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Penske’s Pagenaud Tests Best At Sonoma Raceway

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, September 15 2017

Simon Pagenaud topped the time sheets during Thursday’s test at Sonoma Raceway. (Photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

Simon Pagenaud amped-up Team Penske’s intramural chase for the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series championship Thursday, topping the combined practice sheet at the conclusion of an Open Test at Sonoma Raceway for Sunday’s season-ending GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma.

The reigning event and series champion, Pagenaud emerged as the day’s overall leader after six hours of on-track activity split into two sessions. Pagenaud, driver of the No. 1 Team Penske Chevrolet, posted his best lap late in the four-hour afternoon session at 1-minute, 16.6511-seconds/112.014 mph over the 12-turn, 2.385-mile permanent road-course.

Pagenaud sits fourth in the standings heading into Sunday’s 85-lap/202.7-mile race, 34 points behind Penske teammate/championship leader Josef Newgarden. With double points available, Pagenaud is one of seven drivers with a mathematical chance to claim the title.

“We had a great day today,” said Pagenaud, who won the 2016 Sonoma race from pole position to clinch his first series title. “We wanted to explore a direction. We have a new Firestone tire this year, so we have to forget a little bit about what we did last year and be curious and try things. It was a very interesting session. The car feels really good, I feel really good. Everyone feels really excited in the group. It’s fun so far.

“The track is one of the best on the circuit. It’s also where I won the race last year and won my first championship, so it’s definitely a place that means a lot to me. We have a great shot at the title, and we’re ready to challenge Scott Dixon and my Team Penske teammates for it. My team has worked hard to get to this championship fight, and they put together a strong car for Sonoma. I feel great about our chances. We’re ready to put everything we can into the race.”

Pagenaud led three Team Penske drivers atop the time sheet. Helio Castroneves was second at 1:16.7530/111.865 mph  and Will Power stood third at 1:17.0550/111.427 mph. Castroneves is third in the standings, 22 points behind Newgarden. Power, the2014 series champion, is fifth in points, 68 out of the lead.

“It all comes down to this,” said Castroneves, bidding for his first championship in what could be his final IndyCar Series start as a fulltime competitor. “I want a championship so bad and all of my guys definitely want one, too. We’ve worked hard to have strong finishes this season and know if we have a great race and win, we just might win the championship, which is really exciting.

“Sonoma is always a great race, and it will definitely be a challenge with Dixon and my Team Penske teammates also battling for the title. Every team’s goal at the beginning of the season is a championship and we’re in a position to realize ours.”

Newgarden, meanwhile, was ninth with a lap of 1:17.3491/111.003 mph in the No. 2 Penske Chevrolet. Chip Ganassi Racing’s Dixon, the four-time series champion who trails Newgarden by just three points, was sixth-fastest with a lap of 1:17.3016/111.071 mph in the No. 9 Honda.

Newgarden, now with 560 points, opened the door for his rivals with an unforced error during the INDYCAR Grand Prix at The Glen that resulted in an 18th-place finish around Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International’s 3.37-mile/11-turn natural-terrain layout on Sept. 3. Alexander Rossi of Andretti Autosport scored his second career series win at The Glen, with Dixon placing second. Dixon’s podium finish coupled with a cold-weather mistake and crash by Newgarden exiting pit road on Lap 46 of the 60-lapper allowed Dixon to chop 28 points off the 31-point lead Newgarden had carried into the event.

The Sonoma finale will offer 100 points to the winner, 80 for second place, 70 for third and down from there. NBC Sports Network will air live Friday’s second practice session at 5 p.m. (EDT), as well as Verizon P1 Award qualifying to determine the pole-sitter at 6:30 p.m. (EDT) Saturday. Live race coverage is set for 6:30 p.m. (EDT) on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network on Sunday.

Newgarden was in the lead on Lap 45 at The Glen when he pitted under green. Power, whose pit stall was directly in front of Newgarden’s, barely beat his teammate out of his box and onto the narrow, curving, downhill exit lane. Newgarden locked his brakes avoiding Power and slid into the guardrail separating the pit exit from the track in Turn 1. Sebastien Bourdais, also leaving the pits, whacked Newgarden from behind. Newgarden continued but sustained front wing and right rear tire ramp damage that required several stops to repair.

Newgarden took over the championship lead for the first time in his six-year career following a victory at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course on July 30. The Verizon IndyCar Series champion has been determined in the season’s final race every year dating to 2006, a scenario that would seem to favor the seasoned Dixon. A fifth championship would leave the 37-year-old New Zealander behind only A.J. Foyt Jr. (with seven titles) on the all-time list.

“The whole team is looking forward to Sonoma with the championship on the line,” Newgarden said. “The Watkins Glen weekend wasn’t the best, but we’ve quickly moved on from that. A great thing for us was to get back on the track last week for a Sonoma test. Our session was great. We were able to gain some information and start to formulate our plan of attack.

