C’est magnifique at Sebring: IMSA’s French Connection hopes to remain par excellence
The drivers who comprise the winning trio in the 2021 Twelve Hours of Sebring speak their own language, which can be good when the car is bad.
“The team knows when we speak a lot of French, the car is not good,” Tristan Vautier, one of the three Frenchmen on the No. 5 Cadillac, said with a laugh. “When we speak quite a bit of English, the car is OK. For us three, it’s been great. I’m not sure the team is going to be able to hold on, but we just get along good.”
The esprit de corps was evident for Vautier, Loic Duval and Sebastien Bourdais this past Saturday at Sebring International Raceway, where the underdog team scored a major victory over a stacked premier division of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship in the 69th running of the iconic sports-car event.
It was capped by an inspired drive to the checkered flag by Bourdais, who overcame a critical missing piece of the rear wing with a flurry of suspension adjustments from the cockpit and a large dose of gumption after falling 2 seconds off the pace while stalked by the defending race-winning Mazda.
🇫🇷 On a gagné Sebring! 10 ans après ma première victoire en Floride, c’est un beau cadeau d’anniversaire! Merci à toute l’équipe et mes équipiers 🏆. 🇺🇸Sebring winners baby! 10 years after my first win it’s a pretty nice anniversary! Thank you to my whole team, Seb & Tristan. pic.twitter.com/QVxIn3ZYV2— Loic Duval (@loicduval) March 21, 2021
“I was steering the car with my eyes, because I was looking at the wheel, and it was turning,” Bourdais said. “I thought first I was going to crash. I saved it, and then every corner, I was, ‘Like man, how am I going to do this one?’ But the flip side is the car was extremely fast down the straightaway, too, so I was very hard to pass. Sometimes, the gods of racing, you don’t know what is happening, but you make it and just take it and move on.
“That was one of the most improbable scenarios that I’ve ever been a part of that turned out in a good way. A winning way.”
The gods of racing must have desired Sebring should have a Hugo-esque twist during what many would consider the golden era of DPi racing.
With a class chock full of powerhouse teams and accomplished stars (the resumes at Sebring including Cup and IndyCar championships and victories at the Daytona 500, Indy 500 and Monaco), the triumph by Mustang Sampling JDC-Miller MotorSports was a breakthrough. Its all-French lineup was making only its third endurance race start together but has been a contender since the outset.
They finished fifth and led 59 laps in their debut last November at Sebring (where a GT collision in the final hour cost them a shot at the win) and were running well at the Rolex 24 at Daytona before another GT collision.
Bourdais, Duval and Vautier already had formed natural bonds while racing in the same junior formulas in Europe, enhancing the likelihood they would gel beyond just sharing a native tongue to find le mot juste.
But the commonality extends to their demeanors, which lean toward deference that creates a working harmony. By virtue of his four Champ Car titles, 37 victories and Formula One, Bourdais is an alpha only in statistics. This is a team that seems fine without a vocal leader.
“I don’t think any of us want to have the last say,” Bourdais, 42, said. “We all try to optimize the combo, and if one of us is stronger on any given moment, he’s going to be the one that takes the responsibilities, and I think that’s very important. Loic and I have both been part of very strong manufacturer efforts, and we know how important it can be when you have a large group of drivers. Sometimes it gels, sometimes it doesn’t. And this one is a great one. I think when we all got together toward the end of the season, we knew it was going to be a good combination obviously.”
Said Duval, 38: “We took over a little bit of America for a day. That’s pretty cool, the feeling for the three of us. It’s something positive to be French, in terms of culture and sometimes the communication. It does help. But also you have to make sure the three human beings work pretty well together. You never know. It’s always difficult to have an idea if everything will click together. But it works pretty well.”
Duval, a former 24 Hours of Le Mans winner with Audi, and Vautier, an Indy Lights champion and IndyCar veteran who scored his first IMSA victory, come with their own credentials as the team’s full-time drivers.
“Being French helps, but it’s not just that, I think our personalities click really well,” said Vautier, the youngest at 31. “We all get along really well. In endurance racing, obviously we’re all competitive and want to be fast, but it’s important to understand you all have to be comfortable and all work together for things to be good. We’re all quick and competitive, but we don’t have oversized egos, which can hurt a lot of endurance teams and driver lineups. That’s been one of the keys.
“We have similar feedbacks on the car as well. Some might like something a little better than others, but we all say the same things, and all our feedbacks make sense together, and that helps the team as well.”
The drivers shared adversity throughout 12 hours Saturday as the car fell multiple laps down before taking its first lead on Lap 319 (and staying in first for 28 of the last 31 laps).
The trouble started in the 15th minute when Duval was forced to pit after Jimmie Johnson spun into his line and damaged the front wing. With just over four hours remaining, Vautier was behind the wheel when the No. 31 Cadillac of Felipe Nasr suddenly skidded over the bumps and into the No. 5, which was exiting the pits.
“I didn’t really understand what happened at first in the car, then I woke up in the wall,” Vautier said with a self-deprecating sense of humor his teammates seem to enjoy. “This (hit) was so hard with the 31 and the wall, it took me 4-5 seconds to realize, ‘Yeah, maybe you should start it and see if the car was still working. Oh it’s fine!’ In the end, it’s funny. We had a few races when everything aligned until the moment it mattered and were a bit unlucky. Today it was the overdue one, and the stars aligned despite all the opposition. It was our day.”
Despite its formidable driving talent, JDC-Miller MotorSports can be considered as punching above its weight in DPi. Though Duval and Vautier will run the full season (with Bourdais joining the Michelin Endurance Cup races while moonlighting from his IndyCar ride at A.J. Foyt Racing), the No. 5 was the only team that skipped testing at Sebring.
“We’re operating to the best of our abilities and have great partners, but those programs cost a huge amount of money, and all the limitations as far as engineering, allotment of testing come through funding, and there’s only so much we can do,” Bourdais said. “Right now we’re on a tightrope. We wish we could have been part of (the test), maybe we’d have had a stronger car during the day. But at the end of day, when it mattered and had to be quick, the car was right there. Hats off to the engineers for figuring it out. I don’t know if it was luck or genius, but we got there.
“I’ve been pretty accustomed to being the underdog with technical, budget and human resources on different series. When you bring the fight to the big ones, it’s that much sweeter.”
For the lineup dubbed “The French Connection,” it could create momentum for a few more sacre bleu moments like Sebring this season.
“Having that win for sure, it will glue everything even more,” Duval said. “To be able to put your name on such a classic like the Twelve Hours of Sebring, it’s something really special. When you achieve that as a crew, it always helps. So the three of us, but also the mechanics and engineers. I’m sure after this kind of event, there’s always a momentum. We have to make sure we are able to surf that wave.”