Sebastien Bourdais utilised strategy, strong race pace, and good fortune to claim an improbable victory in Round 1 of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series.
In achieving his 1st career win at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Bourdais overcame a qualifying mishap that relegated him to the back of the starting grid for the day’s race. Whilst an impressive feat, the four-time champion has overcome more than poor grid positions since his last championship in 2007.
Sunday’s win was Bourdais’ 36th overall victory in American Championship racing, but the past decade has been beset with challenges for a man that once dominated the Champ Car World Series.
It’s true that Bourdais managed to score wins in each of his past three seasons at KV Racing, but Sunday’s win was just his 5th since his return to American open wheel racing in 2011. While perhaps no one has consistently done more with less in recent years, it’s far from his incredible five-year stint from 2003-2007, when he collected 31 race victories and 4 championships for the powerhouse Newman/Haas team.
Bourdais was so dominant during that period that he caught the attention of Red Bull, who had entered Formula 1 as a constructor in 2005 and purchased a second team in 2006. When offered an opportunity for a race seat in F1, he left the Champ Car World Series after the 2007 season and spent 2008 and much of 2009 with Scuderia Toro Rosso, the junior team to the Red Bull Racing F1 team. Although Bourdais scored a handful of points during his tenure in F1, he was routinely outperformed by teammate Sebastian Vettel in 2008. By mid-season of the following year, he was pushed aside by Toro Rosso in favour of 19-year-old Jaime Alguersuari.
Leaving American open wheel racing to pursue F1 was a gamble that didn’t pay off and Bourdais’ career has yet to fully recover. By the time he emerged in a unified IndyCar in 2011, there were few similarities with the series he left in 2007. He had to acclimate to a series with oval circuits and an unfamiliar Honda-powered Dallara chassis. Meanwhile, the series suffered from the effects of a global economic recession that limited competitive driving opportunities.
Ironically enough, he made his return with the Dale Coyne team during that season on a part-time basis. He recorded some competitive results and by 2013 he was a series regular with the Dragon Racing team. After a three-year stint with KV Racing, Bourdais now returns to the much improved Dale Coyne Racing.
As Bourdais enters what will likely be the final competitive years of his career, it now seems doubtful that the 38-year-old can count on another shot with one of the established powerhouse teams. While Dale Coyne Racing is one of the smaller entities in the sport, Sunday’s result in St. Petersburg was in large part due to a series of aggressive off-season moves. These changes included reuniting Bourdais with Craig Hampson, who engineered Bourdais’ championships in the glory days at Newman/Haas.
Bourdais and Coyne also benefited from a surprisingly competitive Honda engine package. After pre-season testing, most experts expected there to be a substantial deficit for the Hondas to the perceived superior Chevrolets. Based on the practice speeds, qualifying times and race pace, if there’s an advantage for the Chevrolets over the Hondas, it’s negligible.
To have a shot at the win, the timing of the race’s 2nd caution couldn’t have been any better for Bourdais. Just after completing his 1st pitstop, the race leaders were forced to pit under caution. This lucky break was all Bourdais needed. He restarted the race behind defending series champion Simon Pagenaud and by Lap 36 of 110 he made an impressive overtake on the Penske driver going into turn one for the race lead and controlled the remainder of the race.
Reunited with the man who engineered most of his success to date, driving for an owner that has demonstrated a sudden but aggressive commitment to winning, and benefiting from a surprisingly competitive engine package, Bourdais now finds himself in arguably his most competitive ride since his foray into Formula 1 almost a decade ago.
Can he now do the unthinkable, pull a dramatic upset, and follow the likes of Paul Tracy, Dan Wheldon, Dario Franchitti, and Will Power and translate an early win at St. Petersburg into another championship season?