Sébastien Bourdais: Lemonade From A Lemon

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Normally, a ninth place finish is nothing noteworthy – especially when you are talking about a four-time open-wheel champion. But these are not normal times for drivers that are saddled with the highly uncompetitive Lotus engine. That is what makes Sunday’s drive by Sébastien Bourdais so extraordinary. He charged through the field from the seventeenth starting position, on a track that you were you were not supposed to be able to pass – and schooled a lot of drivers on how talent can actually make up for an underperforming car.

In his Champ Car days with Newman/Haas, it got tiresome watching Bourdais dominate the field on his way to winning four consecutive championships from 2004 to 2007. When the two series merged before the 2008 season, Bourdais was already on his way to the greener pastures at Toro Rosso and Formula One. Inexplicably, it didn’t work out and the talented driver found himself resorting to sports cars and Superleague Formula racing.

In 2011, he returned to American Open-wheel racing when he signed with Dale Coyne Racing in the IZOD IndyCar Series. His desire was to run road & street courses only, and he split time with Alex Lloyd who drove ovals only for the season. His season started slowly when he crashed his car in the morning warm-up of the season opener at St. Petersburg. An eleventh place finish at Barber Motorsports Park was respectable, but a lackluster twenty-seventh at Long Beach followed up with a twenty-sixth at São Paulo had many wondering if the Frenchman had lost a step.

When the oval portion of the schedule arrived, Bourdais yielded his seat to Alex Lloyd who stepped into the car for the next five races. Lloyd fared no better in the five race stretch – posting a best finish of fourteenth at Iowa in the Boy Scouts of America Dallara. It was when Bourdais returned at Toronto, when things brightened for Dale Coyne’s underfunded team. Bourdais reeled off the first of four sixth-place finishes over the next five races. The only blemish in that stretch was a ninth at Mid-Ohio. It was in this stretch of road & street courses that Bourdais confirmed that he still had all the skills to succeed in a car.

Not only that, but he silenced skeptics who claimed that he could only perform in a perfect car, like those provided to him in his Champ Car days at Newman/Haas. Everyone knew the Dale Coyne cars he was driving in the IZOD IndyCar Series were far from that. There are some drivers who moan, whine and complain if the car is not set up perfectly. Others hop in and wring out everything they possibly can…and more. AJ Foyt was always in the latter category. So was Lloyd Ruby. Add the name of Sébastien Bourdais into that elite category.

That trait has never been more evident than what Bourdais has done in this young season. He has taken a car with the woefully underpowered Lotus engine that is on a team with a shoestring budget, and driven the wheels off of it. He started on dead-last at St. Petersburg and ran as high as sixth before a “problem” sidelined him, forcing him to settle for a twenty-first place finish.

At Barber this past Sunday, Bourdais was the highest starting Lotus (seventeenth) and he put on a driving clinic and schooled several veteran drivers on how to make an underperforming car work for you. As he worked his way through the field, I held my breath for fear that the gremlins that had already bitten the Lotus engine more than once, would find their way under the cowling of his Dragon Racing No.7 McAfee sponsored DW12. Fortunately, the engine held up and Bourdais finished with one of the most hard-earned ninth place finishes I’ve ever seen.

This will probably be a common theme throughout the road & street course portion of the season. Although a win is highly unlikely for any Lotus this season, if it were to happen – it would more than likely come at the hands of Bourdais or possibly Oriol Servia. Servia is very underrated and a solid driver, but Bourdais has been spectacular after two races. In fact, this could end up being his best season ever without even scoring a podium finish – as odd as that sounds.

Some might say that since Sébastien Bourdais has limited experience on ovals that that will be his Achilles heel. He doesn’t have a ton of experience, but keep in mind – he does have a Champ Car win at Milwaukee in 2006. He also ran the 2005 Indianapolis 500 in a one-off Newman/Haas effort that saw him start fifteenth. He appeared to be headed for a fifth place finish before crashing on Lap 198. So to say he will struggle on the ovals would probably be incorrect.

There are no moral victories in racing, and I doubt that Sébastien Bourdais felt content posting a ninth place finish at Barber. But given the circumstances of an inexperienced team without an outstanding engineering staff along with the debacle that is the Lotus engine, we fans can certainly appreciate the performance we have witnessed from Bourdais in the first two races. It’s a perfect example of making lemonade out of a lemon.

George Phillips

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12 Responses to “Sébastien Bourdais: Lemonade From A Lemon”

  1. George,

    Thank you for your nice comments about Barber. Maybe you can help us with something. We keep hearing that Barber is a narrow track, but I have not been able to find any wider purpose-built road track in the US. Barber is 45 ft. all the way around. By comparison, Road America is 28-32 ft. wide and Mosport, which was paved to F1 specs, is 42 ft. wide. Most of the track websites don’t list the widths.

    Can you and your racing fans help us with this?

    Best regards,
    Don Erwin
    Barber Companies

    • Don, you have every reason to be proud of Barber. It is an excellent track and racy. I have also found Barber to be fan friendly and that it offers several viewing areas that are fabulous.

