C’est magnifique at Sebring: IMSA’s French Connection hopes to remain par excellence


The drivers who comprise the winning trio in the 2021 Twelve Hours of Sebring speak their own language, which can be good when the car is bad.

“The team knows when we speak a lot of French, the car is not good,” Tristan Vautier, one of the three Frenchmen on the No. 5 Cadillac, said with a laugh. “When we speak quite a bit of English, the car is OK. For us three, it’s been great. I’m not sure the team is going to be able to hold on, but we just get along good.”

The esprit de corps was evident for Vautier, Loic Duval and Sebastien Bourdais this past Saturday at Sebring International Raceway, where the underdog team scored a major victory over a stacked premier division of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship in the 69th running of the iconic sports-car event.

It was capped by an inspired drive to the checkered flag by Bourdais, who overcame a critical missing piece of the rear wing with a flurry of suspension adjustments from the cockpit and a large dose of gumption after falling 2 seconds off the pace while stalked by the defending race-winning Mazda.

“I was steering the car with my eyes, because I was looking at the wheel, and it was turning,” Bourdais said. “I thought first I was going to crash. I saved it, and then every corner, I was, ‘Like man, how am I going to do this one?’ But the flip side is the car was extremely fast down the straightaway, too, so I was very hard to pass. Sometimes, the gods of racing, you don’t know what is happening, but you make it and just take it and move on.

“That was one of the most improbable scenarios that I’ve ever been a part of that turned out in a good way. A winning way.”

The gods of racing must have desired Sebring should have a Hugo-esque twist during what many would consider the golden era of DPi racing.

With a class chock full of powerhouse teams and accomplished stars (the resumes at Sebring including Cup and IndyCar championships and victories at the Daytona 500, Indy 500 and Monaco), the triumph by Mustang Sampling JDC-Miller MotorSports was a breakthrough. Its all-French lineup was making only its third endurance race start together but has been a contender since the outset.

They finished fifth and led 59 laps in their debut last November at Sebring (where a GT collision in the final hour cost them a shot at the win) and were running well at the Rolex 24 at Daytona before another GT collision.

The Mustang Sampling/JDC-Miller MotorSports team pits the No. 5 Cadillac during the Twelve Hours of Sebring (IMSA).

Bourdais, Duval and Vautier already had formed natural bonds while racing in the same junior formulas in Europe, enhancing the likelihood they would gel beyond just sharing a native tongue to find le mot juste.

But the commonality extends to their demeanors, which lean toward deference that creates a working harmony. By virtue of his four Champ Car titles, 37 victories and Formula One, Bourdais is an alpha only in statistics. This is a team that seems fine without a vocal leader.

“I don’t think any of us want to have the last say,” Bourdais, 42, said. “We all try to optimize the combo, and if one of us is stronger on any given moment, he’s going to be the one that takes the responsibilities, and I think that’s very important. Loic and I have both been part of very strong manufacturer efforts, and we know how important it can be when you have a large group of drivers. Sometimes it gels, sometimes it doesn’t. And this one is a great one. I think when we all got together toward the end of the season, we knew it was going to be a good combination obviously.”

The No. 5 Cadillac led 28 of the final 31 laps to win the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring (IMSA).

Said Duval, 38: “We took over a little bit of America for a day. That’s pretty cool, the feeling for the three of us. It’s something positive to be French, in terms of culture and sometimes the communication. It does help. But also you have to make sure the three human beings work pretty well together. You never know. It’s always difficult to have an idea if everything will click together. But it works pretty well.”

Duval, a former 24 Hours of Le Mans winner with Audi, and Vautier, an Indy Lights champion and IndyCar veteran who scored his first IMSA victory, come with their own credentials as the team’s full-time drivers.

“Being French helps, but it’s not just that, I think our personalities click really well,” said Vautier, the youngest at 31. “We all get along really well. In endurance racing, obviously we’re all competitive and want to be fast, but it’s important to understand you all have to be comfortable and all work together for things to be good. We’re all quick and competitive, but we don’t have oversized egos, which can hurt a lot of endurance teams and driver lineups. That’s been one of the keys.

“We have similar feedbacks on the car as well. Some might like something a little better than others, but we all say the same things, and all our feedbacks make sense together, and that helps the team as well.”

The drivers shared adversity throughout 12 hours Saturday as the car fell multiple laps down before taking its first lead on Lap 319 (and staying in first for 28 of the last 31 laps).

The trouble started in the 15th minute when Duval was forced to pit after Jimmie Johnson spun into his line and damaged the front wing. With just over four hours remaining, Vautier was behind the wheel when the No. 31 Cadillac of Felipe Nasr suddenly skidded over the bumps and into the No. 5, which was exiting the pits.


