Simon Pagenaud

Yes, former NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion Simon Pagenaud changed teams during the offseason – from Team Penske to Meyer Shank Racing -- and there figures to be adjustments in learning to communicate with a different engineer than he had during the past seven years.

But perhaps the biggest difference is driving a car powered by Honda rather than a Chevrolet. Drivers often refer to the practice as learning its “driveability,” and Pagenaud acknowledged still having work to do. After all, he had only two days of preseason testing ahead of the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding on Sunday.

“I was still learning at the end of (Friday’s first practice),” said Pagenaud, the winner of the 2019 Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge. “(I’m) learning my braking points and how to rotate the car around the corner with my feet and the steering. It’s pretty cool. I’m having a blast.”

Fast is usually fun, and the Frenchman delivered the fourth-fastest lap in the No. 60 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda, 1 minute, 1.3249 seconds.

“Everything happens so fast when you only have 45 minutes,” Pagenaud said of the Day 1 session duration. “We waited (to go out because) we only have one set of tires. We waited (and went) out with 25 minutes left, and then you try to do all that work in a short amount of time.

“It’s about being quick, making decisions, talking briefly and concisely. So far it went really well.”

Through MSR’s technical alliance with Andretti Autosport, Pagenaud has Garrett Mothersead as his engineer after all those years with Ben Bretzman, who remained at Team Penske. Pagenaud and longtime Penske running mate Helio Castroneves (No. 06 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda) will compete in NTT P1 Award qualifying at 12:30 p.m. (ET), with the action shown live on Peacock Premium, NBC Sports’ streaming service.

Castroneves had the 11th-quickest lap Friday as he moves from part time to full time with MSR.

“Tomorrow is for real,” Pagenaud said. “We have another practice in the morning (9 a.m. ET, live on Peacock), and we get to try the red Firestone tires. I’ve never been on the reds with this car (and) it’s such a different package.

“Tomorrow is when it counts, but race day is most important.”

The season-opening race can be seen live on NBC at noon Sunday, with Telemundo Deportes on Universo providing a Spanish-speaking broadcast. The INDYCAR Radio Network also will have the call.

Sato Continues Stacking Up Big Numbers

Takuma Sato (No. 51 Nurtec ODT Honda of Dale Coyne Racing with RWR) recently celebrated his 45th birthday, and this weekend he is competing in his 200th INDYCAR event.

Sato is the 26th driver in American open-wheel racing history to reach 200 races, and he is one of only five drivers in this field with as many. The others: Castroneves, Scott Dixon, Will Power and Graham Rahal.

Castroneves is scheduled to start his 358th career race Sunday, drawing him within 11 starts of A.J. Foyt for third place on the all-time chart. Mario Andretti holds the record with 407 career starts. Tony Kanaan is second with 388.

Sato’s career includes six race wins, two of them being the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge (2017, 2020). Among his 10 career poles is the 2014 race in St. Petersburg.

Tokyo native Sato is marking this numerical milestone with a commemorative helmet.

“It is the perfect event to celebrate (No. 200) with this fresh, new start,” he said.

Meanwhile, teammate David Malukas, an INDYCAR rookie, is competing in his first series event. Malukas, 20, drives the No. 18 HMD Honda of Dale Coyne Racing with HMD. Malukas had Friday’s 10th-fastest lap, Sato was 19th of 26.

No. 1 Off Track, Too

Romain Grosjean’s first INDYCAR race with Andretti Autosport featured the fastest lap of Friday’s season-opening practice. The accomplishment came on the day it was announced he was No. 1 in popularity based on the series’ fan survey.

Grosjean, the driver of the No. 28 DHL Honda, said receiving approval of the fans “felt amazing,” particularly in light of his 10-year Formula One career ending with the fiery accident in Bahrain in 2020.

“After only one year in INDYCAR, to be voted the most popular driver has bene quite incredible,” he said. “I’ve got a story. I come from 10 years in F1, the fire and coming back to racing in INDYCAR, discovering a championship where I think it was a reverse.

“I used the ‘Phoenix’ as a nickname not because of the fire; it’s related to a rebirth of myself through INDYCAR. (I’m) having fun and enjoying myself.”

Grosjean said he tried to relate to INDYCAR’s fan base through social media.

“Through driving the RV, eating far too many donuts, barbecue on the 1st of January and fro-yo,” he said. “Yeah, it was amazing. I’m almost as American as Colton (Herta) apart from my pronunciation, which is still a bit French, but I’m working on that.”

Odds And Ends

  • Given Will Power’s ability to win NTT P1 Awards at this event, let’s refresh the memory: The driver of Team Penske’s No. 12 Verizon Chevrolet stands four poles behind Mario Andretti’s career record of 67. Power has won nine of the past 12 poles in this event, part of Team Penske’s 10 in the past 15 years here. Graham Rahal (2009), Takuma Sato (2014) and Colton Herta (2021) are also former pole winners in this field.
  • Team Penske debuted its new color scheme on Power’s Verizon-sponsored car. The front of the car is red, the rear black. Power, who finished Friday practice with the third-fastest lap, said the front of the car has a bright, intimidating look. “Like Pagenaud’s car when it was that (neon yellow) and people got out of his way,” he said.
  • Jack Harvey’s move to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing features an all-black No. 45 Hy-Vee Honda. Harvey was seventh quickest in the session.
  • AJ Foyt Racing has rookies Kyle Kirkwood and Tatiana Calderon in nearly identical black ROKiT-sponsored, Chevrolet-powered cars. The difference in the appearance is the top of the aeroscreen. Calderon’s No. 11 is white around the top, Kirkwood’s No. 14 is black.
  • Four-time INDYCAR SERIES champion Sebastien Bourdais, who lives in St. Petersburg, was in Kirkwood’s pits as a resource to last year’s Indy Lights champion. Bourdais is a two-time winner of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg (2017, 2018). Kirkwood posted the day’s 12th-fastest lap.
  • Andretti Autosport’s Hunter McElrea won the pole for Sunday’s Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires race, edging Linus Lundqvist of HMD Motorsports with Dale Coyne Racing in the closing seconds of qualifying. Their separation in time was .2923 of a second.
  • Josh Green started this Indy Pro 2000 season the way he ended last year’s USF2000 season – by winning. Green led all 25 laps in Saturday’s race. Jace Denmark won the season-opening USF2000 race, avoiding the last-lap contact of leaders Thomas Nepveu and Myles Rowe in Turn 2. Both series will stage the second race of the weekend Sunday.
  • Saturday’s schedule begins with the weekend’s second INDYCAR practice at 9 a.m. ET. (live on Peacock). The pre-race warmup will be Sunday at 8:45 a.m., also airing on Peacock.