“Overall, we’ve been good on the road courses. I really like the Sonoma course and the No. 2 team is definitely capable. The points are tight. It’s going to be a fun weekend with all of the scenarios that are out there. We have a championship-caliber team, and we’re going to do everything we can to bring another title to Team Penske.”

Bourdais, winner of the 2017 season-opener on the Streets of St. Petersburg, Fla., was the fastest non-Penske driver in the Open Test. The four-time Champ Car champion from Dale Coyne Racing took the No. 18 Honda for a lap of 1:17.2175/111.192 mph.

“I was hoping to kind of hit the ground running,” Bourdais said. “Was pretty disappointed this morning, didn’t really feel we were where we thought we’d be or where we wanted to be. Didn’t really change (the car) much, but the conditions kept changing around, the wind changed, the grip changed and it kind of put the car back in the window a little bit. Then we had a couple of good laps this afternoon.”

Rossi _ a long shot to win the championship at 84 points behind Newgarden _ was fifth-fastest at 1:17.2720/111.114 mph.

“I feel like we have a pretty decent car with us,” said Rossi, who announced a multi-year contract extension with Andretti Autosport at WGI. “We’re missing a little right now but we’re in the window, so it’s all right. We knew that our baseline car was pretty decent, so we tried some things today. They weren’t the right direction, so we came back to a baseline car at the end of the day. It was P5.”

Meanwhile, Canadian Zachary Claman DeMelo _ fresh off finishing fifth in the Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires season _ made his IndyCar Series debut Thursday in the No. 13 Honda for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. DeMelo, a 19-year-old native of Montreal, Quebec, completed a total of 71 laps in the two sessions, with a quick circuit of 1:18.4752/109.410 mph. He is teamed with series veteran Graham Rahal.

The day’s lone incident occurred when reigning Indianapolis 500 winner Takuma Sato went off-course in Turn 6, sustaining significant rear-end damage to the No. 26 Andretti Autosport Honda and ending his day about an hour before conclusion of the session. Sato was uninjured.

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California native Spencer Pigot will contest the full IndyCar Series schedule in 2018 with Ed Carpenter Racing. Pigot will wheel the No. 21 Dallara/Chevrolet next season, a car currently being driven by JR Hildebrand. 

Pigot is the winningest driver to have competed in the Mazda Road to Indy Series, earning 24 wins ahead of his IndyCar debut. A 23-year-old native of Pasadena, Calif., Pigot has spent the last two seasons with ECR as a part-time driver. Pigot has raced on the series’ road/street courses while team-owner Ed Carpenter has competed on the ovals. 

“To say I’m excited about 2018 would be an understatement,” said Pigot, who was 22nd and last on the speed chart at Sonoma Raceway after Thursday’s two combined practices at 109.141 mph. “I have really enjoyed my time so far with Ed Carpenter Racing and this is the next step in what I hope is a long, successful partnership with the team in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

“I‘m very thankful to Ed Carpenter, Tony George, Stuart Reed and everyone at ECR for their confidence in me to deliver the results the team deserves. It’s a privilege to represent Fuzzy’s Vodka, Preferred Freezer Services, Direct Supply and all of the other partners of ECR in 2018.”

Pigot is the first of Rising Star Racing’s drivers to land a fulltime IndyCar Series ride. RSR was founded in 2013 by Indianapolis businessman Art Wilmes. RSR’s mission is to help the most talented, American open-wheel drivers to further their racing careers.

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Zach Veach will drive the No. 26 Honda as the fourth all-American entry in Andretti Autosport’s Verizon IndyCar Series lineup in 2018, replacing reigning Indy 500 champion Takuma Sato.

Veach has raced in every step of the Mazda Road to Indy ladder with Andretti Autosport, including a career-best Indy Lights championship finish of third in 2014.

“We’re excited to give Zach the opportunity to show what he can do at the highest level, and I’m looking forward to welcoming him home, so to speak,” said Michael Andretti, CEO, Andretti Autosport. “Zach started his INDYCAR career with us in USF2000 and has driven in every step of the Mazda Road to Indy ladder with Andretti Autosport. He’s a driver that has always impressed me. Zach works hard and he takes something away from every time he’s in the car _ he’s constantly improving. He’s put the effort in, found success at every level and now his dream has come full-circle.”

Veach made his Verizon IndyCar Series debut April 23, 2017 at Barber Motorsport Park in Birmingham, Ala., and his Indy 500 debut in May’s 101st edition at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“I’ve been thinking about this day since St. Petersburg in 2010 when I sat beside Michael Andretti announcing that I’d be competing in USF2000 for his team,” said Veach, a 22-year-old native of Stockdale, Ohio. “To be driving in the Verizon IndyCar Series with them is a dream come true and I can’t wait to get started.”