IMSA French Connection Sebring
The No. 5 Cadillac team was unable to test before the Twelve Hours of Sebring because of a limited budget, but the crew still managed to bring a car that kept getting faster as the temperatures got cooler (IMSA).

“I didn’t really understand what happened at first in the car, then I woke up in the wall,” Vautier said with a self-deprecating sense of humor his teammates seem to enjoy. “This (hit) was so hard with the 31 and the wall, it took me 4-5 seconds to realize, ‘Yeah, maybe you should start it and see if the car was still working. Oh it’s fine!’ In the end, it’s funny. We had a few races when everything aligned until the moment it mattered and were a bit unlucky. Today it was the overdue one, and the stars aligned despite all the opposition. It was our day.”

Despite its formidable driving talent, JDC-Miller MotorSports can be considered as punching above its weight in DPi. Though Duval and Vautier will run the full season (with Bourdais joining the Michelin Endurance Cup races while moonlighting from his IndyCar ride at A.J. Foyt Racing), the No. 5 was the only team that skipped testing at Sebring.

“We’re operating to the best of our abilities and have great partners, but those programs cost a huge amount of money, and all the limitations as far as engineering, allotment of testing come through funding, and there’s only so much we can do,” Bourdais said. “Right now we’re on a tightrope. We wish we could have been part of (the test), maybe we’d have had a stronger car during the day. But at the end of day, when it mattered and had to be quick, the car was right there. Hats off to the engineers for figuring it out. I don’t know if it was luck or genius, but we got there.

IMSA French Connection Sebring
Loic Duval (left), Sebastien Bourdais (middle) and Tristan Vautier celebrate with their No. 5 Cadillac in victory lane at Sebring International Raceway (Michael Levitt/IMSA).

“I’ve been pretty accustomed to being the underdog with technical, budget and human resources on different series. When you bring the fight to the big ones, it’s that much sweeter.”

For the lineup dubbed “The French Connection,” it could create momentum for a few more sacre bleu moments like Sebring this season.

“Having that win for sure, it will glue everything even more,” Duval said. “To be able to put your name on such a classic like the Twelve Hours of Sebring, it’s something really special. When you achieve that as a crew, it always helps. So the three of us, but also the mechanics and engineers. I’m sure after this kind of event, there’s always a momentum. We have to make sure we are able to surf that wave.”

A deep dive into the new GR Cup as Toyota branches into single-make sports car racing

Toyota GR Cup
Swikar Patel/Toyota Racing Development

MOORESVILLE, N.C. – Inside this former textile mill, a retro building built in 1892 with massive floor-to-ceiling windows and sturdy brick, Toyota has planted a future seed with the GR Cup.

Once a hub for making cotton dye, the first floor has been turned into a factory that churned out spec sports cars for the past year as Toyota Racing Development prepares to launch its first single-make series.

The inaugural season of the Toyota Gazoo Racing GR Cup will begin this weekend at Sonoma Raceway, the first of seven SRO-sanctioned events (each with two races) featuring a field of homologated GR86 production models that have been modified for racing with stock engines.

Under the banner of its Gazoo Racing (a high-performance brand relatively new to North America but synonymous with Dakar Rally champion Nasser Al-Attiyah), Toyota will join Mazda, Porsche, Ferrari and Lamborghini as the latest automaker to run a single-make U.S. series (with Ford recently announcing plans for its own in the near future).

It’s grassroots-level amateur racing for manufacturers that are accustomed to racing at motorsports’ highest levels, but there are many benefits through competition, driver development and marketing despite the lower profile.

“It’s not the easiest thing or cheapest thing to do,” TRD executive commercial director Jack Irving told NBC Sports. “But there’s massive value to be a part of it and have our DNA in the cars. You get to race a bunch and get a bunch of data. You get to engage directly in feedback from the people beating those cars up.”

The GR86s being raced are very similar to the street versions that retail for about $35,000 at dealerships that annually sell several thousand.

“It’s a test of the car and your design,” Irving said. “We take an engineered vehicle designed to spec for the road and then apply our resources to make it race ready. Some of those things cross over.

The first floor of Toyota Racing Development’s Mooresville facility that finished the vehicles for the new GR Cup (Swikar Patel/TRD).

“Everyone approaches it differently. It’s a marketing piece for us. It’s a development piece for drivers. We’re supporting grass roots racing. This is a very long-term deal for us. This isn’t something we’re doing two years and done. It’s got a long-term vision. There’s big value in it, and there’s a lot of responsibility with that, too.

“You’re ultimately supporting it. You’re not just selling cars into a series and hoping it goes well. You have to be involved in a very material way to make sure it goes off well and has your fingerprints and represents the brand.”

Early indications have been solid. The GR Cup cars were rolled out on iRacing in January and immediately became one of the platform’s most popular vehicles (with 212-horsepower engines, the cars handle well and are difficult to spin).

