IndyCar: Tristan Vautier showing increased performance, promise

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It’s not every day that a driver starts out racing for a new team at the Indianapolis 500.

But that’s what happened for French driver Tristan Vautier. After missing the first five races of the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series, Vautier made his debut with Dale Coyne Racing in this year’s 500 (started 32nd and finished 28th).

Now, nine races into his stint with the Illinois-based IndyCar team, Vautier is starting to pay dividends.

In Sunday’s Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio, he not only led a race for the first time this season and for only the third time in his IndyCar career, he actually was in contention for much of the event, eventually finishing sixth.

Having started from the back of the 24-car field, Vautier quickly moved up through the pack, taking the lead on Lap 23 and holding on for the next 10 circuits around the 2.258-mile road course.

In so doing, Vautier showed he can not only wheel his way to the front, but can stay there for a prolonged period of time.

“Coming home sixth (Sunday) is great for me and for the team,” said the native of Corenc, France. “I had a blast out there.

“The car was good; we had a really fast car. I was able to put in some very good lap times while saving some fuel. It was great to be able to lead some laps with such a good race car.”

Sunday’s sixth-place showing was Vautier’s second-best finish of the season thus far. He finished fourth at Belle Isle 2.

While he suffered a setback after Belle Isle when he finished 20th at Texas due to a bad wheel bearing, Vautier has been back on a steady climb upward performance-wise.

Starting with Texas, he’s finished 20th, 17th, 17th, 16th, 12th and sixth in his last six starts.

Now, Vautier looks to build upon the momentum gained from Mid-Ohio in the series’ next race, the ABC Supply Co. Inc. 500, Aug. 23 at Pocono Raceway.

And at the same time, potentially give himself a heck of a birthday present, as he turns 26 one day earlier on Aug. 22.

“I am really thankful to Dale (Coyne) for having me in the car,” Vautier said. “It is an awesome group of people. (The team) is a small group of great people and I am having a blast this year.”

Vautier ran the entire season in 2013 for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, finishing 20th in the standings. After his contract was not renewed, he sat out 2014 (although made four appearances in the Tudor United Sports Car Championship) and the first five races of 2015 before Coyne called and offered him a ride.

Vautier is currently 21st in the standings with two races remaining on the schedule.

“It was a really good job by Honda to have such good fuel mileage and great performance,” he said of Mid-Ohio. “Overall, it was a great end to our race weekend.”

And potentially the start of an even better weekend in two weeks.

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Cadillac, Acura battle for top speed as cars back on track for Rolex 24 at Daytona practice

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The new hybrid prototypes of Cadillac and Acura battled atop the speed chart as practice resumed Thursday for the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Chip Ganassi Racing driver Richard Westbrook was fastest Thursday afternoon in the No. 02 Cadillac V-LMDh with a 1-minute, 35.185-second lap around the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course at Daytona International Speedway.

That pace topped Ricky Taylor’s 1:35.366 lap that topped the Thursday morning session that marked the first time the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship was back on track since qualifying Sunday afternoon that concluded the four-day Roar Before The Rolex 24 test.

In a final session Thursday night, Matt Campbell was fastest (1:35.802) in the No. 7 Porsche Penske Motorsports Porsche 963 but still was off the times set by Westbrook and Taylor.

Punctuated by Tom Blomqvist’s pole position for defending race winner Meyer Shank Racing, the Acura ARX-06s had been fastest for much of the Roar and led four consecutive practice sessions.

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But the times have been extremely tight in the new Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) category that has brought hybrid engines to IMSA’s premier class. Only 0.9 seconds separated the nine LMDh cars in GTP in qualifying, and though the spread slightly widened to 1.378 seconds in Thursday’s practices with teams on varying strategies and preparation, Westbrook still pooh-poohed the importance of speeds.

“It’s always nice to be at the top, but I don’t think it means too much or read too much into it” Westbrook said. “Big fuel tanks in the GTP class this year, so you have no idea what fuel levels people are running. We had a good run, and the car is really enjoyable to drive now. I definitely wasn’t saying that a month ago.

“It really does feel good now. We are working on performance and definitely unlocking some potential, and it just gives us more confidence going into the race. It’s going to be super tight. Everyone’s got the same power, everyone has the same downforce, everyone has the same drag levels and let’s just go race.”

Because teams have put such a premium on reliability, handling mostly has suffered in the GTPs, but Westbrook said the tide had turned Thursday.

“These cars are so competitive, and you were just running it for the sake of running it in the beginning, and there’s so much going on, you don’t really have time to work on performance,” he said. “A lot of emphasis was on durability in the beginning, and rightly so, but now finally we can work on performance, and that’s the same for other manufacturers as well. But we’re worrying about ourselves and improving every run, and I think everybody’s pretty happy with their Cadillac right now.”

Mike Shank, co-owner of Blomqvist’s No. 60 on the pole, said his team still was facing reliability problems despite its speed.

“We address them literally every hour,” Shank said. “We’re addressing some little thing we’re doing better to try to make it last. And also we’re talking about how we race the race, which will be different from years past.

“Just think about every system in the car, I’m not going to say which ones we’re working on, but there are systems in the car that ORECA and HPD are continually trying to improve. By the way, sometimes we put them on the car and take them off before it even goes out on the track because something didn’t work with electronics. There’s so much programming. So many departments have to talk to each other. That bridge gets broken from a code not being totally correct, and the car won’t run. Or the power steering turns off.”

Former Rolex 24 winner Renger van der Zande of Ganassi said it still is a waiting game until the 24-hour race begins Saturday shortly after 1:30 p.m.

“I think the performance of the car is good,” van der Zande said. “No drama. We’re chipping away on setup step by step and the team is in control. It’s crazy out there what people do on the track at the moment. It’s about staying cool and peak at the right moment, and it’s not the right moment yet for that. We’ll keep digging.”


PRACTICE RESULTS:

Click here for Session I (by class)

Click here for Session II (by class)

Click here for Session III (by class)

Combined speeds