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.”
The other two have to build and learn throughout the year, given their respective handicaps. With three sports car rookies in a new ALMS team – if a veteran squad in other forms of motorsport – the goal at Conquest has to be gaining laps, keeping the car in one piece, and adjusting the mindset, Plowman relates.
“For 15 years, it's been just you and everybody else,” he says. “Now, it's having teammates, driving the same car, and you have to be mindful of the setup changes you make. I also have to learn the carbon brakes. Patrick told me to drag the carbon brakes a little bit, which helps them get up to temperature, as they're unpredictable when cold. Jumping in with cold tires, cold brakes and cold driver, you have to learn quickly.
“One of the biggest things I'll have to do is get up to speed as fast as possible,” he adds. “The worst for us is probably Long Beach, where we'll only have a two-hour morning session to get the car setup, get me up to speed, get me out, then get David up to speed as he's new too. I really have to do my job as quickly as possible. It will be funny now as we used to joke about the sports car guys waking us up at 7 in the morning, now that'll be me!”
Baguette's biggest handicap comes from running a petrol-powered P1 car, where only a podium is a realistic target. Winning is all but impossible given the performance gap between their car and Audi's diesels, even despite rules changes made in the offseason to reduce the diesel power.
“Our expectations are to be the best among the petrol-powered cars,” Baguette admits. “The big marker point (later in the year) will be the Toyotas. We still don't know where they are compare to us even if I'm sure they'll be very quick. But the diesels will stay at the front.”
INDY RETURN PROSPECTS
For 2012, the best chance of seeing Plowman, Baguette and/or Matos in an IndyCar will be at Indianapolis. Neither the ALMS nor WEC has a conflicting round with qualifying and race weekends. The first two are hopeful of securing an Indy 500 one-off, with Matos optimistic of a full-season return in the future.
“Of course that's still my personal goal, and it would be logical to do so with Conquest if the funding was there,” Plowman says. “Eric has the car. He's working on a number of things, but the perfect situation is the full ALMS and the Indy 500.”
Conquest's issue is engine-related, as the team still doesn't have an engine contract for its IndyCar. Baguette, a former Conquest driver in his only full IndyCar season (2010), is also on the hunt for a 500 ride.
“We tried during last year to assemble a full-season IndyCar program, but we quickly saw that it would be very difficult without any money,” Baguette says. “I still want to do the Indy 500 especially after what we showed last year. I hope we'll be able to find a good opportunity again.”
Matos' desire to return to IndyCar is immeasurable. As a Brazilian driver, he's hopeful to carry the torch beyond the current trio of Helio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan and series newcomer Rubens Barrichello, all of whom are 36 or older. At 30, Matos has time on his side to make a return and keep the flame in Brazil, a country known for its rabid fan base.
“For sure I want to go back!” Matos exclaims. “Especially with the way the schedule is now with so many road courses, it really fits my natural abilities and what I grew up doing. Indy is always very special and I've always done well at the Speedway.
“When I look back, I qualified third on my second ever IndyCar race in Long Beach, and led that race as well as a rookie driving for a one-car team. We've also run in fourth and third the two years in the Indy 500, and those things bring me the confidence there.
“IndyCar is starting a new era and it will be interesting to see who will have the strongest package. Talking to some teams, I feel good when talking to team owners. I think I got into people's heads in my first two and a half seasons in IndyCars.”
The motivation factor is there for all three of them. Although their paths to IndyCar have been temporarily detoured, the desire is still there to maximize their sports car opportunities, starting this weekend in Sebring.