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Dilemma of how to fill Bourdais’ post-Indy, Le Mans seats now exists

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INDIANAPOLIS – The awkward but inevitable next step that came Sunday, after Saturday’s accident in qualifying for Sebastien Bourdais, is how do the two teams he drives for move forward with filling their seats in the Verizon IndyCar Series and at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

With multiple pelvic fractures and a fractured right hip, Bourdais’ recovery time is expected to be at least a couple months, and that presents unintended opportunities at Dale Coyne Racing and Ford Chip Ganassi Racing in the weeks and months to come.

That being said, Bourdais already seemed in upbeat spirits, in a statement released Sunday.

“I want to thank everybody for the support and the messages, quite a few drivers have already dropped by,” Bourdais said. “It’s going to take time, but I’m feeling pretty good since the surgery. I’ll be back at some point. Just don’t know when yet!”

INDYCAR: It’s a Davison encore, then back to good ‘ol TBA

BOWMANVILLE, ON – JULY 13: James Davison is shown on the grid before the Mobil 1 SportsCar Grand Prix at Canadian Tire Mosport Park on July 13, 2014 in Bowmanville, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Brian Cleary/Getty Images)

On Sunday, James Davison was confirmed as Bourdais’ replacement in the No. 18 Honda for the Indianapolis 500, a move which raised some eyebrows in the paddock, but does make sense from a continuity standpoint within the Coyne team.

This is Davison’s third experience with Coyne, having made his IndyCar debut with the team in a handful of races in 2013, and then again jumping in for the 2015 Indianapolis 500.

At the latter event, he proved he could get up to speed quickly in practice, and was moving forward in the race before contact occurred – bizarrely – with another one-off teammate in Tristan Vautier.

Known for his innate speed and his ability to go all-out – Australian countryman Will Power rates Davison highly – Davison has the potential to bring the car from the back of the field forward to a potential top-15 result. Working with engineers Craig Hampson and Olivier Boisson, the latter of whom was an engineer at KV Racing Technology when Davison was a rookie in 2014 as he finished an Indianapolis 500-best 16th place, will also aid his progress and his confidence.

With the Dale Coyne Racing team having built up the backup car and completed a seat fit by late Sunday night, Davison is expected to have his first running on Monday’s practice.

Davison will get through the Indianapolis 500 but then Coyne is, unfortunately, back to the long-running joke of a “TBA situation” from Detroit onwards.

Davison is experienced at Detroit in sports cars, where he’s podiumed before. But he hasn’t ever driven a street course race in IndyCar and his only two road course races were before the manufacturer aero kit introduction, at Mid-Ohio and Sonoma in 2013, also with Coyne.

With a number of hungry young drivers and experienced team veterans to choose from, Coyne will no doubt be busy figuring out the best possible solution from there. It would not be a surprise if Coyne continued down the path of using some drivers he’s worked with before, given the opportunity.

LE MANS: Options wide in some respects, limited in others

LE MANS, FRANCE – JUNE 19: The Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT of Sebastien Bourdais, Joey Hand and Dirk Muller drives during the Le Mans 24 Hour race at the Circuit de la Sarthe on June 19, 2016 in Le Mans, France. (Photo by Ker Robertson/Getty Images)

The sports car situation for Le Mans, in figuring out Bourdais’ replacement, is a bit more complex – owing to a lack of drivers who have Ford GT experience, or lack Le Mans experience, or some combination of both.

Chip Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull told NBC Sports on Sunday in Indianapolis before qualifying it was important to “let the dust settle” following Bourdais’ accident when it comes to discussing the Le Mans open seat, which is a salient point.

Hull and the CGR IndyCar team are locked in on trying to win the Indianapolis 500 first, with the four-car entry here. It’s not that Le Mans is secondary – the team has a victory to defend – but there, the two U.S.-based entries are the extras that join the two primary FIA World Endurance Championship entries.

It’s a shame that Bourdais will not be able to join his stablemates, Joey Hand and Dirk Mueller, in defending their GTE-Pro class victory in the No. 68 Ford GT. It does leave open a rare seat in the winning chariot from 2016, though, with a decision probably set to come within “the days ahead” per Ford Performance Global Director Dave Pericak, to Sportscar365.

The only three drivers available with Ford GT experience are Marino Franchitti, Tony Kanaan and Scott Maxwell.

Franchitti’s last start with the program came at Circuit of The Americas last year, with third driver Harry Tincknell moving into a full-season role the final few races of last year driving alongside Andy Priaulx.

Kanaan has car experience – he made his Ford GT debut at this year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona – but he’d be in the same dilemma Scott Dixon was last year, where he’d miss the Le Mans Test Day on June 4 owing to his IndyCar commitments at Detroit. Rookies at Le Mans have to go through a simulator process as well, so if Kanaan were to be the choice, he’d have to undertake that process barring an unexpected shift or waiver granted.

Maxwell, meanwhile, was an integral part of the Multimatic and Ford development process but has never actually raced the car. He has Le Mans experience, and a 2000 class win in LMP675, but the likable and talented Canadian’s five starts came between 2000 and 2006.

Outside those with Ford GT experience, there’s some intriguing names who could work.

In terms of ready-made plug-and-play solutions, IMSA Prototype drivers Ryan Dalziel, Johannes van Overbeek, Marc Goossens and Jonathan Bomarito have GT class experience at Le Mans. Joao Barbosa or Dane Cameron could be intriguing options – Barbosa is vastly experienced while Cameron would be a rookie – but owing to the fact they race Cadillacs in IMSA, it’s highly unlikely GM would release either to drive for the Blue Oval, even on a one-off. Dalziel has a versatile Le Mans CV in five starts, where he’s raced and won in LMP2 and also raced in GT twice.

