Vautier was among the line-up that finished second at the Total 24 Hours of Spa in 2016 and when AKKA ASP took its breakthrough Sprint (2016) and Endurance (2017) victories in the Blancpain GT Series.
He remains very much a part of the family this year, contesting the bulk of the Endurance Cup for the outfit. What’s more, this weekend he will pilot a Sun Energy 1 Racing car, prepared by the AKKA squad, alongside his old friend and teammate Kenny Habul.
Vautier is a determined competitor whose goal was always to make it as a professional. He has often ridden his luck and gambled to make that happen, rolling the dice and hoping that his talent would be enough.
And, like many of his contemporaries, Vautier climbed the ranks knowing that there was no real fallback in place should he fail to make the grade behind the wheel. This make-or-break approach is perhaps what forges such strong characters.
Tristan vs. Kevin
Vautier cut his teeth in karting as part of a talented generation of young French drivers that included Kevin Estre and the late Jules Bianchi. Estre, who would go on to compete against Vautier in the Blancpain GT Series, remains a close friend.
“We never really had the resources to race seriously at the international level in go-karts,” explains Vautier. “I stopped at 14 and began to prepare for the transition to cars, because it was more economical.”
“I did the Volant Mygale,” he continues. “Kevin was there too and I finished second to him. It was very close! I got a scholarship to Formula Campus and finished second in that to Kevin as well! Actually, we finished level on points but he had one more win.”
Both drivers secured a scholarship to step up to Formula Renault, where Vautier spent two seasons, taking wins in the French championship and podiums at the European level.
“At the end of 2008 I lost a lot of the support that I’d had from sponsors because of the financial crisis,” he says. “We went to England for one year to race in Formula Palmer Audi, which was relatively economical, to try and earn a scholarship to FIA Formula 2.”
Vautier won six races in Formula Palmer Audi – more than any other driver that season – but finished fourth in a very competitive championship battle.
“So I didn’t get the scholarship, and although I did one race in Formula 2 at the end of the year and finished on the podium I couldn’t find the money to do that championship the following season.”
Re-born in the USA
With limited options in Europe, Vautier took a step into the unknown.
“We were wandering what our options were and we had been looking at the Mazda Road to Indy, because we knew that if you gambled some money to go there and then won the championship, you were guaranteed to step up.”
Starting out in the third-tier Star Mazda category, Vautier won his very first race on U.S. soil. He did not take the title, however, and travelled home unsure as to whether he would return to the U.S.
“That winter I went back to France and thought it was over. Then I got a call from [Star Mazda team] JDC Motorsports, who could run me for a very reduced budget. We found a lot of small sponsors in France – it was €1,000 here, another €2,000 there.”
Vautier repaid this faith with the title, finishing all 11 races in the top-five and taking four wins along the way. This secured him a scholarship to race in Indy Lights in 2012.
“Once I’d won Star Mazda, things took off. Indy Lights was the first time I’d had a fully funded season. I was able to do all of the winter testing and prepare properly and that helped me to win the title in my first year.”
Vautier’s U.S. gamble had paid off and earned the Frenchman a drive in the top-tier IndyCar Series for 2013. It was the move that made his career. In fact, he believes that without his Indy Lights triumph he would not be where he is today.
“I might have been able to keep on racing, finding some Pro-Am rides here or there, or racing for free, but most likely I would have needed to find a career. We didn’t really have a Plan B!”
His IndyCar campaign showed promise in terms of speed, though Vautier admits that the step up took him by surprise.
“My rookie season started really well with a top-six qualifying in my first race and then third for my second.
“The first half of the year was amazing, but in terms of experience I was still very young when I got to IndyCar. When things got a little tougher I was a bit too inexperienced to manage everything that goes on around the racing at that level.”
His deal lasted just one season and, though he has made some part-time IndyCar appearances since, Vautier would need to find a new direction once again.
Finding a home with AKKA ASP
Fortunately, a new career path opened up racing sportscars in the U.S. for the 2014 season. This remains part of his programme to this day, with Vautier accumulating serious air miles as he criss-crosses the Atlantic.
2014 also saw the Frenchman return to Europe to race for Jerome Policand’s squad at the Total 24 Hours of Spa. It was Vautier’s second time at the marquee event, having debuted in 2012 with the same team.
Policand’s crew expanded and became AKKA ASP in 2015 and Vautier has remained a regular presence since, forming part of the crew for all of the team’s major Blancpain GT Series results.
“I did my first sportscar race with them in 2012 so we have a long history together,” explains Vautier. “When I started they were running Pro-Am cars. Thanks to the support of AKKA and Maurice Ricci, and the efforts of Jerome, I’ve been able to see them transition to running Pro cars.
“It has been special to be part of that growth. Winning the first Blancpain GT Series race together in 2016 and the podium at Spa felt more special, because I had been part of the team through its transition.”
If there is an explanation for Vautier’s long relationship with the team, it would seem to be their shared approach to the sport they love.
“Everybody in the team is in racing for the right reasons,” he says. “They all live and breathe for it. That comes from Jerome, who is a pure racing guy. Like everyone he has to make a living, but he is in racing because it is his life. That translates to everyone working in the team and I love that culture.”
New highs in 2018
The 2018 season has seen Vautier forge stronger links with Mercedes-AMG thanks to several impressive performances.
He was part of the Sun Energy 1 Racing crew that finished second at the Liqui Moly Bathurst 12 Hour, took another runner-up finish with AKKA in the Blancpain GT Series event at Silverstone, and was part of the AKKA crew that took a hard-fought sixth place at this year’s Total 24 Hours of Spa.
Last weekend Vautier partnered with Raffaele Marciello and Maro Engel to win the Suzuka 10 Hours, the third round of this year’s Intercontinental GT Challenge, for GruppeM Racing. This sent him and the Italian to the top of the drivers’ standings with just one round remaining.
“Suzuka was amazing,” he recalls a few days after the result. “It was very exciting to be alongside Raffaele and Maro and we knew we would be strong.
“The race was flawless, but in terms of how hard we had to push it was not nearly as easy as it looked. The other cars were very close and we were all running a similar pace. If we had made one mistake it would have been over, so we had to work harder than people might have seen from the outside.”
Before he looks to seal the Intercontinental title at the California 8 Hours, Vautier has a few other racing engagements to take care of. Firstly, he will be in action this weekend at the Hungaroring alongside his friend Kenny Habul.
“Kenny was the first person to give me a full-time sportscar ride in America and we’ve developed a very close friendship,” Vautier explains.
“He’s been driving super well and I’m really looking forward to sharing the car with him. We always have a lot of fun off the track and I think he’s going to be really competitive.”
Driving the #751 Mercedes-AMG, they will form part of the most competitive Pro-Am field that the Sprint Cup has seen this season. Given his on-track form and the work he has done with AKKA, it is little wonder that Vautier believes he and Habul will be on the pace.
Indeed, there is a growing maturity about Vautier’s driving as he further establishes himself as an international racer. With his best years ahead of him, and with the AKKA ASP Team’s continuing support, there is plenty still to come from the Frenchman.