World of EuroNASCAR takes a look back at Super GT champion Bertrand Baguette’s one-off participation in the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series at Tours Speedway nine years ago.
History was made last Sunday when the driver pairing of Bertrand Baguette and Kazuki Hiramine clinched the GT500 championship title on Super GT’s season finale round at Mobility Resort Motegi.
The championship triumph, which ended a 27-year long title drought in Japan’s top level of sportscar racing for the legendary Calsonic Team Impul, meant that a EuroNASCAR alumnus was crowned as the Super GT champion for the first time in history.
Now, you may ask: Bertrand Baguette has raced in EuroNASCAR? The answer to that is a resounding “Yes”. Long-time readers of World of EuroNASCAR may remember that we named Baguette as one of the 10 drivers that you don’t know to have raced in EuroNASCAR because Baguette did participate in one round of the EuroNASCAR championship.
That round in question was the Michelin/Tours Evenements 100 at Tours Speedway, the fourth round of the 2013 NASCAR Whelen Euro Series season. Held on 6-7 July 2013, the event marked Baguette’s only appearance in EuroNASCAR and in this article, we will be covering the story behind Baguette’s participation and how he performed in the EuroNASCAR stock cars.
Stock car racing, of course, is a highly different beast compared to the GT500 machines that Baguette has raced over the past nine years. But before Baguette set foot in the land of the rising sun, he was a rising star in the FIA World Endurance Championship. Competing with OAK Racing, he had won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in the LMP2 class just a few weeks prior to his visit to Tours Speedway.
Naturally, the news that a recently crowned 24 Hours of Le Mans winner will be taking part in the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series was a big one. NASCAR Whelen Euro Series had already secured several high-profile wildcard entries in the form of Rick Crawford and Max Papis for Tours, so Baguette’s addition to the list of wildcards further added credibility to the series given that the 2013 season was just the series’ second season under NASCAR sanctioning.
Furthermore, the round at Tours Speedway that year was a momentous one for the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series. Not only was it the series’ first championship round held on an oval circuit, it was also the first race to be held under the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series moniker after the series signed a long-term title sponsorship deal with Whelen earlier that week.
Despite the different set of challenges presented by oval racing, oval circuit racing itself is not something new for Baguette. Baguette had been participating in IndyCar on a near full-time schedule with Conquest Racing three years prior and he nearly won the 2011 edition of the Indianapolis 500 if he wasn’t forced to make a ‘splash and dash’ pit stop with just three laps to go.
Baguette was due to drive in the Elite class – now EuroNASCAR PRO – with the No. 20 Toyota Camry fielded by Racing Club Partners, a team owned by the late Nathalie Maillet. Despite having never raced a stock car before, Baguette was feeling confident on his incoming EuroNASCAR debut at Tours.
It’s great to be able to drive on this kind of track again, even though I will be discovering Euro-Racecar NASCAR, especially on a 600-meter oval, something that we didn’t race in IndyCar,” said Baguette to AutoHebdo on 28 June 2013.
“It will be all the more exciting because it is happening in Europe, in an ambitious championship that offers exciting racing on a new speedway that looks very interesting. I have never driven this kind of car before but it doesn’t scare me!”
Fast forward to 6 July 2013 and it was time for Baguette to make his debut in the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series. After completing the Friday Practice sessions, Qualifying session for the Saturday race was proven to be a tough one for Baguette. He was only able to qualify his No. 20 Toyota in 20th place with a time of 14.812 seconds.
A deficit of 0.827 seconds towards the pole time set by Frédéric Gabillon might not sound too much, but that was a large gap to overcome on a 0.575 km oval circuit where lap times are made within the 14 second mark on average.
Undeterred by his lowly starting position, Baguette took the green flag for the Michelin 100 later that day as he and 23 other drivers began the first Elite race of the weekend. Progress for Baguette was initially slow, but he was able to move up the running order thanks to numerous incidents that his rivals had to experience. Eventually, Baguette crossed the finish line in 6th place after 108 laps of action to score an impressive top-10 finish on his debut.
Sunday started off on a better note for Baguette as during the Qualifying session for the Tours Evenements 100 race, he was able to qualify his No. 20 Toyota in 13th position with a time of 14.757 seconds. Unfortunately for the Belgian, things then took a turn for the worse during the race.
Having been collected in a multi-car collision on lap 6 that was started when Freddy Nordström, Anthony Gandon and Carole Perrin collided at turns 1 and 2, Baguette was then taken out by Max Papis on lap 78. The resulting incident took Baguette out of the race, while Papis was eventually disqualified after he caused another incident on the closing stages of the race.
“I’m disappointed because I could have really aimed for the podium,” said Baguette in the press release released by Racing Club Partners after the race week. “I don’t understand Papis’ maneuver, given that he is an experienced driver.”
“But beyond the raw result, the car is really pleasant to drive, which reacts well to the settings and a great atmosphere, both in the RCP team and in the series in general. It’s an experience that I would happily repeat in the future.”
As it turns out, Baguette has yet to find another opportunity to race in NASCAR Whelen Euro Series. His success in the World Endurance Championship was noticed by Honda, who wasted no time to sign the Belgian in 2014 where he would begin his career in Japan with Nakajima Racing’s No. 64 Epson NSX Concept-GT.
After five years with the Nakajima squad that resulted in Baguette and Kosuke Matsuura winning the final Suzuka 1000km under the 1000km format in 2017, Honda “promoted” Baguette to Katsutomo Kaneishi’s Real Racing squad in 2019 as the replacement driver for the departing Takashi Kogure.
It was with Real that Baguette started to shine as one of Super GT’s top international drivers. Baguette helped Real to turn around their fortunes as Real rose from an also-ran team into a perennial championship contender in the three years he was with the team. Baguette left the Honda fold at the end of the 2021 season and Nissan proceeded to sign Baguette to the manufacturer’s most legendary team: Calsonic Team Impul.
And as touched upon earlier in the article, Baguette responded to Nissan’s calling in the best way possible. The combination of Baguette, Hiramine, Impul and Nissan’s new Z GT500 was the class of the field in GT500 and after 8 grueling races against some of the best drivers and teams in the world, they took home the biggest trophy in Japanese motorsport: The GT500 championship title.
Disclaimer: Unless noted on the photo, all photos used in this article are courtesy of NASCAR Whelen Euro Series / Stephane Azemard.