Rookies impress at Sebring test

By extension, some straight talk from Sam Schmidt led to Tristan Vautier having the opportunity to test an IZOD IndyCar Series car Dec. 13. He appreciates both.

"I met Sam in 2010 and the first thing I did was beg him to give me a (Firestone Indy Lights) test that I couldn't afford," Vautier recalled. "He was honest and advised me to go back to Star Mazda where I had the money to hopefully win the championship and come back to see him when I had the title. I came back to see him a year later with the scholarship from Mazda."

This past season, Vautier delivered a sixth Firestone Indy Lights title for Sam Schmidt Motorsports, and Vautier didn't have to beg for a test in the No. 77 Schmidt Hamilton HP Motorsports car.

"Tristan had such a great year with us in Firestone Indy Lights, and he truly deserves this chance to test in an IndyCar," said Schmidt, who is seeking to add a companion car to the No. 77 driven by 2012 Sunoco Rookie of the Year Simon Pagenaud.

So the 1.65-mile Sebring International Raceway circuit was Vautier's playground for the day. He didn't miss a beat from the outset. In fact, Vautier recorded the fourth-quickest lap time of the 15 driver-car combinations and logged more than 200 miles.

"I loved it," said Vautier, 23, of France. "It feels like a big Indy Lights car with a few things to change in the driving style. I tried to improve throughout the morning, and the engineers were very good to help me. They made quite a few changes to see how I reacted and we moved forward.

"I'm just happy and honored to be taking this step with the team after they brought me the Lights title this year."

Team manager Rob Edwards praised Vautier's outing.

"What we saw was really a continuation of what we saw with Tristan in Indy Lights this year," Edwards said. "He's very professional, wasn't overwhelmed with anything he had to do and was on pace right from the start of the day. His consistency and his feedback, he just did a great job all day.

"(This) might give Sam a headache or a few things to think about. I talked with him and he's really thrilled that someone who has come through Sam Schmidt Motorsports has been successful in one of the big cars."

Another young driver, Conor Daly was equally impressive in his IZOD IndyCar Series debut.

Daly, who turns 21 on Dec. 15, tested Dec. 13 with A.J. Foyt Racing – his first seat time in an IZOD IndyCar Series car – at Sebring International Raceway. It was an audition actually, one that the Noblesville, Ind., resident hopes to develop into a long-running role.

"As an American, I would love to be in a red, white and blue car and I think ABC Supply would like to see an American as well, so I think that would be a good fit not maybe just next year but in the future," said Daly, who recorded the ninth-quickest lap time of 15 car-driver combinations on the 1.65-mile circuit. "They have (an unnamed) driver for next year in their main car so for me I'd like to help them as much as possible and learn because hopefully they would want to run a second car and honestly I would love to be in that second car.

"I've grown up around Indy cars; I love Indy cars with a passion. (A.J. Foyt Racing) really wants to get back to winning races, and that's a huge thing to be a part of and I would love to be on that road with them."

He was on the road to productivity straight away.

"We had a great day, though it was much too short," Daly said. "It was interesting to get into the car for the first time. I thought it would be really different and would take most of the morning to really get in a competitive range, but honestly we were quite competitive early.

"That was pretty cool in itself. One time I was catching Helio (Castroneves) and thought, 'What is this; what am I doing?' These are guys I've looked up to and seen for years. The car is very balanced and fun to drive. When you get in a car that is stable you can immediately start pushing it and figuring out where the time differences are (on the track).

"This was my birthday present."

Daly, who won a Firestone Indy Lights race at Long Beach in 2011, competed in GP3 the past two seasons after winning the Star Mazda Championship presented by Goodyear (seven victories in the 12 races). The 19-race 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series season begins March 24 on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla., where Daly won in Star Mazda in 2010.

Daly's immediate future isn't laid out, but he knows sponsorship is necessary to make his next move.

"We don't really know yet what we can do (for 2013)," he said. "We have had some great sponsors and supporters around us, but it will take more if we want to move up in Europe and also if we can do IndyCar. Europe has been awesome; I've learned a lot. But the financial backing is something that we don't have to move to the next level."

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