Why Doesn’t Bruno Get A Shot?
An announcement came out this week that thirty-one year-old French driver Franck Montagny would be driving a fifth Andretti-Green car at Sonoma next weekend. Now I have no way of knowing, but this has all the classic earmarks of another case of ride buying. As I have said before, ride buying is nothing new in racing. It has been going on for decades. But that doesn’t make it any easier to swallow. Especially, if you are one of the most deserving drivers that has been on the sidelines all season – Bruno Junqueira.
Bruno has spent a total of one day in the seat of an IndyCar this season. That was on the fourth and final day of qualifications for the 2009 Indianapolis 500. He hopped in the second Conquest Racing car in the morning and with very little practice time, remarkably qualified a sub-par car safely on the outside of row ten – four spots from the bubble. At the last minute, Ryan Hunter-Reay bumped Bruno’s teammate and primary Conquest driver, Alex Tagliani, from the field.
For the superb job that Bruno did putting his car in the field on such little practice; his reward was to be pulled out of the field so that Tagliani could be in Bruno’s car for the race. Junqueira played the role of the good soldier, quietly stepping away and politely thanking car-owner Eric Bachelart for the opportunity. You know it had to be killing him on the inside, but he kept his mouth shut and was the dutiful teammate. With all of the driver changes that have occurred this summer, you would think that we would have heard Bruno’s name mentioned at least once. But no – he who brings no money to the table will dwell on the sidelines forever.
It isn’t like Bruno Junqueira is a can of corn or the second coming of Dennis Vitolo. This is a skilled driver with an outstanding resume who at thirty-two years of age, should be in his prime. Instead, he sits on the sidelines while unproven drivers like Mario Moraes, Milka Duno and Nelson Philippe get rides. I’ll cut Montagny a little slack. He has paid his dues in several series and has won championships. Montagny has spent time with four Formula One teams and he placed second in the Champ Car finale at Long Beach in 2008, while driving in the series for the first time. Michael Andretti may have his eyes on next season, as his AGR team will surely have a different look for 2010.
But back to Junqueira, it is a crime that no teams seem willing to give him any consideration at all. He drove for Dale Coyne for the past two seasons. In a nice gesture, Coyne did acknowledge Bruno’s work while basking in the glory of Justin Wilson’s victory at Watkins Glen. While I’m sure he appreciates the compliment, I feel quite certain the talented Brazilian would rather be driving.
Like practically all Brazilians, Bruno Junqueira began his career in karts. He served as a test driver for Williams in Formula One in 1999 and won the Formula 3000 championship in 2000. He was under consideration to drive the second car at Williams, but lost the opportunity to Jenson Button.
In 2001, Chip Ganassi was starting over. Juan Montoya had bolted to the aforementioned Williams team in Formula One; and longtime Ganassi driver Jimmy Vasser had left the team also. Ganassi hired two unknown drivers; Nicolas Minassian and Bruno Junqueira to replace them. While Minassian turned out to be a major bust, Bruno showed promise. In his rookie season, he won the pole at Nazareth and also won the race at Road America, yet finished sixteenth in points. He also finished fifth in his first Indy 500 as Ganassi launched a four-car effort at Indy.
The following year, Junqueira was the pole-sitter at Indianapolis. He won two races in the CART season and finished second to Cristiano da Matta in the championship. When Ganassi moved to the IRL full-time in 2003, Junqueira opted to stay in CART and moved to Newman/Haas. There, Bruno posted two more consecutive second-place finishes in the points, while wining two races in each season. In 2003, he finished second to Paul Tracy while in 2004; Bruno was runner-up to his teammate Sebastian Bourdais.
Newman/Haas ran Junqueira in a one-off single-car effort for the 2004 Indianapolis 500. Bruno qualified fourth, led for sixteen laps until lap 150 when he had to pit. The rains came and the race was stopped at lap 180, forcing Junqueira to settle for fifth place. In 2005, Newman/Haas returned with both drivers, with Bourdais as a rookie at Indy. Junqueira was in the process of lapping AJ Foyt IV on the inside of turn two when Foyt came down and clipped the passing car. Bruno hit the wall hard and broke his back, causing him to miss the remainder of the season.
Junqueira returned to the cockpit at Newman/Haas for the 2006 Champ Car season. For the first time in his career however, he did not win a single race for the season and finished fifth in points – while he watched his teammate, Bourdais win his third straight Champ Car title. Following the 2006 season, Newman/Haas elected to replace Bruno Junqueira with eighteen year-old Graham Rahal. Bruno had to lower his sights considerably and sign with Dale Coyne Racing as teammate to Katherine Legge. Surprisingly, Junqueira brought decent results to the perennial struggling team. Junqueira took Dale Coyne to the podium three times in 2007, while posting seven additional top-ten finishes. It was the best season that Dale Coyne Racing had experienced to that point.
When Dale Coyne migrated over to the IRL with the other Champ Car teams following the unification, things didn’t go so well for Bruno or the team. Junqueira had been paired with nineteen year-old rookie Mario Moraes and the team didn’t make the transition very well. Bruno only posted two top-ten finishes for the season. This may have caused him to be out of a ride for 2009, but I’m not really sure what happened. Regardless, Coyne scaled back to a one-car team for 2009 and signed the mysteriously available Justin Wilson, who was also a recent Newman/Haas cast-off.
So here we are, about to wind down the final season of the decade. It is a decade that began with Bruno Junqueira winning the Formula 3000 championship and coming so close to landing a top ride in Formula One. It saw him post three straight runner-up championship finishes; win a pole at Indianapolis along with two top-fives at the famed oval. He also broke his back at Indy while running in sixth place on lap seventy-seven in 2005. The second half of the decade saw a struggling Junqueira fight valiantly to post a fifth place finish in 2006, but to no avail. He had to sign with a struggling team for 2007, yet took it to heights it had never seen. He closed out the decade by quickly getting a car up to speed and solidly qualifying at Indy, only to be unceremoniously yanked out of the car to please a sponsor.
Bruno Junqueira has succeeded everywhere he has been. He is pleasant, personable and one heck of a driver – on all types of tracks. If I were to suddenly win the lottery and start a race team, he would be the first driver I would pick. Yet, we continue to see him on the sidelines watching his prime years wither away, with apparently nothing for him on the horizon for 2010. It is one of IndyCar’s unexplained mysteries. I also consider it a shame.