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.”

Indy Lights tops 200 mph, produces lots of action at Indy test

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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INDIANAPOLIS – The Freedom 100 will run for the 15th time as part of NBCSN’s Carb Day coverage, which begins Friday at 11 a.m. ET on NBCSN with the marquee race of the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires season at 12:30 p.m. ET.

Known for its scintillating action and incredible finishes, Indy Lights seems set to deliver more of the same of that this go-around, after a pair of 90-minute test sessions held today at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

With a tow-assisted lap of 200.070 mph in the No. 98 Andretti/Steinbrenner Racing Dallara IL-15 Mazda, Colton Herta topped the combined speed charts. This will be the 17-year-old’s first big oval race, after only testing at Homestead-Miami Speedway over the winter.

“The draft was the same in the straight-line everywhere,” Herta said. “Obviously, it was a bit more here [rather than Homestead] since we’re going quicker at Indianapolis.

“The main thing is slipstreaming in the corners. It’s really different from anything I’ve experienced, especially when you’re right behind someone and you put half of a wing out or a quarter of the wing out.

“The balance shift is massive. That’s obviously going to be something all the rookies will have to get used to. I would say down the straights, it’s nothing too different.

“It’s really crazy when you pull out of the slipstream, how far your head will move down in the car. You get pushed down so much with the wind, and that’s probably the biggest difference I’ve felt. You feel like you’re going that fast the first few laps, but once you kind of get into it, the other cars around you move at a similar pace, so I don’t really think about it. But, it feels good to break the 200 mark.”

Herta’s speed was on display while the race craft of the other 13 drivers competing was also featured prominently on Monday.

Herta is one of seven rookies set to compete in his first Freedom 100, the others being Belardi Auto Racing’s Aaron Telitz (the Mazda Scholarship recipient), Ryan Norman and Nico Jamin also of Andretti Autosport, Matheus Leist and Garth Rickards of Carlin and Nicolas Dapero of Juncos Racing.

Dapero had a spin towards the end of the second test session as when trying to pass Andretti’s Dalton Kellett, he lost control of his No. 31 Juncos Racing entry and did a 360-degree pirouette and spin. The young Argentine contacted the inside wall but sustained only front wing damage.

The veterans will look to succeed on Friday. Juan Piedrahita looked racey today in his No. 2 Team Pelfrey machine; the Colombian, who made his 100th career start on the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires last time out at the IMS road course, nearly won this race last year.

The other veterans include Kyle Kaiser, the points leader for Juncos, along with Santiago Urrutia (Belardi with SPM), Shelby Blackstock (Belardi), Neil Alberico and Zachary Claman De Melo (Carlin).

Jamin, Kellett, Kaiser and Alberico (pictured below from left to right) were all on hand at a premiere of “Indy Light” beer at Metazoa Brewing Company in downtown Indianapolis last week.

Indy Lights has two practice sessions from 9 to 9:30 and 11 to 11:30 a.m. ET on Thursday before qualifying from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. ET. The race is 12:30 p.m. ET on Friday on NBCSN, as noted.

Speeds from today are below.

Davison returns to IndyCar under less than ideal circumstances

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INDIANAPOLIS – James Davison does not have a full-time ride in the 2017 racing season, which meant he was available for more particular one-off opportunities that could arise.

Davison, now 30, received the call Sunday morning from team owner Dale Coyne to take up a one-off that arguably neither side was ready for, nor one Coyne necessarily wanted to go through.

But a familiarity between Davison and Coyne – he’s driven for the team in three of his four past Verizon IndyCar Series starts in 2013 and 2015 – provides a bit of continuity as he gets the call-up to replace the injured Sebastien Bourdais ahead of the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

Bourdais had a rocket ship of a primary No. 18 GEICO Honda for Dale Coyne Racing before his heavy crash in Saturday qualifying left him with multiple pelvic fractures and a fracture to his right hip. The team’s lone oval backup car is its primary road course and street course car, and was built up Sunday.

Davison was at Road America at the time when he first saw the accident.

“I was at Road America, watching on a live stream. I was pretty horrified to be honest,” Davison said Monday after running 88 laps in his first day back in an IndyCar in almost two years.

“I had a pain in my stomach. You knew he had to be hurt in some way. It brought back a déjà vu of (James) Hinchcliffe’s crash for many. Certainly was holding my breath. It wasn’t nice to see.”

What it also did was provide a quick response from drivers who weren’t set to be in this year’s Indianapolis 500 to reach out to Coyne to see the status of the No. 18 Honda, while also putting the concern of Bourdais’ health first and foremost.

