March 10 (Reuters) - A French champion and a lack of excitement in Formula One is driving French motor racing fans to IndyCar, says Simon Pagenaud as he prepares to begin the defence of his series crown on Sunday.
With no French Grand Prix on the Formula One calendar until next year and only two Frenchmen on the starting grid -- Force India's Esteban Ocon and Haas Racing's Romain Grosjean -- motor racing fans in France have had little to cheer since the days of four-times world champion Alain Prost.
But Pagenaud's success in the United States-based open wheel series has caught the attention of Europeans. IndyCar, with its take no prisoners brand of racing, had eight different drivers from 16 races reach Victory Lane last year.
Underscoring that interest, Pagenaud was asked nearly as many questions in French as English during a conference call to discuss the upcoming season.
"I think the interest in Formula One has gone down," offered Pagenaud. "They love Indy Car (in France) for the opposite reasons, because it's such high competition. It's a good surprise to see the interest growing there.
"Canal Plus is doing a tremendous job on the TV to show the races. They found French people really enjoying the racing, really enjoy the competition of Indy Car.
"Obviously it helped to have a Frenchman win the championship last year and I'm very proud to carry the colors."
Pagenaud will not only be waving the French flag but will sporting the number one on his Team Penske Chevrolet after an epic battle that saw him finish the 2016 season just ahead of his two Penske team mates Australian Will Power and Brazilian Helio Castroneves, a three-time winner of the Indianapolis 500.
With a new season set to begin on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida, Pagenaud is braced for even stiffer competition from within his own ranks with American Josef Newgarden, who finished fourth in last year's standings, joining the powerful Penske stable.
"Everything is back to zero. It's all reset," said Pagenaud "Now it's time to attack, attack a new championship, attack a new year.
"Last year we attacked and we didn't look in the mirrors.
"The goal is to do the same thing, not defend, but attack a new season coming up."
To help get through a stressful 17 race campaign, highlighted by the series' crown jewel the Indy 500 in May, Pagenaud will have the help of his dog Norman.
"He's some kind of therapy for me," said Pagenaud. "For me just going back to the motor home, having him there, no matter what the day is, if it's a good or bad day, he's always the same.
"It brings me a sense of consistency in emotion. I think it also helps you relating on a bad day, finding positive out of it." (Editing by Andrew Both)