SEBRING, Fla. - Sebastien Bourdais had been here before. The situation was different, yet very much the same.
In February 2003, as an unemployed 23-year-old whose path to Formula One with Renault had vanished, Bourdais so impressed Carl Haas and Paul Newman in a Champ Car test at Sebring International Raceway that they did something unprecedented: put a rookie in one of their race cars full-time. Within five years racing for the series' most successful organization, Bourdais shared the now-defunct open wheel circuit's victories record, and won its last four championships before it went bankrupt and was melded into what is now the Izod IndyCar Series. Bourdais, in turn, left when his Formula One job finally rematerialized with Scuderia Toro Rosso.
Here was Bourdais again on Wednesday, unadorned fire suit, blanched white race car, except for the blue-stickered "18," debriefing with the car's owner, Dale Coyne, a former driver and one of the handful of owners who migrated from Champ Car to the united open wheel series in 2008. Coyne, who has one victory in 588 combined CART, Champ Car and IndyCar starts.
After an abortive F1 exercise in which he earned six points in 27 starts and was released in 2009, Bourdais was exploring his future options this week with the ancillary curiosity of how he might fare among a collective of the best open wheel drivers in North America. Coyne, after picking at the carcass of success and sponsors left by powers Ganassi Racing and Team Penske, winning for the first time in 2009 with Justin Wilson, was attempting to swing a deal he deemed a "game-changer."
Hard by the fertilizer plant and the municipal airport next door, they might just be on to something.
"There're a couple little things to work out," Coyne said. "Everything should come together here. It's a fluid beginning of the season for a lot of people. We're happy with him and I think he's happy with us, so we'll see what we can work out."
Though details remained to address as of Wednesday, both Bourdais and Coyne seemed confident Bourdais would be on the grid for the IndyCar opener on March 27 at St. Petersburg, where Bourdais lived during his Champ Car career. Bourdais said he had presented a contract to Coyne, who had added a new team manager and engineer this week, he said, both out of necessity and at Bourdais' request. Bourdais is known to be keenly interested in the mechanical aspect of his cars, which likely helped him in North America and hurt in the more rigidly structured F1.
"We knew we needed to put some people together," Coyne said. "A couple good people became available and obviously when you have a driver of his caliber, you have more people that are interested, so it all kind of works together. It's good for what he wanted. It's good for what I wanted."
What Bourdais wanted, he said, was a legitimate opportunity to make the endeavor fruitful for both.
"If he's going to pay me to come and race for him, and there's not the right people around, he might as well just save the money because I'm no super hero," said Bourdais, who was released from Scuderia Toro Rosso midway through the 2009 season, then raced briefly in Superleague. "I'm a good guy if I'm surrounded by quality people and a good team. There is no magic in this. You need the right things to get it right, and you're going to go up against four Ganassis and three Penskes and four Andrettis. So yeah, you can't say it's going to be all right. It doesn't work like that."
Bourdais would contest all nine non-oval events, leaving Coyne to find a co-driver for the remaining eight ovals. He also has scheduling conflicts with several IndyCar oval events because he will race six sports car events for Peugeot and resides in LeMans, France.
"There are some ovals which are fun to drive," said Bourdais, who won at Las Vegas and Milwaukee in a Champ Car schedule dominated by street and road courses. "Indy is being a part of it, and Milwaukee, but for sure there are some ovals I wouldn't be looking forward to, superspeedways where you're just flat-out all around and you're just waiting for it to wreck. That's just not what I like to do, but I've done it before."
Bourdais finished 12th in his only Indianapolis 500 start in 2005, being collected in a wreck with two laps left. His teammate Bruno Junqueira, at the time the Champ Car points leader, missed the rest of the season after breaking his back in the race.
Non-ovals remain the most logical part of the schedule to focus upon for smaller teams, considering the way large organizations such as Ganassi and Penske can apply their greater resources to aerodynamic advancement. The organizations have combined to win 26 of the last 29 oval events.
"We want to win. It's very hard to win on an oval," Coyne said. "We looked at the reality of it. Those [Ganassi] red cars have won just about everything on an oval, as long as I can remember. [Former Andretti Autosport driver Tony] Kanaan got one on them last year at Iowa, but other than that it's been pretty consistent for the top two teams. Road courses are a different animal. [AA's] Ryan [Hunter-Reay] won a race last year. We won a race the year before [with Wilson at Watkins Glen]. You need everything to be right on any given day, but it can happen."
Coyne first contacted Bourdais last summer, but the birth of the driver's second child and complications with his LeMans Series season made the situation "just too much last-minute and too complicated, so we stayed in touch." Bourdais tested at Sebring with Coyne in January and is scheduled to undertake an open IndyCar test at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Ala., next week. He said it is too early to even contemplate a potential full-time return to North American open wheel racing.
"There is no real plan," he said. "This opportunity came up. I hope it's going to happen. And then what happens next, I don't know. The Peugeot thing seems to be rolling quite nicely and it's great and at the same time, it's always down to them selling cars. Tomorrow, if the market goes south, which always is a possibility, then there might not be a program anymore. So when the possibility to do this happened, or is kind of happening, I was more like, "Well, why not?" I've got one foot in one series and the other in another, and it sort of keeps the doors open.
"Obviously next year, with the series changing the rules, and the cars and the structure, maybe there will be some opportunities if you can be in the mix. But there is no clear plan to just do this for a year or anything of the like. We'll give it a try if we can and see what happens."
For now, Bourdais is tempering expectations. Having raced for Newman Haas, an eight-time champion organization that was the clear superior in Champ Car before joining the IndyCar series with more modest results, Bourdais understands the magnitude of overwhelming resources.
"That's what's exciting about it, but obviously if it was to materialize, the expectations are completely different," he said. "It's a relatively small team. We'd go for highlights, you know, one-shots and try to hopefully get one every now and then. You have to be serious and reasonable in your expectations. We are up against such high competition in terms of structured teams and stuff. Otherwise, it would make no sense to have a structured, well-funded team."
Coyne aspires to that level of structure and performance, but works within the means of his current reality. That he might soon employ a driver who won 31 of 74 races and an IROC race in his previous stint in North America seems like a sound starting point. Leaning against his pit box on Wednesday, maybe he wasn't so much squinting against a mid-day sun as grinning.
"I think there's unfinished business for all of us," he said. "We want to prove that race win wasn't a fluke. I think he wants to prove he can still be a winner. I think we're a good match and we're out to prove something."