In only his second year back full-time as an IZOD IndyCar Series team owner after a prior stint in the early 2000s, Sam Schmidt's team really shouldn't be threatening the establishment this early on. Yet through the first nine races of 2012, after a 2011 which showed promise but was somewhat fragmented, it's been the newly renamed Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports squad that's been a thorn in the side of the Penskes, Ganassis and Andrettis of the world.
Schmidt re-entered the full-time IndyCar ranks in 2011 after acquiring the former FAZZT Racing Team assets. The personnel assembled by Alex Tagliani, then owner-driver, made the opportunity more attractive, he says.
“We hadn't really planned on competing last year, but what was so attractive about the FAZZT situation was the people,” Schmidt says. “I looked around that shop, and there were handful of people I worked for when I drove for Treadway 15 years ago, and seasoned veterans. It's a great mixture of veterans and young hungry challengers. It was a great turnkey situation where the team was already fast and the system was already in place.”
For 2012, the team's success has come with a less-publicized group of a “band getting back together” – in driver Simon Pagenaud, team manager Rob Edwards and one of two engineers, Ben Bretzman. The No. 77 car is currently sixth in points, just 40 back of championship leader Will Power, with Pagenaud's known strong suit of road and street course races the next five to play. There's also been new co-team boss Davey Hamilton and a renewal of Honda engines in the new era of engine competition.
Pagenaud worked with Edwards his first two years in America at Walker Racing (Team Australia when the Frenchman jumped to Champ Car in 2007), and with Bretzman in sports car racing with Highcroft Racing and HPD.
“There was a method to that madness,” Schmidt explains. “I'm the only foreigner to that equation. I know how drastically important it is to have chemistry at this level. The top-10 in this series all have long-term relationships between driver and engineer, so I knew to be successful this was the package we needed to get together.”
Edwards expands on how far Pagenaud has come as a driver and person since arriving as, in Edwards' words, a “fresh-faced Frenchman” in 2006 for Formula Atlantic competition.
“The biggest thing that's helped him mature between then and now is both the variety of cars driven, and the breadth of the people he's had a chance to work with,” Edwards says. “He takes full advantage of learning from everyone he meets, and has built relationships with Derrick (Walker) and Gil (de Ferran). He approaches his driving as a job, he's very systematic of it and reaps the rewards.”
Pagenaud's fractured 2011 saw him racing basically anything he could get his hands on – from both HPD and Peugeot P1 prototypes, to a Honda Civic Si in Grand-Am's Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge, rallying in France, and three IndyCar one-off starts each coming as a last-minute fill-in (Pagenaud in for Justin Wilson at Mid-Ohio, 22, LEFT, but he drove all three cars in that shot – 24 for Ana Beatriz and 78 for Simona de Silvestro). It wasn't announced until later in the year, but Edwards notes the opportunity to assemble some of the pieces for 2012 came together in the middle of 2011.
“I think last year was difficult because he didn't have a full program to sink his teeth into. 2011 was difficult, but it was made better by the fact he knew what lay ahead in 2012,” Edwards says. “Essentially Sam and Simon came together in about May/June last year, although it wasn't announced until much later, and we knew what we'd be doing.
“With the opportunity to bring him on board, the chemistry is important. I think an important part in that shakeup was being able to bring Nick Snyder (second engineer) on board as well. He and Ben had worked together at Andretti, and were complementary in their skills and personality. As much as it has to do with Ben and Simon, it has also had more to do with Ben and Nick.”
Where Pagenaud and the SHM squad had an advantage was in Pagenaud's car-developing ability. With IndyCar stuck in the spec-car rut for the four years in-between Pagenaud's last open-wheel appearance, the Frenchman spent time learning and developing various iterations of HPD prototypes on an annual basis. Pagenaud said at Sebring this year – racing HPD's latest P1 variant, the new-for-2012 HPD ARX-03a, he's raced at least six different variations.
“He's really impressed us with his capability, and also with his attitude and public presence,” HPD's assistant vp Steve Eriksen says of Pagenaud. “His feedback to help develop the product is excellent. Even when he drove different cars, it's a sign of his maturity that he keeps the Peugeot information within Peugeot, and the Honda information within Honda.
“When we got him in 2008, he wasn't on people's radars. When we saw him in action, we knew he should be in our stable of talented Honda drivers.”