TRD’s GR86 factory floor (Swikar Patel/TRD).

TRD has sold 33 cars for GR Cup with 31 racing in Sonoma, easily surpassing initial expectations.

“Our target was to sell 20 cars in the first year, and we could have sold 50 if not for supply chain issues with some vendors,” TRD president David Wilson told NBC Sports. “We basically came up with the idea of taking the GR86 and looking at what it would take to turn that into a little race car and do it affordably and competitively, and what’s come along with that is just a tremendous interest level. It seems like a market that perhaps has been underserved right now.”

Here’s a deeper look at the Toyota Gazoo Racing GR Cup and how the manufacturer built the new series:


The race cars start as production models that are shipped directly from the factory in Japan to a port in Charleston, South Carolina. After being trucked to the Mooresville facility, they are stripped and sent to Joe Gibbs Racing to be outfitted with a roll cage.

Upon return to TRD, the transmission and stock engine is added. The body remains virtually the same as the street version with a slightly altered hood, decklid and splitter for ride height and aerodynamics.

Jack Irving (Swikar Patel/TRD)

The cars mostly are customized to help manage the heat – the stock versions aren’t designed to handle the oil that sloshes around in the high-speed left- and right-hand turns on the road and street courses of the GR Cup schedule. TRD puts about two dozen parts on the cars, using Stratasys 3-D Printers to manufacture many on site (which allows flexibility for adjusting on the fly during R&D). In addition to help with cooling, many of the tweaks focus on allowing a limited number of setup changes.

“You don’t have a lot of ability to adjust these cars,” Irving said. “It was done on purpose. The intent was you have three spring sets, and you can adjust the shocks and do air pressure. That’s it. We seal the engine and components of it. We dyno everything. Everyone is within range to create as consistent a series as we can.

“Some of that is to mimic what Mazda did. They’ve done a really good job with their series. Porsche, Ferrari and other OEMs have done it very well. We had a learning that was easier to go through their book and see the Cliffs Notes version to get where we are.”

After taking delivery, GR Cup teams are responsible for transporting the cars to each track (and can buy up to three sets of Continental tires per event). Toyota brings two parts trucks to each track


After Sonoma, the GR Cup will visit Circuit of the Americas (May 5-7), Virginia International Raceway (June 16-18), the streets of Nashville (Aug. 4-6), Road America (Aug. 25-27), Sebring International Raceway (Sept. 22-24) and Indianapolis Motor Speedway (Oct. 6-8).

Though Nashville (IndyCar’s Music City Grand Prix) and Indy (SRO’s eight-hour Intercontinental Challenge) are part of weekends with bigger headliners, the GR Cup mostly will be the second-billed series (behind SRO’s Fanatech GT World Challenge) for events that will draw a few thousand. Sonoma had a crowd of about 4,000 last year, and SRO Motorsports America president Greg Gill said its events draw a maximum of about 13,000 over three days.

“There are some iconic venues, and the SRO it’s not IMSA,” Wilson said. “It’s got a different feel to it. It’s not the show. IMSA is kind of the show. I actually think it’s a good place for us to start, because it’s a little bit under the radar relatively speaking. It’s not a venue where you see the grandstands full of fans. It’s very much racers and their families. It’s got a neat vibe to it because it’s kind of small. So for our first effort as a single-make series, it’s the right place for us.”

Toyota GR Cup
The interior of the GR86 that will be raced in the GR Cup (Swikar Patel/TRD).

Though the attendance will be much smaller, Toyota still is bringing a large hospitality and marketing activation area with two 56-foot trucks that will provide a central gathering area for the series.

Teams’ entry fees will include meals there and provide a place to connect with Toyota engineers and other officials.

“I think we have a very different way of engaging with our group of drivers, and this series is similar to that,” Irving said. “Knowing that this isn’t going to get 100K people watching, but we want to have a direct connection with the drivers and understand their feelings about car, how do we make it better and empower them to be brand ambassadors for GR.”


Toyota has positioned the GR Cup as filling a price gap between the Mazda MX-5 Cup (a spec Miata Series known for high-quality racing at very low costs) and the Porsche Carrera Cup

“If you look at the ladder of MX5 to Porsche Cup, the difference in cost is massive,” TRD general manager Tyler Gibbs told NBC Sports. “We slot in closer to Miata than Porsche. We’ll slot another car in potentially in the future above that. It’s a good place for us from a price point perspective. Our road car is slightly more expensive than a Miata, so it makes sense our performance on the car is higher than Miata.”

A GR Cup car will cost $125,000. Full-season costs will vary depending on how much teams spend on equipment and transportation with estimates from $15-35K per event. So a competitive full season probably could be accomplished in the $250,000-$300,000 range.

