Bourdais and Coyne embrace. Photo: IndyCar

DiZinno: Bourdais, Coyne find strategic promised land in St. Pete

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – On February 23, 2003, a then-unheralded 23-year-old Frenchman named Sebastien Bourdais arrived on North American shores for his first top-level race in the U.S. Dale Coyne, meanwhile, was back full-time with two cars after two years where he’d only run part-time to help make up the numbers for the 19-car Champ Car World Series entry list.

Bourdais and Coyne have traveled a long way separately in the 14 years since, but found their greatest triumph together thus far in Sunday’s Verizon IndyCar Series season opener for 2017 at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

Admittedly, a lucky break provided the window for Bourdais to leap frog from 10th at the time of the second caution on Lap 26 to second on Lap 27, when the top seven cars were forced to pit under yellow after not stopping earlier.

But, that’s a Coyne speciality. The likable team owner whose Plainfield, Ill.-based team has been a staple in the IndyCar paddock for more than 30 years has made countless strategic gambles, more of which bare fruit than others, that have been as ubiquitous to the team’s legacy as its running joke of having its second car listed as a TBA in the days leading up to St. Petersburg.

Bourdais capitalized on an ailing Simon Pagenaud, who had some rear wheel guard damage, to make the eventual pass for the win on Lap 37. Bourdais led 69 laps from there, losing the lead only on pit stops. And realistically, he wouldn’t have stayed up front if he wasn’t able to keep up the pace or if the Coyne crew lost spots in the pits – neither of which happened.

Bourdais on top. Photo: IndyCar

Even if the circumstances of today’s win could be called lucky, the overall story of the two units syncing up together for the win is a good one.

That 2003 race for Bourdais was one he nearly won on debut, but a mistake on his end cost him that chance. He’d never finished better than sixth here since.

“I caught myself thinking about 2003, when obviously we started the opposite. We dominated the weekend, were on pole, cleared the field, then all hell broke loose,” Bourdais said. “I found myself tapping the wall in turn eight, threw it away.

“It was kind of redemption day here. To come out on top with obviously a lot of friends and family on-site, the whole community supporting the effort, it was just a great feeling. I couldn’t really be any happier for Honda and Dale for giving me the opportunity to put the band back together and make it happen.

“Everybody works really, really hard. We’re a small group. There is nobody at the shop that doesn’t travel. But it works. It’s a great little group. We’re sure not going to stop there. We’re just going to keep on trying.”

In Bourdais’ case, his win was the 36th of his career and moves him into sixth place on the all-time list, surpassing Bobby Unser, and it’s his fifth since returning to IndyCar in 2011, then with Coyne. He won once with KVSH Racing in 2014 and 2016 and twice in 2015, so this marks his first win with Coyne’s team.

Bourdais and Craig Hampson. Photo: IndyCar

Bourdais, who enjoyed his greatest and most consistent success with Newman/Haas Racing and engineer Craig Hampson in the Champ Car days, said he savors this win more now because the opportunities to achieve them are rare.

“I’m just trying to enjoy the moment as much as I can, because for sure in those years with Newman/Haas, there’s one thing I didn’t do very much, partly because I was chasing F1 and a lot of other things, but at the end of the day I didn’t savor those moments as much as I probably should have,” he said.

“I try to do a better job with that because, first of all, they don’t come around that many times a year. Second, it’s when it’s over that you realize it was that special. Try and suck up the moment, yeah, just really savor those because they’re very special.”

For Coyne, the win is a change of pace at St. Petersburg from the team’s results in recent years, thanks in large part to actually having the program settled months earlier for the first time in a while.

Justin Wilson scored three straight top-10s from 2012 to 2014 at St. Petersburg and scored the team’s best finish at the track in 2009, in his team debut, when he finished third.

But as recently as two years ago, Coyne only barely made St. Petersburg with the lesser rated Carlos Huertas and Francesco Dracone as drivers, Dracone having not even had an aero kit at the series’ preseason spring training test at Barber Motorsports Park.

