Sebastien Bourdais is ready to return to IndyCar title contention with KVSH

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Some 11 years ago, a young, bespectacled Frenchman emerged in St. Petersburg, Fla. and shook up the proverbial open-wheel establishment.

That driver’s name was Sebastien Bourdais. And 11 years later, in car No. 11, starting in St. Petersburg, Fla., the bespectacled badass is ready to do it again.

Bourdais’ pole for Newman/Haas Racing in the inaugural St. Pete Champ Car race of 2003 marked himself as a star of the future. He won his first races later that year and was an easy rookie-of-the-year.

In 2004, he began his incredible run of four straight Champ Car titles, the latter of which in 2007 propelled him into Formula One the following season.

But since, through 1.5 trying seasons in F1 where he was unable to match eventual four-time World Champion Sebastian Vettel, and a sports car detour, Bourdais returned to the North American shores in a part-time role with Dale Coyne Racing in IndyCar in 2011.

Both with Coyne and Dragon Racing the last two years, Bourdais has overachieved given the machinery at his disposal. He hasn’t won, but three podiums with Dragon last year plus other near-misses along the way proves he’s still in IndyCar’s top flight of drivers.

In 2014, he has a chance to re-enter “championship dark horse” status with a move to KVSH Racing. He’ll take over as team leader for Tony Kanaan, as the Indianapolis 500 champion shifts to Target Chip Ganassi Racing.

“For sure this year I do feel like there is a lot of potential, unexplored potential at KV,” Bourdais said during IndyCar media day in Orlando. “Last year was an eye-opener when Tony won the 500. I think it’s pretty much to the credit at KVSH. I could not put a strong enough point on saying that this group can win, that’s for sure.”

That Indy 500 win was validation for a team that hadn’t won since Will Power took the Champ Car finale victory in 2008, and went through a rough three-year period from 2009 to 2011 with a rotating driver lineup.

Kanaan and Rubens Barrichello, with then-third driver E.J. Viso, had their moments in 2012, as did Kanaan and Simona de Silvestro in 2013.

The KVSH reset for 2014, with KV team co-owners Kevin Kalkhoven and Jimmy Vasser joined by SH partner James “Sulli” Sullivan, is designed to see the team focus on an entire season campaign rather than target specific races it could do well in the past.

Kanaan, for instance, is one of IndyCar’ best oval racers, but he’s not been able to reach the same heights on road and street courses – particularly in qualifying.

That’s where Bourdais’ bread and butter is, although he’s not a half bad oval racer either (has won in Germany, Las Vegas, and Milwaukee in Champ Car). He’s also had a bunch of testing time this winter, which is a far cry from the Coyne and Dragon experiences.

“As far as we’re concerned, it’s been the hardest winter in terms of work that I’ve seen my team go through in a long time,” Bourdais said. “It makes you feel great because you know the level of preparation is quite high.  We’ve been able to test four times.  Another one at Barber before the season starts.”

Bourdais’ 2013 stats were a tale of two halves, with his going way up in comparison to teammate Sebastian Saavedra as Bourdais and then-new engineer Tom Brown gelled immediately. Bourdais ended the year with a 13.8 qualifying average, but he only started worse than 14th once in the second half of nine races (his splits? 16.5 in first 10 races, 10.8 in last nine).

The improved qualifying meant he was better on race day, too. There was the double podium at Toronto and third at Baltimore, but there was also eighth and fifth in Houston and a near-win in Fontana.

He’s got the chops and more importantly, the opportunity. Once Kanaan moved on, James Hinchcliffe was also in the frame for the lead KV seat, but opted instead to remain with Andretti Autosport. With KV needing an ace, Bourdais was the pick to lead the team’s 2014 charge.

Bourdais’ 2014 couldn’t have gotten off to a better start. He finally scored an elusive overall victory at the Rolex 24 at Daytona, driving with Action Express Racing. Then he won the pole in the same Corvette DP for the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring.

But back in his day job, he’s been quick out of the box in Sebring testing, and he’ll have a chance to win in Florida once more in St. Pete at the end of this month.

It would be a special moment, given it’s his adopted U.S. hometown.

“Yeah, St. Pete has been home for me since 2003 kind of on and off,” he said. “It was my very first race in open-wheel in the U.S.; I started out on the right foot. Great memories from that.  It’s been really a great place for me to spend time, obviously bring the family over.

