A year ago, Tristan Vautier was celebrating one of the biggest victories of his career — an improbable win in the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring with JDC-Miller Motorsports in which Sebastien Bourdais drove the final laps with a broken rear wing, holding onto the lead until the checkered fell.
As JDC-Miller prepares to defend its 2021 victory, much has changed. Bourdais is now a rival at Chip Ganassi Racing, even if he is still in the Cadillac family. Richard Westbrook is now Vautier’s full-time partner in the No. 5 Cadillac instead of Loic Duval, who is now filling the endurance role that Bourdais played last year. But the team’s strength remains, if Sunday morning at the Rolex 24 At Daytona was any indication. Duval was setting a blistering pace, and the No. 5 had a substantial lead. Had the race gone green to the end, the team’s chances were very good. But an ill-timed caution dashed their hopes.
“We pulled out a nice lead, because we had a really good car,” recalls Westbrook. “It seemed like over a stint we were one of the strongest, if not the strongest. Unfortunately the safety car came out, we didn’t get the opportunity to pit, and we got shuffled to the back. After that it was always going to be very difficult to overtake the Acuras on the track.”
The JDC-Miller squad finished third, the first Cadillac. Since then, the team has had a chance to test at Sebring, to work together more and find improvement in the car. As a result, Vautier’s focus isn’t on last year’s victory but what he, Westbrook and Duval, along with Ben Keating, were able to achieve in the opening round of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.
“Everybody has improved a lot since last year and the teams are making progress every weekend, so we’re mainly trying to keep the momentum from Daytona where we were really strong and were winning the fight,” he says. “I hope we can keep on that trend and that Sebring can be another confirmation that we are on a really good track to be in the fight.”
Last year, Westbrook wasn’t in the race, his most recent experience having come in CGR’s Ford GT GTLM cars. So not only is he returning to IMSA competition after an absence, he’s coming back in an entirely different car with new teammates. Circumstances aside, he says it’s all coming together.
“I’d say we’re on target, because there had to be quite a fast process that we got used to each other and how we work. We didn’t do any preseason testing before Daytona, so we have to get through that, and we’ve done that. We’ve definitely jelled and found nice common ground on how to work, to extract the best out of the car. We did a pretty good test at Sebring, and so far I have to say it’s really good. I think it’s only going to get better.”
Frenchman Vautier echoes the Briton’s sentiment, saying Westbrook has integrated quickly into the fold.
“I think the result and the overall performance has shown it, Vautier says. “He is very experienced. He has not driven prototype for a long time, but he adapted back very quickly, and I think all three of us — Richard, Loic and I – we are very close. Daytona showed our line-up was very consistent. We all bring different things to the table for the team. Richard is older and has a lot of experience, so there are things he brings for me as a younger driver in sports cars. We all bring things that are unique, and I think it makes the line-up quite complete.”
The Sebring victory aside, 2021 was not a great year for Vautier and Duval in the championship. But Vautier says he felt the team made good progress that began to reveal itself at Petit Le Mans and carried on to the 2022 opener. But he knows that other teams have made progress as well, and with CGR expanding to two cars — and snagging Bourdais — he knows that they’re going to be tough if CGR can avoid the troubles that hit them at Daytona. But for his own team, he feels like they are in a stronger position than they were a year ago.
“I feel much better going into the race weekend than I did last year but it’s such high level in DPi right now — if you have one little thing that’s wrong, you’re last,” Vautier notes. “You’re not mid-field or anything. There are seven cars and the field is often covered by a half-second, so if something is not right, you’re last. We feel strong and we know we need to get everything right. We will have the validations once we are there. Sebring is a very specific track; depending on winds, temperature and track conditions, things can change very quickly on race weekend. I feel better, but we really don’t take anything for granted. It’s eyes forward.”
As Westbrook looks to carry forward the momentum from Daytona and better that finish, and as the team he has stepped into prepares to defend its victory at Sebring, there’s a certain amount of pressure. But, he says, it’s a positive pressure.
“I feel like I always raise my game when I’m in a winning situation. If I’m on the lead lap in a 24-hour race, I’m going to perform a lot better than I am if we’re, say, five laps down. I like that sort of added pressure, but it’s not really pressure… it just gives everyone a bit of belief in the team, that we’ve done this before so why can’t we do it again, especially if we’re still improving? Which we are.”
Westbrook says he can’t really compare the Ford GT and the Cadillac DPi.R, or say in which he’d rather contend with Sebring’s legendary bumps. But he notes there is something they have in common, or at least that is consistent with him driving either car.
“I’ve found I do better when I’ve got a smile on my face. I had a smile on my face in that Ford GT Le Mans car, and I feel like I’m smiling in the car now. I love both of them. There’s been some cars I didn’t like so much at Sebring, and there’s some cars I’ve loved. But the Ford and the Cadillac, when you get them right and the balance is right, I just love Sebring.”