All photos: Mercedes-AMG / SunEnergy1

Tristan Vautier embracing post-IndyCar life with SunEnergy1 Mercedes

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As the Verizon IndyCar Series heads into its third consecutive race weekend where “TBA” is present on Dale Coyne Racing’s No. 18 Honda, with the team set to field quite possibly its fourth different driver in as many weekends, one name you won’t see filling the entry blank is Tristan Vautier.

Vautier’s name came up a bit during the month of May because he seemed a natural fit as the injury replacement for Sebastien Bourdais, his French countryman, after Bourdais’ crash in qualifying that caused pelvic fractures and a hip injury, leaving him sidelined for the next few months.

His name was also top of mind as the only one of the last six Indy Lights champions from 2011 to 2016 not yet set in a ride for the Indianapolis 500 – Josef Newgarden (2011), Sage Karam (2013), Gabby Chaves (2014), Spencer Pigot (2015) and Ed Jones (2016) were all in the field.

As he was on site in Indianapolis for most of the month, it seemed either Vautier or James Davison would get the call to drive in the Indianapolis 500, thus resuming the two drivers’ quirky 2015 when both were part of Coyne’s lineup under abnormal circumstances. Davison got the call instead and drove from last on the grid up to the lead before crashing out.

Detroit Grand Prix, Detroit, Michigan, June 2017. (photo by Brian Cleary/bcpix.com)

But for Vautier, the missed opportunity there for what would have been a one-off entry back into open-wheel wasn’t as stinging as it would have been in past years.

Instead, the 27-year-old Frenchman who lived in Florida and Las Vegas before is now in Mooresville, N.C., not far from Charlotte, fully immersed in his new role as lead driver and coach with SunEnergy1 Racing, one of the newest teams on the block in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, in the team’s No. 75 Mercedes-AMG GT3.

Vautier’s career wilderness the last three years after his lone full IndyCar season in 2013 now sees him back in a full-time ride for the first time since, this year. In-between it’s been an odyssey of occasional drives with Mazda, in IndyCar with Coyne in 2015, and most recently in sports cars with Mercedes-AMG.

A chance opportunity arose at the 2016 Rolex 24 at Daytona with Kenny Habul’s SunEnergy1 Racing program as two big names who were meant to race with him fell through.

“(Kenny) rented a car (an Audi R8 LMS) from Stevenson for the 24 Hours of Daytona,” Vautier told NBC Sports. “I didn’t have a ride for Daytona, and I was going to the Roar and he was meant to drive with Will Power and Denny Hamlin, but they both couldn’t make it, so they tested me at the Roar. It worked out well, so I did the 2016 Daytona with him.

“Then he decided to buy a Mercedes, and I have been racing it all year in Europe.”

Vautier’s first full season with the new Mercedes-AMG GT3 came in Europe last year with Jerome Policand’s Team AKKA-ASP squad, which has fielded a number of drivers with an open-wheel pedigree such as Felix Rosenqvist, Daniel Juncadella, Felix Serralles and Raffaele Marciello.

In 2016, Vautier raced with AKKA-ASP and Mercedes in the Blancpain GT Series Sprint Cup, and scored his first win with Rosenqvist in the season finale at Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya. The other highlight of his season came at the TOTAL Spa 24 Hours, where he finished second overall with Rosenqvist and Renger van der Zande.

Although the schedule was only a handful of weekends, it kept Vautier busy and plugged into the Mercedes-AMG platform.

The opportunity for Vautier’s drive with Habul to arise this year grew over the course of 2016 as Habul acquired one of the new chassis, set to premiere in America this year. Differences such as the tires – Pirelli in Blancpain vs. Continental in IMSA – require a bit of getting used to, but that’s been part of the learning process.

The harder part has been building the team from the ground up, as a first-year team in IMSA up against several heavyweights with years of experience.

“Kenny ordered the car in mid-October, he called me mid-October as well. I moved to North Carolina, to Mooresville, the start of November,” Vautier said. “At first, we had just the car and Kenny has some equipment from his NASCAR stuff, but yeah we had the car, we had a mechanic from Germany that had worked on Mercedes setting everything up, and we had a small structure.

