Thursday, December 2, 2021

Career Retrospective: Sébastien Bourdais

This offseason I thought was the best time to look at a few of IndyCar's veterans as the series is going through a generational shift. A group of experienced drivers are approaching their final days in the series, and many are reaching that finish line at once. While IndyCar is going through a shake up the likes of which it has not been seen since the early 1990s, we need to take this time to appreciate these drivers but also look at how IndyCar has changed since these drivers started in the series.

This is our third in a four-part series. We have looked at two Indianapolis 500 winners, Takuma Sato and Ryan Hunter-Reay, but now looks at a driver who has done what few others have done in IndyCar. He is a past champion like Hunter-Reay but is in the company of a some of the all-time greats. 

It is Sébastien Bourdais.

Where was Bourdais coming from?
Son of a race car driver and from the most notable motorsports town in Europe, Bourdais started in French Formula Renault 2.0 before progressing to French Formula Three. He won the French Formula Three championship in 1999, which led to an International Formula 3000 ride.

Bourdais was ninth and fourth in the championship his first two years and he won at Silverstone in his sophomore season. This led to him becoming a Formula One test driver for Arrows and Renault in 2002 and he won the International Formula 3000 championship that year with three victories at Imola, Monaco and the Nürburgring. 

Between all this, Bourdais dabbled in sports car racing, making his Le Mans debut in 1999 and finishing fourth overall in 2000 with Pescarolo Sport behind an Audi 1-2-3 finish. In 2001, he made his 12 Hours of Sebring debut, and he won the 24 Hours of Spa in 2002 with Christophe Bouchet, David Terrien and Vincent Vosse in a Larbre Compétition Chrysler Viper.

What did IndyCar look like when Bourdais started in the series?
Bourdais debuted coincided with Ryan Hunter-Reay's rookie season, and we touched upon what CART and the Indy Racing League looked like in 2003, but this changing tide saw many debutants in 2003. 

A dozen drivers made their debut in the 2003 CART season, including nine in the St. Petersburg season opener. Besides Bourdais and Hunter-Reay, other debutants at St. Petersburg were Joël Camathias, Roberto González, Mário Haberfeld, Rodolfo Lavín, Patrick Lemarié and Tiago Monteiro. 

Camathias ran in International Formula 3000 in 2001, finishing fifth on debut at Interlagos, but that would be his only points finish and his only other top ten was a ninth at Hockenheim. He competed in four Euro Formula 3000 races in 2002, but his best finish was tenth and he failed to qualify for his final appearance at Donington Park.

Lemarié competed in International Formula 3000 in the mid-1990s, but only scored six points in 16 starts and failed to qualify for his final appearance at Jerez. He did become a BAR-Honda test driver, but he only competed in six races from 1998 to 2002 across all series, and he had zero starts in 1998 and 2002 respectively.

Lemarié lasted six races. Camathias made it seven.

Haberfeld competed against Bourdais in International Formula 3000 in all three seasons the Frenchman was there, but Haberfeld never won a race. He was runner-up at Interlagos in 2002 and he was third in Austria, ultimately finishing seventh in the championship.

Monteiro and Bourdais crossed paths in French Formula Three. Monteiro was sixth in the championship in 1999, the year Bourdais won the title. The Portuguese was second in the championship the next two years, and he won eight races in four French Formula Three seasons. Monteiro was competing against Bourdais again in International Formula 3000, but Monteiro was 13th in the 2002 championship with two points from a fifth at Hockenheim. 

Lavín spent seven seasons in the American junior formula system, spending five years in Indy Lights from 1996-2000 where he had only two top five finishes. He ran in Atlantics in 2001 and 2002, where he was third in Nazareth in 2001 and second in Milwaukee.

González ran World Series by Nissan in 2002, where he was 22nd in the championship on seven points. His best finish was eighth. He was the lowest driver in the championship to compete in every round. González ran at St. Petersburg but would not run again in CART until the Mexico City round in October. 

The other three debutants were Alex Yoong, who competed for Minardi in Formula One during the 2001 and 2002 seasons, Geoff Boss, who competed in five Indy Lights seasons from 1997 to 2001 and he won at Toronto, and Mika Salo, who ran the final four CART races as he transitioned from Formula One. 

