Imagine for a moment you’re a red, white and blue American racer, one who took advantage of opportunities across the pond to carve out a successful career in Europe. Now imagine that you’ve landed a ride for your rookie go in the Rolex 24 At Daytona.
That gives you some inkling of what Tristan Vautier is experiencing this week. A bleu, blanc et rouge French racer who crossed the pond in the other direction to build a career in the U.S., he’s competed in IndyCars and, since 2017, the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship full time. He is in his fourth season with the No. 5 JDC-Miller MotorSports Cadillac DPi. Now the 32-year-old is set to take the green flag for the first time at the 24 Hours of Le Mans on Saturday in the No. 44 ARC Bratislava ORECA 07 (pictured above) in the LMP2 class.
“For sure, being French and being at Le Mans is very special,” Vautier says. “I was at the race for the first time in 2005, so it was a long time ago and I have been almost every year since then, so it means a lot to be part of it.”
Strictly speaking, Vautier is not a “pure” rookie when it comes to piloting a race car around the 8.467-mile Circuit de la Sarthe.
“I have been to the race as a reserve driver in 2018 in LMP2, so I have some experience already,” he says. “I drove in practice on the test day, so I got a few laps. It was in a Ligier LMP2 back then, so I familiarized with the track quite quickly. So, it’s a strange feeling. I don’t feel so much like a rookie because I really feel like I’m going to a place that I already know even if I haven’t raced it for 24 hours.”
It just so happens that Sebastien Bourdais, Vautier’s fellow countryman and former teammate at JDC-Miller MotorSports, has raced at Le Mans for many more than 24 hours. In fact, the 42-year-old has raced at Le Mans off and on since he was 20 although, unfortunately, his races haven’t always lasted 24 hours. One that did go the distance produced a memorable class win in 2016 for the Ford GT program run by the same Chip Ganassi Racing team that Bourdais rejoined this year as part of the Cadillac Racing DPi program.
“Le Mans is a very special place,” says Bourdais, who took his first breaths a stone’s throw from the Circuit de la Sarthe. “It’s a race that means a lot to me and I hope one day I can put my name on it overall. For, the sentimental value of that race makes it very special. On top of the fact that it’s one of the few races that everybody wants to win.”
One of the elements that makes the 24 Hours of Le Mans unique is the “special” challenge of the race schedule, one that includes a test day on Sunday before things really get rolling on race week with nine hours of practice and qualifying, including two sessions that finish at midnight on Wednesday and Thursday.
“It’s a tiring week, for sure,” says Bourdais, who will drive the No. 10 Vector Sport ORECA LMP2 this weekend in his 15th Le Mans start. He has finished second overall on three occasions, each time driving for Peugeot.
“You go through a lot of emotions and lot of demands, and you practice when you should be sleeping on Thursday and Wednesday night,” Bourdais adds. “So, it is a race you have to manage a bit differently as far as fatigue and your approach in general, plus all the demands and things that go with it.”
Vautier feels well prepared for the event’s demanding schedule given his experience in 2018, but also because he is familiar with other noteworthy races that don’t follow the normal two- or three-day weekend.
“There are two events that have kind of blown me away with goose bumps: Indy 500 and Le Mans 24,” he says. “With both events it’s kind of the same thing: When race day comes you’ve already gone through a lot, and it’s very important to save yourself for the race. It’s quite strange, all you get to do before it’s actually time to go race. As a driver you have to try to do a good job to make sure you are peaking at the right time and you are saving energy to be good when the race actually starts.
“I feel we also have a bit of that at the Rolex 24 in Daytona, where you have the Roar and the race on back-to-back weekends, so it’s a similar kind of management.”
Adding a further twist to the demanding schedule is the fact that the WeatherTech Championship drivers competing at Le Mans competed in the Chevrolet Sports Car Classic at Detroit’s Belle Isle on Saturday, then flew to France on a red-eye flight in order to get to the prerace test the following day. And did we mention that Sunday’s test day was the first time Vautier had actually driven the ARC Bratislava ORECA?
“I flew to Europe after the Mid-Ohio race (last month) to meet the team at the race shop,” he says. “It was good to meet everyone and familiarize myself with them. But Sunday was my first laps and my first time working with the team coming after a red-eye flight, at the test day on a track that I’ve only driven once in 2018. And now we get ready for the race.
“It’s a lot that’s being thrown at me. But I think with the experience I have and the level at which I’ve been racing all these years, it’s something I have been able to take on and I’m confident I will (be ready).”
Garcia, Albuquerque qualify second in Le Mans classes
Some familiar WeatherTech Championship names will start near the front of their respective classes following Thursday’s completion of Le Mans qualifying.
The No. 63 Corvette Racing Chevrolet Corvette C8.R – which races as the No. 3 Corvette in the WeatherTech Championship’s GTD Pro class – qualified second at Le Mans in the LMGTE Pro class. Antonio Garcia posted the best lap for the No. 63 in Hyperpole qualifying at 3m50.177s (132.414 mph), outdone only by Nick Tandy in the sister No. 64 Corvette that is running the full season in the FIA World Endurance Championship. Garcia will share the No. 63 with Jordan Taylor and Nicky Catsburg.
“You can’t get much closer than that,” Garcia said. “It’s the first pole and first 1-2 for Corvette in quite a while. They were good runs. It was pretty difficult to know what the track was going to be like. This new format for qualifying here is just different for us. It’s the first time I did this, so I’m happy.”
Filipe Albuquerque, normally co-driver of the Wayne Taylor Racing Acura in the WeatherTech Championship DPi class, qualified second in LMP2 at Le Mans with a lap of 3m30.070s (145.090 mph) in the No. 22 United Autosports ORECA 07. Albuquerque’s co-drivers are Phil Hanson and Will Owen.
Nineteen full-time WeatherTech Championship drivers and numerous other part-timers are scattered throughout the 62-car field.