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.
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.