During the Rolex 24 at Daytona race weekend, reigning Firestone Indy Lights champion Tristan Vautier had a bigger than customary smile on his face - this despite the difficulties with his Mazda Mazda6 ride in Grand-Am's brand new GX category.
The rationale for his evasive, yet smiling responses to my questions about his 2013 program became evident on January 29th when we learned Vautier joins second-year INDYCAR driver Simon Pagenaud in an all-French Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (SPM) entry for the IZOD IndyCar Series.
While neither the car number for the Corenc, France driver's ride nor his commercial partners has been named as of yet, the 23-year-old carries a weight of expectations as he begins his new career in the Indy cars. An excellent test after the Indy car season was complete likely helped cement the deal but Vautier noted, "I've been talking with team owner Sam Schmidt since the end of last season in Fontana, but I just found out late last week that it was actually going to happen.
"I look forward to representing SPM, Honda and all the team's partners this year, as well as to working with the crew and Simon. I have been really wanting the opportunity and wanted to stay with Sam, to step up to the big cars," Vautier said. "It's a great day for me to announce this news."
Schmidt has expressed the desire to increase his operation to two cars in the IndyCar Series. "We achieved success with Simon Pagenaud last season as a properly run single-car team but I believe we'll be even better with two cars, given the chemistry of the package and personnel we have put together for this program," Schmidt said.
"You really need to run two cars to reap the benefits of the two sets of data and vie for the championship at this level," he confirmed. Several crew members will advance from the Lights series to the Indy cars along with their driver, Vautier. "We're proud to be able to promote from within," Schmidt allowed. "Many of our team members have worked on our Indy lights teams for years, but have learned to operate the bigger cars through our Indianapolis 500 programs when we ran multiple cars," he noted. "We're happy to promote them full-time into the IndyCar ranks on Tristan's car."
Schmidt said his commitment to run two cars began about three or four months ago. "It's becoming apparent if you're really going to compete week in and week out with what is the foundation of the IndyCar Series, you pretty much have to be a two-car team," Schmidt said. Canadian businessman Ric Peterson, the equity partner to Schmidt - and a former Formula Atlantic competitor in his own right - helped the former Indy car driver with his fiscal input, Schmidt noted.
The lack of a teammate in 2012 didn't help 2012 Sunoco Rookie of the Year Pagenaud - but didn't seem to hurt the accomplished driver either, as he finished fifth in the IZOD IndyCar Series championship standings, besting many that had the ability to work with a teammate. In fact, Pagenaud managed to complete more laps than any other driver in the series save 12-year veteran Helio Castroneves.
Schmidt noted an important aspect of this expansion is due to the chemistry and compatibility on his team. Even though the Indy cars have "a new chassis, it's still a relatively spec format in that [everyone uses the] same tires, same chassis, similar neck-and-neck power situation. When you have that format, it all comes down to the driver and the chemistry with the people who are on the team.
"I think we definitely had a lot of that really good momentum and mojo last year with Simon - the group of guys that he has. The strategy and the situation is not to mix that up, not to take a step back with that, but really to fill in some gaps," Schmidt continued. "I'm the type of person that never likes to look back, always likes to look forward. But it was beneficial to look back and reflect, even though we finished fifth, what's the difference between finishing fifth and winning the championship? We took a really deep look at that."
He reflected on some races that ended up well - Long Beach in particular - and admitted, "If we had another set of eyes, another car," some struggles could have been avoided. "I think last year a second car would have helped us a lot quicker. The series is just so competitive, you have to roll off and be fine-tuned. I think the second car really allowed us to do that."
Vautier understands that concept: "Having two cars in this team, the team has proved last year they were already great. I think it's going to add a lot of value to the team to get more information." While he doesn't think he'll be a title contender on arrival in the IndyCar Series, I think I have a lot to learn. I have an amazing teammate in Simon; I hope I can learn as much as I can from him and then get up to speed and hopefully both of us can work together and bring the team higher. On my side of things, it's all about learning and trying to get up to speed as quickly as I can. I will really focus more on what I have to do to learn and go faster."
With Vautier now coming into the series, there will be three French drivers in the INDYCAR paddock with Pagenaud and four-time Champ Car titleholder Sebastien Bourdais, returning for a full season with Dragon Racing. "It's great to see Frenchmen moving out of Europe and coming to the U.S. and trying to do their best to do a good job here," Pagenaud emphasized. "It just shows in France we've got some good schools, driving schools and we shape pretty good drivers. It's interesting to see - I'm pretty happy for France."
The team's general manager, Rob Edwards expects the chemistry between newcomer Vautier and Pagenaud to elevate the performance of both drivers. "The addition of Tristan will allow Simon to have data and information that was not available in 2012," Edwards said. "Tristan will be trying to complete every lap of every race with consistency; who better to help him along the way than the 2012 Rookie of the Year?"