Bourdais conquers the seven-year road back to an IndyCar race win

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TORONTO – We didn’t get to elaborate on it much yesterday due to the tight schedule, but for Sebastien Bourdais, winning in the Verizon IndyCar Series marked the end of a seven-year journey that took on a winding, tortuous road following his success in the Champ Car World Series.

“It’s been quite a journey, but that’s the career of a race car driver,” Bourdais said post-race after his race one win in the Honda Indy Toronto.  “You’re only as good as your car is and you get some ups and downs, and you gotta fight through and hope you keep the motivation and that you keep challenging yourself, so you stay on top of yourself and kind of keep the passion. As long as the passion is here, you know, you just make it up and it’s a perfect example today.”

So about that journey?  You should know the story if you’ve followed Bourdais since his four straight Champ Car titles.

What was meant to be a coronation of going to Formula One turned into a disaster for “Seabass” with Scuderia Toro Rosso; he struggled to come to grips with the chassis and a then-unheralded German named Sebastian Vettel.

Since, it was a path of sports car racing and some alternative open-wheel, with the biggest near miss in this stretch a second place at Bourdais’ home race – the 24 Hours of Le Mans – by a scant 13 seconds in 2011, driving for Peugeot.

His return to IndyCar in 2011 featured only two partial seasons with Dale Coyne Racing and Dragon Racing, before Dragon finally had the proper engine to allow for a full-season run last year. Some success followed at long last in the second half of the season following an engineering change.

This year, it’s been more change, but Bourdais was due to burst through soon enough. At KVSH Racing he has the resources to be with a higher caliber outfit, he has former Champ Car rival Jimmy Vasser on his pit box, and he has gelled with his fellow Frenchman Olivier Boisson, his new primary engineer.

Penalties and missed opportunities had peppered his season but there was no doubting Bourdais in race one. The “Seabass” of old was back with a crushingly dominant drive, and it was a beautiful thing to see as he captured his 32nd career win.

“I got a big smile across my face and I can’t seem to get rid of it. It’s just really cool,” Bourdais said post-race. “The whole race I was stressed out, it felt too easy, it felt like it was way too much under control and it felt like it was way going to go wrong at some point. I don’t know how, but it didn’t.”

Bourdais joins fellow ex-CART/Champ Car champion Juan Pablo Montoya as a race winner in 2014, which is cool to see because it means there is still plenty of life in the old dogs. They’ve now both won in two different stints; two different eras of North American open-wheel competition.

It’s not that Bourdais’ Champ Car rivals were inferior in comparison, but with anywhere from 17-20 cars and usually one quarter to a third of them featuring lesser distinguished paying drivers, there were a handful of doubters about Bourdais’ true ability.

Now, having been through so much more to get back here, and winning in what’s widely considered one of the deepest IndyCar fields in 20 or so years, the appreciation level is much higher.

“All of us at Newman/Haas, we probably realized how special this time was when it was behind us, and it’s always like that how when you reflect on everything that happened, it was very, very, very extraordinary,” Bourdais said.

“Now, you know, to be able to do it with the density of the field in the way we have done it today is very special and shows that I still got it. I’m here to stay, and hopefully we can get on a roll.

“There is not going to be any domination like we had from ’04 to ’07 just because there are too many good drivers, too many strong cars, the way the racing is these days.  You look at it, you’re either P1 or P10, so you can’t have the consistency but we can still be contenders and to win a championship in a series, you have to finish top-five almost every weekend, which on paper can look easy but it’s not.

I had a feeling preseason Bourdais was winning at least once this year, and Toronto proved a perfect place for him and the KVSH team to pull it off, in front of his family and his sponsor’s headquarters.

Believe it or not, it’s also the team’s first win on a road or street course since Will Power won at Long Beach in 2008 – coincidentally, the Champ Car series finale, and a race where Bourdais didn’t compete.

Maverick Vinales wins MotoGP opener in Qatar after rain delays start

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Maverick Viñales made a flying start to life with Yamaha in MotoGP by winning on his debut with the factory team in Qatar on Sunday night.

Rain throughout the weekend had already forced qualifying to be cancelled on Saturday, with Viñales claiming pole by virtue of setting the fastest time in practice.

Officials decided early on Sunday that they would not be amending its schedule for races, with the Moto2 and Moto3 events going ahead as planned.

Just minutes before the MotoGP race was set to get underway at 11pm local time, rain started to fall once again over the Losail International Circuit, prompting the stewards to delay the race start after a number of riders went off during an installation lap.

A 45-minute delay followed as a number of officials from both MotoGP and the teams remonstrated on the grid before being asked to take their discussions inside, away from the cameras and the watching world.

With the rain easing to a light drizzle, the stewards confirmed the race would start as planned, albeit reduced to 20 laps.

On a moist track, Viñales made a tentative start from pole, dropping to fifth as Suzuki’s Andrea Iannone made the best getaway to lead into the first corner.

Iannone was quickly passed by Tech3’s Johann Zarco, who completed his first lap in MotoGP as the race leader, and soon began to forge a lead over the chasing pack.

Zarco’s hopes of a debut win were dashed when he slid off the track in the tricky conditions, allowing Ducati’s Andrea Dovizioso to assume the lead ahead of Iannone.

When Iannone fell and third-placed Marc Marquez began to drop off the pace as his tires faded, Viñales and Yamaha teammate Valentino Rossi began to close on Dovizioso, setting up a grandstand finish.

Viñales found a way past Dovizioso, only to lose the lead a couple of laps later, before then taking it back with two laps to go, curbing the Ducati’s straight-line speed advantage as they headed into Turn 1 for the final time.