“The first test at Daytona we were just an EZ-up and just a few things. Very quickly, the team went through a quick building process finding people. It was not easy to find great people straight away, obviously, when you’re a new team.

“But, at the same time, there were also IMSA teams who didn’t have programs together yet and so some guys were let down, so it allowed us to get a few guys that worked for IMSA teams so that really helped us have good people.

“It was very interesting for me because all winter I was at the shop, helping anywhere I can as well, outside of the car. I thought it was quite interesting to be involved from ground zero, at the start of a race team. Kenny is new to IMSA but we have quite a few people that have experience in the championship so that has helped us get up to speed.”

It’s been an interesting start to the season the first five races. Vautier set a track record in Sebring with a sub-2-minute lap, an impressive 1:59.738 lap which was 0.7 up on second place. He, Habul and Boris Said banked their first podium there. A penalty negated potential success in Long Beach, while COTA produced a comeback drive from outside the top-10 following a fueling issue on a pit stop to the second podium there (video below).

Detroit this past weekend was tougher with the wheels collapsing pre-race in a bizarre moment, and then reported brake failure sending Habul into a luckless and innocent bystander, van der Zande’s No. 90 VISIT FLORIDA Racing Riley Mk. 30 Gibson. On Tuesday morning, Habul was placed on three races probation from IMSA for unjustifiable risk (Rule 30.6).

“In some ways, it’s been surprising. If somebody had offered us in January that after four races we would have two podiums, we would have taken the deal!” Vautier laughed.

“At the same time, our speed has been so strong since the start of the year that it’s been a disappointment, especially in Austin, just because we had an issue with fueling in that last pit stop and we lost 10 seconds, if not, we really think we would have won the race.

“So that feels bittersweet because at one point we were in the pits fixing the car because a prototype had hit us at the start of the race, so we didn’t think we had the podium, and then we finish on the podium.”

Habul, who’s grown the SunEnergy1 solar business, has gotten back into racing himself in recent years. Growing up in Australia, he raced in Formula Ford and Formula 3, and is a veteran of the Gold Coast circuit at Surfers’ Paradise. His recent starts outside of sports cars have come in the NASCAR Xfinity Series road course races.

“Every day I’m at the shop, I’m actually immersed in the solar business,” Vautier said. “It’s pretty interesting, the whole industry and Kenny’s business, but what’s more interesting is how quickly he’s been able to succeed in the business and make his company grow and how busy he is. He’s just hustling all the time. He’s like a warrior.

“He has some habits from NASCAR road courses that are quite different from the driving styles in these cars, which actually have hurt him at first, but the good thing is as soon as you tell him to do something, first off he listens, but he manages to apply it. He picks it up very easily, so that’s why I think he’s improved so quickly.”

Vautier misses the open-wheel world a bit but has no major regrets about moving into the sports car world.

“I don’t really have regrets. Obviously in racing you can always think back to what you should have done differently in a race. But in terms of my career itself, I pushed like hell, I did everything I could to stay in IndyCar, to get more opportunities,” he said. “So, I cannot look back and say I didn’t give it 100%, I always did.

“So no, it’s very easy to move on and to be honest with you, I just enjoy sports cars a lot. You miss driving the IndyCar because the cars are just so fast, so fun to drive, but I’m lucky because in this series, both in IMSA and in Blancpain, you get 55 cars in the same class. At Monza there were 30 cars within one second in qualifying!

“What I was scared to miss was the competitiveness, you know, like that pressure you get. But actually I still have that in sports cars because you still have drivers that would or could be in IndyCar.

“In Blancpain, all the drivers fighting at the front are guys that could have, or were close to making it to F1 or top open wheel and just didn’t make it. They’re probably as good as the guys that made it. If you look at the whole field, it’s a lot of drivers like that, like me.”