This year was different. Coyne was already exploring his 2017 driver lineup in the summer during July and into August, announced Bourdais in October and then added rookie Ed Jones as the Dubai-based Brit stepped up after winning the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires championship.

Coyne said when he’d confirmed Bourdais that he hoped his race team could be the equivalent of a certain baseball team in Chicago; the Cubs shed their “lovable losers” label with their World Series win in the fall, and Coyne looks to do likewise in IndyCar this year.

“He was looking for a home as soon as he won the championship. We talked to him at earlier, I think starting at Mid-Ohio last year. We were able to get that done,” Coyne said of Jones.

“At the same time we got Sebastien’s done. It was nice to get them both done. We have the engineering, the chief mechanic, the team manager, have all your people in place, so that you can hit the ground.

“It’s a long off-season. We didn’t want to waste any time. We were able to have all of it done right at the beginning of the off-season. I think that’s paid off. It’s nice continuity for the team. Just makes everything that we do that much more efficient.”

Bourdais added, “That’s the thing. It was not starting from zero. It was not scrap everything and start over again. Obviously there was a lot of very valid and useful things that had been put in place by Darren and Cannon. We added to that. We didn’t throw anything away.”

Coyne’s team in the pits. Photo: IndyCar

Coyne explained a bit of the magic that goes into his strategy plays. The decision to do what he did today was aided – in a roundabout way – by Bourdais having extra tires available from crashing out in qualifying yesterday.

Asked what Coyne thought of Bourdais’ mistake yesterday, Bourdais laughed and replied, “What an idiot.”

Coyne, whose previous driver Conor Daly called him a “wizard” last year said, “The strategy evolves as the race goes on. Going to be a big yellow in the beginning, a lot of cars are going to pit, leave him out, or he climbs through the field because everybody pits, or is he fast enough to pass six or seven cars? All of those things play in the thing.

“We had a yellow early, stayed out. Gained two positions on that. The first-lap carnage helped us a little bit. He had a hard time getting around Marco. It’s going to be a long day if we try to do sneak-up-to-the-lead strategy.

“Pitting early, the early strategy of the day, pit early, when you’re in the back, you have to do something to leapfrog the field. It hurts us because your last laps are faster. We pitted a lap or two before Simon at the end, and he closed half the gap on us, because he was able to keep going in clean traffic. We had enough of a gap that it was okay.

“You think about the strategy things all day long. You watch the fuel mileage. You tell him different numbers, see what he can hit, work the calculations from there.”

For Bourdais, the win is particularly special because it comes in St. Petersburg, his adopted hometown. He, wife Claire and their children really moved there in 2005 and have made it home.

He and Patrick Long also both co-ran the Kart 4 Kids Pro/Am in Palmetto, Fla. earlier this week, both drivers announcing they’d auction off their helmets. Although both were auctioned before the race, two people now have incredibly special souvenirs.

“First time we really moved here was early ’05. We spent two years, two and a half years there, then we went back to Europe, and came back in March of 2012, never really looked back,” Bourdais said.

“The house we got here, we built it, in Shore Acres. With the kids being in school a couple of blocks down the road, you get to make a lot of friends. We have some really good friends. We just lead a very normal life with normal, fun people.

“It’s just awesome to be able to share that with them. They were all excited. Obviously my parents were there, as well. It’s always very, very special to have these kind of moments in front of the ones you love.”

This is a moment Bourdais and the Coyne team will cherish. And the only TBA to be answered from here is whether the team will add more wins this season, perhaps in a more conventional manner.

“The Watkins Glen win (with Wilson) in 2009 was special because it was our first win. The other ones were nice. This is above both. We brought him back from Europe a few years ago. He stayed here ever since,” Coyne said.

“We were hoping we could win a race or two this year. We’re halfway there. Maybe we can do better than that. We’ll see.”