From there, Viñales was able to keep his cool and cross the line half a second clear of Dovizioso to record his second MotoGP victory, his first coming with Suzuki last year at Silverstone.

Rossi crossed the line a close third, much to his surprise after a torrid pre-season, while Marquez was left to settle for fourth place to begin his riders’ title defence.

Dani Pedrosa finished one place behind his Honda teammate in fifth, while Aleix Espargaro was one of the unsung heroes of the race, crossing the line sixth for Aprilia.

Scott Redding wound up seventh ahead of Jack Miller and Alex Rins, while Tech3 debutant Jonas Folger rounded out the top 10.

Three-time MotoGP champion Jorge Lorenzo had a forgettable debut with Ducati, finishing a lowly 11th after an off-track excursion on the opening lap.

The MotoGP season continues with round two of the season in Argentina on April 9.

Ocon picks up maiden F1 point in Australia, finishes as top rookie

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Esteban Ocon picked up his first point in Formula 1 during his maiden outing for Force India in Australia on Sunday, finishing the race 10th and as the top rookie.

Ocon made his F1 debut in Belgium last year with the backmarker Manor team, completing the final nine rounds of the season before moving into a seat with Force India for 2017.

Embarking on his first full season of F1 (and therefore still a rookie) in 2017, Ocon qualified 14th in Australia on Saturday before spending much of the race battling with Fernando Alonso and Nico Hulkenberg, the trio going three-wide down the main straight at one point.

Ocon was able to come out on top, clinching the final point on offer in Melbourne by finishing P10 to complete a double-points finish for Force India after Sergio Perez ended up seventh.

“Very happy with today. It’s been a tough weekend but a great reward at the end,” Ocon told NBCSN after the race.

“Fighting with Alonso made things difficult. It was side by side. Then I had the better pace with him. It’s so much harder to overtake, but I made the pass and got the point.

“I’m learning all the time. It’s good what we’ve done here. This is good for the team. We hope we can score many more for the championship.”

Ocon emerged as the top rookie in Melbourne, with Antonio Giovinazzi and Stoffel Vandoorne finishing 12th and 13th respectively. Williams’ Lance Stroll – making his first start in F1 – retired due to a brake disc issue.

F1 Paddock Pass: Australian Grand Prix post-race (VIDEO)

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And so, the 2017 Formula 1 season is officially underway with the Australian Grand Prix. Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari are on top, having beat Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes both on strategy and on pace to kick off this new era in the sport’s history.

A recap of the day from the Albert Park circuit in Melbourne occurs below in the latest edition of the NBC Sports Group original digital series, Paddock Pass, as F1 pit reporter and insider Will Buxton and producer Jason Swales go into the paddock to run down the stories of the day.

MORE: Full Australian Grand Prix event replay; Mosaic replay

The podium saw Vettel ahead of Hamilton, with Mercedes’ new driver Valtteri Bottas coming third on debut for the team.

Other interviews that occurred during NBCSN’s post-race coverage on F1 Extra included with Kimi Raikkonen and Max Verstappen, who came fourth and fifth respectively, with Force India’s Esteban Ocon who scored his first career point, and with McLaren’s Fernando Alonso, who doggedly dragged his McLaren Honda into a potential points-paying finish before a late-race retirement.

Paddock Pass is in three parts and can be viewed below.

Haas’ sophomore F1 season starts badly with double DNF in Australia

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The Haas Formula 1 team’s sophomore campaign got off to a bad start on Sunday as drivers Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen were both forced to retire from the Australian Grand Prix.

NASCAR team co-owner Gene Haas took his eponymous operation into F1 last year, making its debut in Australia 12 months ago.

Grosjean scored a memorable sixth-place finish on that day in Melbourne, and looked poised to repeat the result in 2017 after qualifying sixth on Saturday.

A poor start was Grosjean drop to seventh, but he managed to hold position through the opening stint of the race ahead of the pit stop cycle.

However, Grosjean had no chance to wield some strategic genius as Haas did last year, with a water leak forcing him to retire while inside the top 10.

“I suddenly lost a lot of power. I told the guys, then the next thing I knew I had to slow down the car,” Grosjean explained.

“It’s a pretty disappointing result, but again, right now I’m hot and we’re all disappointed to lose a seventh-place position, but the car was there in qualifying in P6. The start wasn’t ideal, so we need to improve that. I felt I was faster than the Williams, so there’s huge potential in the car.

“I guess the key for us is to keep the momentum and get the consistency we didn’t have last year, where I’d be fifth in Bahrain then 19th in China. I really want to improve on that and get more consistency in terms of results. If we do that, then I’m sure there are going to be plenty of races where we can score good points.”

Grosjean’s new teammate for 2017, Kevin Magnussen, suffered an early setback when he clashed with Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson on the first lap, and ultimately retired due to a suspension issue stemming from the incident.

“I had Ericsson on the outside and I understeered into the side of him, which was unfortunate. I lost my front wing and damaged the car a little bit,” Magnussen said.

“We changed the front wing and then I went for a long test session to feel the car and learn a bit more about it, which was good. It feels good and the car is fast.

“That’s the really positive thing from this weekend. The car is there. We just have to make it finish and score points.”

Team principal Guenther Steiner added: “Not the race we wished for, or we expected. With Romain it looks like we had a water leak. We don’t know yet where that came from.

“Obviously, Kevin’s race was destroyed in the third corner after the contact with Ericsson. He then ended up later with a suspension failure, which we still have to investigate why.

“The good thing we take out of here is that the car seems to be fast. We need to work on a few parts and, hopefully, we can get back strong again in China in two weeks.”