PAGENAUD'S BIRTHDAY PRESENT IS A NEW ACURA
It would be easy for Simon Pagenaud to get caught up in the hype of de Ferran Motorsports' debut in the American Le Mans Series this weekend. After all, it's not every day that one of racing's brightest young stars makes his first Series start with one of racing's legendary names...on his birthday, no less.
So it's a good thing that Pagenaud is wiser beyond his 23 years. Well, come Sunday it will be 24. That maturity and focus are the primary reasons Gil de Ferran handpicked the Frenchman as his teammate in the de Ferran Motorsports Acura ARX-01b that starts its American Le Mans Series journey Sunday at Miller Motorsports Park in the Larry H. Miller Utah Grand Prix presented by the Grand and Little America Hotels.
An open-wheel standout and 2006 Formula Atlantic champion, Pagenaud and his boss jump head-first into an LMP2 class that features competition from three other Acura teams, four Porsche RS Spyders and a rapidly improving effort from Mazda.
"This is a big change for me," said Pagenaud, who began karting at the age of 10. "Having Gil besides me makes me better and every time we go on track we are improving. I don't want to be overly optimistic but don't want to be pessimistic either. There are so many details in this type of racing compared to open-wheel racing that make it more complicated."
Things like driver changes and the speed differences between the four classes of sports cars in the American Le Mans Series are just a couple of things that Pagenaud and de Ferran will learn as they go. Their comfort level with the No. 66 Acura will help ease the burden. Pagenaud agreed that the current P2 cars handle much like open-wheel ones - extremely nimble and stable under braking and during cornering while not losing much on a straight line.
"There is not much difference. I was really surprised and pleased that it is the same kind of car," Pagenaud said. "The cars are really well made and you can't feel the weight shift. The biggest thing will be the pit stops. It is a completely different way of anything I have done before. It's a big difference and will take a little while. We will see how it goes this weekend.
"We had a test the other day with some GT cars on track," he added. "It was really fun and I was pleased to pass cars that often. It's an interesting part of it. You need to make sure to pass the car in the right place so you don't get passed by the guy behind you."
Being a native of France, Pagenaud's desire to compete in the legendary 24 Hours of Le Mans naturally came up. Much like the Monaco Grand Prix and Indy 500 are the signature events of their respective series, he said, so is Le Mans the Promised Land for any professional driver. And before anyone asks, Pagenaud doesn't know when (or, in fact, if) Le Mans is part of the long-term plans for the de Ferran team. Honestly, it's hard to imagine that it isn't.
"When I was young, I went to Le Mans in 1992, a year Peugeot won, and I remember a lot about it," he said "I always have wanted to win Le Mans so I hope we have a chance someday."
But first thing's first, and that means getting through this weekend before entertaining expectations for the rest of the season. Friday's test session didn't do much to dampen the enthusiasm with de Ferran turning in the fastest time of the day.
"We will struggle on some points because we are so new." Pagenaud offered. "We will have to see where we are after this weekend. We have had very productive tests, and I'll be able to tell more after qualifying. We have a good car but you never know what will happen."
The Larry H. Miller Dealerships Utah Grand Prix presented by The Grand and Little America Hotels is set for Sunday, May 18 from Miller Motorsports Park in Tooele, Utah. The green flag is scheduled for 1 p.m. MT with live television coverage on SPEED. Live radio coverage will be available on XM Satellite Radio Channel 144 and American Le Mans Radio at americanlemans.com, which also will feature IMSA's Live Timing & Scoring.