LEEDS, Ala., March 31, 2012 – In the first race of the IZOD IndyCar Series season last weekend in St. Petersburg, Fla., Simon Pagenaud started 16th and raced his way to a sixth-place finish on a bumpy, gritty street circuit.

One week later, Pagenaud feels like he is a world away from St. Petersburg.  The Frenchman has a top-10 starting spot for Sunday’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama on one of the most scenic and smoothest road courses in North America – Barber Motorsports Park in Leeds, Ala.

In IndyCar’s three-round knockout style qualifying Saturday, Pagenaud made it into the second round of qualifying but did not advance to the Firestone Fast Six final round after a team gamble didn’t pay off.

Pagenaud didn’t turn a fast lap in the second round because team leaders chose to keep the No. 77 Schmidt Hamilton HP Motorsports Dallara/Honda/Firestone car in the pits for most of the session. They sent
Pagenaud out with just a few minutes left in the session, but with plenty of time to produce some fast laps.

Unfortunately, the plan did not get to play out for Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports. Before Pagenaud could click off a fast lap, Ryan           Hunter-Reay crashed in Turn 9 to bring out the red flag and ending that
session.

Pagenaud’s lap of 1 minute, 14.2839 seconds at 111.646 mph was still good enough for 10th on the grid.

“We got caught out with the flag,” said Pagenaud. “We didn’t even get one fast lap on the last set of good tires. That’s racing, you know. But you always want to start as high up as possible. We had a good car for that last run. It felt very well balanced and hooked up.”

Pagenaud was clearly frustrated with the qualifying  outcome, but he was still optimistic and eager for Sunday’s race.

“It’s a shame because my expectations were raised after I felt how good the car was on the warm-up lap in the second session,” said Pagenaud. “I think we would have been in the Firestone Fast Six. Now, we’ll start P10. Last week, we started P16 and finished P6, so I feel good. We have a good crew in the pits, so I know we’ll be strong in the race.”

Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves qualified on pole position with a lap of 1 minute, 10.4768 seconds. Castroneves won the 2010 IZOD IndyCar Series race at Barber Motorsports Park.

Andretti Autosports’ James Hinchcliffe, Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon, A.J. Foyt Racing’s Mike Conway and Panther Racing’s JR Hildebrand rounded out the top five. The 2011 Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama winner, Will Power, will start the race from ninth position.

The Honda Grand Prix of Alabama will air live on the NBC Sports Network (formerly Versus) beginning at 2 p.m. ET Sunday, April 1. Coverage of the race by the IMS Radio Network can also be heard on Sirius XM Radio channel 94 or through local radio affiliates.

 

NOTES AND QUOTES:

 

Tristan est au top: In English, motorsports fans would say Tristan Vautier is hot right
now. However, there isn’t an equivalent phrase used in France. The French would
simply say “Tristan Vautier est au top” or “Tristan Vautier is on top.”

Whatever the saying, Sam Schmidt Motorsports’ rookie
driver Tristan Vautier is proving that he will be one of the drivers
challenging for the 2012 Firestone Indy Lights championship.

After a dominating win in St. Petersburg last week,
he backed the win up Saturday with a front row starting position for tomorrow’s
Indy Lights race, which is part of the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama.  The Frenchman was confidently frustrated that
his last flying lap would have been pole worthy had a red flag not waved for an
accident.

“I’m happy and frustrated at the same time,” said the
driver the No. 77 Mazda Road To Indy/SSM car. “I’m happy because I feel like we
made a big step from practice, and we improved the car a lot. The team and my
engineer made the right calls for the car. I’m happy because I feel we could
have had this pole, but I’m frustrated because with the red flag we didn’t get
to use our last set of tires. We just put it on (the new set of tires) and then
it was red (flag). But you know, we took a risk in waiting longer and it didn’t
work out.”

Vautier’s front-row lap was 1 minute, 16.7270 seconds
at 107.915 mph.

 

Streak Extended: SSM Indy Lights driver Esteban Guerrieri extended his streak of
top-five starting positions when he qualified his No. 11 Pistas Argentinas/SSM fourth
today for Sunday’s Firestone Indy Lights Race. He will line up directly behind
teammate Vautier with his lap of 1 minute, 17.2494 seconds at 107.185 mph.

 

Timing is everything: Though he didn’t end his qualifying session the way
any driver wants, SSM Indy Lights driver Oliver Webb still will start fifth in
Sunday’s Firestone Indy Lights race. He also proved that sometimes it’s not if
you crash, it’s when you crash.

After posting his fastest lap of the 40-minute
qualifying session, Webb spun and made contact with a barrier in Turn 13 of the
17-turn Barber Motorsports Park’s 2.38-mile circuit. His accident ended the
session as time ran out before track crews could clear his car.

“It was a bit slow going when we started because the
track was wet,” said Webb, driver of the No. 7 Lucas Oil/SSM car. “At the end
of the session, we had a lap going that would have been P1 or P2, but I touched
the curb, got too much air and got spun around. I’m a bit disappointed to
be starting fifth, but it’s what we have to work with.”

 

Looking to rebound: After ending the 2011 Firestone Indy Lights season with momentum and
posting a top-five in the season-opening race last week in St. Petersburg, SSM
driver Victor Carbone will be trying to rebound from a crash in qualifying that
will force him to line up last on Sunday’s grid.

The
winner of the final Indy Lights race in 2011, Carbone crashed his No. 3 Mav
TV/Nevoni/SSM car in Turn 1 early in the qualifying
session. His car was too damaged to be repaired in time to finish the
qualifying session.

 

DATE: March 31, 2012

EVENT: Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama

SERIES: IZOD IndyCar Series

LOCATION: Leeds, Ala. (2.38-mile, 17-turn road course)

PAGENAUD: 10th (1:14.2839 at 111.464 mph)

POLE WINNER: Helio Castroneves of Team Penske (1:10.4768 at 117.485 mph)