Monday, March 22, 2010
Bourdais too talented not to be racing
(by John Oreovicz espn.go.com 3-22-10)
With all due respect to Hideki Mutoh, in an ideal world, he would not be driving for Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing in the Izod IndyCar Series this season.
Instead, the famous open-wheel team would field cars for its 2007 driver lineup of Sebastien Bourdais and Graham Rahal, both of whom have only limited racing programs lined up for the 2010 season.
Rahal tested Sarah Fisher Racing's Dallara-Honda Indy car at Barber Motorsports Park this week in preparation for the two race starts he expects to make for SFR. Meanwhile, Bourdais is racing a Peugeot prototype in the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring, one of his rare scheduled outings for the French manufacturer.
It's easy to conclude that if NHLR founder Paul Newman was still alive, the team would have Rahal and Bourdais as its drivers and would be beginning to challenge Team Penske and Target Chip Ganassi Racing for IndyCar Series race wins on a regular basis. But Newman's death also effectively killed off NHLR's sponsorship agreement with McDonald's and the team's ability to attract other major sponsors, leaving it with no choice but to cut back to one car funded by Mutoh's Japanese backers.
Bourdais raced in the CART/Champ Car World Series from 2003-2007, winning 31 of his 73 races starts and four consecutive series championships. That performance finally earned the now-31-year-old Frenchman his break into Formula One, but after one and a half mostly disappointing years in F1, he was dropped in mid-2009 by the Scuderia Toro Rosso team. Bourdais rounded out 2009 by scoring a couple of race wins in the Superleague series, a minor-league European open-wheel formula.
Bourdais' perceived failure in F1 just gave international critics of Indy car racing more ammunition for their argument that the American single-seat scene is nothing more than a joke. He joined Michael Andretti, Alex Zanardi and Cristiano da Matta as U.S. open-wheel champions who flopped in F1. CART champions Jacques Villeneuve and Juan Pablo Montoya were more successful in their transition to F1, but also arguably failed to achieve their potential on a long-term basis.
The common denominator between Zanardi, da Matta and Bourdais is that they were all extremely active in terms of working with their engineers to get the most out of the car. In F1, they were forced to adapt their driving to the car they were given, with little or no input into changing the car setup. In American racing, drivers and engineers work in partnership, rather than hierarchy.
"In Champ Cars we also had a lot more things to play with in terms of car setup than we do in Formula 1," Bourdais said in an interview with ITV in 2008. "F1 is very much optimized, and whether the car functions or not, by design -- by concept -- it's not adjustable. Everything on the suspension is the way it is; if you want to change the castor, for example, you need a new suspension. So that limits the influence and the impact of driver comments in some respects. It's very different, and obviously when you fight a problem, it's much harder to find solutions and it takes much longer as well."
It's fascinating to speculate how Bourdais would fare if he was able to return to America with a team like Newman/Haas/Lanigan. Now that more than half of IndyCar Series races are run on road or street courses, he would obviously be a force on those tracks. But it's easy to forget that Sebastien won four of his eight oval starts, seven of which came against an admittedly depleted CART/Champ Car field. He was headed to a top-5 finish in his only Indianapolis 500 start (2005) when he was taken out in a late crash.
Craig Hampson, who was Bourdais' engineer at NHLR from 2003-07, believes that Bourdais was rapidly improving as an oval driver.
"Sebastien did struggle at Milwaukee the first couple of years, but I think the Indy 500 effort [in 2005] helped him at Milwaukee greatly," Hampson told me a couple of years ago. "You could tell at Milwaukee that he got it. ... He understood what to do now and what the car's capabilities needed to be so he could do well in the race.
"For sure the best win for me [in 2006] was Milwaukee, because we sat on pole at a place where people really didn't expect us to and we far and away had the fastest car. We had some adversity in the race with the cut tire, but we came back from that. It was a pretty entertaining race with Nelson Philippe, and all in all that was our finest moment of the year."
Bourdais will compete for Peugeot in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in June and probably at the ALMS Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta in the fall. But other than that, he has nothing else lined up for the rest of 2010 -- a travesty for one of the most talented open-wheel drivers to come along in recent years.