Vautier continues with AKKA-ASP this year with Serralles and Juncadella in the Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup. They’ve raced at Monza and Silverstone this year with Paul Ricard (June 23-24), Spa (July 27-30) and Barcelona (Sept. 30-Oct. 1) still to come.

The IMSA GTD schedule has five rounds down and seven more to go, and no conflicts for Vautier in either series.

If he returns to IndyCar he’d welcome it, but for once, he actually knows what he’s doing beyond week-to-week, which has been a good thing.

“After my rookie season in IndyCar, it’s true, I’ve always had something, but it’s been very last minute and very up and down, very part time. Last year was good. I had a decent program in Europe, even if there was not many races,” he said.

“I have to say, being the 25th of December, like having my Christmas lunch or my Christmas Eve dinner and knowing exactly what I was going to do felt really like a luxury because I have not had that since 2013 I think! Even in ’13 I didn’t have my IndyCar deal yet at Christmas, so 2012 was the last time where, at Christmas, I knew my program exactly. So, that felt really nice.

“It was nice, also, to have testing since it’s the same since 2012, since my Indy Lights season where I had everything signed early, I always jump in the cars in February or March and this time we’ve had testing in November and December. Obviously we’ve had so much to take in as a new team, so I couldn’t say we showed up to the first race completely prepared, but it still felt really nice to be able to be in the groove already when we showed up at Daytona.

“If I get the chance to go back I would like it, and it’s good because both my teams in Europe and here, with Kenny, are supportive of me and would like to see me succeed if I could maybe to back. But, to be honest, I’m here and I’m giving 100% and in the moment I don’t think about IndyCar too much, I just think about winning races and doing the best job I can here for Kenny.”

Hulkenberg: Singapore DNF ‘tough to take’ after strong start

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Nico Hulkenberg has admitted his retirement from last weekend’s Singapore Grand Prix was “tough to take” after being in contention to end his long-running Formula 1 podium drought.

Hulkenberg entered the Singapore weekend ready to break the record for making the most F1 starts without recording a top-three finish, having tied Adrian Sutil’s tally of 128 races at Monza.

Hulkenberg qualified an excellent fifth for Renault and dodged the start-line chaos to rise to third, and even ran second for one lap before switching tires.

Hulkenberg settled into fourth place when the switch to dry tires was complete, only for an oil leak on his car to force him to make an unscheduled pit stop and ultimately retire from the race.

“Sunday was tough to take and left me feeling disappointed. We lost a good result, and it was a case of not having a good enough reliability; that’s the way this sport goes sometimes,” Hulkenberg said.

“We lost our fourth position which is a pity especially after all the hard work from the whole team. It would have been a nice bunch of points but that’s racing and it happens!

“The car is looking fast and we have to build on the positives and take it forward now to Malaysia.”

IndyCar points by circuit type: 2017

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After separate reviews of the street and oval portions of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season – led by Josef Newgarden and Helio Castroneves, respectively – the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma season finale was of course, the final road course race of the year as well.

And a third different driver topped the charts in those six permanent road course races this year, in the form of Scott Dixon.

Dixon had one win (Road America) and three runners-up finishes in the six races, with other finishes of fourth (Sonoma) and ninth (Mid-Ohio) which brought him 261 points in these races. That was two points clear of Newgarden, who won at Barber and Mid-Ohio and finished second at both Road America and Sonoma, while losing points at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and Watkins Glen.

The top six drivers in permanent road course points – Dixon, Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, Castroneves and Graham Rahal – were also the top six drivers in the overall points, albeit not in that order.

For the year, it was interesting to note how being consistent across all three phases of circuit netted the best results.

The two biggest outliers were Power – who was only 14th in street course points but second in oval and fourth in road course points – who ended fifth in points overall and Kanaan, who overcame 16th (street course) and 18th (road course) points positions with third place in oval points, trailing only Castroneves and Power.

That oval haul brought Kanaan up to 10th in points in a year where several others – notably James Hinchcliffe, Max Chilton and Ed Jones – all occasionally staked their claim to the final spot in the top-10.

Otherwise, consistency across all circuits was key to securing your overall points position for the year.

