The series had a new spec chassis, a new engine formula and though SHR was only a one-car outfit, the driver was one of the most technically adept IndyCar rookies in history. Pagenaud has experience from Champ Car, the American Le Mans Series, European sports prototype racing and a handful of IndyCar outings as a sub last year but that alone would not have been enough to spearhead a one-car IndyCar team. However, it's backed up by his most laudable qualities that include the ability to remain open-minded, absorb what he's learned, apply it, and then have the pace to take full advantage of the progress made.
And that should be enough to see him in Victory Lane next season. A couple of days after testing at Barber Motorsports Park in November, he says he believes there's much more to come from Schmidt Hamilton Racing in 2013.
“At Barber we took the chance to explore areas we haven't explored before, because we hadn't had a proper test day yet where we could try new things,” Pagenaud explains. “So this was good because there are areas where we need improvements – mostly on the road courses. We really want to start fine-tuning.”
While outsiders were impressed with SHR's road course performances, those within the team were only satisfied in the context of this being a single-car operation. With test sessions being extremely rare and race weekend track time being restricted by the amount of tires available, a solo effort has far less capacity than, say, a three-car team when it comes to experimenting with setups. There's only one source of data coming in so it's a huge risk to take an exploratory approach. The natural consequence is that the No. 77 car probably headed into many qualifying sessions or races with a less well-honed setup than the DW12s of Penske, Ganassi or Andretti.
Here's where the experience and talent within Schmidt's squad came into play, and where Pagenaud's previous experience paid off. Any driver who's had his sports cars set up to accommodate the needs of one or even two partners for endurances races will have learned how to deal with compromises.
“You always want your racecar to do something that makes it easier for you,” Simon admits, “but you have to adapt most of the time. It's not a case of adjusting the car to suit your tastes but about adjusting your style to work with what the car's doing. For sure, the best drivers in IndyCar – in any racing, actually – are the ones that can adapt to any situation.”
And that works to a large extent, but the fine-tuning that will bring you those last couple of tenths of a second in qualifying can prove elusive unless you get driver and car working in harmony. When it's time to go absolutely flat-out – the stark battle of car/driver vs. stopwatch – that's when any discrepancy between what the driver wants and what the car provides will cost hundredths at every corner, which amounts to tenths over the course of a lap. In Pagenaud's case, the problem in 2012 was inexperience on Firestone's red, soft-compound tires, which are never provided for test sessions.
“The alternate compound [red sidewalled tires] don't just provide more grip all round; they change the fundamental balance of the car,” he observes. “There is more movement because the tires bounce more, and there's more lateral grip, of course, but there's also a different delta front and rear in terms of grip level. When you put on the reds, you get a bigger increase in rear grip than you do in front grip, so suddenly you have understeer. But you don't have enough time or enough tires to go out and find out exactly how much understeer you have, because it's now Q1 and it's time to get your lap in! So you have to adjust the car to dial out the understeer based only on what you know about the track and track conditions so far. You take a guess and, as the season goes on, it becomes a more educated guess, but still it will be a gamble. But then, when you get it right, it feels even more special.”
And that explains the occasions when he didn't quite hit the heights in qualifying that had been promised by his form in practice on the primary black tires (as noted in our Top 10 IndyCar drivers of 2012.) Commendably, a session with slightly out-of-tune handling would never affect Pagenaud's in-cockpit effort, which has always been quite vigorous. See onboard footage from the HP car, and it's a sharp reminder why he's driving and we're just watching – and it also helps explain why he can deal with an ill-handling car.
“Yes, again we come back to this need to adapt,” says Simon, “and that is one of the great things about IndyCar racing, in my opinion. You don't have to be perfect in any one area, but you do have to be strong at pretty much everything. And that's what was so good about Ryan Hunter-Reay last season – he was a very complete driver, he was good on all types of track, and that's the key in IndyCar.”
That being the case, Pagenaud will surely be a championship contender in a couple of years' time. It's hard to believe a guy that drives in such an animated and overtly brave manner on a road or street course could handle his first oval races with such adroitness and relative calm. Without wishing to sound unduly pessimistic on Simon's behalf, I did wonder preseason if he might find the wall sooner rather than later but in fact he could hardly have impressed more. Like Rubens Barrichello, he handled the unique demands of left-turn-only racing like a consummate pro, keeping his ambition in strict alignment with his experience.
“Oval racing was a new challenge, very different from anything I've done before in racing,” says Pagenaud, “but I really enjoyed the exercise because it was so hard! You have to think about the consequences and risks of every move and also the technical changes necessary to have your car doing what you want it to do for a whole stint, and for a whole race.
“I like the fact that you have to think about things such as how the track will be at 100 laps, 200 laps, 300 laps. There will have been changes in grip, in temperature, in downforce levels, and you have to consider how that affects your car, how that might affect other drivers' cars, how it might change your lines. You have to drive but you also have to be aware of how to set the car up for a whole race and that's something that you don't really do much of on a road course, which is more a sprint between pit stops and is more a reactive situation rather than planning ahead. Ovals are all about anticipation, and that's one of the things Dario Franchitti is so good at – taking what he's got and projecting how it will change as the race goes on.”
Although he adapted well, Pagenaud is well aware that having just five oval races under his belt hardly makes him the new A.J. Foyt. “I still have a lot to learn and I know they could still bite me,” he says solemnly, “so my attitude next year on ovals will not be overambitious. I want to complete as many miles as possible and so always be there at the end. But at Iowa, Milwaukee and Fontana, I think we can run strongly, in the top five. Indianapolis is all about preparation, obviously, but it also depends on the level of downforce we're going to have, because the less downforce the more it will be in the drivers' hands. Our team certainly knows how to make a quick car for Indy, but I was a rookie this year and so we didn't spend so much effort on the Indy setup because we knew it would be difficult for me to succeed there. I think 2013 will be different.”
Pagenaud (a rookie driver) and Schmidt Hamilton Racing (a sophomore team) was a strong enough combination to take fifth place in the IZOD IndyCar Series' final points standings, beating one Penske entry, two from Andretti and three from fellow Honda runners Chip Ganassi Racing. But just as a driver will tell you the final two tenths of a second are the hardest to find, so it becomes harder to make progress up the championship table the closer you get to the top. Setting such high standards early in their alliance will make it tough to match expectation with results in 2013 – especially if SHR remains a one-car team.
Schmidt says he's been speaking to “three or four” drivers regarding a second entry, and hints that he's furthest along the road with Rubens Barrichello. Pagenaud hopes his teammate might be Justin Wilson, who he describes as “an incredible driver,” but recognizes that this is highly unlikely (something that JWil himself confirms!). But a driver of the proven speed and experience of Ryan Briscoe or Oriol Servia would also make sense. In fact, even if the second car was driven by a rookie plucked from Schmidt's Indy Lights aces, such as Tristan Vautier or Esteban Guerrieri, it would be a huge help to have that additional source of info being fed into the team's data banks.
That would allow Pagenaud and his engineers to do all the fine-tuning necessary to make their car into a regular victory contender in 2013, and another year of experience could be all Simon needs to take a serious run at the 2014 title. If ever there was a team/driver combo that proved it could meet high expectations, this is it.