Both Bourdais and Pagenaud were back in the IndyCar paddock on a semi-regular basis in 2011. While Bourdais had procured a partial season effort with Dale Coyne Racing to run every road and street course race, Pagenaud only turned up at the 11th hour as a replacement driver on three occasions. Still, the time spent with his countrymen has proven invaluable in Vautier's development and adapting to U.S. racing.
“I definitely talk to both, and it was more to Simon Pagenaud when I first came here in 2010,” he says of his counterparts. “He's been a good help and he always gives some tips. It's tough on a weekend because we're all busy. When they're in the car, you're not, and when they're out, you're in. You try to touch base and say ‘hi' in the paddock but that's it on a race weekend.”
Vautier speaks very highly of the U.S. atmosphere. Highlights, he says, include how much more open prospective team owners and managers are, as well as the fan accessibility and better media training. He also described his view of ovals in IndyCar, having only driven the three at less than one mile but with an eye to running on bigger tracks next year.
“I really like the ovals; I just like the feeling of always being on the edge,” he says. “It can be a little scary at first. It's crazy, but I also like the complexity of what it takes to make the car go fast. It has to be a little free, but not too loose. It's a fine edge to find and very interesting. I'm excited about bigger cars. Indy Lights has a longer wheelbase and really looking forward to ovals.”
For 2012, Vautier will advance to Indy Lights, and compared to his Star Mazda title season, he already has a leg up on testing. The Chris Griffis Memorial Test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course held in October provided Mazda Road to Indy drivers their first crack at the next level of cars if they planned to advance.
Vautier ran both days, the first getting some limited running with Team E on the Friday before moving over to Andretti Autosport on Saturday.
“I was in the Team E car for about 20 laps in second session, working out the paddle shift system on the car,” he explained. “We're hoping it gets approved for all the cars in 2012, but it works really great.
“The second day with Andretti, I ran the full day so it was a different approach. Peter Dempsey drove the day before, so he was able to provide a few tips. I tried to learn a lot, but I have a ton of work still to do. But I got up to speed quickly and the first changes worked well. We ended up with the quickest time, which was a bonus, but a great experience to get to test together.”
Vautier has his pick of the litter for 2012, as he explained Mazda and IndyCar give him the freedom to choose whichever team. Daly went with Sam Schmidt Motorsports in 2011 for his partial season of Lights competition, although Vautier will be in for the full season wherever he goes.
“I really have to make the choice myself!” he admits. “It's big when you have that opportunity, and you have to take the time to make the right choice since I have it. It's good from them, though.”
Unsurprisingly, Vautier looks forward to running the IMS oval more than any other circuit in 2012. “An unoriginal answer,” he jokes. But the streets of Toronto and Baltimore also rank highly on his hit list for next year.
Rest assured, wherever Vautier ends up on the 2012 Indy Lights grid, there's a good chance he'll be at the front.