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INDIANAPOLIS – Simon Pagenaud's rookie campaign was the best the IndyCar Series has seen in more than a decade.
He had six top-five finishes, nine top-10's in 15 starts, finishing the year ranked fifth in the championship standings driving for Sam Schmidt Motorsports. He was the highest-ranked Rookie of the Year since Felipe Giaffone wrapped up the season sixth in 2001.
"It's been a pretty amazing season last year," Pagenaud said at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Tuesday. "Rookie of the Year is an honor. It's something you see there's only a few men that have been able to do it. But then finishing fifth in the championship is great for the team, a one-car team against the big powerhouses like Penske, Ganassi and Andretti. We're taking great pride."
The 2013 season, however, hasn't been as kind to the Frenchman nicknamed "Jean Girard" after Sacha Baron Cohen's character in "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby." A mechanical issue forced his No. 77 car from the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg after 26 laps in the first race of the year. He failed to crack the top five in the next three leading up to the Indianapolis 500 on May 26.
He hopes Indy can jumpstart his season. Pagenaud is tied for 11th in the standings, but says he has a much better feel for the 500 and oval tracks this time around. A year ago, the Indy 500 was Pagenaud's first career race on an oval.
"I think it was honestly the most intimidating race I've ever been in," Pagenaud said of last year's 500. "The first stint was definitely a cold shower, then I realized I had to be a lot more aggressive. Once we got to Iowa, I understand how aggressive I could be while passing car and was able to make the pass. Honestly, I didn't have that awareness before. Indy was a big learning curve and steep one. I'm not ready yet, but I don't think you can ever be ready for Indy."
Pagenaud is joined in Indy by Schmidt teammate and fellow Frenchman Tristan Vautier this year. The rookie Vautier, in the No. 55 car, is 21st in the standings but has shown speed at every track and outqualified Pagenaud in the first three races of the season.
Jules Goux became the first Frenchman to win the Indianapolis 500 100 years ago. Rene Thomas became the second in 1914.
"We were actually in the museum two days ago," Pagenaud said. "I have two pictures of the car, No. 16. I told Tristan, this is the car that won the Indy 500 with two Frenchmen. That's a pretty sweet thing. Yeah, 100 years ago."
Vautier added: "That would be amazing, for sure. If we have to win it in two years, it would be 102, we'll take it."