The French Connection

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One of the main silly season dominos fell yesterday when Sam Schmidt announced his driver lineup for the newly renamed Schmidt Peterson Motorsport. Last year’s Rookie of the Year, French driver Simon Pagenaud, was already confirmed for the No.77, but it had been widely suspected that Sam Schmidt would run a second car full-time in the IZOD IndyCar Series for this season.

Originally, it was believed that Rubens Barrichello was in line for the second seat at Schmidt – given his ties to Honda. Unfortunately, he was unable to put a deal together for funding. In the meantime, a chance to run stock cars in his home country of Brazil presented itself. He would have to bring no money and receive a nice chunk of change in compensation. The only catch was, the Brazilian stock car team gave him a deadline of Dec 10 to take it or leave it. With nothing in hand for Schmidt or any other IndyCar team, he really had no choice. So Schmidt would have to formulate a Plan B if he were to run a second car in 2013.

Enter French driver Tristan Vautier – the 2012 Firestone Indy Lights champion with Sam Schmidt Motorsports as well as the 2011 Star Mazda titlist. Not only did Vautier win the Indy Lights championship last season, he did so in dominating fashion. He led more than half of all the laps in 2012 competition en route to four wins and three other podium finishes. In fact, there was only one finish lower than sixth throughout all of last season; when Vautier finished eleventh at Toronto.

From what I understand, Vautier was blazingly quick in his first outing in a DW12 in December at Sebring. From his history, it shouldn’t be a surprise. Aside from his only season in Firestone Indy Lights that produced a championship, Vautier won the 2011 Star Mazda Series championship in equally impressive fashion. The 2011 campaign produced four wins, but not a single finish lower than fifth. His rookie season in Star Mazda in 2010 saw Vautier win in his very first race on his way to finishing fifth in points. The young Frenchman is no fluke.

There was a time when French drivers in IndyCar racing was an extreme rarity. When Philippe Gache appeared in the 1992 Indianapolis 500, he was the first French driver to qualify since René Le Bègue in 1940. That was the only time we ever heard from Gache. His one start resulted in one of the many ugly crashes in the 1992 500. The following year, French driver Stéphan Grégoire made his first of many appearances at the Speedway and would later become an IRL regular. Of course, Frenchman Sébastien Bourdais became a four-time Champ Car champion and has performed very well in underfunded situations in IndyCar. This season will see three fulltime Frenchmen in the IZOD IndyCar Series.

Now that Simon Pagenaud has a full year in IndyCar under his belt, he can mentor his young countryman through his rookie campaign. Don’t be too surprised to see a second consecutive Rookie of the Year come out of the Schmidt stable.

Other owners could take a cue from Sam Schmidt. While other IndyCar owners focus on NASCAR and Grand Am when they aren’t concentrating on their IndyCar teams, Sam Schmidt is investing in the future of the IZOD IndyCar Series. For years, Sam Schmidt has been building a winning program in Firestone Indy Lights. He is considered the Roger Penske of the top development series for the sport. During that time, he started running a car for the Indianapolis 500. Then two. Then in 2011, he had his hand in several different IndyCar programs, including the pole winner Alex Tagliani and the 2011 race winner Dan Wheldon. When Wheldon was fatally injured at Las Vegas later that year, he was driving a Sam Schmidt entry.

Supposedly, after the Wheldon accident – Schmidt seriously considered giving up the sport he loved. He had just lost a good driver and great friend in Dan Wheldon to racing; and had almost lost his own life a little more than a decade earler, when a testing crash at Walt Disney World Speedway rendered him a quadriplegic. Fortunately, after some self-evaluation – Sam Schmidt returned to the sport in 2012 with Simon Pagenaud finishing fifth.

Sam Schmidt has seemingly done everything the right way. He built his Indy Lights team from the ground up. Then he slowly entered the IZOD IndyCar Series in a carefully planned manner, running a one car team for two years before expanding the operation to two cars this year. Of course, there is the argument that Sam Schmidt has raised a few eyebrows throughout the paddock in the manner that he built his team. It could be said that he bought FAZZT Racing from Alex Taglianai a couple of years ago, only to unceremoniously dump Tags at the end of the 2011 season. Then a cursory glance at the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports website shows no mention of Davey Hamilton, whose name was on the logo last season, although Hamilton was the one that brought sponsor Hewlett-Packard to the No.77 car. The tab labeled "owners", lists only Sam Schmidt and new partner – Canadian businessman Ric Peterson as owners.

Paul Dalbey, from More Front Wing, posted the following on Twitter yesterday; "Did I miss something or did SSM bring Tagliani on board and then take his team. And then bring Davey Hamilton on board and take his sponsor?" That is a very legitimate question. Shortly thereafter, an article appeared on the IndyCar website yesterday explaining that Davey Hamilton is still closely associated with the No. 77 entry. That was good to know. Sam Schmidt was a guest on Trackside last night and said that Davey Hamilton was still very much a part of his organization. But then Marshall Pruett of SPEED.com was on Trackside soon afterward saying that that wasn’t the case at all. Pruett has also posted an article about the touchy arrangement. Stay tuned. This could get interesting.

Regardless, Schmidt has not only launched several careers from his Firestone Indy ights program, he is now promoting a driver directly from his Indy Lights team to his top-level team. This is how the Mazda Road to Indy is supposed to work – teams developing their own drivers and promoting them from within. It’s too bad other owners don’t see it this way. So far, Sam Schmidt, Bryan Herta and Michael Andretti are the only owners in the top series that I can think of, that also invest in the designated ladder series of INDYCAR.

Why other owners choose not to is another story for another day. But for 2013, it will be very interesting to watch the fulltime French tandem at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. I’ll be surprised if Pagenaud doesn’t win a couple of races this season, and you can count on one thing from Vautier – the rookie will be fast.

With confirmation on Vautier for the No. 55 at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, the silly season is finally coming together. Now that we are almost into February, things are really getting interesting. I’d say it’s about time.

George Phillips

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10 Responses to “The French Connection”

  1. Penske and Ganassi don’t have to develope drivers. They just pick the best once they are developed (or young phenoms, Montoya and Dixon come to mind). The other teams probably cannot afford it.

  2. I’ve always thought Sam Schmidt was a douche.

  3. Not trying to stir the pot here, but I’ve always felt that Sam Schmidt got a pass by the press due to his injury. His business practices have always been shady and he can be a backstabber. But the press ignores all this and places him on a pedestal, simply because of his story. Davy Hamilton will learn the hard way. Just watch. When the season starts, HP will be on the cars and Hamilton will be nowhere in sight.

  4. Simon Garfunkel Says:

    I think Sam Schmidt is first class, any way you look at it.

  5. I have followed Sam’s efforts as a team owner and leader since day one andthe first thing I noticed was that he puts in the work. He is there early and stays late and that is why he has been so dominating in Indy Lights. It’s not a hard trick to develop young drivers when you work as hard as Sam.

  6. Never mind the cheating scandal in lights they were a key implicant of a couple years ago that almost resulted in all the other teams withdrawing from the series and killing it…

    • The Lights series had a tech inspection problem that was rectified, but a poorly funded O2 team finding an excuse for leaving was not that great a loss. Try again.

  7. Indycar is really growing the series and building excitement and enthusiasm for the upcoming season.

  8. Tampa Joe Says:

    How about celebrating Americans?

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