Simon Pagenaud has never started from pole position at an oval.
Team Penske swept the front row for Saturday’s Verizon IndyCar Series MAVTV 500 on the Auto Club Speedway 2-mile D-shape oval in Fontana, Cal. The four-member Penske squad were among the first nine qualifiers in the 23-car field, with point leader Juan Pablo Montoya the first car out, Simon Pagenaud going third, Will Power out sixth and Helio Castroneves qualifying ninth.
It was Pagenaud, the team’s newest member who was quickest, blistering the hot track with his two-lap average of 218.952 mph, helped by an initial lap over 219mph. “The car’s been amazing all weekend, especially in traffic,” Pagenaud said. “We didn’t do any qualifying [sims] in practice so this is quite a surprise.”
Looking for a win
In earning his second career INDYCAR pole and first of the 2015 season, the Frenchman acknowledged his is the only Penske squad still looking for victory. “It takes a long time to build a team; the others have been with their guys for a long time and this is like starting a new company - communication is key. We had very high expectations coming into the season… we’re going step by step and enjoying what we’re doing.
“I think it will be very difficult to break away tomorrow,” Pagenaud continued. Finding good balance will be key and he will be looking to manage his tires better by being at the front of the pack. “When you have the lead you don’t have much degradation, but in traffic you have more. It’s tricky to find the right balance. While the high lane isn’t as hard on the tires, the lower lane gets slippery and, as the race goes on there will be marbles everywhere. It will be very difficult.”
Castroneves starts second with his two laps at 218,734 mph - these two were the only drivers over 218 on this track and both were quicker than Castroneves’ 2014 pole lap average of 218.430, which came in August of last year. “The performance of the car has been very consistent; my two laps were the same,” the Brazilian said. “The challenge here is the temperature as it’s very slippery when it gets very hot like this weekend. The aero kit has changed how we attack this track and it’s a big challenge. Tomorrow,” he predicted, “you’re going to see some cars going forward, some are going to go backwards.”
Andretti heads Honda camp
Breaking up the Penske parade in third grid spot is Marco Andretti, the first Honda in the mix. Andretti, who was third in the combined practice speeds and has been quick all day, turned 217.797 mph over his two-lap run. The third-generation driver stated, “It means a lot to be up here because Pagenaud is very fast. We had to maximize everything and I’m really happy with the race car setup. This is going to be a difficult race for everybody with the heat, but it’s the deal we’re dealt. If we can get through the first 300 miles, the first 2/3 of the race, that will be the key to survive.”
Using an asymmetrical setup with a winglet on one side but not on the other, Andretti was, as expected, hesitant to talk about those aspects of his setup. “There’s a lot of character to this place and one of the biggest challenges here is with the [five] seams. My No. 27 guys have done an awesome job - we really started learning this car at Texas and that’s carried over here.”
Ed Carpenter, whose CFH Racing team has been quite successful on road courses but has struggled with ovals, rebounded to take fourth place with his Chevrolet, while Juan Pablo Montoya placed fifth - he’s started within the top five for every race but Barber and the Indianapolis 500 this year. Last year’s winner here, Tony Kanaan starts sixth, Ganassi teammate Scott Dixon is seventh after saying they missed a bit on the gears, Will Power is eighth, Honda’s Takuma Sato took ninth and rookie Sage Karam qualified tenth in the third Ganassi Chevy car.
Jakes encounters more issues
James Jakes, who lost an engine in the second practice, failed to qualify as his team effected an engine swap and the slowest driver in time trials was Pippa Mann, more than eight miles behind Pagenaud at just over 210 mph.
The MAVTV 500 starts just after 1:30PM local time PDT on Saturday afternoon. Temps are expected to be near 90 - it’ll be a dry heat here in the desert - and cloudless skies are expected. The weather should make the track quite slippery - it’ll be the same for everyone - and it will certainly be interesting to see who copes best. Can Pagenaud finally join the three winners on his team? We’ll have to tune in to see.