Veach is the fourth driver confirmed to an all-American Verizon IndyCar Series lineup for Andretti, joining  2012 series champion and 2014 Indy 500 winner Ryan Hunter-Reay  in No. 28 DHL Honda; 2016 Indy 500 champion Alexander Rossi  in No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts Honda and Marco Andretti  in the No. 27 Honda. 

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Frenchman Tristan Gommendy has partnered with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and Calmels Sport for an entry in the 102nd Indianapolis 500 in May 2018.

Gommendy, a 38-year-old resident of Le Chesnay, France, will pilot a blue, white and red No. 77 Honda in honor of his native country, following completion of his Verizon IndyCar Series’ Rookie Orientation Program at the 2.5-miile Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Gommendy,  who currently competes in the FIA World Endurance Championship, captured a third-place finish overall at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in June and previously has competed in Champ Car, GP2, World Series by Renault, Formula Renault and French F3.

“Competing in the Indianapolis 500 was a career goal when I was racing in Champ Car,” Gommendy said. “Even though I grew up driving open-wheel cars, everything is completely new when you get to Indy. The Speedway and this race demand a lot of respect. Racing at 230 mph with four 90-degree turns is far from the European motorsport culture. I know I’ll have to work very hard to get ready for next May.

“The first steps, including my first simulator test, went well but much more work needs to be done. Everything so far has shown me that this partnership between Calmels Sport and SPM is extraordinary. In the United States, everything is possible…provided you earn your spot. It’s up to us to write a beautiful French story in Indiana.”

Schmidt said he team co-owner Ric Peterson were excited to partner with Didier Calmels on behalf of Gommendy.  “Compared to him (Calmels), we are relative newcomers to team ownership but have similar backgrounds of success in the business world,” Schmidt said. “We look forward to learning a tremendous amount from Didier regarding the business of racing and his innovative approaches which have resulted in great success in European formulas.

“In addition, SPM has already shown results with French drivers such as (Simon) Pagenaud and (Tristan) Vautier, so we look forward to having the talented and experienced Tristan Gommendy join our team for 2018. He has a similar background to Simon, so we have very high expectations.”

The partnership will include major support on French television throughout the Month of May with coverage on Canal +, Infosport + and C8, as well as a 52-minute documentary about the creation of the Calmels Sport IndyCar program which will air on Canal+ in France a week prior to next year’s 500.

SPM, Calmels Sport and Gommendy’s partnership will kick off later this fall with the Frenchman’s first Verizon IndyCar series oval test in October.

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Combined results from the Verizon IndyCar Series Open Practice Thursday around Sonoma Raceway’s 2.385-mile/12-turn circuit in preparation for the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma with rank, car number in parenthesis, driver, engine/aero kit, time/speed and total  laps completed:

1. (1) Simon Pagenaud, Chevrolet, 01-minute, 16.6511-seconds/112.014 mph, 34

2. (3) Helio Castroneves, Chevrolet, 01:16.7530/111.865, 53

3. (12) Will Power, Chevrolet, 01:17.0550/111.427, 46

4. (18) Sebastien Bourdais, Honda, 01:17.2175/111.192, 54

5. (98) Alexander Rossi, Honda, 01:17.2720/111.114, 37

6. (9) Scott Dixon, Honda, 01:17.3016/111.071, 45

7. (28) Ryan Hunter-Reay, Honda, 01:17.3153/111.052, 38

8. (15) Graham Rahal, Honda, 01:17.3486/111.004, 38

9. (2) Josef Newgarden, Chevrolet, 01:17.3491/111.003, 56

10. (27) Marco Andretti, Honda, 01:17.6035/110.639, 41

11. (10) Tony Kanaan, Honda, 01:17.7599/110.417, 31

12. (21) JR Hildebrand, Chevrolet, 01:17.7843/110.382, 47

13. (19) Ed Jones-(R), Honda,  01:17.9061/110.210, 42

14. (5) James Hinchcliffe, Honda, 01:17.9414/110.160, 48

15. (26) Takuma Sato, Honda, 01:18.0956/109.942, 27

16. (14) Carlos Munoz, Chevrolet, 01:18.2009/109.794, 35

17. (83) Charlie Kimball, Honda, 01:18.2599/109.711, 45

18. (8) Max Chilton, Honda, 01:18.4342/109.468, 40

19. (7) Jack Harvey-(R), Honda,  01:18.4720/109.415, 64

20. (13) Zachary Claman DeMelo-(R), Honda,  01:18.4752/109.410, 71

21. (4) Conor Daly, Chevrolet, 01:18.6134/109.218, 45

22. (20) Spencer Pigot, Chevrolet, 01:18.6689/109.141, 15

Total Laps for Combined Sessions: 952; All cars on Firestone Firehawk tires.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, September 15 2017
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