Sebastien Bourdais continues IndyCar transformation with Belle Isle win
Sebastien Bourdais enjoyed overwhelming success in one CART season and four in successor Champ Car with 31 wins in 73 starts from 2003–07 and won the final four championships. He was the series’ superstar and Formula One’s Scuderia Toro Rosso signed him for the 2008 season.
A Frenchman from the sports car Mecca of Le Mans, Bourdais had established credentials in Europe, too, winning the 2002 FIA Formula 3000—the top F1 development series. But he was a flop in 1 1/2 seasons, 17th in 2008 and 19th with two points in nine starts in 2009. Released by Toro Rosso, he spent the next season-and-a-half driving in a lower-level European series called SuperLeague Formula and selected sports car endurance events.
Questions regarding Bourdais were raised. He had driven for Newman/Haas Racing, the remaining elite team from CART’s heyday. The competition level of Champ Car without the Penske and Ganassi teams bore no resemblance to late 1990s and early 2000s. Was Bourdais the real deal or was he fortunate enough to land with the right team at the right time?
Bourdais returned to the Verizon IndyCar Series in 2009 and drove for Dale Coyne Racing, Jay Penske’s Dragon Racing and KVSH Racing. He began rebuilding his reputation with a victory at Toronto with KVSH in 2014 in the 53rd start of his IndyCar comeback. His reputation received another boost on Saturday.
His triumph in Saturday’s Chevrolet Dual I in Detroit at the street course at Belle Isle was his fourth in the past 29 starts with KVSH, owned by 1996 CART driving champion Jimmy Vasser, Kevin Kalkhoven and James Sullivan.
• MORE RACING: James Hinchcliffe hoped for the best at tricky Belle Isle
At the age of 37, Bourdais has re-established himself as a top-shelf driver in IndyCar and shed any doubts that if Newman/Haas had joined Penske and Ganassi in the migration, he would have been able to win races. Would he have been able to win 31 over five seasons? It’s very unlikely, but you can’t take any of them away from him because of the relative strengths of the two series.
Bourdais has 35 victories and is tied Bobby Unser for sixth on the all-time list. It was been the standard practice of the different Indy car-sanctioning bodies—from AAA to USAC, to CART and Champ Car to the Indy Racing League/IndyCar—to count every victory. It’s the only fair way to do it.
It was a combination of speed and strategy, two components that are always necessary, that carried Bourdais and his Chevrolet on Saturday. He started 13th and race strategist Vasser made the correct calls to put him in the lead in the closing stages. Bourdais initially went to the front from laps 55–57, pitted for a splash of fuel and regained the lead for the final nine in the 70-lap race. He finished 2.04 seconds ahead of runner-up Conor Daly.
“Great strategy,” Bourdais said to Vasser on the radio on the cool-down lap.
“Helluva drive,” Vasser responded.
“When the yellow came out and we came in and topped up [fuel] on lap 13, that really was the key moment for us,” Bourdais said. “All we needed was clean air to come back from the pretty average qualifying and I really couldn’t dream of that. From that moment onwards, every time we were a little bit out of sync and could produce fast laps when the guys were coming out of the pits. I could run pretty quick with the Firestone black tires. I was very happy with the car.”
Conor Daly second in best IndyCar finish
Rookie Conor Daly drove to second at Detroit for his best IndyCar finish in 15 starts. The Dale Coyne Racing Honda driver used virtually the same strategy that took Bourdais to victory and led four laps in his third race this season.
“The guys on the stand called a beautiful race,” Daly said. “I’m so happy. This feels like a win. I can’t believe we were trying to go after [Sebastien] Bourdais and trying defend against [Juan Pablo] Montoya. I used to watch these guys here. It’s crazy. This is why you do it, to get on the podium. We were able to prove that we had a good car and this car has been good all weekend. It’s just sweet.”
Daly didn’t take tires on his final pit stop with nine laps remaining. He surrendered the lead to Bourdais, but held off the charging Montoya.
“Thanks, Firestone,” Daly said. “Yeah, it was great. The tires lasted all the way to the end. So, it was amazing because they kept getting better. It was really awesome and just gave us a shot to fight for the top three.”
Where have you gone, Will Power?
Australian Will Power’s 20th place Saturday was his 17th straight race without a win, the longest of his Champ Car and IndyCar career. His last victory was a year ago in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis.
Power has 25 career victories and at least one in each of his eight seasons going into 2016. His best result this season was third at Phoenix. He’s been 19th, 10th and 20th in the last three races.
Power’s Team Penske Chevrolet started ninth and led three laps (29–31.) He was a contender until his left-wheel nut popped off. Power then had to go down an escape road and dropped out on the 45th of 70 laps.
“The Verizon Chevy was great today,” Power said. “We started in ninth and were able to quickly gain ground and get up front. The car was really fast and felt very comfortable. Then we had that pit stop and problem with the wheel. You can’t do much about it. Things happen. My crew is the best. It was just one of those things. We'll regroup and give it another go tomorrow.”
Power is one of IndyCar’s best on street circuits and Sunday’s Dual II in Detroit will provide him an excellent chance of salvaging the weekend with a good result.