Hunter-Reay and Lavín were the only drivers to debut in 2003 that ran in Atlantics in 2002. The top five in the 2002 Atlantics Championship, Jon Fogarty, Michael Valiante. Alex Gurney, Luis Díaz and Rocky Moran, Jr. competed in a combined four IndyCar races over their entire careers. Valiante and Díaz each made two starts apiece across four seasons. 

In the 2003 CART season, there were no previous Atlantic champions on the grid and the only full-time past Indy Lights champion was Paul Tracy and the only other past champion to compete in a CART race was Bryan Herta at Laguna Seca.

How does IndyCar look now?
In 2021, five previous Indy Lights/Atlantics champions were full-time in IndyCar: Scott Dixon, Simon Pagenaud, Josef Newgarden, Ed Jones, and Patricio O'Ward. Another four past champions competed in at least one race in 2021: Tony Kanaan, J.R. Hildebrand, Sage Karam and Oliver Askew. 

Eleven of 14 IndyCar Rookie of the Year winners since reunification have come from a Road to Indy background with the exceptions being Robert Wickens, Felix Rosenqvist and Scott McLaughlin.

Due to the cancellation of the 2020 Indy Lights season, there was a lack of Road to Indy experienced drivers debuting in 2021. Ryan Norman did debut at Mid-Ohio, but Norman has been focusing on sports car racing the last few years. Romain Grosjean and Jimmie Johnson were the most notable rookies as each moved from Formula One and NASCAR respectively. Kevin Magnussen made a one-off start at Road America substituting for an injured Felix Rosenqvist. Cody Ware also made a few starts. 

Callum Ilott and Christian Lundgaard both came from Formula Two. Ilott was vice-champion in 2020 to Mick Schumacher with three victories. Lundgaard was seventh in the 2020 championship with two victories. Ilott became the first driver to finish in the top five of the GP2/Formula Two championship to run in IndyCar since Alexander Rossi moved to IndyCar in 2016. Prior to Rossi, the last top five GP2 driver to run in IndyCar was Stefano Coletti in 2015. 

What did Bourdais do in-between?
Because of the split, Bourdais' career is split in two. 

From 2003 to 2007, Bourdais was the best around. He started on pole position on debut. He won his fourth career start and won his first oval start a race later. Some inconsistency as a rookie dropped him to fourth in the championship. 

Bourdais won 28 races over the next four seasons. He defeated his senior Newman-Haas Racing teammate Bruno Junqueira for the championship in 2004, picking up seven victories. In 2005, he won six races and clinched the championship a race early at Surfers Paradise. 

He opened 2006 with four consecutive victories, only the second driver to open a season with four consecutive races joining A.J. Foyt, who won seven consecutive races to start the 1964 season. Bourdais would finish the season with seven victories, 11 podium finishes, and he won his third consecutive championship a race early for the second consecutive season. 

In 2007, Bourdais won eight races and again clinched the championship a race early, his fourth consecutive title, an unprecedented achievement. 

With Champ Car conquered, Bourdais moved to Formula One with Toro Rosso. He scored two points on debut, but only scored two more points the rest of the season. He again scored points in the 2008 Formula One season opener, but he scored only one more point, an eighth at Monaco, and a lack of results saw Bourdais removed from the team after the ninth round of the 2008 season.

While out of Formula One, Bourdais quickly landed in the Peugeot LMP1 program. He was second at Le Mans in 2007 with Peugeot, returned to finish second again in 2009 and for he was runner-up for a third time in five years in 2011. He won in three of six Intercontinental Le Mans Cup starts in 2011, helping secure the championship for Peugeot over Audi. 

Bourdais made a slightly surprising return to IndyCar in 2011, taking the road and street course races in the #19 Dale Coyne Racing Honda. He was sixth place in four of the final six races. 

He moved to Dragon Racing in 2012 hoping to be back to full-time competition with Lotus engines. However, the Lotus engine was woeful, though Bourdais did finish ninth at Barber. At Indianapolis, the team switched to Chevrolet, but the team would have to split a car for the rest of the season with Bourdais on road and street courses and Katherine Legge driving the oval races. Bourdais would finish fourth at Mid-Ohio. 

Back to full-time in 2013, Bourdais struggled, failing to finish in the top ten in the first 11 races, but he was second and third at the Toronto doubleheader and third in Baltimore. Dragon Racing withdrew from IndyCar after 2013 to focus on its Formula E program. Bourdais moved to KV Racing for 2014 and he picked up his first pole position since his IndyCar return at Toronto and won that race. He won pole position at Mid-Ohio and finished second but got to tenth in the championship. 

