Simon Pagenaud's dream to race in the 24 Hours of Le Mans has come a little earlier than expected. The de Ferran Motorsports Acura LMP2 racer has received a late call from Hugues de Chaunac to drive for Team Oreca Matmut in this year's race. The young Frenchman replaces Stephane Ortelli, who has been ruled out of competing because of injuries sustained in an accident last month at Monza, Italy.
Pagenaud, the former open-wheel ace from Poitiers, France, moved up the ladder racing in his home country before moving to the World Series by Renault. In 2006, he came to America as a rookie in the Atlantic Championship series and earned the crown. Last year, he moved to the Champ Car (now IndyCar) series, finishing 8th in points.
This year, Pagenaud started the new season without a ride until he received the call from Gil de Ferran, making the move to sportscar racing in the American Le Mans Series. The 24-year-old shined in his debut in last weekend's race at Miller Motorsports Park in Utah, setting the race's quickest lap time and finishing third overall with team owner de Ferran. Now, he gets the chance to fullfil one of his life-long dreams: competing in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
"I am very excited about this opportunity," Pagenaud said. "To run in the most famous race in France, for me, is an honor."
De Chaunac closely watched Pagenaud's impressive performance in Utah and found him to be the perfect candidate to sub for Ortelli.
"The choice of Simon Pagenaud came fairly quickly," de Chaunac said. "He is a young driver who was immediately met with great success in the United States and will be a valuable teammate for the team."
Pagenaud will return to France on Monday to test with the team at Magny-Cours, where he will get his first taste of the Courage-Oreca LC70 Judd LMP1 car. Driver pairings for Le Mans will be confirmed following the test. Originally, Ortelli was to share the wheel of the No. 5 car with Soheil Ayari and Loic Duval. Olivier Panis, Nicolas Lapierre and Laurent Groppi were slated as co-drivers in the No. 6 entry.
Ortelli has been sidelined since suffering multiple fractures to his right ankle and a torn muscle in his shoulder following a violent accident in April's Le Mans Series race in Monza. The Monaco resident was lucky enough to just escape the frightening accident, which saw his Courage-Oreca LC70 Judd tumble end-over-end following a rear wing failure on the high-speed front straight. Ortelli originally pledged to be fit in time for the race, but de Chaunac made the tough decision to find a replacement driver.
"I am pleased to see the speed at which Stephane is recovering and his morale shows it," Team Principal Hugues de Chaunac said. "Unfortunately, the time is too short for him to be fully ready for Le Mans, even though I know how much Stephane wanted to celebrate his tenth anniversary of his Le Mans win with us."
With 12 starts, Ortelli was the most experienced driver at Le Mans with the team. He captured the overall victory in 1998 with Allan McNish and Laurent Aiello in a works-entered Porsche 911 GT1-98. It was a groundbreaking win for all three drivers, as their careers took off from that point forward. That same trio also went on to finish runner-up in 2000, while piloting one of Audi Sport Team Joest's Audi R8s.
"I understand Hugues de Chaunac's decision to not take any unnecessary risks," Ortelli said in a statement on his Web site. "They need six drivers to deliver 110 percent of their potential from June 1 Test Day, which would have not been the case for me."
Ortelli, who is now out of his cast, said he is still planning on attending the 24 Hours to work with the team in an advisory role. He hopes his past experience and success at Le Mans could give a helping hand to his teammates, some of which are rookies or relative newcomers to the event.
"For my part, I will continue to work on my ankle and I will be at Le Mans anyways to give a helping hand to the team in a role that remains to be determined," Ortelli added. "One this is for sure: I'll be on my two legs, with a helmet, listening to team communications, and I will use my past experience at Le Mans to help my teammates."
The 24 Hours of Le Mans at Circuit de La Sarthe will take place June 14-15. Teams will gather the Monday prior to the race for two days of scrutineering, always a fan favorite, in the main city of Le Mans.