Simon Pagenaud and Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports made the giant leap from weekly contenders to annual race winners in 2013 and may have established themselves as one of the championship favorites ahead of next season.
Pagenaud has always been viewed as a very talented and often cerebral ace driver that had the potential to be great once he put everything together and was paired with a team capable of matching his performance on the track.
After a fifth-place championship showing in 2012, Pagenaud and Schmidt Hamilton were out to prove the results were not a fluke and responded with two victories (Belle Isle II, Baltimore) this season, with an average finish of 8.3. In fact, Pagenaud fared no worse than 13th in all the events that saw him running at the finish.
He may be the most consistent force in the IndyCar Series today.
The problem long-term will be finding him a teammate that can enhance his chances through sharing data and feedback. Fellow Frenchman Tristan Vautier had the potential to grow into that role but couldn't hang onto the ride and was replaced by Russian Formula Renault 3.5 champion Mikhail Aleshin in November.
Vautier, the 2011 Pro Mazda and 2012 Indy Lights champion, was just too aggressive in his 19 starts and often struggled to put together complete races.
That's not to say Vautier doesn't have what it takes to make it in the IndyCar Series. That couldn't be further from the truth. In a world where most young drivers have little job security, Vautier had to make the most of his chances and the aggressive nature backfired to the tune of a single top-10, an average finish of 16.3 and a 20th place championship result.
Vautier deserves the opportunity to grow into a veteran given his vast talent but it will have to happen with another program with the arrival of Aleshin at SHM.
It's hard to say what exactly Aleshin will provide, especially given his lack of experience on ovals.
But he is a former Red Bull junior driver and comes with vast experience with driving a variety of cars overseas. His willingness and excitement to learn the DW-12 is a positive sign but positive results will have to come, especially if Pagenaud finds himself in championship contention for the third year in a row.
And that's exactly where Pagenaud expects to be -- running near the front of the field, winning races and contending for a championship. Each full-season that Pagenaud runs brings him closer to the top of the mountain. There is little reason to believe he can't make the final step in 2014 and become IndyCar Series champion.
Best case for 2014: Simon Pagenaud is a legitimate championship contender and should win multiple races next season. Meanwhile, Mikhail Aleshin holds his own on ovals and adapts to the DW-12 en route to a top-10 championship finish.
Worst case for 2014: Pageanaud's consistency turns south when he begins to suffer uncharacteristic bad luck. Aleshin proves equally unable to fully adapt to IndyCar racing in a single year like his predecessor and the team as a whole takes a step back.
How do you think Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports will fare next season with Simon Pagenaud and Mikhail Aleshin? Tell us in the comments section below.