“I’ll do my best,” replied Tristan Vautier, which is all the newly-minted Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver can do in the IZOD IndyCar Series’ season-opening Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
“No pressure, right?”
The background: The 23-year-old won in his debut in Star Mazda in 2010 and Firestone Indy Lights in 2012 on the scenic streets of St. Petersburg. On March 24, Vautier will make his initial IZOD IndyCar Series start on the 1.8-mile circuit.
Vautier, who has been the beneficiary of Mazda Road to Indy scholarships by winning the Star Mazda title in 2011 and the 2012 Firestone Indy Lights championship, joins 2012 Sunoco Rookie of the Year Simon Pagenaud to form an all-French team.
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Vautier, a St. Petersburg, Fla., resident, earned four victories among 10 top-five finishes in 12 races last year in the No. 77 Sam Schmidt Motorsports car. From the final two Star Mazda events in 2010 through the Firestone Indy Lights race at Iowa Speedway last June, Vautier recorded 20 consecutive top-five finishes.
“It’s a big first step and I’ll try to learn as quickly as I can because there will be many new things this year,” said Vautier, who will have veteran Allen McDonald as his engineer with the Honda-powered car that is scheduled to make its on-track debut Feb. 20 at Sebring International Raceway. “I’m looking forward to working with Simon and Allen. They have so much experience. The team has great resources, and it's great to step up with the same team.
“I just hope Sam will be able to handle two Frenchmen. One in IndyCar and one in Indy Lights last year was a lot, but now two on the same team will be tough.”
Schmidt, a former Indy car driver, had advised Vautier in 2010 to run a second season of Star Mazda and attempt to earn the champion's scholarship to Firestone Indy Lights. He then welcomed Vautier to the six-time championship-winning team and remained impressed.
"We firmly believe that he has the maturity, talent and experience to be successful," Schmidt said.
Vautier raised eyebrows in mid-December on a test day at Sebring International Raceway, during which he was second-quick to Team Penske’s Will Power. Pagenaud had set up the car the previous day on the short course.
“(Moving to the IZOD IndyCar Series) is something I have to look at as an opportunity and not an accomplishment because I have to make the most of it,” Vautier said. “When I came to the U.S. three years ago, it was my aim to win Star Mazda and then win the Indy Lights class and then be in (the IZOD) IndyCar Series. I can’t say how grateful I am to everybody who made it happen and how blessed I am.”
Pagenaud finished fifth in the championship standings in 2012, and is looking forward to having a teammate to share information among other things.
“Having a rookie sometimes is a good thing because he’ll have a lot of raw speed that we can extract from him on my side and he can extract my experience and my relationship with my engineer (Ben Bretzman),” Pagenaud said. “Having that extra information is what’s needed to have a top team.
“It’s great to see a young driver coming up; a similar story to mine. I see him being quick straight away. The biggest thing for Tristan is to make the most of the situation.”
Vautier brings the $1 million scholarship as the Firestone Indy Lights champion to the second-year, full-time team – part of the Mazda Road to Indy program. He follows Josef Newgarden, the '11 Firestone Indy Lights champion who moved up to the IZOD IndyCar Series with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing.
“It’s a clear program,” Vautier said. “You’re taken into the program for what you’ve accomplished and nothing else. This is the reason I came to the USA. I knew if I could accomplish this first objective to win Star Mazda I’d get my chance in Indy Lights and now I have a scholarship to IndyCar. It’s a young but amazing program that you don’t find anywhere else.
"I was beginning to struggle with budgets and was wondering how I would be able to get through the ranks in Europe. I started seeing these drivers stepping up because of the Mazda Road to Indy scholarship and at the end of '09 I felt I had to try something else I flew to Sebring to do a test with Anderson Racing. I loved it and stayed to do the season because I knew if I would win I would get the scholarship.”