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.”
So with the Dallara DW12, although some of IndyCar's old guard (the Franchittis, Dixons, Castroneveses of the world) had prior experience in sorting out new IndyCars, Pagenaud had the most recent. He qualified sixth on debut in St. Petersburg, although the spot was nullified with a 10-spot grid penalty – the first of many, it turned out, for series competitors this year for unapproved engine changes. Yet from 16th he'd charged back to sixth by the flag.
Fifth at Barber followed, and then Pagenaud put on a clinic at Long Beach in making a three-stop strategy work to his main rivals' two. He finished second, but could have easily won given another lap or two in the race.
“At Long Beach when we committed to the strategy we were on, we were basically asking him to drive full on if you like,” Edwards notes. “To do that, around that type of track, I thought was a fantastic effort.”
Edwards also praised Pagenaud's drives at Texas and Iowa – his second and fourth ever oval races, respectively, where he twice came back from a lap down at Texas to finish sixth and at Iowa where he came from last on the grid to fifth. Schmidt says although he didn't expect quite the magnitude of results, he wasn't anticipating it to be a struggle, either.
“I don't want to say the results are completely expected, but we had high expectations based on his ability to adapt and finish races with his endurance racing background,” Schmidt admits. “The biggest comfort Davey and I can give him is that we raced almost exclusively on ovals.
“We know ovals. There's a process with the strategy, timing side of it. People think it looks easy, but a lot of it comes with time. And Simon doesn't do anything without processing, learning and trying his best.”
Edwards discussed Pagenaud's quick learning and maturation on the ovals.
“I'd like to say I'm not surprised, and I don't want that to sound as though ‘we expected him to do great,' but anyone who knows Simon, his personality and strengths as a driver just needs to look at how he's approached the ovals. He took it as another challenge, and jumped into it trying to learn as much as possible.
“He's had great people to lean on. He has Sam and Davey, and I believe still has a relationship with Gil, so that's a big help to him. It's his nature of diving into a situation and extracting every bit of knowledge to do as good a job as he's doing.”
By official IndyCar standards, Pagenaud was labeled a rookie for 2012 – but that designation has almost made mincemeat of his competition. At sixth and on 246 points, Pagenaud is 17 positions and 140 points clear of Josef Newgarden for IndyCar Rookie of the Year honors. That will be the least of what he's accomplished, because the goals after the fast start to 2012 only will increase from here.
With two podiums, Pagenaud's one of the top candidates to end the streak of winners from Penske, Ganassi and Andretti, who have won every road and street course race in the series since Watkins Glen 2009, when Justin Wilson and Dale Coyne Racing broke through. That's a stretch of 28 straight races.
In the meantime, with this first year of success between the two parties, it would not be a surprise to see Pagenaud take his and the team's results to a higher level in 2013 and move into full-on title contention. They've done plenty to lay the groundwork in 2012.