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.”

What IndyCar Drivers Are Saying about this weekend’s 2018 Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama

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Here’s What Drivers Are Saying about this Sunday’s 2018 Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham:

JOSEF NEWGARDEN (No. 1 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet, 2017 Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama winner, 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series champion): “We had a decent finish at Long Beach but we’re definitely hungry for more. Barber is one of my favorite tracks we visit – not just because we’ve won there – but because it’s a cool track and it’s only a few hours away from where I grew up (in Nashville, Tennessee). That just makes it even more special when I’ve won there. Barber is going to be interesting since it’s the first time we’re racing the new car on a road course. I think it could lead to some really exciting racing for the great fans at Barber and the fans at home. The whole No. 1 Hitachi Chevrolet team and I are ready to take the strong car we have ready for this weekend to the track and run a great race.”

MATHEUS “MATT” LEIST (No. 4 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “Barber is a very nice track. I raced there last year (in Indy Lights). We did one day of testing there this year with the No. 4 ABC Supply Chevrolet, so hopefully we will have a great car to be running in the top 10. It’s a fast track and a physical track as well, so it’s going to be a long race. We need to concentrate on great laps and play the strategy again to see if we can get a top-10 there. I’m looking forward to it.”

SCOTT DIXON (No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “We’ve been coming to Barber since 2010, and it’s been a really good track for us, but we’ve yet to win it. I think we’ve been on the podium nearly every race, with five or so of those being second-place finishes. It’s such a great event and you can really see what a great job the track does with the crowds growing year over year. Hopefully, this will be our year with the PNC Bank car.”

ED JONES (No. 10 NTT DATA Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “Obviously it was a great weekend for us at Long Beach (tying a career-best finish), so I’m really excited to get back in the NTT DATA car this week at Barber. We had great pit stops and strategy last weekend and I was extremely pleased with the result. I think I have a better understanding of what I need to do from the start to the finish of a race weekend in terms of getting the car right. We’re heading in the right direction as a team and I hope it’s the beginning of a string of very successful results and momentum.”

WILL POWER (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “Long Beach was really great for the whole No. 12 Verizon Chevrolet team after we finished second. It was our best finish so far this season, so it’s done a lot for team morale going into this weekend at Barber. Road courses are always a lot of fun and I’m really looking forward to racing one with the new car. My team has been really working hard over the past several weeks with back-to-back races and they have a really strong car ready to go. Barber is such a cool course and the fans there are always really excited to be there. It’s just a really fun event for everyone and I can’t wait to get on track.”

TONY KANAAN (No. 14 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “We’re coming from two top-10s in a row and the team is for sure on an upswing. Our test at Barber a few weeks back was cut short because of bad weather, but I’m hoping that we’ll keep the consistency and be competitive there as well. Barber Motorsports Park is a beautiful track where the fans are very passionate and always fill up the place. I’m looking forward to getting there later this week to hit the ground running with the No. 14 ABC Supply Chevrolet.”

GRAHAM RAHAL (No. 15 Mi-Jack Honda): “Our preseason test went well at Barber. I think we were fortunate that we went to the first one because the weather cooperated and we got good track time with this car, unlike the open test. I think it’s going to be interesting to see what conditions we get as we go back for the race. I think the new aero kit it has met expectations. It seemed like at Long Beach it really helped passing. You were able to follow a lot closer. Barber has always put on a great race, but I think that this year it could be even better. Depending on tire degradation and things like that, I think this new car could put on a very exciting race at Barber. We have always been pretty strong at Barber but last year wasn’t that great for us. In general, it’s a place we should be good at and I hope we can carry on the progress that we have been making in terms of competitiveness. I think it could be a great weekend for us. The team has worked hard and we’ve been fortunate to sneak in a couple of good results so far, even with some difficulties, and hopefully we can keep that going. We are just going to keep our heads down, work hard and stay focused on the end goal. I certainly hope that we can keep this thing going and go into Indy with a lot of momentum as we have done. I’m really excited about where we are and I think things are looking pretty good.”

ZACHARY CLAMAN DE MELO (No. 19 The Paysafe Car Honda): “We had a good test at Barber last month aboard the Paysafe car and I’m really looking forward to the race this weekend. Obviously, the conditions will likely be different from when we tested, but it was an encouraging test. I’m hoping to make up for the tough race weekend we had at Long Beach last weekend. The No. 19 Paysafe crew deserves a good result for all the hard work they’ve been putting in. Hopefully, I can give it to them this weekend.”

JORDAN KING (No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet): “Hopefully, I can carry over the speed we’ve had so far this year but convert it into a solid result in Barber. We’ve been fast in both of my races so far, but unfortunately don’t have much to show for it. We had a test at Barber last month, though we didn’t get much running in. There will be a lot to learn on both my side and the engineering side that will take a lot of time and energy, but we’re up for the challenge.”

SPENCER PIGOT (No. 21 Ed Carpenter Racing Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet): “It’s been a tough start to the season so far. Our results don’t show the quality of the cars that we have had. We’re ready to turn that around and no better place than Barber Motorsports Park. Barber is definitely one of my favorite tracks, the fast corners and steep elevation changes are pretty unique and a lot of fun to drive. The track has been very good to me in the past, so I hope that trend will pick back up this weekend.”

