IndyCar season review: Tristan Vautier / Honorable Mentions

IndyCar season review: Tristan Vautier / Honorable Mentions

IndyCar

IndyCar season review: Tristan Vautier / Honorable Mentions

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What will you remember the 2015 IndyCar season for? Juan Pablo Montoya’s teflon coating wearing off right at the time he needed it most? The introduction of the aero kits, several years after they were first mooted? Rocky Moran Jr’s inspiring hour of track time at Long Beach?

Whatever the case, it was a season that once again delivered racing so good that we almost took it for granted, coupled with the usual helping of drama on the side. Some was real: the loss of Justin Wilson will be felt deeply for a long time to come. Other scandals were like the sorts of things you see on regional TV news – they mattered deeply to a few hundred people, but barely reverberated outside the paddock.

More than anything, we got variety. Nine different race winners, and only eventual champion Scott Dixon finding his way to Victory Lane more than twice. If ever there was a season that deserved to end on a tie-break it was this one. Following IndyCar sometimes feels like riding a slightly wonky rollercoaster, but the rewards are a level of genuine, uncontrived competition that most other series cannot hope to match.

To try to make sense of it all, RACER’s Marshall Pruett, Robin Miller and Mark Glendenning asked each other some searching questions about all of 2015’s regulars, which for the purpose of this review, includes anyone who started a minimum of half the races. Look for new installments every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

TRISTAN VAUTIER

Dale Coyne Racing
2015 starts: 11
2015 best finish: 4th (Detroit race 2)
2015 championship position: 22nd; 175pts

Did a part-season in a Coyne car give Vautier sufficient opportunity to prove himself worthy of his second chance?

MARK GLENDENNING: I think so. The shunt with Graham Rahal at Pocono wasn’t his greatest moment, but plenty of decent drivers have done dumb things in race cars before. That aside, when you look at his year in the context of what was going on around him, his results were pretty good. He qualified one Coyne car at Indy as a favor to James Davison, ended up racing another one at the last minute when Carlos Huertas pulled out, and went on to become the closest thing the Coyne team had to continuity all year: his 11 starts was as many as Francesco Dracone and Rodolfo Gonzalez managed between them. (Of the various other drivers who suited up for Coyne during 2015, only Pippa Mann made more than three appearances).

It’s going to be hard for any young driver to make much of an impact in that sort of environment, never mind one who hadn’t driven an IndyCar for a year-and-a-half. Two top-sixes would be a good return for any driver in Vautier’s position; for one who only did two-thirds of the races, it was a solid reward for the faith that Coyne placed in him. I’d like to see him back next year.

Vautier became an instant hit within the team for his precise feedback and hard-charging ways. Could he become DCR’s newest Justin Wilson – the quality pro to sell the second seat against, and to act as the coach to the paying driver?

MARSHALL PRUETT: The affable Vautier does remind me a little bit of the big man in their quiet, polite ways outside the car and driving personalities behind the scenes. I’d assume Vautier is a bargain compared to the price tag of a proven leader like Wilson, and provided he fits Coyne’s budget, the 2012 Indy Lights champ could settle into Dale’s den as a quality solution.

Vautier doesn’t have a reputation as a princess inside the car or egomaniac in engineering debriefs, and with Coyne’s preference for appreciative team players, this 26-year-old is a surprisingly good match for DCR’s sensibilities. Although he isn’t enough of a ‘name’ driver to make paying drivers fight over the No. 2 seat, I’m not sure there are many drivers on the market who fit the price/talent model to draw more than Vautier would.

And is he capable of returning Coyne to Victory Lane? That could be a tall order in a straight fight with the Dixons and Powers, but with Dale’s ability to put his drivers in position to win at least once each year, Tristan’s just as capable of authoring an upset as any of the other young chargers Coyne might consider.

 

Vautier had as many (or more) top-six finishes than five full-time drivers. How far could he have moved up the standings if he’d been in the car for every round?

 

ROBIN MILLER: Considering he didn’t drive an IndyCar in 2014 and missed the first six races of 2015 before receiving an emergency call from Dale Coyne at Indianapolis, Vautier over-performed and would surely have been in the Top 15, if not higher, had he run the full season. The 2013 IndyCar rookie of the year was a passing machine at Detroit, where he stormed from 23rd to fourth, and charging from 24th to sixth at Mid-Ohio also impressed. Taking out Graham Rahal at Pocono kinda put a dampener on his comeback, but it shouldn’t be how we remember his season. From qualifying 21st at Indy with virtually no practice, to his performances at Motown and Mid-Ohio, Vautier showed he still belongs in an IndyCar.


HONORABLE MENTIONS

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE
Schmidt Peterson Motorsport
2015 starts: 5
2015 best finish: 1st (NOLA)
2015 championship position: 23rd; 129pts

ROBIN MILLER: The fact we still talk about Hinch in the present tense is a testament to the Holmatro Safety Team, IMS medics and Methodist Hospital, as their quick and perfect response to his crash in May saved his life. Prior to that, it had been a learning curve kind of year for the Mayor with SPM. Sure, he picked up a victory at NOLA thanks to deplorable conditions and non-stop yellows, but he’d been mid-pack most times in qualifying and races. Thankfully he’s recovered, and now has 2016 to regain that form he showed in 2013 and 2014.

