, he’s articulate, he’s good with the media, and he brings a cool storyline given his background in engineering and some of the other things he’s done outside of racing. I think it would behoove the series and their media partners to start pushing a few different people, and he is one of them. He’s fast on ovals, we all know that, and if he has improved his road course skills at all he has a shot to have a very solid, successful season.

Of course, if you are talking a comeback, you also have to make mention of Marco Andretti, who was just absolutely awful last year, finishing in the top 10 only twice and coming home 16th in the points.
The thing is, and this is where we reach the real talk segment of the program, I am starting to wonder if he can make a comeback. 

This is a guy who has five podiums over the last four years and hasn’t won a race since the middle of 2011. I don’t think this is a talent thing, or an engineering thing, or even a who calls his races thing. I think it’s totally in the six inches between his ears. Marco just constantly puts way too much pressure on himself, and I think his confidence has taken a hit the last couple of years. 

He drives well at Indy because he’s always driven well at Indy and fully believes he’s going to win there someday, which is highly likely to happen. But he’s a mess on so many of the other tracks, and instead of going out and just driving he puts more pressure on himself and makes it harder for him to do his job. 

Granted, when a driver the caliber of Ryan Hunter-Reay finishes 12th in points, you’ve pretty much had a breakdown in your organization. But at the same time, RHR mustered up three podiums and Munoz two, and of course Alexander Rossi won the 500 with Munoz finishing second. So it wasn’t all bad for the rest of the drivers, except for Marco. 

The brutal reality is that next week he will make his 170th IndyCar start, and in that span has finished in the Top 10 in only half of those races. Add to that he turns 30 this year and this is a make or break year for him. The only problem is that he knows that as well, and instead of using the pressure to motivate him and to drive with confidence, I think that he might shrink from it instead.

OK, don't laugh at this last one, but one driver I think who will be vastly improved this year is Alexander Rossi. Hear me out though. As far as a rookie goes, Rossi had a very good season, I mean, any season is great when you add an Indy 500 win to your resume. But outside of Indianapolis, he had a very ordinary rookie-like campaign, which was kind of expected. I think it says a lot about this series that when you take a guy with Rossi’s resume and look at a few of the tough weekends he had this season.

What's interesting is that Rossi had some difficulties on the road courses, and that was something he admitted kind of frustrated him. We know he is good on ovals – he ran well at Phoenix, was fast all month at Indy, finished sixth at Iowa and was running well at Pocono when he was involved in that bizarre incident in the pits, and he should be much improved on the road courses now that he has seen them. This year he knows the tracks, has developed a great relationship with his team, and has an influx of money and resources. With that in mind I think he’s poised to be somewhere in the Top 8 in points and on the podium several times this season. Best of all I think he is in IndyCar to stay, which is a 180 degree turnaround from this time last year.

Isn't it the craziest of turnarounds, though? It was 51 weeks ago that I wrote my I Hate Alexander Rossi column, and now the guy is an Indy 500 champion and is slowly becoming a more popular person in the series. He's talented, he's humble and he gets it now, See, everything has a way of working out, doesn't it?

So here we go with 2017. I'll be heading to Florida on Tuesday and staying with my mom for a couple of days before the USF2000 stuff starts on Thursday, then I'll have my Ray Rayner* hat on for the rest of the week. Can't wait!

Editor's note: Ray Rayner hosted a morning kids' TV show on WGN in Chicago in the 1960s-70s, which I would watch before school. He had a hat that was a Cubs had on one side and a White Sox hat on the other, and he would turn it to one or the other when he talked about the previous days' game. That's kind of me and the whole PR-15DIM thing.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Getting the Band Back Together!

As dedicated readers of this blog know, I'm a big fan of late night movies. I mean, I love movies, but the late-night thing isn't really by choice, just necessity for a guy who has perpetual insomnia.

(Quick sidebar: I saw La La Land a couple of weeks ago. Thoughts? I loved it until the last 15 minutes, but then what a cruel twist. They should've been together, right?)

Over the last few weeks, one movie that has been heavily in the late night rotation has been Blues Brothers, the 1980 comedy starring John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, who as brothers Jake and Elwood Blues have a dilemma: the orphanage where they grew up is set to be closed because they can't afford the $5,000 in property taxes.

As anyone who has seen the movie knows, lots of hilarity ensues throughout the flick. One of the key scenes in the movie is when the boys go to a church on the South Side of Chicago, and during legendary James Brown's sermon and musical number, Jake (Belushi) sees a light from above that inspires him to get get the band back together, and put on a concert to raise the money.

Eventually they get the band back together, raise the money and embark on one of the best movie car chases of all time to get to the Cook County assessor's office in time.

So what does all of this have to do with me? Not a lot, but I thought it would be a good way to explain that I'm getting back into the game. Along with my duties with John Cummiskey Racing in the USF2000 series this week at St. Pete, I'm going to do my best to follow along with the goings-on with the IndyCar side of things, and do some reporting back in this blog.

So yes, 15 Days in May returns!

I've been thinking for a while that I want to get back involved in sportswriting, and when it comes to IndyCar, you all know I can write about it all day!

Look for some content from me starting Thursday night. I'm excited and hope that it is the start of a little bit of coverage all season long.