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.”