IndyCar Paddock Pass: Indy Carb Day Special (VIDEO)

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INDIANAPOLIS – Alongside NBCSN’s coverage of Carb Day practice for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, we have the NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass, which this week features interviews from Indy 500 media day leading into Carb Day.

Anders Krohn is back in action, ahead of a busy day for him as he will be in the booth calling the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires’ Freedom 100.

Interviews took place with Ed Carpenter, Marco Andretti, Scott Dixon and Fernando Alonso. Alonso’s coverage highlighted media day, as there was an absurd number of people populating around his station on Thursday.

Dixon has the pole for Sunday’s race, with Carpenter starting second, Alonso fifth and Andretti eighth.

You can see the episode above. Past IndyCar Paddock Pass episodes are below:


It’s ‘Indy Leist’ – Matheus Leist, Carlin dominate Freedom 100

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INDIANAPOLIS – Brazilian rookie Matheus Leist has his first career victory in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires following a flag-to-flag victory in the No. 26 Carlin Dallara IL-15 Mazda from pole position in the Freedom 100 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“It was a tough race, we had the pace and the car was just amazing. It was just an amazing race. It’s my first race on an oval and I couldn’t be happier,” Leist told NBCSN’s Katie Hargitt.

The usual photo finishes that have been a staple of this race ceded to Leist’s dominance, with a win by 0.7760 of a second over Aaron Telitz, the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires champion posting his second podium finisher of the year.

Telitz edged Dalton Kellett for second at the line by just 0.0641 of a second. Both drivers took shots at Leist but were unable to pass him.

“Definitely an exciting finish. I was trying to get around Matheus. Our car was good in traffic but they were more trimmed out. When I got alongside, I couldn’t get him,” Telitz told NBCSN’s Jon Beekhuis. “I had limited opportunities. I wore off my front tires, then went more aggressive on my roll bars. We had a great car but not the car to win.”

“It was a great move by Aaron. I had a big run on Leist and have another photo finish. I was trying to play with the apron. Aaron got me – it was great pass by him,” Kellett told Hargitt. “We go slower. It makes for great drafting.

Meanwhile with Kyle Kaiser and Nico Jamin having anonymous finishes in ninth and 10th, and with Colton Herta crashing out on the first lap, it’s brought the championship even tighter.

Herta’s boom-or-bust rookie season in the No. 98 Andretti/Steinbrenner Racing car rolled on. After starting second, the 17-year-old ran on the outside of teammate Dalton Kellett through Turn 2, but spun after contact between the two – and collected teammate Ryan Norman in the No. 48 car in the process. Kellett was lucky to avoid damage to the right front wheel and suspension, which touched the left rear of Herta’s car to send him spinning.

It shifted the order with Zachary Claman De Melo moving up to second off the start behind Leist, with Kellett third, Neil Alberico fourth and Aaron Telitz in fifth. Kyle Kaiser and Nico Jamin noved up to ninth and 11th from 11th and 13th in the incident, respectively.

“Well, I don’t know if I can say what he was thinking!” Bryan Herta, Colton’s father, told NBCSN’s Katie Hargitt. “It’s a shame. They both had great cars. Looking at it, maybe he didn’t know Dalton was still on the inside. It’s not how you want to start the race. Unfortunately he is out early.”

Both drivers were understandably disappointed, but relieved to be OK after being checked and released from the infield care center, cleared to drive.

“I’m fine. Little X-Ray. No problem. I saw (Kellett) but I don’t really know what happened. I need to look at the data and video,” the younger Herta told Beekhuis.

Norman told Beekhuis, “I’m physically fine, but just really disappointed. It was our highest starting position. Wrong spot at the wrong time. Andretti gave me a great car all month. We’ll come back stronger at Road America.”

Kellett, post-race, told Hargitt about the incident: “I’m on the inside, it’s the first lap, caught some dirty air, I understeered up into him and that collected him, and collected Ryan. You never want to have contact with your teammates. At least we’ve got a podium finish.”

The restart occurred at the conclusion of Lap 5, and start of Lap 6, after the first and only caution flag of the race.