SIMON PAGENAUD (No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet): “We had a really disappointing finish last week at Long Beach, but we’re going to use that disappointment to turn it into energy to fuel us to have a strong finish at Barber. We’ve had a busy few weeks and the No. 22 Menards Chevrolet team has worked hard to keep giving me great cars. It’s our first road course this season and it’s the first we’ll run with the new car. We learned a lot in the first three races, so we are ready. We won at Barber in 2016. It’s a beautiful track that always brings a lot of really great INDYCAR fans, so I know we’re all really looking forward to it.”

CHARLIE KIMBALL (No. 23 Tresiba Chevrolet): “I’m really excited to be going back to Barber Motorsports Park this weekend. I’ve had some success there in the past and we have a little data from the open test last month to get us up to speed when the No. 23 Tresiba Chevrolet rolls out for Practice 1. Barber is unique with its elevation and technical demands and it really requires some patience to make your moves at the right time and place. Last weekend’s top 10 was a big morale booster for everyone on the Carlin team, myself included. I think if we can carry this momentum throughout the weekend and make some progress in qualifying, we can definitely put ourselves in a good spot at the checkered flag on Sunday.”

ZACH VEACH (No. 26 Group One Thousand One Honda): “I definitely feel we have a lot of momentum on our side after finishing fourth in Long Beach. I honestly can’t wait to be back in the car at Barber and to keep improving. A year ago this weekend, I got the chance to compete in my very first Indy car race at Barber, so it’s going to be nice to be coming back to a track I have a little more experience at than others on the schedule. For me, my main goal is to focus on qualifying. I would really like to start getting higher on the charts for the start of the race. The Group One Thousand One car and crew have been great this year; we’re ready to show that again this weekend.”

ALEXANDER ROSSI (No. 27 Kerauno / MilitaryToMotorsports.com Honda, Verizon IndyCar Series points leader): “I’m excited to head to Barber, especially after this last weekend in Long Beach, and I’m really happy to welcome Kerauno to the car as well. The team has been working hard and have a really good car that I’m happy with. Barber is one of the more difficult road courses we visit, but I know my Kerauno crew will be able to give us what we need to keep our momentum going. We took the points lead after last weekend and we’re not planning to give that up anytime soon.”

RYAN HUNTER-REAY (No. 28 DHL Honda): “There’s only one goal for the (No.) 28 team at Barber this weekend, and that’s to grab our third victory at this track. The season started off OK with two top-fives, but then we took a hit with luck in Long Beach. We had a productive test at Barber a few weeks ago, but we were unable to run through our full test list due to weather. We have quite a lot of work to get done in the practice sessions in order to get the car into our ideal setup window before the race. I have no doubt the DHL team will work hard at it.”

TAKUMA SATO (No. 30 Mi-Jack / Panasonic Honda): “We’ve tested at Barber twice but the second one was cut short due to the weather. Honestly, we don’t know yet how competitive we will be but we have some good data. At least the first test was productive for us, which will hopefully give us a good baseline to start with. Barber will be fun to drive with the new aero kit. The track is beautiful but it is very difficult to overtake. Again, I think tire management will be the key. I think that by the end of each stint, you will see a great battle with overtaking. Other than that, first we have to make the car fast. The weekend will be quite different conditions, temperature-wise, than when we tested there, which was very cold. I hope we have a good, strong package for the Honda Indy Grand Prix.”

RENE BINDER (No. 32 Binderholz tiptop timber Chevrolet): “I am looking forward to my first race weekend in Alabama. Unfortunately, we couldn’t complete the amount of laps that we had hoped for during the open test, but we are still optimistic. The Barber Motorsports Park is a fantastic facility and the track layout reminds me a little bit of the famous grand prix track in Spa-Francorchamps (Belgium), where I managed to score a win in F3 and a second-place finish in the Formula V8 World Series. I hope that’s a good omen, even if I am fully aware that things don’t happen overnight in the Verizon IndyCar Series. As I continue to learn more about the ‘red’ Firestone tires, we will hopefully be able to make the next step forward and get some good points with our No. 32 Binderholz Chevy.”

MAX CHILTON (No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet): “I enjoy racing at Barber Motorsports Park. The road course really suits my driving style. I love the smooth, flowing corners and it always gives the fans a good show. The track does a good job of putting together a nice package of other series on track for the fans to watch throughout the weekend as well. We had the chance to test the No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet at Barber earlier in the season, but the weather didn’t allow us to get as much track time as we were hoping for, so we’re going to need to get up to speed quickly in practice. The first three races of the season have been great learning experiences for Carlin and even last weekend, despite not getting the results I was personally hoping for, we still learned a ton.”

GABBY CHAVES (No. 88 Harding Group Chevrolet): “Excited to be heading to Barber Motorsports Park for our fourth race of the year. Barber is a track that I enjoy a lot. Although we didn’t really have any testing from our practice day that we spent there, we’re still fairly confident that we can use the information that we learned over the first three race weekends and have a competitive car. I know we’re eager to get back to racing and are looking for our best result so far.”

MARCO ANDRETTI (No. 98 Kerauno / Curb Honda): “We finished last weekend with a decent result considering the struggles we encountered in Phoenix and earlier in the weekend at Long Beach. I’m happy to put that behind us and focus forward. We’re sitting 10th in the championship and that’s not good enough, so this weekend we have to be on our A game and get a podium result. We’ve been there before at Barber and I know we can do it again.”