    • billytheskink Says:

      I always took the “Barber is narrow… and a gorgeous facility” comments to mean that the racing line is narrow, rather than the track surface itself. I wouldn’t know how to go about proving or disproving that, but I do know that passing being at such a premium during the first two events certainly created the perception of a narrow racing line (at least when approaching passing zones), if not evidenced it.

      Hopefully this year’s race is the start of a trend, because it was quite good.

    • elmondohummus Says:

      @Don

      I wonder if the whole “narrow” characterization is a myth. Or possibly a consequence of the last two years Indycar raced there (several road courses ended up being parades at times; I don’t know if Barber was unique in that regard, given the car and how it handled road courses). At any rate, I kept on hearing and reading people call Barber a “motorcycle” course, yet when I looked it up myself I noted that Grand Am races there, plus the Porsche driving school uses it.

      There are all sorts of memes and myths on the internet. And heck, outside of it too (anyone watch the myth refuting History channel shows on Titanic recently? Even the BBC print side has gotten into the act). The point is that even *I* thought this was the case with Barber, but looking up the facts plus seeing the racing there has indicated that I need to reconsider the opinion formed from what I’ve been told.

      I’ll defer to other, more knowledgeable minds on this. But I do wonder if the meme is accurate, or instead is myth.

  2. My observation about the Lotus program is that it is going to show who is an experienced race car driver and who has a good team. I have always been impressed with SeaBass and I will point out that the Dragon team is coming along with their car and driver completing the race in good fashion. Because of the performance of the Lotus engine I think no better than a podium.

  3. Savage Henry Says:

    What SeeBass and Dragon Racing are doing is all the more impressive if you account for the fact they had literally no off-season testing and limited track time on race weekends due to technical problems. They’ve got to be just making good guesses on setups. Obviously SeeBass is driving the wheels off it. Perhaps someone should give Marco some video of these races when he starts griping about evil cars.

    I’m actually pretty impressed that Lotus has been as competitive as it has been considering their challenges so far. If they’re funding holds up and they can catch up a bit I think that they could have some respectable performances. I don’t think they are destined to the the HRT of the IICS.

  4. billytheskink Says:

    Here is where I like the old USAC and CART point systems (and CART manufacturer’s championship system) that only paid out to 12th place.
    Those systems don’t generally produce different results than the current system among the top drivers, but they do better illustrate great performances by part-timers and those running with disadvantaged teams and cars. Much could be made of Bourdais scoring Lotus’ first points at Barber, it’s another way to highlight his significant accomplishment.

    For another example, despite Bourdais’ tear at the end of last year, he placed 23rd in the standings, 1 point behind James Jakes. Using the CART and USAC systems rewards Bourdais’ top 12’s as opposed to the current system rewarding Jakes’ showing up for 7 more races.

    Bourdais jumps to a tie for 16th with Mike Conway using CART’s points, passing full-timers Jakes, Beatriz, de Silvestro, Kimball, Viso, and Meira.
    Using USAC’s race distance-adjusted points, Bourdais moves up to 18th, past full-timers Jakes, Beatriz, de Silvestro, Kimball, Viso, Conway, and Meira. He falls behind Dan Wheldon and Ed Carpenter, though, who won oval races where the increased race distance increased the points payout.

  5. In hindsite Bourdais was doomed to fail in F1. The Toro Rosso chasis was junk. His teammate just happened to be a legend in the making. Sebastian Vettel, who is probably the second best open wheel driver in the world today (Alonso), improbably took the car to the top of the podium at Monza that year. This all made Bourdais look bad and put him on a short leash and another bad car led him out all too soon. Toro Rosso has since fored his replacement and Vettel’s replacement after he was promoted to Red Bull and have hired on two more young drivers. If you are an IndyCar star, stay out of F1 unless you get an offer from the top 4 teams or you can tolerate losing for the bump in pay.

  6. Wow, so much to comment on…
    First, I’ve always said that F1 is where racing driver’s careers go to die. It looks to me like CART/Champ Car champions were desperate to fulfill their dreams and drive in F1-no matter who they had to drive for to do it. Villenueve, Zanardi, Montoya, da Matta, Bourdais: Only two had any success in F1 after winning championships stateside.
    I’ve touched on it before, but I don’t believe the Lotus is THAT far off, though missing the Indy test this week is a blow.
    Any doubts about Bourdais’ talent are being dispelled. It will be fun to watch him the rest of the season.

    • Steve K Says:

      You forgot Michael Andretti as a failure in F1. The temptation to be the next Villenueve or Montoya is too tempting. I suspect as IndyCar continues to regain its strength along with the international economy, we will see F1 raid IndyCar again.

  7. james t suel Says:

    SEABASS made a beliver out of me sunday! what a great drive,thanks for noting it in your blog.

  8. As far as SeaBass on an oval, don’t forget George, he’s won twice at Las Vegas speedway,and won a stock car IROC race at Texas. He’ll be just fine.

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