The new French IndyCar hero is Simon Pagenaud, mais oui

BIRMINGHAM, AL - APRIL 08: Simon Pagenaud of France, driver of the #24 Dreyer & Reinbold Racing Dallara Honda, waits in the pit during practice for the IndyCar Series Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park on April 8, 2011 in Birmingham, Alabama. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Let's be honest - the Frenchman that most IndyCar fans were focusing on at Barber Motorsports Park was Sebastien Bourdais. Right?

Bourdais, the multiple Champ Car champion. Bourdais, the F1 veteran. Bourdais, the nemesis of Paul Tracy. Bourdais, Bourdais, Bourdais.

The other French driver, Simon Pagenaud, didn't get much notice until the end of the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama. After the race, a lot of people noticed him.

Pagenaud was in Ana Beatriz' Dreyer & Reinbold Racing Dallara, and most fans probably assumed that he'd tool around in the back of the pack, keeping the car from getting banged up until Ana's broken hand healed enough for her to drive again.

But, zut alors, mon dieu, did you see what Pagenaud actually did in the race? The 2006 Champ Car Atlantics champion, who had no seat time at all in a Dallara and whose last open-wheel race was four years ago, drove a smart, clean race and ended up eighth after starting 23rd.

If you've watched sports car racing at all in the past couple of years, you know that Pagenaud is nobody to sniff at when it comes to driving skill. He finished runner-up in the 2009 American Le Mans Series championship behind Highcroft Racing, and Highcroft liked what they saw so much that they hired him for 2010 - and got another championship out of the deal.

I remember Pagenaud more directly from his stint with Team Australia in Champ Car. Pagenaud was the teammate to Will Power - you most likely have heard of him once or twice lately - and while he didn't set the series afire with victories, his consistency and poise behind the wheel impressed a lot of people.

Pagenaud is a likeable sort, genial and friendly - a good complement to his skills behind the wheel. He's also very mature and very intelligent for a driver of only 26 years of age. The maturity and seriousness when faced with a hard task is something everyone he's worked with seems to agree about.

You should also know that Pagenaud is hoping to become the first Frenchman in almost a century to win the Indianapolis 500. His ALMS team is working to partner with an existing IndyCar operation to give Pagenaud a chance to follow in the footsteps of Jules Roux and Rene Thomas. They're even going to paint the car blue and number it 16 - the same number and color as the winning cars of his countrymen.

The Indy 500 effort is part of an ongoing push from Highcroft Racing to field a team in the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series. Whether it actually happens or not depends on finding the money to do it - certainly, it is not a sure bet at this point. But the goal is there and everyone is working hard to meet it.

Regardless, it would behoove you to get to know Pagenaud a bit better. With performances like he turned in at Barber Motorsports Park, you'll be seeing a lot more of him in the future. 

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