Sébastien Bourdais: Lemonade From A Lemon
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.