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John Sturbin: Penalty Can’t Slow Rookie Pagenaud’s Good Mood

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, March 25 2012

Simon Pagenaud can't wait to hit the streets of St. Petersburg on Sunday. (Phillip Abbott LAT Photo USA)

A 10-spot starting grid penalty typically would spell gloom-and-doom for a rookie driver on a street circuit. That dilemma apparently got lost in translation for Frenchman Simon Pagenaud, who anxiously is awaiting his IZOD IndyCar Series debut in Sunday’s season-opening Honda Grand Prix of St.

Petersburg.

Pagenaud blocked-out his looming penalty – the result of an unapproved engine change by Schmidt-Hamilton Motorsports after practice Friday – to qualify sixth during Saturday’s Firestone Fast Six, the final round of INDYCAR’s “knockout-style” time trials on road and street courses. Pagenaud covered the 14-turn, 1.8-mile circuit in 1 minute, 023.1095-seconds at 104.332 mph to take best-in-class honors for entries powered by the new 2.2-liter turbocharged Honda V-6.

Led by pole-sitter Will Power of Team Penske (1:01.3721-seconds at 105.585 mph), Chevrolet-powered turbo V-6 entries swept the top-five positions in the 26-car field. The 100-lap/181-mile event will be broadcast live on ABC at 12:30 p.m. (EDT), with additional coverage on the IMS Radio Network, XM Channel 145 and Sirius Channel 211. Both the radio broadcast and live timing and scoring also can be accessed at www.indycar.com.

Pagenaud, a 27-year-old native of Poitiers, France, accepted his infraction-induced 16th starting spot with an upbeat attitude typical of team co-owners Sam Schmidt and Davey Hamilton.

“I love street circuits,” said Pagenaud, driver of the No. 77 Schmidt-Hamilton HP Motorsports Dallara DW12/Honda. “It is very intense and gets you an adrenaline rush. You’re that close to the wall sometimes, and sometimes you brush it. I love it. It’s a combination of even more of car and driver. You really need to feel as one with your car and you need to work really hard with your engineer to get everything you need out of it.

“The track is fantastic. There are some fast speed corners like the back chicane, some slow speed. The infield is very nice. And you feel very close to the ground, it makes it fun.”

Backtracking to Friday, Pagenaud was fifth on the time chart during the first practice session. After Pagenaud shut off the car and guided it into the pit box during the afternoon session, general manager Rob Edwards decided to end the practice early so team and Honda engineers could analyze data and prepare the car for qualifying.

Honda Performance Development engineers decided an engine change was in order. But the switch fell outside of INDYCAR’s parameters for an approved engine change – not meeting its mileage limit or is damaged – triggering the penalty under terms of Rule 15.6.1. Pagenaud, incidentally, was quickest of the 26 cars during the morning session (1:01.8929-seconds).

“I like the qualifying format. I think it is great,” said Pagenaud, who made a combined three series starts last year for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing and HVM Racing. “It shows the Fast Six and I like that the excitement keeps creeping all the way through. It is exciting for the fans and even for the driver. I wish we had another new set of (Firestone) tires on the last one – I think it would be even more exciting.”

Team Penske’s all-star driver lineup took three of the top-five positions, as Will Power claimed his third consecutive pole on the Streets of St. Pete and 25th of his IndyCar Series career. Power will start opposite teammate Ryan Briscoe (1:01.5357-seconds at 105.305 mph), the only pair to top 105 mph.

Meanwhile, Helio Castroneves spent much of qualifying asking, “Can you hear me now?” Castroneves earned the fifth-place starting spot with a hot lap of 1:01.9987-seconds at 104.518 mph in the No. 3 Shell V-Power Pennzoil-Ultra Team Penske Dallara/Chevrolet. A two-time winner at St. Petersburg, Castroneves overcame a brush with the wall during the second round of qualifying as well as a communication glitch.

“Yes, definitely the Shell V-Power boys did an incredible job fixing my car for qualifying; unfortunately I was having problems with communication,” Castroneves said. “I couldn’t understand anything on the backstraight or any straight at all. I kept asking them what position am I in and what’s going on, and nobody was giving any information at all. I could see they were trying to communicate but it wasn’t working. So I just started pushing and pushing as hard as you can because nobody is saying anything.

“So, unfortunately I went over the limit of the car and end up hitting the Turn 9 (barrier), and I thought it was over. We weren’t able to get in the top three, but the guys came fully-focused to fix the car and rear suspension and in seven minutes they switched the entire suspension and we were able to go back there. What a great testament (to) the hard work for everyone. I know the road is going to be tough (Sunday), but if we keep working as a team, we’re certainly going to get the result that we want.”

