Looking in the Lights Tristan Vautier

Here we are. I feel like the St Petersburg season opener was yesterday, and now I’m writing a season review.

This year with Sam Schmidt Motorsports was my most amazing season in racing. I arrived fresh from a great season at JDC Motorsports in Star Mazda, where I met great people with whom I couldn’t have been happier to share the Star Mazda title.

I came into the season trying not to put too much pressure on myself with the results, but really focusing on the job I had to do to learn fast and be up to speed as soon as possible.

Having the opportunity to do some winter testing felt like a luxury. It had been four years since I had been able to test in the off-season because of budgetary reasons and late-signed deals. I think I made the most of it, trying to listen to my engineer Chris Finch (who is as much of a teacher as an engineer!) and I arrived in St. Petersburg ready.

That race was the first highlight of my season. Winning from pole on my Firestone Indy Lights debut felt very special, maybe because nobody expected that out of me with Esteban and Sebastian coming back to the series. The fact that it was my “home” race was incredible, and I already knew the good places to go and celebrate my win on Saturday night! Jokes apart, it was a great way to start the season, but at no point did I change my approach and put more pressure on myself. I knew I still had a lot to learn and to prove.

After the Barber and Long Beach races in which I finished second and third, the “Good Stuff” was coming -- Indy. I remember not being able to keep from smiling in my helmet on the pit exit road, which was annoying because it was kind of lifting my helmet with my cheeks moving up. I had been waiting for that moment for so long, without even being sure it would ever come.

Before I knew it Carb Day and the Freedom 100 race day arrived. I was ninth on the grid after an average qualifying, impatient to start and to try going through the field. I worked my way up patiently to take the lead with about 15 laps to go and led 11 consecutive laps, but not the important one! A caution came out right after I dropped back to third and I had to sit there until the checkered flag. I was very frustrated and happy at the same time. It was good having my parents and the MAZDASPEED guys in Indy to celebrate the third place, and I was very happy for Sam and the guys to get their seventh Firestone Freedom 100 win with Esteban.

I had an average race in Detroit, but Milwaukee marked my first pole and win on an oval, which was a big step forward for me. This win put my crew and I back in the championship lead.

After a disappointment in Iowa, a DNF in Toronto after leading into Turn 1 and an average race in Edmonton, it was good for me to fly back to Europe and compete in the 24 hours of Spa. This race was a totally different experience for me. The emotions I shared with my teammates and crew after the finish and 24 hours of racing felt very special.

My trip back to North America was a nightmare, and I think I spent more time drinking Tim Horton’s coffee in the Toronto airport than on the actual airplanes, wishing I had clicked on the other flight option Expedia was proposing when I booked. I also got my email account hacked on this trip. In the end, after having answered all the phone calls from my friends asking me if I was really the one who sent them an email saying that I was stuck in Spain and needed 1000 euros to pay some mad hotel manager, I think all my problems were out of the way. This led to a perfect weekend in Trois-Rivieres where we managed to score maximum points. If the bad trip was all I needed to get that win, I can travel like that every time.

Then I flew back to France for three weeks and enjoyed croissants and espresso (and seeing my family, of course).

I came back to the States ready for the end of the season. I was back in the title chase after the Canadian win and knew that it was going to be very hard-fought between my teammate Esteban and I.

Esteban and I were on the front row of the Baltimore Grand-Prix, myself in first and Esteban in second. For a brief second I thought that both of us were not going to make the first corner, but in the end, both cars turned. I managed to pull away and crossed the finish line with a 15 second lead, grabbing the championship lead heading into Fontana and putting myself in a good position for the title.

I arrived in Fontana trying not to focus too much on the championship and take it as a normal race weekend. After pole-sitter Sebastian Saavedra had to retire early on, I started the race outside of the second row right behind Esteban, and made a move on him early to make sure he couldn’t take the lead from Carlos Munoz. Once in second, I focused on pushing Carlos for both of us to pull away and although I hurt my front tires following him, I knew by the middle of the race that I could manage the championship from that point.

I completed the cool down lap thinking “That’s it, it’s over. We’ve done it!” This title feels so special because of how hard my crew and I had to fight to make our way back to the points lead.

The guys at SSM are just incredible. They are so talented and committed. I’m very, very thankful to them for their work, but also for everything they taught me this year.

I’d like to also thank my teammates Oliver, Esteban and Victor for a great season. It was great working with them and I hope to see them on track again in the future.

Most importantly, I want to thank Mazda and everything they do for the sport. I may not have ever flown to the U.S. if it wasn’t for the Mazda Road to Indy, and they are the ones I have to thank for putting me in the car this season. Whoever may power the race car I will drive in the future, Mazda will always remain in my heart as a great family and a major influence on my career.

Lastly, thanks to my family and everyone supporting me in Europe and in the States.

Season in a nutshell

Avg. Start: 3.2

Avg. Finish: 3.5

Best Qualifying: 1st (St. Petersburg, Milwaukee, Iowa, Trois Rivieres, Baltimore)

Best Finish: 1st (St. Petersburg, Milwaukee, Trois Rivieres, Baltimore)

Standings: 1st

Of note

The 2012 season was Vautier's second consecutive championship-winning season after capturing the 2011 Star Mazda Championship presented by Goodyear title. ... Only driver to finish in the top-five in the first five races of the season. ... Swept all points with pole, most laps led and race win at St. Petersburg, Milwaukee, Trois-Rivieres and Baltimore.