Simon Pagenaud must be the proudest – and hardest working – driver in the Sebring paddock this year. The Frenchman just returned from a whirlwind journey that saw the 29-year-old testing his Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda Indy car last week at the Homestead track in Florida near Miami before he hopped on a plane to participate in his home rally, the Rallye National de la Vienne.
The quick flight home was worth it as Pagenaud won the event overall in a S2000-spec Peugeot 207, then flew back to Florida to drive for Extreme Speed Motorsports in the HPD ARX-03b P2 car for the 12-hour endurance race.
Known as one of the most versatile professional drivers on any continent, Pagenaud will take part in today’s practice having driven an Indy car, rally car and sports prototype in a span of nine days, and credits the diverse array of driving experiences for raising his game.
“That’s one of the main reasons I love to do stuff like this,” Pagenaud told RACER after the rally. “And I appreciate Sam [Schmidt] and Ric [Peterson] allow me to do all this extra stuff and sharpen my skills. I think they also understand it makes me happy, and when I’m happy I drive better and it also makes me a better driver because I’m learning so much from doing completely different things.
“As long as you’re smart enough to understand what you’re doing, you’re always going to extract something out of it. So that’s what I’m doing and I feel like everything I’m doing on the side is helping me in IndyCar so it can only be a win-win situation.”
The Rallye National de la Vienne isn’t a pro event, according to Pagenaud, but he didn’t treat it as anything less than a full WRC round in his mind.
“It’s part of the national championship that runs in France,” he explained. “So the level it goes from… it’s like the SCCA – it’s all mixed together. There’s some guys that do the French Championship also. So the level, obviously there are fast cars and slow cars so there are a lot of different categories. The rally itself is about 130km of nine asphalt stages. We leave in the morning at eight in the morning and we come back around 11 in the evening. It’s all day long. We basically have two stages; one is about 14 miles long. And the second one is shorter but more technical. The first one is very high-speed stuff. And the second one was very technical between houses and small villages and that one was about eight miles long.
“Honestly, it’s not a world championship event, I won’t lie. But there’s some good guys and about 100 cars entered. The weather was very nice. It’s been raining for weeks before the event. So the roads are very narrow, it’s asphalt and a little bit of gravel. The grass…we use the grass to cut corners in rally and the grass was very muddy and very soft, so very treacherous I should say. Even though top speed of the car is pretty, you still push like crazy everywhere.”
Think of any driver you hear complaining about the smallest and most insignificant things, then think about what Pagenaud says next: His passion for driving is worthy of sincere envy.
“I enjoy rally because it’s my passion and that’s certainly something I want to do more in the future,” he added. “I might want to get involved; I’m trying to learn about it and I’m also realizing that it really helps me to drive my IndyCar in slippery conditions and anticipate changes in conditions and anticipate different rhythm. It just helps me with my adaptation skills. Truly, I really, really enjoy it. I mean, it’s just incredible the amount of fun I’m having.”
Based on a few recent examples, IndyCar drivers have raced into their early 40s, which had led Pagenaud to start thinking about where he’ll drive once he’s done in open-wheel.
“I’m going to be 30 this year, and I’m thinking I’ve got 10, 12 years ahead of me in IndyCar hopefully,” he explained. “And then we’ll see after that. Certainly a dream that I want to accomplish may be competing in the WRC championship, if it’s still there. That’s something that I would really love. Rally cross is also something I’m really attracted to. I don’t think in the U.S. people realize that I can be competitive in that series at the moment. I’m trying to, by doing this, I’m trying to help people be aware that I can drive those cars and I’m competitive in those cars.
“And I drive IndyCar for a living; there’s a side of me they don’t know about rally cars, which I totally understand. And I’m trying to make them aware of all that because, you know me, I like sports cars, like rally and I wouldn’t mind being involved in other series when I have time. But my priority is IndyCar. That’s for sure. If I can race in rally, sports cars and who know what else until I’m old, I’ll be a very happy guy.”
Coming off his rally win last weekend, Pagenaud has a new challenge in front of him as the ESM team looks to earn its first victory at the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring.
“In the end, I won every eight stages; it was eight stages and I won every one of them, so I don’t know if I can do something similar at Sebring – maybe try and lead every lap?” he said with a laugh. “Seriously, we have an amazing team and I know we will be capable of a very good result, but endurance racing is so unpredictable – it’s not like a rally where it’s just you against the stopwatch – that you can’t control your fate as much as you want. But I would love to win two different types of races in two weekends, that’s for sure.”