Rookie with a record

It’s difficult to think of Simon Pagenaud as a rookie, given how long he’s been knocking around Indycar racing. The Frenchman was a promising 21-year-old with a background in Formula Renault when he decided to cast his lot in America in 2006. Since then, his Indycar career has been stop-start – which is why seven years later he’s become perhaps US single-seater racing’s most experienced Rookie of the Year since Nigel Mansell.

Back in’06, Pagenaud made a deal with Champ Car team owner Derrick Walker to race in Formula Atlantic. He immediately looked good as he won races and battled all year with Graham Rahal, beating Bobby’s son to the championship.

Walker moved Simon up to his Team Australia Champ Car squad for ’07 where he was paired with Will Power, freshly arrived from Down Under. Again Pagenaud looked good, not quite making the podium but finishing the year eighth in points. Champ Car’s absorption by the IRL in 2008 left Pagenaud without an open-wheel ride but he landed on his feet when Gil de Ferran hired him to co-drive in the ALMS aboard de Ferran’s Acura LMP1 car. The following year Pagenaud won five races and finished second in the ALMS championship before winning four races and the title in 2010 with co-driver David Brabham.

“That was a really good chance to work on more technology,” Pagenaud says. “I had been racing spec series my whole career in single-seaters and it was a great chance to develop and test tyres, engine and car, and develop myself as a more complete driver.

“My goal was to make sure that I could come back to IndyCar some day with a better understanding of things and when I did so that I would become one of the top drivers in the series. Gil was an open book with me as a team-mate and team owner so I learned a lot of things about how to approach a race weekend mentally and also on the technical part, and I felt much stronger at the end of 2011.”

In 2011 Pagenaud shared Duncan Dayton’s Acura with Brabham and finished second at Sebring. He also ran in the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup for Peugeot and finished second at Le Mans with his good friend Sebastien Bourdais and Pedro Lamy. But Pagenaud’s eye was fixed on Indycars and he was able to start three IndyCar races in ’11, retaining his rookie status for 2012.

This year Pagenaud joined Sam Schmidt’s one-car, Honda-powered team for his first full Indycar season and he’s run near the front in most races, making the podium for the first time at Mid-Ohio in August where he finished third. With two races to go Pagenaud wrapped up IndyCar’s Rookie of the Year honours and was fifth in points – an impressive season with a small team.

“It’s definitely a tremendous year that we’ve had,” Pagenaud remarked. “What they’ve been able to do as a one-car team is pretty awesome and I’ve got to say I’m pretty proud of these guys. The team has done a tremendous job and I think we got stronger as the year went on. The team has done a really good job of giving me a car that I can drive really at its limit.”

Pagenaud expects to continue with Schmidt’s team next year and hopes to win some races. “I feel like we can run up front and fight for the wins. We’re sure we can do it and it’s a case of working on the details. We’re obviously fighting against big powerhouse teams in Penske, Ganassi and Andretti and we just need to focus on executing perfectly. As a racer, you always want to get to the top step.”

Pagenaud also hopes to run Le Mans, Sebring and Petit Le Mans next year. “One of my career goals is to try to win Le Mans. I got so close there in 2011 that you want to try again. But you’ve got to find the right seat and the right opportunity. I still want to drive other cars to keep my mind fresh on other series and cars.”

Pagenaud is a fast, clean, aggressive driver and an intelligent fellow. Keep an eye on him.