The breakdown of points per driver by circuit type is below.

P # Driver Street Road Oval Total
1 2 Josef Newgarden 185 259 198 642
2 1 Simon Pagenaud 147 256 226 629
3 9 Scott Dixon 159 261 201 621
4 3 Helio Castroneves 126 220 252 598
5 12 Will Power 86 244 232 562
6 15 Graham Rahal 162 191 169 522
7 98 Alexander Rossi 126 171 197 494
8 26 Takuma Sato 115 112 214 441
9 28 Ryan Hunter-Reay 105 178 138 421
10 10 Tony Kanaan 79 97 227 403
11 8 Max Chilton 91 141 164 396
12 27 Marco Andretti 103 119 166 388
13 5 James Hinchcliffe 155 99 122 376
14 19 Ed Jones 88 99 167 354
15 21 JR Hildebrand 78 90 179 347
16 14 Carlos Munoz 85 109 134 328
17 83 Charlie Kimball 72 135 120 327
18 4 Conor Daly 68 120 117 305
19 7 Mikhail Aleshin 77 68 92 237
20 20 Spencer Pigot 75 114 29 218
21 18 Sebastien Bourdais 93 89 32 214
22 20 Ed Carpenter 169 169
23 88 Gabby Chaves 98 98
24 22 Juan Pablo Montoya 20 73 93
25 18 Esteban Gutierrez 43 23 25 91
26 7 Sebastian Saavedra 19 61 80
27 16 Oriol Servia 21 40 61
28 7 Jack Harvey 40 17 57
29 29 Fernando Alonso 47 47
30 63 Pippa Mann 32 32
31 13 Zachary Claman DeMelo 26 26
32 77 Jay Howard 24 24
33 24 Sage Karam 23 23
34 40 Zach Veach 11 12 23
35 18 James Davison 21 21
36 18 Tristan Vautier 15 15
37 44 Buddy Lazier 14 14
38 7 Robert Wickens 0 0

Ed Jones adds name to IndyCar’s elite as top rookie in 2017

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Sure, you can say Ed Jones didn’t have a full-season counterpart for IndyCar’s Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors in 2017 and so he was always going to win the award.

But in a year when you don’t have competition and the other first-year drivers did only selected races, you have to compare yourself to the rest of the field at large and make an impression – and Jones clearly did so for Dale Coyne Racing.

Per Trackside Online, Jones joins this list of drivers in the series’ full-time lineup who won top rookie honors in their year of eligibility: Alexander Rossi, Carlos Munoz, Simon Pagenaud, James Hinchcliffe, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti, Will Power, Sebastien Bourdais, Scott Dixon, and Tony Kanaan.

FORT WORTH, TX – JUNE 09: Ed Jones, driver of the #19 Boy Scouts of America Honda, sits in his car during practice for the Verizon IndyCar Series Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 9, 2017 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Heading into last year’s offseason, Jones was not the favorite to take over the No. 19 Boy Scouts of America Honda; fellow Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires veteran RC Enerson was on the heels of three impressive debut races at the tail end of 2016.

However Jones was always going to need a place to land with the $1 million Mazda Motorsports advancement scholarship for at least three races. Between that and with additional budget gathered, Jones found his way into Dale Coyne’s second seat alongside Sebastien Bourdais and together the pairing clicked.

Coyne had his eye on him throughout 2016, and watched him win the Indy Lights title at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca – albeit under somewhat controversial circumstances when Carlin teammate Felix Serralles pulled aside to allow Jones through.

“It was Indy Lights. We went to his last race at Laguna Seca when he won the championship,” Coyne said. “We kept an eye on him. We keep an eye on all Indy Lights guys as well. It’s close, we can see them, watch them race, see how aggressive they are.

“He was always smooth in the car. I didn’t know how good he was going to be, because he was smooth. He doesn’t look like Paul Tracy in a car, but he drives better than Paul Tracy, at least in the beginning, at least Paul’s first year. He was a pleasant — it was the biggest surprise we’ve ever had.”

