Photo: Mercedes-AMG / SunEnergy1

Tristan Vautier returns to Dale Coyne Racing for Texas

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Tristan Vautier will make his return to the Verizon IndyCar Series this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway’s Rainguard Water Sealers 600 (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, NBCSN), as a somewhat surprise choice for Dale Coyne Racing.

Vautier is the latest driver in the No. 18 Honda for Coyne, the fourth in as many weekends going back to Sebastien Bourdais’ accident in qualifying for the Indianapolis 500.

“We chose Tristan to fill the 18 seat at Texas because of his previous experience at Texas Motor Speedway,” Coyne said in a release. “We think he can help the team and Ed (Jones) who has never raced or even tested there. Tristan has remained close with the team and he’s always done a good job for us. I expect much of the same going into this race weekend.”

It will mark his first start at Texas since 2015, when he finished 20th with Coyne, and his third at the track overall (finished 18th with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports as a rookie in 2013). He completed the 2015 season with Coyne after starting in an abnormal qualify one car, then race another situation at the Indianapolis 500, and additionally collected championship contender Graham Rahal at Pocono.

With Bourdais sidelined, James Davison took the reins of the car for the ‘500 before Esteban Gutierrez made his series debut this past weekend at Detroit for the doubleheader.

INDYCAR had not yet cleared Gutierrez to participate in this weekend’s race, as he’d need to complete an oval rookie test before doing so.

With a compressed timeline before track activity begins on Friday, the decision was made to go for a team veteran instead, with Oriol Servia and more recent team veteran Pippa Mann thought to be the leading candidates.

Vautier, who told NBC Sports as recently as Friday while he’d welcome an opportunity to return to IndyCar but was primarily focused on his sports car roles with Mercedes-AMG in IMSA (SunEnergy1 Racing) and Blancpain GT (Team AKKA-ASP), then was brought into the equation.

“I really can’t wait to be in the car on Friday and see how it feels that first lap around,” Vautier said. “It’s not the easiest place to step back in and practice is going to be very limited, but the team has been competitive everywhere, and I trust we’ll be good. It’s going to be cool working with the whole team again, and also with Craig Hampson who I met in Le Mans when I was 16 and just getting started in racing. I remember I was asking him about opportunities in the USA and he was telling me to come over!

“I’m super grateful to Dale for renewing his trust in me like he did in 2015, and I also want to send a big thanks to SunEnergy1 Racing and my team owner Kenny Habul who is making 2017 such a special year for me as I return to racing full time in the USA for his team. He is much more than a team owner to me, he wants to see me succeed and supports me in everything I do beyond my commitments with him in sports cars. He is a true blessing. Now it’s time for me to focus and deliver this weekend.”

His return to the No. 18 Honda is one of three changes to the entry list this weekend compared to Detroit this past weekend. Ed Carpenter is back in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet with Spencer Pigot not racing on the oval, and Gabby Chaves will make his second start of 2017 in the No. 88 Harding Racing Chevrolet, after impressing with a ninth place finish in the Indianapolis 500.

Coyne, meanwhile, poked fun at its return to TBA-status on Monday night on Twitter, channeling 2001’s infamous CART-based movie Driven to ask whether Kip Pardue’s Jimmy Bly or Sylvester Stallone’s Joe Tanto should have got the nod instead.

IndyCar recap: Honda Indy Toronto

Photo: IndyCar
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Street races for the Verizon IndyCar Series can often be affected by chaos, with the close quarters and “concrete canyons” often taking their toll on the IndyCar drivers and their machinery.

And the streets of Toronto, a venue notoriously rough of equipment, even in comparison to other street courses, was no different on Sunday.

The Honda Indy Toronto most certainly threw a wrench into the championship equation, as Scott Dixon’s victory combined with troubles from his rivals to see him increase his points lead to 64 points, but his win and the championship implications were certainly not the only stories of note on Sunday.

A look at other stories to emerge from Toronto are below.

Toronto Takes a Bite of IndyCar

A combination of tight city streets, hot temperatures, and a lot of rubble marbles wreak havoc on Sunday. Photo: IndyCar

Toronto is infamous as a venue that produces close quarters and often lots of contact between drivers, and Sunday’s race was no different.

And Toronto did not discriminate either, attacking veterans and young guns alike. Sebastien Bourdais (four-time champion, two-time Toronto winner) and spun and backed into the Turn 1 tire barrier. Ryan Hunter-Reay (former champion, Indy 500 winner, and 2012 Toronto winner) nosed into the Turn 3 tire barrier after locking up the brakes.

Josef Newgarden (defending IndyCar champion and 2017 Toronto winner) and Will Power (2014 IndyCar champion, this year’s Indy 500 winner, and a two-time Toronto winner) both clouted the wall exiting the final corner.

Alexander Rossi (2016 Indy 500 winner and a winner from this year’s Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach) suffered two damaged front wings and made six pit stops on the day. And rookie Rene Binder spun and stalled in Turn 8.