Bourdais spent two more seasons with KV Racing and won three races. In 2017, he returned to Dale Coyne Racing and took victory in the season opener at St. Petersburg. He led the championship through the first three races. He had one of the fastest cars at Indianapolis before his qualifying accident fractured his pelvis and knocked him out of the car until Gateway in August. He ended the season with finishes of tenth and ninth in two of the final three races.

Another season opener victory followed in 2018 at St. Petersburg and Bourdais ended up seventh in the championship, his best championship finish since his 2007 championship. Despite nine top ten finishes in 2019, Bourdais was 11th in the championship, and he was out of a ride. 

For the last two seasons, Bourdais drove for A.J. Foyt Racing, but he had only three top five finishes in 19 starts.

What impression did Bourdais leave on IndyCar?
Bourdais' career does bridge an odd time, the end of the Split. Bourdais did benefit from competing in a divided series, but he wasn't the only one. Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Hélio Castroneves, Sam Hornish, Jr., Dan Wheldon, Paul Tracy, Bruno Junqueira, Cristiano da Matta, everyone benefitted from the Split. There were more races, more chances for victories and an extra championship. 

What we did see was one of the most gifted road course drivers in the contemporary IndyCar. He was driving for Newman-Haas Racing against a weakened field, but he performed to the highest level each year. He didn't accidentally win championships. Three he clinched early. He was on the podium in 44 of 73 races. In five seasons, he led 2,103 of 6,265 laps, just over a third. 

He was the best around. There were a few challengers. Junqueira might have won the championship in 2005 if he didn't fracture a vertebra in the 2005 Indianapolis 500. Paul Tracy couldn't keep up. A.J. Allmendinger put up a significant challenge but left for NASCAR after 2006. Justin Wilson was good, but not quite to Bourdais' level. Will Power was just rounding into form when Bourdais left for Formula One. 

Bourdais' second career is where appreciation grows. For starters, he came back. When Bourdais left after 2007, there was a sense he was done with American racing. He had wanted to live in France with his family. He had Formula One aspirations. Bourdais left before the merger was finalized. There wasn't much of a prize for winning in Champ Car. Ovals were not of interest to him. Newman-Haas wasn't heading to the IRL, and Bourdais wasn't going to drive for any other team.  

A unified IndyCar found its footing in the years Bourdais was away. All the teams and drivers were in the same place. The series worked on new chassis and engine regulations. IndyCar didn't shoot up in popularity just because there was one series, but it was a better series. 

Though a four-time champion, Bourdais had to earn his result driving for smaller teams, and he achieved more than the average driver could in similar situations. First off, he finished ninth with a Lotus at Barber. I don't think he gets enough credit for that result. It was Lotus' only top ten finish. Second, he put Dragon Racing on the podium. He won multiple races with KV Racing when he had less than stellar teammates. He turned Dale Coyne Racing into a regular front runner. 

It is hard to believe he never got another opportunity with a big team. Hindsight would tell us Chip Ganassi Racing should have called Bourdais to replace Dario Franchitti after Franchitti's accident at Houston in 2013. I think Bourdais would have challenged for another championship if not won one if he was in the #10 Ganassi entry starting in 2014.

Bourdais' ability is not only exemplified based on his IndyCar results. He has won the 24 Hours of Daytona and 12 Hours of Sebring overall. He has a class victory at Le Mans with the Ford GT program. He won multiple races in Supercars as a co-driver. I don't think Bourdais gets the appreciation he deserves, and many are probably quick to label him as overrated, but the results speak otherwise. 

It is a sad end for Bourdais because he lost a season in 2020, and 2021 was not the greatest program with A.J. Foyt Racing. It appears this is the end of the line for his IndyCar career. He will get his chance to drive full-time for Ganassi, but it will be in a second Cadillac DPi entry in IMSA. The hope is Bourdais gets another crack at overall Le Mans victory and the LMDh class should make that possible starting in 2023. 

We have been spoiled in the last 20 years to see Dixon, Franchitti, Power, Bourdais, Newgarden, Pagenaud and Hunter-Reay all compete in IndyCar, but I don't think many will realize what we had in Bourdais. The record book and his top-heavy Champ Car success will tell one story, but we who observed his career but fill in the context to illuminate a remarkable talent.