JUSTIN WILSON
Andretti Autosport
2015 starts: 6
2015 best finish: 2nd (Mid-Ohio)
2015 championship position: 24th; 108pts


ROBIN MILLER: One of the cherished moments from 2015 was watching Justin Wilson stand on the podium at Mid-Ohio after dueling for the win with old teammate Graham Rahal. Despite making only four other starts for Andretti Autosport, JWill was back where he belonged – up front – and helping the previously lost team find its way with the Honda aero kits. After he’d qualified sixth for the Indy 500 and seventh at Milwaukee, we kidded him about becoming the ‘oval meister’, but it was clear he’d become comfortable turning left with this group, and we were all hoping it would become his permanent home in 2016.

SEBASTIAN SAAVEDRA
Chip Ganassi Racing
2015 starts: 5
2015 best finish: 10th (Long Beach)
2015 championship position: 25th; 95pts

MARK GLENDENNING: The Colombian didn’t make a lot of waves in the five starts he made during his ride-sharing season with Sage Karam at Ganassi, but should we have expected any different? The 25-year-old needed consistent seat time to show the sort of progress that he needs to, and a handful of starts with a lot of gaps in between was never going to offer him that opportunity. That said, he looked a lot more composed during his first opportunity with a top team than he did at any point during his disastrous 2014 campaign with KV, so on that basis he deserves some kudos.

RODOLFO GONZALEZ
Dale Coyne Racing
2015 starts: 6
2015 best finish: 9th (Sonoma)
2015 championship position: 26th;
94pts

MARK GLENDENNING: As someone who saw a bit of the Venezuelan in Europe and was largely underwhelmed, it’s fair to say that my expectations for him this time around were muted. But by and large, he proved me wrong. Sporadic appearances in a Coyne car is rarely the sort of situation that gives rise to a legend, but the mistakes that peppered his GP2 career seemed to have been mostly ironed out, and over time he proved himself to be a reliable pair of hands. His top 10 finish at Sonoma was a deserved reward for a decent season.

ED CARPENTER
CFH Racing
2015 starts: 6
2015 best finish: 6th (Iowa)
2015 championship position: 27th; 88pts

MARK GLENDENNING: For me, this was one of the biggest surprises of the season. Circumstance can sometimes stand in the way of a driver getting the results they deserve on race day, but the fact that Josef Newgarden outqualified his boss at every oval other than Fontana reinforces the sense that something was fundamentally amiss in the #20 garage this year. Of course, there’s also a danger that we’re not paying Newgarden due credit here: maybe he took even greater strides than we thought, and beat Carpenter fair and square. It’s going to be interesting to see whether he does it again in 2016.

In the meantime, Carpenter himself became increasingly open about his frustration as the season went on, and he managed to recapture a bit of his mojo on the short tracks. But is the series’ sole recognized oval specialist going to be happy with a couple of top 10s? I think we all know the answer to that.


CONOR DALY
Dale Coyne Racing/Schmidt Peterson Motorsport
2015 starts: 5
2015 best finish: 6th (Detroit race 2)
2015 championship position: 28th; 81pts

MARSHALL PRUETT: Daly deserved a gold medal for his stand-in performance at Long Beach, and again for cracking the top-six at Detroit for SPM. Few are hungrier than Daly, and in a steady situation, I think IndyCar would have another American badass on its hands.


PIPPA MANN
Dale Coyne Racing
2015 starts: 6
2015 best finish: 13th (Pocono)
2015 championship position: 29th; 76pts

MARSHALL PRUETT: A pair of 13ths were, remarkably, career bests for Pippa, and those highlights were balanced by being parked early at two other rounds. Mann has carved out a decent career for herself as one of Dale Coyne’s go-to oval drivers, and with her rabid fan base always ready to provide vocal support, the part-time Briton makes a bigger impact than many of IndyCar’s full-time drivers. Add in her ongoing work to raise money for breast cancer research, and Mann’s contributions to and from IndyCar often outweigh her place in the final standings.


SIMONA DE SILVESTRO
Andretti Autosport
2015 starts: 3
2015 best finish: 4th (NOLA)
2015 championship position: 30th; 66pts


ROBIN MILLER: It’s tough to judge anyone on only three races, especially joining a new team, but Simona showed she’s still got it and IndyCar is missing a big opportunity without her in the lineup. She qualified 11th in the season opener at St. Pete – beating two of her four teammates in the process – and finished fourth at NOLA. The Andretti crew loved her savvy, attitude and how she communicated. The Swiss Miss has everything necessary to succeed except sponsorship and 2016 looks bleak.


FRANCESCO DRACONE
Dale Coyne Racing
2015 starts: 5
2015 best finish: 21st (Long Beach)
2015 championship position: 34th; 38pts

MARK GLENDENNING: This is going to sound meaner than I intend it to, but more often than not I completely forgot that Dracone was even in the race. Tales of glory rarely open with the phrase ’31-year-old-rookie’, so the fact that he never cracked the top 20 in any of his five starts wasn’t much of a surprise. But he seemed like a nice enough guy, and he did his bit to keep the second Coyne car on the grid. For that, we should be thankful.


CARLOS HUERTAS
Dale Coyne Racing
2015 starts: 3
2015 best finish: 16th (NOLA)
2015 championship position: 36th; 31pts

MARSHALL PRUETT: Budget issues and an inner ear problem sidelined the hilarious Colombian prior to the Indy 500. Three top-10s in 2014 – including a win in Houston – showed Huertas could hang when everything was going well for him. He’s speaking with teams about returning in 2016.

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