“When I arrived in the U.S., I was a kid kind of.  I evolved from being married, having a child, then another one.  We’re raising the family in St. Pete in a great neighborhood.  Starting the season at home is a great feeling.  Hopefully we can get things going right and have a great weekend in St. Pete, because it’s not been so great so far since I returned to IndyCar.”

Rosberg delighted with near-perfect lap en route to Russia pole

SOCHI, RUSSIA - OCTOBER 10:  Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP drives during qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on October 10, 2015 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)
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Nico Rosberg believes that he produced a near-perfect lap en route to pole position for the Russian Grand Prix on Saturday.

Rosberg posted a fastest lap time of 1:37.113 to beat Mercedes teammate and championship leader Lewis Hamilton to pole position by three-tenths of a second.

The result marked Rosberg’s third pole position of the season, and is the first time he has scored back-to back poles since the end of 2014.

Conditions in practice on Friday plus a scary crash for Toro Rosso driver Carlos Sainz Jr. on Saturday meant that the field headed into qualifying almost blind in terms of setup and car balance, but Rosberg was pleased with what he achieved.

“It was a tricky session today as we were not able to practise a lot yesterday,” Rosberg explained. “We had to guess what the right set up for this track will be.

“But we nailed it and had a nearly perfect lap in my first run in Q3. So I’m quite pleased with that.

“I’m in the best possible position for tomorrow, which is great. I really hope for a clean race, it will be a great battle with Lewis.”

Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff praised Rosberg for his consistently quick display in practice and qualifying, but believes that the lack of practice running will also have an impact on Sunday’s race.

“A great job from Nico to take a second pole position in a row; he has been quick all weekend and kept that going through qualifying to take P1,” Wolff said.

“For the race, it will be a bit of a journey into the unknown because we have not had much running this weekend. This track is tough on the rear tires and everybody will be watching the tire degradation carefully.

“We’re starting from the best possible position but we need to take everything one step at a time.”

The Russian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and Live Extra from 6:30am ET on Sunday.

WEC: Porsche sweeps to front row lock-out in Fuji

Car #17 / PORSCHE TEAM (DEU) / Porsche 919 Hybrid Hybrid  / Timo Bernhard (DEU) / Mark Webber (AUS) / Brendon Hartley (NZL) Qualifying LMP1 & LMP2 - 6 Hours of Fuji at Fuji International Speedway - Shizuoka - Japan
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Porsche extended its streak of pole positions in the FIA World Endurance Championship to nine races by locking out the front row of the grid for the 6 Hours of Fuji on Saturday.

Sharing qualifying duties in the no. 17 Porsche 919 Hybrid, Mark Webber and Timo Bernhard posted a two-lap average of 1:22.763 seconds to give the German marque pole position at Fuji Speedway.

Yet again, it was the sister no. 18 Porsche of Marc Lieb, Neel Jani and Romain Dumas that put up the most stringent challenge, but fell three-tenths of a second short at the end of the LMP qualifying session.

Audi put up more of a fight to the Porsches this time around as both of its R18 e-tron quattros finished within half a second of the no. 17’s time. The no. 7 of Marcel Fassler, Andre Lotterer and Benoit Treluyer will start third ahead of Lucas di Grassi, Loic Duval and Oliver Jarvis in the no 8.

Toyota endured another fairly routine qualifying en route to P5 and P6 as the TS 040 Hybrid car struggles to keep up with its rivals, beating only the Rebellion and ByKolles runners in LMP1.

In LMP2, G-Drive continued its dominant streak by finishing first and second in class. Sam Bird, Roman Rusinov and Julien Canal will start from pole tomorrow ahead of Gustavo Yacaman, Luis Felipe Derani and Ricardo Gonzalez in the sister car.

AF Corse bounced back from a difficult race in Austin to finish first and second in GTE Pro qualifying, led by the no. 71 of James Calado and Davide Rigon. Toni Vilander and Gianmaria Bruni will start just behind in P2 ahead of the no. 99 Aston Martin Racing entry.

Ferrari’s strong form carried over into GTE Am as well as the SMP Racing F458 Italia took class pole, finishing three-tenths clear of the no. 98 AMR Vantage.