Many observers will acknowledge the 2012 IndyCar grid as one of the deepest from top-to-bottom in years – perhaps the best since the 2008 unification. Still, invariably and inevitably, there are more drivers who find themselves on the outside looking in for full season rides.
Three 2011 part-time IndyCar drivers – Raphael Matos, Bertrand Baguette and Martin Plowman – find themselves linked by their new opportunities in three different situations, all converging at this weekend's 60th Anniversary Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring. Sebring, like Daytona, has a history of attracting one-off entrants from other disciplines of motorsport, and these three fit that bill even though sports car racing should represent the majority of their 2012 drives.
HOW THEY GOT HERE
Matos has prior ALMS experience, while Baguette has minor sports car experience from a couple one-offs in the FIA GT1 World Championship last year, and Plowman's first sports car start comes this weekend.
Matos has ALMS experience in a P2 Lola-Mazda, and in the Rolex ranks, he snared GT and DP triumph in the same year (the GT one was the Rolex 24, by the way). His addition figures to substantially enhance a team that was the only full-season PC class entrant to not score a 2011 podium.
“A good friend introduced me to Brent O'Neil and Anthony (Nicolosi, co-driver) one day at West Palm Beach, as they were testing over there,” Matos explains. “They asked me if I could drive the car for few laps to see what my impression of the car was. I drove the car for a few laps and I loved it, so since then I was always talking about a possible opportunity, and it came for Sebring.”
His opportunity comes in the under-the-radar but still stacked PC class, in the No. 18 entry with Nicolosi and IMSA Prototype Lites champion Ricardo Vera. The nine-car class includes defending class champions CORE autosport with two cars, the veteran PR1 squad and class newcomers Muscle Milk, Dempsey, RSR and Merchant Services Racing.
Plowman runs in ALMS P2 with Conquest Endurance, in the No. 37 Morgan Judd with co-drivers David Heinemeier Hansson and Francesco Dracone. Plowman joined Conquest after the stars aligned between his own levels of searching for an IndyCar ride, talking to Eric Bachelart, and being connected with his eventual co-driver thanks to Porsche factory pilot Patrick Long.
“I'd had some initial contact with Eric, but my tunnel vision was set to IndyCar, as that was the goal I'd been working hard on for three years,” Plowman said. “He talked about making the switch (here), and the endurance program was cool, but I was still set on IndyCar.
“It was a strange coincidence where I'd got the call the next day from Patrick Long who I knew from our go-karting days. He was telling me about the opportunity with David, to where they were looking for a fast guy from open-wheel to team him with. I was one of the first guys on his list to talk about it. These two things crossed over – it just made sense, and hit me in the face that it was the right thing to do.”
Baguette, the Belgian with the French-sounding name, still winds up with a French squad in OAK Racing and co-drivers Guillaume Moreau and Dominik Kraihamer in the team's No. 15 Oak Pescarolo Judd. Despite his Indy 500 success and testing Dallara's IndyCar simulator, Baguette drew the short stick in finding full-season IndyCar funding and began exploring sports cars. He tested for Peugeot, but never got the chance there as the manufacturer ceased its sports car program. Discussions with OAK led to the next best thing for a WEC P1 program.
“I did test the Peugeot at Le Castellet, but it was more for a contract in 2013 than one in 2012, so it was less an issue for me when they stopped everything,” Baguette says. “It's still very bad news for the endurance world.
“But we've been in contact with OAK Racing for several years,” he adds. “We wanted to do Le Mans together but we never really got the chance to do it. After a frustrating season where I didn't drive a lot even though every time I was competitive, I wanted to be back full time in a big championship with a strong team so it's was natural to discuss with OAK again. I'm very happy that Jacques Nicolet (team principal) and Sebastien Philippe (team manager) give me that chance in LMP1 even though I'm a rookie in endurance. I have a lot to learn this season and I'm really looking forward to it.”
HOW THEY'LL PROVE THEMSELVES
The goals faced by the “IndyCar three,” as you were, are slightly different. Plowman and Baguette have to learn the nature of sports car racing but have full seasons to do it, while Matos has sports car experience, but not a full-time ride beyond Sebring.
Matos has the most to gain from a successful Sebring, as his Performance Tech team doesn't have its driver lineup set for the rest of 2012, and additionally, his main ride with Risi Competizione Ferrari is contingent on that team finding the backing to compete in either ALMS or Grand-Am. So far, Risi's only outing of 2012 was in the Rolex 24 at Daytona, and Matos' only ALMS race with the team was at last year's Petit Le Mans, and the team withdrew after an accident by co-driver Jaime Melo in the morning warmup.
“For Performance Tech, I have Sebring and we'll see how that goes and go from there,” Matos says. “With Risi, ending up in one of those championships driving for a Ferrari factory team would be a dream come true, for sure. I think everyone at some point in their career wants to race a Ferrari. Unfortunately I don't make the decisions, but plans change.”