SONOMA, Calif. – It’s come down to this for Simon Pagenaud and Will Power: 85 laps on the 2.385-mile Sonoma Raceway road course with its many elevation changes, abrasive surface and heat expected to exceed 90 degrees for the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma.
Eight-five laps to decide who will be the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series champion between teammates with the pinnacle of INDYCAR operations, Team Penske. Pagenaud holds the advantage as they prepare to take the green flag at 6:50 p.m. ET today. He’ll start from pole position in the No. 22 Hewlett Packard Enterprise Chevrolet with a 44-point advantage over Power, his friend for a decade who drives the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet.
CLICK HERE: GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma starting lineup/tire designation
Pagenaud can collect his first series championship and the $1 million award that goes with it by finishing the race in fifth place or better. Power knows he essentially must win and hope Pagenaud has some difficulties.
This will be the 13th Indy car race at Sonoma and surprises have been known to happen. It’s what Power is counting on.
“It's a long race,” Power said. “I think it's going to be a race of (tire) degradation. It's going to be really interesting the way the tires go.
“We'll see how it plays out. I think it's going to be a four-stopper (pit stops). That makes for a lot of interesting stuff to have strategy-wise. Last thing we need now is a straightforward race because Simon will be tough to beat if that's the case.”
By contrast, Pagenaud would prefer 85 laps of green-flag racing with no full-course cautions at inopportune times. The 32-year-old Frenchman agrees that taking care of tires will be paramount. Firestone’s softer alternate (red-sidewall) tires have shown the tendency to lose their peak quickly on the older track surface that often has portions dusted with abrasive, blowing sand. Each is required to run at least two laps on each of the two tire specifications, alternate and primary (black sidewall).
“I think there will be degradation,” Pagenaud said. “The cars always degrade here, the tires here suffer a lot. There are so many hairpins and traction out of the corners. We have a lot more power than we used to, more horsepower right now. It's asking a lot of the tires. It's an old tarmac as well, with a lot of dust on it, so it creates a lot of wear.
“I feel comfortable with what I have. It's hard to know who is going to be strong and who is not going to be strong. There will be cars that were not good in qualifying that might be good in the race. We'll have to see.”
Power is a three-time winner at Sonoma. Pagenaud’s best finish has been third.
Of course, they aren’t the only ones racing for something today. Four drivers – Scott Dixon, Helio Castroneves, Josef Newgarden and Tony Kanaan – are tightly packed between third and sixth in the championship. Some drivers, like Ryan Hunter-Reay, are trying to finish off unsatisfactory seasons with a strong performance.
“I always say that Sonoma is one of those races that is a highlight on the schedule outside of Indy because everybody comes to this race,” said Hunter-Reay, who has finished second each of the last two years at Sonoma but is staring at a winless season for the first time since 2009 – the year before he joined Andretti Autosport. “Everybody wants to be here. This is the season finale. It's Napa Valley, it's everything you want to be a part of.
“Being runner-up for two years was kind of bittersweet. To win here would be massive. It's a very difficult race to win, though, because it tends to be a strategy race. You get yellows that come out at times. You have the huge grip issue where everybody is sliding around out there. It's a major wild-card race.
“What is a good car in qualifying might not be a good car out on the racetrack. You kind of have to have the whole weekend go together. Hopefully we can put that together again and do one step better.”
GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma fast facts
Race 16 of 16 in the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season. There have been 12 previous Indy car races at Sonoma Raceway, the first in 1970 won by Dan Gurney. The Verizon IndyCar Series has raced on the track every year since 2005. Scott Dixon is the two-time defending race winner.
Race distance: 85 laps / 202.7 miles
Track length: 2.385, 11-turn permanent road course in Sonoma, Calif.
Fuel allotment: 70 gallons of Sunoco E85R ethanol
Pit window: 16-24 laps