The winner of 25 career races – including three Indianapolis 500s – Castroneves will be out to end an 18-race winless streak dating to Twin Ring Motegi in Japan in September 2010.

Sunday’s race will be IndyCar’s eighth contested on the Streets of St. Pete, where Dan Wheldon won the inaugural on April 3, 2005. A native of England who adopted the Florida city as his American hometown, Wheldon died as the result of head injuries suffered in the season-ending event at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Oct. 16.

The new Dallara DW12 chassis has been named in honor of Wheldon, who conducted the majority of testing last summer with members from the 2011 Indianapolis 500-winning crew at Bryan Herta Autosport. On Friday, Helio Castroneves accepted the 2011 IZOD IndyCar Series Favorite Driver award on behalf of Wheldon at the INDYCAR Fan Village. Castroneves was second in the voting.

Additionally, Marco Andretti is among a number drivers honoring Wheldon, the 2005 series champion with Andretti Green Racing. Andretti is wearing a special helmet to honor Wheldon, who also won his first Indy 500 in 2005. Marco’s helmet incorporates elements of Andretti’s traditional design along with Wheldon’s signature gear.

“Obviously, we’re going to be driving with very heavy hearts because of Dan Wheldon,” said Andretti, driver of the No. 26 Team RC Cola Dallara/Chevrolet. “He was proud to call this place home, so we’re going to try to enjoy ourselves and we’re going to compete because Dan was a competitor.

“Yeah, the first thing I thought (was) I don’t want to do too much because a lot of it is being thrown in Susie’s face, his wife. But I called her and said I’d like to do something. And basically my painter worked with Dan’s, and we came up with something.”

Former Formula One star Rubens Barrichello qualified 14th for his IndyCar debut, posting a top lap of 1:02.2009-seconds at 104.179 mph in the No. 8 BMC/Embrase KV Racing Technology Dallara/Chevrolet. A mechanical problem Friday limited Barrichello to eight practice laps, and the 39-year-old Brazilian admittedly spent the weekend playing catch-up.

Still, Graham Rahal said Barrichello likely will prove a quick-learner and a key addition to the series among fans. “Rubens has almost a couple of million followers on Twitter. That’s far more than any racing person in this country,” said Rahal, who won this race in his series debut in April 2008, becoming the youngest IndyCar winner at 19 years, 93 days. “In a worldwide basis he is so well-known and he is so talented, and so well-respected. He is a huge addition to our series.

“He’s going to find how different ovals are, but I think he’s going to enjoy it. He’s already saying that he really enjoys racing and testing with us because it’s more relaxed and more of a fun environment. He’s a fantastic guy. I cannot wait to go race in Brazil just to see how big of a crowd we get. He’s a hero down there. This should be fun.”

Tristan Vautier avoided on-track issues, handled three restarts flawlessly and went on to a 1.0391-second victory over Sam Schmidt Motorsports teammate Esteban Guerrieri in the Firestone Indy Lights’ season-opening St. Petersburg 100. Sebastian Saavedra claimed third in the No. 27 Team AFS car while Oliver Webb was fourth in his debut in the No. 7 Lucas Oil SSM car. Vautier, driver of the No. 77 Mazda Road to Indy/SSM entry, is the 10th driver to win his series debut and sixth to win his debut at St. Pete _ joining Marco Andretti, Raphael Matos, Junior Strous, J.K. Vernay and Josef Newgarden.

Bits from the (St. Pete) pits: A native of Le Mans, France, Sebastien Bourdais resides stateside in St. Petersburg _ a short, 10-minute bike ride from the circuit where he will drive the No. 7 Lotus-Dragon Racing Dallara DW12 for Lotus Dragon Racing. Bourdais, winner of consecutive Champ Car World Series titles from 2004-07, led the first lap of the 2003 race on the Streets of St. Pete as a rookie. … From 2006-2011, Honda supplied engines to every IndyCar Series competitor. A total of 98 drivers raced with the Honda Indy V-8 during that period, with 15 drivers recording race victories. Honda engines logged about 1.2-million miles of practice, qualifying and racing _ almost 500,000 of it race miles. … Bryan Herta Autosport has secured a multi-race sponsorship with Motegi Racing for the No. 98 Team Barracuda – BHA car driven by Canadian Alex Tagliani. … Panther Racing has promoted Chris Mower to general manager. Mower had served as team manager since joining the organization in 2008. John Barnes, Panther Racing’s managing partner, worked with Mower’s father, Derek, at Vel’s Parnelli Jones Racing and again at Bob Fletcher Racing more than 30 years ago.

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, March 25 2012
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