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Indy 500: 'Roller coaster' week for Tristan Vautier

It's been a strange week unlike any other for France's Tristan Vautier, who against all expectations will line up for the start of today's Indy 500.
Tristan Vautier had been unique among the 34 drivers taking part in qualifying at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway exactly a week ago. While all the others were aiming to be on the starting grid for the 99th running of the Indianapolis 500, Vautier knew there was absolutely no chance of his still being here when the green flag finally drops for the start of one of the most famous motor sports event in the world.

Vautier's task was instead simply to qualify the #19 Dale Coyne Racing car for James Davison, who couldn't take part himself because of a pre-existing racing commitment in the Pirelli World Challenge in Mosport, Canada. Vautier accomplished his mission with some style, setting the 21st fastest lap of the qualifying session to comfortably make the grid. However the following day Davison was back to take over, and Vautier was soon packing his bags for a return to Europe where he was due to compete at Silverstone this weekend in the Blancpain Endurance Series.

The situation remained unchanged even after James Hinchcliffe crashed in Monday practice and Schmidt Peterson Motorsport needed a late-notice replacement driver. With Vautier already committed elsewhere, SPM turned to veteran Verizon IndyCar Series driver Ryan Briscoe to stand in for the injured Hinch. As a result, Vautier had already flown out of Indianapolis and was on a layover in Chicago about to board his long haul flight to the UK on Thursday evening with his flight just 90 minutes away, when suddenly everything turned upside down with a phone call from Dale Coyne.

"I was meant to be in England today. I was in Chicago O'Hare when I had to come back," he explained. "I put my luggage out, went to Alamo and rented a car and just drove back."

Dale Coyne's regular driver Carlos Huertas had been diagnosed with an inner ear condition, and what would be a minor inconvenience in many lines of work was a genuine out-and-out show-stopper for a racing driver. IndyCar's medical consultant Dr Terry Trammel broke the bad news to the Colombian that he was indeed ruled out of competition this weekend.

"It's not really the way you want to get back in the car honestly," Vautier admitted. "I think Carlos deserves to be racing because he did a really good job in qualifying and on practice."

With Huertas out, the team was left scrambling to find a driver at the 11th hour. It had to be someone with recent experience of the car since there was no time for refresher programs or familiarisation sessions, and that had left Coyne with effectively a choice of one: it was either Vautier or the car would almost certainly have to be withdrawn, which would be a costly disaster for the team and its sponsors. Urgent transatlantic calls to Team Akka ASP were eventually successful in springing Vautier from his Silverstone commitments.

"They said I could race, seize the opportunity that opened up. They would find a replacement driver so I could race in the 500. That's really cool from them to let me do that," he confirmed, understandably not going into details of any arrangement he had reached with the team.

"It was a bit of a roller coaster because I was waiting all week whether I was confirmed or not," he continued. "Finally, I'm in. It's crazy because I came here two weeks ago and knew if James got the deal in the #19 I would qualify the car. Then I was on my way to Europe and this happened. I haven't had time for it to sink in."

The fact that Vautier successfully qualified in one car but will now start the race in another is unique in the long history of the Indy 500, meaning that Vautier will forever have a little piece of history all to himself in the event's annals. "I would rather be famous for other records that have not been achieved before, but this is something unusual so that is good," he admitted. "Obviously you can't help but be excited to start your second Indy 500."

But even though he was in the car just a week ago, he still has a big task ahead of him: "The practice we did last week was aimed for the complete opposite in running by ourselves, setting the car up for qualifying in low trim," he explained. "It's a different approach now. It's all about the race where last week we stayed away from the pack.”

Since he got back to Indianapolis, Vautier has only been able to have just 60 minutes of on-track practice on 'Carb Day' to prepare himself for Sunday and the green flag for the race itself.

"It's great to work with the Coyne guys," he said. "They had to fit me in the car really quickly Thursday night and then the [Carb Day] session went by quickly ... At one hour, we made the most of it and have a direction for the race."

Vautier also faces the problem of starting on the back row of the grid, as mandated by IndyCar rules governing driver changes between qualifying and the start of the race itself. He'll take the green flag in 32nd place, alongside Davison who similarly drops back to start from 33rd.

"It's tough to start at the back here," he explained. "Obviously being behind other cars and stuff, you're in the dirty air, you use your tyres more, you go back and forth with the balance of the car.

"We'll just see. I don't have really time to think too much about it. It's just what I have and we have to make the most of it," he said. "We'll see what happens in the race.

"I really have no plan," he admitted when asked about his strategy. "Just go and try to pass as many cars as you can."

In the circumstances that's all anyone can hope for. And maybe in the process of making history in at least one way on Sunday, he may also manage a few more surprises before the day is done and the sun sets on his roller coaster time at IMS in 2015.

Reporting from trackside at Indianapolis Motor Speedway by Lynne Huntting of

Related Pictures

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Tristan Vautier in his car at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. (Photo by: Dana Garrett for IndyCar Media)
Tristan Vautier at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. (Photo by: Dana Garrett for IndyCar Media)
Tristan Vautier at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. (Photo by: Dana Garrett for IndyCar Media)
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