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.

Bottas joins F1’s Finnish stars with Russian GP win

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SOCHI, Russia (AP) Formula One has a new Finnish iceman on top of the podium.

Valtteri Bottas kept his cool under pressure in Sunday’s Russian Grand Prix to claim his first F1 victory, swooping past Sebastian Vettel for the lead on the first lap, and keeping the hard-charging German behind him on the final lap.

“When I drive, there’s not much emotion in there,” Bottas said after his win. “I’m just trying to get everything right and get every lap, every corner perfect.”

Bottas joins an illustrious list of Finnish winners, including Kimi Raikkonen who joined Bottas on the podium after finishing third. Raikkonen has long been nicknamed “The Iceman” for his cool demeanor, but Bottas showed he can be just as chilled. Long considered a potential winner, he’d made the podium 11 times before with Williams and Mercedes, but the top step was always just out of reach.

Bottas doesn’t go in for wild celebration, but he radiated calm satisfaction with a job well done.

“Hearing the Finnish national anthem is something quite special for me,” he said. “I always trust in my ability but it’s nice to get a confirmation.”

Just like Raikkonen, Bottas can occasionally get irritated by well-meaning advice from his team over the radio, and that happened Sunday.

“I had to ask for a bit more radio silence from the guys on the pit wall,” he said, “just for me to get on it and focus for it, and to feel a bit more like home. Nice and quiet, and that helped.”

A country of 5.5 million people, Finland has long punched far above its weight in international motorsport.

Just eight Finns have ever started a Formula One race. Of those, seven have made the podium at least once, five have won a race and three – Keke Rosberg, Mika Hakkinen and Raikkonen – became world champions.

Last year’s champion, Nico Rosberg, raced as a German but is the son of 1982 champion Keke.

It was his decision to retire in the winter that opened the door for Bottas to move to Mercedes from Williams. In his fifth Formula One season, Bottas now has a car capable of fighting for regular wins and hopes Sunday will prove “the first of many.”

Sitting third in the standings after four races, could a world championship be within Bottas’ grasp?

As he said on the podium, “for me that’s the only goal in my career.”

Red Bull GRC: Speed leads VW, Andretti 1-2 in Memphis opener

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The new Red Bull Global Rallycross season is underway but it’s the same driver who has ended the last two years on top, Scott Speed, who kicks off 2017 in victory lane.

The two-time defending series champion, driving the No. 41 Oberto Volkswagen Beetle GRC for Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross, led home his teammate Tanner Foust in GRC’s trip to Memphis to kick off the new season. The win is also Speed’s 12th in the series, most in Global Rallycross history. Speed and Foust also won their respective semifinals.

“(Being the winningest GRC driver in history) is a great stat, but those wins are all part of having a great team – starting with Tanner Foust, I have an incredible teammate. The whole Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross team just worked this offseason. We put in the work, and when we wanted to stop we worked some more. When you show up to the first race and you put this kind of performance down, it just makes all that work worthwhile. Big shout out to Circle K and Oberto for coming on this year, and obviously Rockstar – thanks so much, guys,” Speed said.

Foust was second in the No. 34 Rockstar Energy Beetle, starting his 2017 season one spot worse than he did last year. He swept the Phoenix doubleheader a year ago.

Steve Arpin, in his first race under the rebranded and phased Loenbro Motorsports effort, took the privateer No. 00 Jacob Companies Ford Fiesta ST onto the podium in third place. Arpin was the most consistent threat to the Volkswagen pair last year and has done well to carry that momentum into the start of 2017.

Rookies Mitchell DeJong and Oliver Eriksson finished fourth and fifth in superb efforts for Honda Red Bull Olsbergs MSE, taking their Nos. 24 and 16 Honda Civic Coupes to top-five finishes in their first weekend as teammates at the Supercars level for the Andreas Eriksson-led team.

Behind them, last year’s GRC Lites champion Cabot Bigham eighth in his first Supercars start for Bryan Herta Rallysport while Sebastian Eriksson limped to seventh in the third Honda with damage in the final. Chris Atkinson retired from the race with three laps to go in the first of two Subaru Rally Team USA WRX-STis, on what was a tough day for that team.

The final only saw eight cars take the start. Mechanical issues knocked Austin Dyne out of the weekend early in his first start with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, while damage on the initial start cost Patrik Sandell any hope of a result in his first final with Subaru.

In the 10-lap final around the 1.18-mile circuit which primarily utilized the Memphis International Raceway oval with a shorter dirt section, Speed and Foust both got the jump on a start, and were never headed the rest of the way.

The battle was for third between Arpin and DeJong, with Arpin taking the Joker on Lap 5 of 10 to move past the 2014 GRC Lites champion in his second Supercars weekend – DeJong debuted at Los Angeles last year.

GRC stays down south for its next race, Round 2 at Louisville, to be held on Sunday, May 21.

F1: Russian Grand Prix post-race interviews (VIDEO)

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The Russian Grand Prix is in the books, with Valtteri Bottas scoring his first career victory at Sochi.  Bottas had both a dynamic start and a dynamic defense for Mercedes against Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel to win in his 81st career start, and fourth with Mercedes since changing over from Williams.

NBCSN F1 pit reporter Will Buxton caught up with a number of drivers either during or after the race. Those interviews are below.

More videos will come in the fourth and final weekend installment of Paddock Pass, the NBC Sports Group original digital series. Stay tuned for that in the next day or so on NBCSports.com.

Anyway, Russia post-race interviews are below:

WIN. Valtteri Bottas

2. Sebastian Vettel

4. Lewis Hamilton

5. Max Verstappen

9. Felipe Massa

DNF. Daniel Ricciardo

DNS. Fernando Alonso

Hinchcliffe endures tough night in Phoenix to finish 12th

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James Hinchcliffe, off to one of the best starts he’s ever had in the Verizon IndyCar Series (certainly his best since his two wins in four races to start 2013) endured possibly the most frustrating race of his 2017 season Saturday night at Phoenix.

Down on pace to the Chevrolet cars, particularly those from Team Penske, Hinchcliffe had resigned himself to aim for “best in class,” and he had enough speed to run solidly in the top ten. However, as he explained, poor fuel mileage saw him be the first driver to pit during green flag pit stops, which elongated his final stint and forced him to make a late stop for fuel, dropping him to 12th at the end.

“Man, we just weren’t getting the mileage the other guys were. It’s too bad because the ARROW Electronics car was actually pretty strong,” he told NBC Sports. “We survived that first turn thing; it was unfortunate to see Mikhail (Aleshin) caught up in that.

“And we had decent pace, we were kind of hanging with Scott (Dixon) there in the first stint and ended up just having to pit way before anyone else. And five or six laps a stint compounding, we just never got the yellow at the right time to equalize the field and put us on the same page as everyone else. And at the end, we had to come in for that splash and go.”

Of course, the night could have been much worse, as he barely avoided the first turn pileup that collected five cars after teammate Mikhail Aleshin spun in Turn 2. “It was close, man. I saw Mikhail start to spin and come down, and then Marco (Andretti) hit the brakes and locked up and went around. I was lucky to avoid it, to be honest,” he said of the incident.

Despite finishing 12th, Hinchcliffe held onto fifth place in the standings, 39 points behind new championship leader Simon Pagenaud.

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