And, truth be told, Coyne had options to pick from. Davison was known to have been working on a ‘500 program for several months, but his own chances were halted when Fernando Alonso’s shock program was.

“It was my plan to be in the race this year. (I was) aware there was a limited supply of engines and chassis. Someone’s got to miss out. A lot of us didn’t see the Alonso thing coming. That took an engine away from even Stefan or I,” Davison said.

“I knew there was a possibility someone could get hurt, right? You never wish for that. So you’re around the paddock in case something does happen, and you’re there.”

On site in Indianapolis, Tristan Vautier, Matthew Brabham and Stefan Wilson were also pounding the pavement, working to see whether they could be an option too. Other veteran names were murmured, if not actually on site.

Certainly from some paddock observers, and names as big as four-time IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti, Wilson seemed a fit from a sentimental standpoint. Wilson had been set to join in the Andretti entry before stepping aside for Alonso, and his late brother Justin had been the one who’d achieved Coyne’s greatest successes.

Davison, on the other hand, was thinking about another name that could have been his “competition” for the lone vacant seat in the field, while also explaining the process of how he got the ride and how awkward said process is.

“I heard from Dale just after 9 a.m. yesterday morning. He told me to come meet him in the garage. Clearly he’s interested, was what I knew,” Davison said.

“For a number of us drivers, we were hoping we’d get the call-up for at least 12-16 hours or so. There was a lot of nervous energy built up, going through our heads, thinking who’s my competition, and who’s likely to get in the seat.

“I thought Townsend (Bell, NBCSN IndyCar analyst) would be possible – my biggest challenge, if he wanted it. He’s had really good runs here. He’s pulled the pin on driving full-time… but if an opportunity presented itself though where he could jump in, and feel he could win the race, he’d consider it.

“Plus, Townsend’s phenomenal at raising sponsorship. I thought Townsend could have possibly been. But maybe, I’m not sure if he even considered it himself. It was a huge relief when I knew, and I was given the go-ahead.”

What then occurred Sunday morning was a whirlwind of emotions and drivers going in-and-out of the Coyne garage to receive either good (Davison) or bad (everyone else) news.

Davison (18) battles Karam (24) in practice. Photo: IndyCar

“Basically, we then had to meet in the garage and chat,” Davison said. “Once I got the go-ahead it was then a totally different state of mind. I have to get my INDYCAR license. I need to call the sponsors. I have to get my helmet. I need to get fitted in the car. I was at the track until 11 p.m. last night doing the seat fit, then here at 8 a.m. this morning.

“It’s been a stressful 48 hours; my mind racing a lot, and especially watching pole day unfold. There’s everyone running 233 mph… and I haven’t even turned a lap. Talk about a contrast. It was kind of bizarre, the state of mind I’ve been in. I’m excited I’m in the race, but it’s for a very unfortunate reason. It is what it is, we’ll do the best we can with the situation.”

Davison was back in action Monday morning with 20-plus laps on his own, with 88 laps total completed on the day. This marked his first day working with engineer Craig Hampson, while he had worked with engineer Olivier Boisson in his rookie Indianapolis 500 attempt with KV Racing Technology in 2014, when he finished 16th.

He said the team was conservative with downforce selections and thinks a finish in the top half of the field is achievable.

“It came back to me like it was yesterday, two years ago was yesterday,” he said. “I was running in a pack with Hinchcliffe and Alonso nearly immediately. They may have assisted with lifting. Time passes, and there was no problem feeling in context.

“It’s nice the Honda is certainly strong. For sure today, we ran conservatively. Maybe didn’t run in traffic as much as I would have liked, but we worked on the balance and the aero trim as well.

“I think we have to be (modest), based on where we are with our situation. With good improvements between now and Carb Day, and the race, hopefully those will go up.

“From the outset, it was always going to be like this.”

Max Chilton tops frenetic Monday race practice for Indy 500

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INDIANAPOLIS – Two relatively under-the-radar but improving young drivers, Max Chilton and Ed Jones, ended 1-2 in the final long practice session for next Sunday’s 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

The Englishman in the No. 8 Gallagher Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing posted a best speed of 228.592 mph with Jones, the Dubai-based Brit in the No. 19 Boy Scouts of America Honda, in at 228.116 mph for Dale Coyne Racing.

These speeds were set earlier in the running, a three-and-a-half hour session from 12:30 to 4 p.m. ET, with significant tows. The turbocharger boost has been turned back down to race levels after being brought up for “Fast Friday” practice and qualifying over the last three days.