Indeed, Toronto was its usual carnage-filled self. But it wasn’t only because of the tightly packed circuit. Sunday’s race was also contested in hot and slick conditions, with tire marbles and dust also prominent from the outset.

Newgarden particularly highlighted the marbles and dust when describing his contact with the Turn 11 wall.

“It was a tough race. Making contact with the wall didn’t help. I don’t know what it was to be honest with you, it was either marbles or dust from the sweepers; they’re trying to clean off the track and that yellow, when we already had tons of marbles 27 laps in,” he explained.

Even race winner Dixon bumped the wall once exiting Turn 1. While he didn’t suffer damage, he also noted how tricky the conditions were, and revealed just how exhausting the day was.

“I’m worn out, man, that was a physical race,” he detailed. “It was definitely easy to pick up lots of debris on the tires out there, and I think that’s what happened to Josef (Newgarden) on that restart where we took the lead. He tried to go a little bit fast into the last corner there in Turn 11, got into the gray and that was pretty much it.”

Indeed, the tricky conditions combined with the already difficult Toronto street circuit to create another chaotic outing north of the border.

Wickens, Hinchcliffe Give Canadian Crowd Something to Cheer About

Robert Wickens was elated to finish on the podium at his home race. Photo: IndyCar

Canadian fans are among the most enthusiast race fans you’ll ever find, and they’re particularly passionate about their homegrown heroes.

And they had plenty to cheer about on Sunday, notably in the form of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports teammates Robert Wickens and James Hinchcliffe.

Starting ninth (Hinchcliffe) and tenth (Wickens) respectively, they maneuvered their way through the chaos to run inside the top five – Wickens even used a slick move on a Lap 34 restart to go from fifth to second.

Wickens eventually finished third after battling with Simon Pagenaud, while Hinchcliffe was elevated to fourth after a late pit stop by Marco Andretti – Andretti needed a splash of fuel with one lap left.

Their results mark the third year in a row that a Canadian driver has been on the podium in Toronto (Hinchcliffe finished third in the 2016 and 2017 outings).

Wickens, who acknowledged he doesn’t typically get emotional, couldn’t help but feel a little emotion after scoring a podium finish in his home race.

“Thankfully, I’m not an overly teary guy, but that (finishing on the podium in Canada) was really cool. I can’t thank these Toronto fans enough. I mean, this whole week has been such a whirlwind of emotions, and to stand on the podium in my first professional home race, I couldn’t ask for anything better,” Wickens revealed.

For Hinchcliffe, finishing fourth was just as impressive, if not more so given that he did it with a damaged car. Hinchcliffe suffered suspension damage following the Lap 34 crash in Turn 1, in which he had contact with Takuma Sato.

James Hinchcliffe overcame suspension damage to finish fourth in the Honda Indy Toronto. Photo: IndyCar

“On that restart melee, we got tagged by Takuma, which I should know better than staying on the inside of him in a corner like that. I bent the toe link, and from there, it was a bit of a struggle to feel the car out and see how it was going to change with the bend in the suspension,” he detailed. “Honestly, the Arrow Electronics car was still pretty great, and in that last stint, we were chasing down the leaders. Who knows what could have been, but ultimately happy with Robbie being on the podium and two SPM cars in the top five.”

And their results paid dividends in their championship standings. Wickens now sits sixth, while Hinchcliffe is back inside the top 10 – ninth.

New Faces Grace the Top 10

Charlie Kimball was one of several new faces to finish near the front in Toronto. Photo: IndyCar

Because so many of the usual suspects had trouble, some new faces graced the top 10, and even the top five, for the first time in 2018.

Charlie Kimball gave Carlin Racing its first top five by finishing fifth, his best finish since he finished sixth at Road America last year.

Tony Kanaan finished seventh for A.J. Foyt Racing, their first top 10 since Race 2 of the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit (Kanaan also finished seventh there).

Zach Veach finished eighth, his best result since he finished fourth at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.

Marco Andretti was running fourth before he pitted for a late splash of fuel – it would have been only his second top five of the year (fourth in Detroit in Race 1 is his best result of 2018).

And Jordan King just missed out on his first top 10, finishing 11th.

They all found themselves in position to capitalize as others around them faltered, and some were rewarded immensely as a result.

Misc.

  • Conor Daly deserves kudos for a strong outing after a last-minute call up from Harding Racing. He qualified 11th and ran a clean race to finish 13th. While unspectacular, Daly gave a nice account for himself as he seeks to return to IndyCar full-time.
  • A possible top five, what would have been his third in a row, got away from Takuma Sato when he smacked the wall exiting Turn 11. Combine that with Graham Rahal being involved in the Lap 34 pileup, suffering damaged suspension in the process, and it was a day to forget for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.
  • Very quietly, Zachary Claman De Melo, the “other” Canadian in the field, drove another clean race to finish 14th. While it won’t garner attention like the results of his countrymen, it is another solid outing for a rookie who is still learning the ropes.

The Verizon IndyCar Series now takes a weekend off before heading to the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course for the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio (July 29 on NBCSN).

@KyleMLavigne