Jones, the 22-year-old Dubai-based Brit who makes his U.S. residence in Miami, was an instant hit on results if not on outright pace. But with finishes of sixth, 10th and 11th among his first five starts and other results lost due to circumstances outside his control, he immediately made a positive impact in the paddock.

Where Jones grew up fastest in a year where he matured so much from a more quiet and reserved driver in Indy Lights – much of that thanks to the family atmosphere at Coyne and its ace PR rep, Karina Redmond – was in May. Bourdais went from points leader and potential Indianapolis 500 contender to hospital-bound after his devastating accident in qualifying.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 28: Max Chilton of England, driver of the #8 Gallagher Honda, Helio Castroneves of Brazil, driver of the #3 Shell Fuel Rewards Team Penske Chevrolet, and Ed Jones of the United Arab Emirates, driver of the #19 Boy Scouts of America Honda, lead a pack of cars during the 101st Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 28, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Jones, meanwhile, was suddenly thrust into the unexpected role of team leader, not knowing week-to-week who his teammate might be depending on the issue. Similar to Alexander Rossi last year, Jones carried a quiet swagger during the month of May in Indianapolis, and was aggrieved for getting knocked out of the Fast Nine shootout.

What he did on race day was equally as impressive as Rossi’s 2016 win in the ‘500 if not more so, considering the disparity in equipment and the fact Jones’ car was damaged in the nose from debris contacting it earlier in the race.

That third place finish (and the double points that went with it) was enough to earn many votes for this year’s Indianapolis 500 top rookie honors (including from this writer) although it wasn’t enough to supplant Fernando Alonso for the award, somewhat controversially. Coyne couldn’t resist trolling during Jones’ season-long top rookie acceptance press conference at Sonoma.

“Obviously Indy, third place there. Did you get Rookie of the Year at Indy or no? Didn’t get that, okay,” Coyne deadpanned.

Alas, Jones pressed on anyway with a consistent appetite for learning, thanks to Coyne’s tutelage, Michael Cannon’s sharp mind on the engineering stand and a crew that embraced him.

“It’s hard to say. There’s a lot of advice that Dale’s given me,” Jones said. “But, you know, he’s always been very supportive of learning everything step by step, learning from Seb. Every time I get to every weekend, even every session, I remember early on it was try to learn as much as you can, take it step by step, there’s no need to overdo it early on.

“I seen myself as well as one of the guys, rookies, younger guys that would come in and they try to be right at the front the beginning. In a series that’s so competitive like this, it doesn’t really happen that often. It’s extreme difficult to do it. Sometimes doing that, you can actually take steps backwards because you kind of lose where you’re at. It’s always better to sort of take it step by step, yeah, get there that way.”

After a ninth place at Detroit race one, Jones’ results suffered the rest of the way through a myriad of mishaps – be it tough setups, bad caution timing, an occasional spin or pit stop issues. A seventh at Road America was the lone bright spot, and a potential top-10 championship finish went begging. Losing Bourdais hurt primarily from a setup standpoint.

“I wasn’t always sure if it was just me or if it was a lot with the car. Yeah, that was the main thing. Seb is really good with setting up the car. Having his feedback to work off from was really helpful,” he said.

“If I ever wasn’t sure about something, I could use him to back something up. Not having him there, yeah, made it harder. Sometimes I was guessing a bit more. So, yeah, that was the toughest part.”

Jones said his driving and development got better as the year went on as, paradoxically, the results got worse.

“It’s always difficult not having another full-time rookie to compare to. Then again, I’ve looked at the rookies over the last few years. I’ve seen it’s extremely tough. I feel pretty happy with how it’s gone in comparison to other guys recently,” he said.

“I wanted to finish top-10 in the points. Halfway through the season, we were on track to doing that. We had a good opportunity to do it. The last few races, things have maybe not gone to plan.

“But I feel like as a driver, I got stronger. Early on in the season, I had some really great results. I was driving well, but also a lot of things fell my way. I was pretty lucky in that sense. Now I think we’ve gone better, me as a driver, also binding with the team. We got stronger, but things just haven’t gone our way. It’s been frustrating.”