Toyota GR Cup

“The goal was if you can ‘Six Pack’ it like Kenny Rogers and throw it in the back of a trailer, that would be amazing for us,” said Irving, referencing a movie about being an independent racer in NASCAR. “That would make it more of what we hoped it would turn into, just being as accessible as we possibly can make it.”

Toyota has tried to bridge the gap by posting a purse of $1 million for the season. Each race pays $12,000 to win (through $5,000 for eighth) with the season champion earning $50,000.

“Our hope was if you won, the prize money would cover the cost of that weekend,” Gibbs said. “We’re not all the way there. But almost there.”

Toyota also has posted an additional $5,000 (on top of prize money) to the highest-finishing woman in every race (which dovetails with SRO’s 50 percent female-led executive team structure).

GR86 Manufacturing at GRG before the first 3 cars are picked up.
—Swikar Patel/TRD

“If you’re a female driver who wins, you could get very close to sustainable” and cover a team’s race weekend costs, Irving said.

There are four women (Mia Lovell, Toni Breidinger, Cat Lauren and Isabella Robusto) slated for the full schedule.

The 31 cars will be fielded across more than a dozen teams including Smooge Racing (which fields GT4 Supras in SRO) and Copeland Motorsports (with Tyler Gonzalez, a four-time winner in MX-5 Cup). After a test last month at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval, teams began taking delivery on Feb. 24.


Toyota fields Lexus in the GT categories of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship but elected to go with the SRO Motorsports Group (“SRO” stands for Stephane Ratel Organization; Ratel is the founder and CEO) as the sanctioning body for the GR Cup.

With a heavy focus on GT racing, SRO’s marquee events are 24-hour races at the Nurburgring in Germany and Spa in Belgium. In the United States, SRO primarily is focused on GT3 sprint racing, and Gill said it’s viewed as a “gateway to IMSA” and its endurance events.

In choosing SRO, Gibbs said “the schedule was a big part of it.” GR Cup races will be held almost exclusively on Saturday and Sunday mornings in a consistency that would have been difficult with IMSA (which runs a greater volume of bigger series).

“Our people can show up Friday, race Saturday and Sunday and be on the way home Sunday afternoon,” Gibbs said. “For our customer for this car, that was important. They still have jobs and particularly the younger drivers have to go to school. The SRO really fit us. They were very interested.”

Irving also was drawn to SRO’s flexibility with digital media right and free livestreams of races that Toyota can use on its platforms.

Toyota GR Cup
The SR86 in testing at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (TRD).

Said Irving: “It’s hard to get a schedule that made sense and having a break between races so an amateur can repair their cars and have a month to regroup was a big deal. The long-term vision of SRO was a big part of that. IMSA runs a lot of classes. How we fit in was difficult. Would they have done things to make it work, yeah. But they just didn’t work for the vision we were doing. This is its own thing for us.”

Gill said the SRO is focused on “customer racing” that balances individual interests against factory programs – while still putting an emphasis on the importance of manufacturers such as Toyota.

“We were very impressed with the development of sports car racing at Toyota and what they wanted to do for the brand and the very strategic way they looked at things,” Gill told NBC Sports. “We had enjoyed real success and had a lot of admiration for the programs that Honda and Mazda developed with sports car racing at the grass roots and entry level. We thought they’d done an excellent job. Toyota has taken it to another level and should be commended because it’s good for the entire industry.”


Irving said Toyota has set a goal of turning Gazoo Racing into the premier performance brand in the United States within a decade, and the GR Cup is part of that thrust.

Gazoo Racing is the baby of Toyota Motor Corp. president Akio Toyoda, who founded a separate company called “Garage Racing” while racing under a pseudonym for many years.

Toyoda, who eventually would race a Lexus LFA at Nurburgring, eventually transitioned the program into Gazoo Racing (Gazoo translates to photographs in Japanese; Toyoda often took pictures of vehicles he wanted to build and race) as he rose through the ranks of Toyota.

Toyota GR Cup

“The concept of the brand is we’re going to build cars that are fun to drive, not just for accountants,” Gibbs said.
Irving said the intent of GR is “the car is born on track and not the boardroom.” In order to be certified by Toyota for Gazoo Racing, the GR86 had to decrease its lap time by a certain percentage over its street model.

In the long-term, Irving said Toyota could work with another series to adapt the GR86 to endurance races. But in the short-term, there are plans to roll out a “dealer class,” possibly by its COTA round in May.

“That’s our version of a softball league with dealership principals who purchase cars and race against each other,” Wilson said with a laugh. “As competitive as dealers are, we’ll sell a lot of spare parts. It becomes a way to generate competition amongst our dealer body, and we’re going to have some fun with it.”

Toyota GR Cup
Toyota Racing Development’s fleet of GR86s shortly before GR Cup teams began taking delivery (Swikar Patel/TRD).