There's something about Frenchmen who turn up in American open-wheel racing. They enter quietly, yet within a few races, they're leaving their rivals questioning where the heck their speed and results came from.
Just since 2003, Sebastien Bourdais, Simon Pagenaud and J.K. Vernay have shown up and won championships, while Franck Montagny was runner-up in the final Champ Car race at Long Beach 2008, his first open-wheel start.
While chances are you may not know Tristan Vautier's name very well right now, you might want to jot it down for future reference.
Vautier entered the U.S. in 2010 after years of success in Formula Palmer Audi, Formula Renault and Formula Two in Europe – and promptly won his Star Mazda debut in March 2010 at Sebring. Although Vautier was the only driver other than Conor Daly to win more than once in 2010, a lack of consistency plagued his first year and forced a change in mindset going into 2011.
“The biggest change was seeing the big picture, and looking at how we win the championship and getting the big prize from Mazda and IndyCar,” he says. “I learned some new tracks, and I learned the way the car went faster in terms of balance and setup. It's a hard car to set up, but the second year I could develop better. It's not so much pure speed as it is looking at the fine details between being just a race winner and a championship winner.”
To go for the title in 2011, Vautier switched from Andersen Racing – which shut its team operations down to focus solely on series and track management – to JDC Motorsports, which his eventual title rival, Connor De Phillippi drove for in 2010. The deal came together fairly late, and Vautier began testing only in mid-February.
After one win in the first six rounds, and fourth places on all three oval events, the second half of the season was where Vautier hit his stride. He won three of the final five races to seize the grip on the championship, with a determined performance at Infineon Raceway his personal highlight of the campaign.
“It was a really good win, we started very strong and set the pace very early,” he explains. “From there, everyone was catching up and getting closer and closer. Everything was tighter and we had to keep improving the car, and I had to get my driving down. We had less than a five-hundredths advantage; it might have only been one one-hundredth. I had to find every little bit and find the perfect lap, and to get the pole by that much was a big satisfaction.
“The whole race was so close with Connor until the end – he just did a mistake so he fell a few seconds behind. When you cross the line after you worked so long to find such a little bit, it feels great when you pull off the win. That was the highlight and was a big step for the championship, and our best weekend.”
A further victory at Baltimore while De Phillippi struggled to ninth and a final fourth place finish at Mazda Raceway sealed the title. In 11 races, Vautier scored 11 top five finishes – the model of consistency to match his series-leading four wins.