None of the issues were egregious and as Coyne related later, Jones was one of the cleanest drivers he’d ever had in a year where the crash damage bills added up fast.

FORT WORTH, TX – JUNE 09: Ed Jones, driver of the #19 Boy Scouts of America Honda, and Tristan Vautier, driver of the #18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda, practice for the Verizon IndyCar Series Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 9, 2017 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

With a rotating driver in the second car, be it James Davison, Esteban Gutierrez or Tristan Vautier before Bourdais’ welcome and surprise return at Gateway, Jones was the unexpected but needed rock in the driver lineup.

“I think it’s been a whole progression the whole year. We’ve run a lot of rookies over the years. We run rookies in tests that have never made it to a race, we ran rookies that made it to races,” Coyne said.

“He’s just a puppy. But he’s done a good job, very, very good. I don’t think he scratched the car. He actually did hit the wall at Pocono. The smallest amount of damage I’ve ever seen anybody do hitting a wall at Pocono. Done a very good job all year long, every track.”

Jones isn’t back yet for 2018, but Coyne said “We’re very, very close. I would love to have Ed back next year,” and wants to have a deal struck in the next few weeks.

Looking at what he did as a rookie was quite impressive. The five top-10s matched Conor Daly’s number last year as the lone full-season driver and while Daly was 18th in points in his first full season, Jones ended 14th.

That 14th place in the standings is a Coyne driver’s best finish in the standings since the late Justin Wilson’s incredible run to sixth in 2013, and actually a spot ahead of where Wilson was the following year in 2014, in 15th.

Jones’ qualifying average of 14.3 was 3.5 spots higher than Daly’s last year and Jones out-qualified his teammates nine times this year in 17 races, including Bourdais on three of eight attempts.

What he did for the team this year overall in a tough season will be remembered more than the results itself which again, were impressive given thee circumstances.

“It’s been very tough. But the whole team together, everyone within the team works very well together from the beginning of the year. A big shame to lose Seb after quite a few races. Everyone got on well with it. I remember after the accident, actually Dale got everyone together. We pushed forward,” he said.

“I think there’s been a lot of times that on Dale’s team, there’s things that have happened, gone up and down. As we’ve seen, they’ve always come back stronger.”

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McLaren ‘very close’ to agreeing new F1 deal with Alonso

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McLaren is “very close” to agreeing a new Formula 1 contract with Fernando Alonso beyond the end of the 2017 season, according to team racing director Eric Boullier.

McLaren announced last week in Singapore it would be splitting with struggling engine supplier Honda at the end of the season, linking up with Renault from 2018.

The decision was made in a bid to lift the team to the front of the field, having struggled for much of the past three years while working with Honda.

Alonso has made no secret of his frustration throughout the three-year stint, prompting the Spaniard to consider his future with McLaren upon the expiration of his contract at the end of the year.

With the driver market closing up, Alonso looks poised to remain with McLaren for 2018, but said in Singapore he is considering options in many series.

Speaking to the official F1 website, Boullier expressed his confidence in Alonso staying for 2018, saying a deal was “very close”.

“Fernando wants to stay. You can see it in his body language and the way he speaks,” Boullier added.

“There are marketing details that have to be sorted out, and that Zak [Brown, McLaren executive director] is working on.”

Despite suggestions of an ultimatum regarding its Honda partnership being issued to McLaren by Alonso, Boullier stressed that the team made the decision to switch to Renault by its own accord, with the drivers then fitting in afterwards for its 2018 plans.

“McLaren’s DNA is to be competitive. The team has always been in the top three and we belong there again,” Boullier said.

“Today we know that we have a decent chassis, which would allow us to be in the top three again with an equal level engine.

“So for us as a business it is important to be competitive, no matter what role Fernando plays. We had to make a decision for us.

“But if you want to be competitive you not only need an engine, you also need a driver. That is when Fernando comes into the picture.

“We did what we did for McLaren first, but the package includes also the driver.”