One-lap speed was not as outright important as consistent running over the length of stints, your car’s ability to carve through traffic, or managing falloff on tires.

Lap count is also something to look for on a day like this, and in the time on track there were a whopping 2,705 laps turned between all 33 drivers in a heavy day of running that clearly simulated a race. Seven yellows for more than 50 minutes prevented that number from surpassing 3,000.

Some of the heaviest runners included:

  • Helio Castroneves (121), Juan Pablo Montoya (55), Will Power (109), Josef Newgarden (99) and Simon Pagenaud (95) combined to give Team Penske 479 laps on the day.
  • Fernando Alonso topped 100 laps in the No. 29 McLaren Honda Andretti entry, with 122 laps run.
  • Jack Harvey also went over 100 in the No. 50 Michael Shank Racing with Andretti Autosport Honda, at 124 laps done, most of all. Harvey led the no-tow speed charts at 224.036 mph.
  • Charlie Kimball posted 119 laps in the No. 83 Tresiba Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing, and Chilton did 108.
  • As a whole, Andretti’s six-pack of drivers turned in 523 laps while Ganassi’s four completed 408.

There were a number of hairy moments throughout the day as drivers ran in packs of about 10 or 12 cars or more. Race speeds were anywhere in the 215 to 223 or 224 mph ballpark.

James Davison made his first running in the No. 18 GEICO Honda for Dale Coyne Racing. Davison had a half hour to get up to speed for his first laps in an IndyCar in two years on his own, and made more than 20 laps, before joining the rest of the field from 12:30 p.m. ET. His best speed on the day was after 88 total laps.

Oriol Servia sustained another Honda engine failure when coming out of Turn 4, with a significant plume of smoke emerging from the back of his No. 16 Manitowoc Honda for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. That ended his session early.

Speeds are below.

2006 MotoGP champion Nicky Hayden dies at 35

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2006 MotoGP champion and American World Superbike Championship rider Nicky Hayden has died at the age of 35 from injuries sustained in a road accident last week.

Hayden was struck by a car while out cycling in the Rimini region of Italy, leaving him in a critical condition after suffering trauma to his chest and head, the latter resulting in serious brain damage.

On Monday, the Maurizio Bufalini Hospital in Cesena confirmed through a medical bulletin that Hayden had died as a result of his injuries.

“It is with great sadness that Red Bull Honda World Superbike Team has to announce that Nicky Hayden has succumbed to injuries suffered during an incident while riding his bicycle last Wednesday,” Hayden’s WSBK team said in a subsequent statement.

“Nicky passed away at 19:09 CEST this evening at Maurizio Bufalini Hospital in Cesena, Italy. His fiancée Jackie, mother Rose and brother Tommy were at his side.”

“On behalf of the whole Hayden family and Nicky’s fiancée Jackie I would like to thank everyone for their messages of support – it has been a great comfort to us all knowing that Nicky has touched so many people’s lives in such a positive way,” Tommy Hayden said.

“Although this is obviously a sad time, we would like everyone to remember Nicky at his happiest – riding a motorcycle.

“He dreamed as a kid of being a pro rider and not only achieved that but also managed to reach the pinnacle of his chosen sport in becoming World Champion. We are all so proud of that.

“Apart from these ‘public’ memories, we will also have many great and happy memories of Nicky at home in Kentucky, in the heart of the family. We will all miss him terribly.

“It is also important for us to thank all the hospital staff for their incredible support – they have been very kind. With the further support of the authorities in the coming days we hope to have Nicky home soon.”

Known as the ‘Kentucky Kid’, Hayden made his way up the American motorcycle racing ladder around the turn of the millennium, culminating with victory in the AMA Superbike championship in 2002.

Hayden moved into MotoGP, the world’s premier class of motorcycle racing, for 2003 with Honda, and finished his rookie season fifth in the championship.

Hayden scored his first win in 2005 before taking the championship one year later, picking up two victories on the way as he edged out Valentino Rossi in a final-race showdown.

Remaining with Honda until the end of 2008, Hayden then moved to Ducati where he spent five seasons, recording a best championship finish of seventh in 2010.

Hayden rekindled his partnership with Honda in 2014, racing with the satellite Aspar team for two seasons before then enjoying two one-off run-outs in 2016, a year in which he was focused on commitments in the World Superbike Championship.

Hayden took his first WSBK victory in Malaysia last year, finishing fifth in the final standings, and was 10 races into the 2017 campaign prior to the cycling accident.