Schmidt admits dilemmas over driver choice

Vacancies in Schmidt Peterson Motorsports' IndyCar and Indy Lights lineup proving difficult to fill with talented and funded drivers

Schmidt admits dilemmas over driver choice
Sam Schmidt
James Hinchcliffe, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda
James Hinchcliffe, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda
Sam Schmidt
Jack Harvey, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports
Race winner Jack Harvey, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports
Race winner Spencer Pigot
Podium: race winner Spencer Pigot
James Hinchcliffe, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda signage
Sam Schmidt
Sam Schmidt
Conor Daly
Conor Daly, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda
Conor Daly, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda
Conor Daly, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda
Matthew Brabham tests David Gilliland Racing
Tristan Vautier, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda
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Sam Schmidt has narrowed down his shortlist of potential candidates for the second Schmidt Peterson Motorsports' entry to partner James Hinchcliffe in 2016, and has filled two of his four planned Indy Lights entries. However, he told Motorsport.com, “I wouldn’t know how to advise a parent of a young driver trying to break into our sport; there are far more potential candidates than seats available in either category”

Schmidt, who maintained his hugely successful Lights operation after he entered IndyCar full-time in 2012, has been thrilled with the immediate return to form of James Hinchcliffe since his grievous injury at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May, but says finding a teammate for the Canadian, as well as filling the remaining two spots on SPM’s Indy Lights program, is difficult given the budget requirements.   

“We were hoping James would come through his recuperation as well as he did,” said Schmidt, “and he was very excited to get back in the car at Road America. And then I think he was even more satisfied at the direction our development is going when we tested at Mid-Ohio. He’s got big hopes for improved competitiveness in 2016.

“But now we’re focusing on moving the second car process forward because that is our ideal situation – running two cars. And it’s proving very difficult. We have a very short list of two or three drivers, and I’d say it’s highly unlikely we can find a full budget this late in the game. I think we can find half a budget, but I’m not sure how many really talented drivers are around with the other half.”

Two Lights are on

Schmidt added: “In Lights, we’ve got RC Enerson and Ethan Ringel already signed up for their second seasons with us and we’re talking to a handful of drivers about the other two seats. I was getting a little nervous as things seemed completely dead on the Lights side up until about a week after [Lights’ season finale] at Laguna Seca. But the last two weeks there have been a ton of emails and phone calls from all quarters, with a lot of GP3 and GP2 drivers enquiring about Lights.

The fact is, IndyCar's older generation isn’t moving on because they’re still successful

Sam Schmidt

“That’s good; it seems healthy. But where do they go after Lights? The fact is, IndyCar's older generation isn’t moving on because they’re still successful and I understand that. Three years ago, I’d have been one of the guys saying, ‘Look at Tony Kanaan, look at Helio Castroneves – they’ve got to be moving onto sports cars any day now.’ But in fact they’re still going strong, which leaves fewer vacancies in IndyCar.”

Schmidt admitted that part of his problem in filling the second seat in his IndyCar operation is his reluctance to take on drivers who have never raced on American tracks, particularly ovals.

“I think it’s safe to say that the top four or five GP2 drivers are talented and may have funding,” he remarked, “but I think we need to be careful that we’re not trying to reinvent the wheel with our second car program each year by bringing in a rookie with no oval experience. We’ve done that before, and don’t need to do it again.”

Praise for Pigot

Looking to rookies on the Mazda Road To Indy system who thus have oval experience, Schmidt said that SPM was one of the teams that had put in a bid to run new Indy Lights champion Spencer Pigot. The young American's Lights crown was scored with Juncos Racing and came at the expense of Schmidt's lead runner, Jack Harvey of Great Britain. Pigot's prize includes $1m and three guaranteed IndyCar race entries in 2016, one of which is the Indy 500.

“Actually, in a way we registered that interest in Spencer a while ago,” observed Schmidt, “because we were the first to test him in an Indy Lights car. Had Juncos not started a Lights team, I think we’d have had that deal. But that’s fine; I understand Spencer’s loyalty to want to graduate with the team he’d won Pro Mazda with. And it worked out for him, obviously.

“But after this last season, I’d say Spencer is absolutely our kind of guy. If you look at the results, he hasn’t put a wheel wrong; brought the car home when it wasn’t on the pace, dominated races when it was fast. I’d say he’s got everything a team owner is looking for. Just from recent experience – and we’ve run Josef Newgarden, Tristan Vautier, Jack Hawksworth and Gabby Chaves and seen how they adapt to Indy cars – it’s pretty easy for us to compare and I think Spencer would do as well if not better than those four.”

New Lights car is a success

Schmidt was full of praise for Indy Lights’ one-year-old Dallara IL15 Mazda-AER, which was specifically designed to emulate the handling of the DW12 Indy car.

“The plan to make Indy Lights a better training ground is being proven,” said Schmidt. “We’re finding the IL15 actually has less downforce but more power than the old Indy Lights car, so it’s faster in a straight line, slower in corners, and more difficult to drive. So I think the best drivers from Lights this year would fare reasonably well in IndyCar quite quickly, in terms of talent.

[Conor Daly] was as fast as Josef [Newgarden] but made fewer mistakes.

Sam Schmidt

“But then they have to get the mental side together. IndyCar’s top 15 is hard to break into and it seems to get more competitive every season. So it’s important for a driver to have the mental toughness to actually show their potential and not start throwing it away from frustration at trying to break into that top 15.”

As well as praising Pigot, Schmidt noted that 2013 Pro Mazda champion Matt Brabham is “a strong driver who’d have no problem moving up to IndyCar,” but added that he felt Conor Daly was top of the list of the drivers who are waiting on the sidelines.

“I rated him as high or higher than Josef back in 2011, and he was leading the Lights championship when he went off to try GP3. He was as fast as Josef but made fewer mistakes. He’s top of the list of deserving candidates, and I think he did a tremendous job every time he got in a car this year.”

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