French sportscar racer Simon Pagenaud will finally be on the IZOD IndyCar Series grid full time in 2012, after landing a deal to drive for Sam Schmidt Motorsports. And 2011 Firestone Indy Lights champion Josef Newgarden will also be joining the starting line-up after being picked up by Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing.
"He has the attributes we want in a driver and it really came down to fit for not only 2012 but several years to come," said Sam Schmidt, announcing the signing of Pagenaud. "He has a shot at winning some races and being a championship contender in 2012."
Pagenaud had been very clear about his hopes to make it into IndyCar next season, and spent as much time as possible in 2011 getting as much experience of the current US open wheel racing scene as he could - including three race starts, as he became the series' "super-sub" by filling in for injured drivers Ana Beatriz at Barber, Justin Wilson at Mid-Ohio and Simona de Silvestro at Infineon during the year.
Now he will have a seat to call his own, five years on from his one season alongside Will Power at Team Australia in the final year of the Champ Car World Series before it was reunified with the Indy Racing League to form modern IndyCar. Finding himself without a seat in the new series, Pagenaud moved to the American Le Mans Series, as well as the Le Mans Series LMP1 class and the Le Mans 24 Hours race itself with Team Peugeot.
27-year-old Pagenaud insisted that his recent sportscar experience will be a major asset to his 2012 campaign and to the team as a whole: "I went to sports cars, which I think was good for my character because I learned so much; learned how to develop the car, tyres, engines," he explained. "Now it's a big advantage for me."
Pagenaud helped develop the Panoz chassis five years ago in Champ Car and is looking forward to doing the same when he gets his hands on the new 2012 IndyCar chassis next week, with team testing due to start in January. Advance testing of the new chassis has indicated some handling problems on ovals, but Pagenaud is confident these will be resolved by the start of the season.
"The first day I drove the Panoz I wasn't very happy, but by the end of the year it worked very well," Pagenaud said. "You can ask Will Power, it was probably one of the best cars we've ever driven ... I think the new [DW12 IndyCar] will be great for the series," he added.
"Simon was a natural fit. He knows how to win, he's a champion and most importantly he knows how to develop a car from scratch," echoed Schmidt. "He's extremely well-qualified for this program in a season that I think will come down to engineering, communication, chemistry and development of the car."
Schmidt said that he would like to make it a two-car line-up, but that inevitably it hinged on sponsorship. Although the team fielded Alex Tagliani in 2011, Schmidt said that he would prefer someone who was more of an oval specialist if they were able to put together a second car, as a balance to Pagenaud's road course skills.