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.

IndyCar 2015 Driver Review: Tony Kanaan

Tony Kanaan
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MotorSportsTalk continues its run through the driver-by-driver lineup in the Verizon IndyCar Series, after the 2015 season, with eighth-placed Tony Kanaan.

Tony Kanaan, No. 10 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet

  • 2014: 7th Place, 1 Win, Best Start 2nd, 6 Podiums, 6 Top-5, 12 Top-10, 407 Laps Led, 9.2 Avg. Start, 9.3 Avg. Finish
  • 2015: 8th Place, Best Finish 2nd, Best Start 2nd, 3 Podiums, 6 Top-5, 10 Top-10, 213 Laps Led, 7.6 Avg Start, 9.9 Avg. Finish

You have to give TK credit. Armed with one of the best cars on the grid, Kanaan has certainly raised his game the last two years, and probably hasn’t received enough credit or enough results for some of his drives he’s put in since joining Chip Ganassi Racing after the 2013 season.

The 2015 season was no exception. All 10 of his top-10 finishes were between second and seventh, so there were plenty of times he was in win and podium contention. The other area where he improved was his qualifying. Kanaan only had two starts outside the top-12 all season, one of which occurred at Detroit race two, where the grid was set by points following a rain cancellation. Detroit was pretty much the only weekend where Kanaan didn’t figure into qualifying or the race. Blame the Taylor Swift-inspired Big Machine Records livery for that one if you want.

Accidents at the Indianapolis 500 and Pocono were costly retirements as Kanaan definitely had a shot to win both those races. But realistically you couldn’t find many other faults. Losing a sure win at Iowa due to a mechanical issue was a gutting blow. He was also unlucky to come up just shy at Fontana, and may have prevailed in a last-lap shootout.

More often that not however, Kanaan was firmly on top of his game, and reliably on par with his championship-winning teammate Scott Dixon, which was all you could ask for. It’s fitting the two of them opened the year as part of the winning lineup in the Rolex 24 at Daytona, with Kanaan then helping out matters by finishing ahead of Juan Pablo Montoya at Sonoma, to ensure Dixon had enough points to win the title on countback.

IndyCar 2015 Driver Review: Josef Newgarden

Josef Newgarden
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MotorSportsTalk continues to run through the driver-by-driver breakdown in the Verizon IndyCar Series field for 2015. Next up on the heels of another breakout year, Josef Newgarden, who has recently re-signed with CFH Racing for 2016.

Josef Newgarden, No. 67 CFH Racing Chevrolet

  • 2014: 13th Place, Best Finish 2nd, Best Start 2nd, 1 Podium, 2 Top-5, 7 Top-10, 20 Laps Led, 10.7 Avg. Start, 13.7 Avg. Finish
  • 2015: 7th Place, 2 Wins, 1 Pole, 4 Podiums, 5 Top-5, 9 Top-10, 345 Laps Led, 8.4 Avg Start, 10.8 Avg. Finish

Josef Newgarden’s fourth year in the Verizon IndyCar Series was firmly, and without question, the year he arrived as the series’ biggest rising star. It followed on nicely after three prior years where he seemed to hit almost all the high points at various stages, but didn’t put together a fully complete season.

Perhaps some of that was due to having a teammate for the first time in his career, although it was not the same driver throughout the year – it was split between Luca Filippi and Ed Carpenter depending on the circuit. Still, there was always a second set of data to study and analyze. Even better, there was a Chevrolet in the back of his car for the first time, and that likely helped matters a bit. And retaining Jeremy Milless as his engineer continued to pay dividends; you can’t teach chemistry and it’s apparent these two have it.

It spoke volumes that in qualifying, Newgarden was the single fastest driver outside of the Penske and Ganassi camps all season. An average starting position of 8.4 was not only a career best, but best in the field behind six combined drivers from the two established “super teams.” Only at Detroit, where he had a nightmare weekend and at Texas, where Carpenter admitted the team missed the setup, did he start outside the top 12.

Yet it was in the races where again, he shone brightest. The Barber win was as dominant as it was overdue and deserved. The Toronto win – if a bit lucky due to when the cautions and pit stop cycle fell – was also well executed. Then the drives on the ovals at Milwaukee, Iowa and Pocono were excellent.

Far too often though, still, pit stops proved Newgarden’s undoing. Mid-Ohio was a sore spot again, and Sonoma in particular was the nadir. The other tough results races, notably at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and at Fontana, came through mistakes not of his own doing. Really only Detroit was a weekend he’d like to have back.

But he led the most laps in the field, he finally broke through to win, and firmly lived up to the hype and potential that’s been building for years. If you’ve been paying attention more than just this year though, Newgarden’s 2015 season will have come as no surprise.