“I race to win, and my ambitions are high, but as the beginner in this series I have to be reasonable. Being in the top eight in the championship is one of my goals.” – Simon Pagenaud before the 2012 season

That’s one goal realized by Pagenaud, who finished fifth in the IZOD IndyCar Series standings courtesy of nine top-10 finishes, with a best of third at Mid-Ohio.

The Sunoco Rookie of the Year trophy, presented Dec. 6 at the INDYCAR Championship Celebration presented by Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka, is a tangible reward for his results in the highly competitive series. The 28-year-old native of Poitiers, France, also extracted a good measure of satisfaction out of the season in the Honda-powered No. 77 Schmidt Hamilton HP car.

“When you look at the big picture, I think the season was a success,” Pagenaud said. “I exceeded my goals, but during the season I realized the reasonable goals were further up the chart. Overall, fifth position and rookie of the year is fantastic. The main thing is now it brings me enough confidence to say I belong in the top five, and now it’s my job to do even better.”

Pagenaud got a taste of the IZOD IndyCar Series in 2011 as a sub for injured drivers in three races, and was introduced Dec. 8, 2011, as the driver for the first-year Sam Schmidt-Davey Hamilton collaboration.

He wasn’t a stranger to Indy car racing, having won the 2006 Champ Car Atlantic Series title (one victory, six podium finishes). Those results, and the $2 million championship award, paved the way to 14 starts (10 top-10 finishes) in the 2007 Champ Car season as a teammate to Will Power with Team Australia.

The next season, Power headed to the IZOD IndyCar Series while Pagenaud went sports car racing with de Ferran Motorsports. The team finished ninth in the American Le Mans Series LMP standings that first year and runner-up in 2009. Pagenaud realized the LMP class title in 2010 with Patron Highcroft Racing and competed for the team – along with Peugeot Sport Total in the International Le Mans Cup and his three-race stint in INDYCAR – the next year.

“He has a lot of experience now,” Power said. “He’s very quick and I knew no one would beat him for the rookie title.”

The body of work has honed skills and expanded talent, and the chemistry with lead engineer Ben Bretzman (with whom he worked with at Highcroft) accelerated learning the new Dallara chassis-Honda engine package, circuits and team personnel.

“As soon as we tested the car I felt really good in it and Ben and I reuniting was a very important chemistry that started straight away,” Pagenaud said. “It was pretty much like the team I left in 2007 from Champ Car, and it was just a matter of showing them that they could have confidence in me, showing them I had the pace and also have them understand that my feedback will help get us to the top.

“There are moments where we could have done a lot better, but when you look at it a lot of other people made mistakes as well. For next year, the most important thing will be to iron out those details.”

Pagenaud, who was in the No. 77 car for two days of testing at Barber Motorsports Park last week, will close out the test calendar Dec. 12 at Sebring International Raceway.

“I’m continuously trying to build up and be a better driver,” he said. “We tested at Barber last week and managed to explore new areas because we haven’t had much time to work on the car. We raced a lot and as a one-car team we were testing things during a race weekend. It was difficult because you don’t want to get lost in testing but find direction to be fast in qualifying. We knew we were struggling in some areas and managed to find new things that could be interesting tools that maybe will get us in a better position.”

To be a title contender in the 19-race 2013 season?

“It’s still early stages, but I want to be like Dario (Franchitti), like Will (Power), like (Ryan) Hunter-Reay,” Pagenaud added. “I want to be a contender. My approach is more to be in the moment and extract the best out of the situation. If we do our best, which we should do, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be at the top. Obviously, everyone else could do the same and be really stronger, but with the resources we have I think we have what it takes to be up there.”