By Lap 15, Leist led by 0.6077 of a second but Kellett, Telitz and Alberico had moved up to second, third and fourth with Claman De Melo falling back from second down to fifth.

At half distance Telitz moved within striking distance of Leist into second. At the halfway mark it was Leist 0.3486 of a second ahead of Telitz with Kellett, Alberico and Claman De Melo in the top five.

Leist pulled away from there and the only photo finish this time around was for second, as Telitz got Kellett right at the line. The gap was a huge one by recent Indy Lights standards, 0.7760 of a second to Telitz and 0.8401 to Kellett.

Alberico and Santiago Urrutia, who started 12th but moved forward during the race, completed the top five.

Forgettable races occurred for points leaders Kaiser and Jamin, who ended ninth and 10th. Unofficially they still sit 1-2 in points with 151 and 137, Herta falls to third with 129 while Telitz and Alberico (122) and Leist (121) are within range.

Bourdais, Coyne upbeat during Carb Day practice check-ins (VIDEO)

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INDIANAPOLIS – Sebastien Bourdais hopes to be at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday, just over a week after his accident left him with multiple pelvic fractures and a fractured right hip in an accident in qualifying.

The Frenchman has already been released from IU Methodist Hospital on Wednesday and during NBCSN’s coverage of Carb Day practice, checked in with the booth crew to update his recovery progress.

“I think I’m doing as well as I could have ever hoped for,” Bourdais told NBCSN’s Kevin Lee. “My surgery went well. I was walking two days after the wreck. It’s been a little weird! But the pain is managed.”

Team owner Dale Coyne also checked in on Bourdais’ progress as well.

“He’s feeling good. He moved out of hospital Wednesday,” Coyne told NBCSN’s Katie Hargitt. “If all goes as planned, we’ll get him out here Sunday.”

As for when Bourdais can return to the cockpit?

“The surgeon said he’s out for season… of course Seb says he wants to do Le Mans!” Coyne laughed. “It’s going to be a long recovery. But Sonoma? Maybe.”

Also during the segment, NBCSN pit reporter Jon Beekhuis noted an older specification rear wing configuration on the back of Bourdais’ replacement, James Davison’s No. 18 GEICO Honda. This should help Davison on Sunday.

Hinchcliffe engine issue hits Carb Day practice, as Castroneves leads

Photo: IndyCar
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INDIANAPOLIS – Helio Castroneves has led the final one-hour practice session ahead of the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, in the No. 3 Shell Fuel Rewards Team Penske Chevrolet, but it’s a Honda that made the bigger news during the extended session.

Another Honda engine issue – at least the eighth this month between the INDYCAR Grand Prix, practice and qualifying – now struck James Hinchcliffe during the final 20 minutes of the session in the No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda.

Heading into Turn 3, Hinchcliffe’s gold and black car took on a distinctly white hue by contrast, as smoke billowed out the back of the car. It littered the track between Turns 3 and 4.

Yet as Hinchcliffe, the 2016 race polesitter explained to NBCSN’s Katie Hargitt, the timing was as good as it could have been considering had it happened later it would have been in the race itself.

“I felt what the engineers would call a suboptimal rapid negative acceleration heading into Turn 3,” Hinchcliffe told NBCSN. “We’ve had some issues across the Honda camp. It’s less than ideal.

“I felt bad going into 3. I hope we weren’t leaking too badly. I’m happy it didn’t happen 20 minutes later, that would have been Lap 5 of the race. We’ll get an engine, we’ll put it in. But that was by far the best we’ve felt on the 5 car all month. Let’s put this thing to bed. The car feels really good in traffic.”

Hinchcliffe will start 17th on Sunday. He ended his truncated practice in 14th.

Photo: IndyCar

Behind another gold car – the gold-and-white No. 3 car of Castronves – Takuma Sato and Tony Kanaan completed the top three, with Scott Dixon and Fernando Alonso completing the top five.

Speeds are below.