In the GT Daytona classes, other veterans with Le Mans experience include Scott Pruett, Bryan Sellers, Gunnar Jeannette, Colin Braun and Jeff Segal. Segal won Le Mans in a mid-engined, normally aspirated Ferrari 458 Italia last year (the new 488 model, which Segal’s co-drivers Townsend Bell and Bill Sweedler are in, is a turbocharged one), and as he drives for Ganassi’s manufacturer partner in IndyCar – Honda (via Acura) – so he could be a viable option too. Braun, a CORE autosport Porsche driver now, has Ford experience from his NASCAR days and also via speed runs at Daytona in a Daytona Prototype. He’s currently scheduled to race GRC Lites in Canada that weekend with CORE.

And then there is a crazy, hypothetical situation that came to mind where Hand and Mueller have an old teammate they know well from their old manufacturer, BMW, who has a bunch of Le Mans experience and a similar partner in IHG Rewards Club: Bill Auberlen. Could BMW release Auberlen to Ford, “get the band back together” for one last hurrah, and see the still crazy fast, veteran Californian saddle up to ride with an American manufacturer? Especially as Auberlen could be in the frame for BMW’s 2018 Le Mans lineup on his own, and thus have only one more shot to reunite? This option is a remote one, but it is fascinating to ponder.

Bourdais’ injury is unfortunate for one of the most talented drivers competing in both the open-wheel and sports car worlds, but it does provide one or more drivers with shots in top-level equipment to star from here on out the rest of the 2017 season.

Hulkenberg: Singapore DNF ‘tough to take’ after strong start

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Nico Hulkenberg has admitted his retirement from last weekend’s Singapore Grand Prix was “tough to take” after being in contention to end his long-running Formula 1 podium drought.

Hulkenberg entered the Singapore weekend ready to break the record for making the most F1 starts without recording a top-three finish, having tied Adrian Sutil’s tally of 128 races at Monza.

Hulkenberg qualified an excellent fifth for Renault and dodged the start-line chaos to rise to third, and even ran second for one lap before switching tires.

Hulkenberg settled into fourth place when the switch to dry tires was complete, only for an oil leak on his car to force him to make an unscheduled pit stop and ultimately retire from the race.

“Sunday was tough to take and left me feeling disappointed. We lost a good result, and it was a case of not having a good enough reliability; that’s the way this sport goes sometimes,” Hulkenberg said.

“We lost our fourth position which is a pity especially after all the hard work from the whole team. It would have been a nice bunch of points but that’s racing and it happens!

“The car is looking fast and we have to build on the positives and take it forward now to Malaysia.”

IndyCar points by circuit type: 2017

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After separate reviews of the street and oval portions of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season – led by Josef Newgarden and Helio Castroneves, respectively – the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma season finale was of course, the final road course race of the year as well.

And a third different driver topped the charts in those six permanent road course races this year, in the form of Scott Dixon.

Dixon had one win (Road America) and three runners-up finishes in the six races, with other finishes of fourth (Sonoma) and ninth (Mid-Ohio) which brought him 261 points in these races. That was two points clear of Newgarden, who won at Barber and Mid-Ohio and finished second at both Road America and Sonoma, while losing points at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and Watkins Glen.

The top six drivers in permanent road course points – Dixon, Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, Castroneves and Graham Rahal – were also the top six drivers in the overall points, albeit not in that order.

For the year, it was interesting to note how being consistent across all three phases of circuit netted the best results.

The two biggest outliers were Power – who was only 14th in street course points but second in oval and fourth in road course points – who ended fifth in points overall and Kanaan, who overcame 16th (street course) and 18th (road course) points positions with third place in oval points, trailing only Castroneves and Power.

That oval haul brought Kanaan up to 10th in points in a year where several others – notably James Hinchcliffe, Max Chilton and Ed Jones – all occasionally staked their claim to the final spot in the top-10.

Otherwise, consistency across all circuits was key to securing your overall points position for the year.

The breakdown of points per driver by circuit type is below.

P # Driver Street Road Oval Total
1 2 Josef Newgarden 185 259 198 642
2 1 Simon Pagenaud 147 256 226 629
3 9 Scott Dixon 159 261 201 621
4 3 Helio Castroneves 126 220 252 598
5 12 Will Power 86 244 232 562
6 15 Graham Rahal 162 191 169 522
7 98 Alexander Rossi 126 171 197 494
8 26 Takuma Sato 115 112 214 441
9 28 Ryan Hunter-Reay 105 178 138 421
10 10 Tony Kanaan 79 97 227 403
11 8 Max Chilton 91 141 164 396
12 27 Marco Andretti 103 119 166 388
13 5 James Hinchcliffe 155 99 122 376
14 19 Ed Jones 88 99 167 354
15 21 JR Hildebrand 78 90 179 347
16 14 Carlos Munoz 85 109 134 328
17 83 Charlie Kimball 72 135 120 327
18 4 Conor Daly 68 120 117 305
19 7 Mikhail Aleshin 77 68 92 237
20 20 Spencer Pigot 75 114 29 218
21 18 Sebastien Bourdais 93 89 32 214
22 20 Ed Carpenter 169 169
23 88 Gabby Chaves 98 98
24 22 Juan Pablo Montoya 20 73 93
25 18 Esteban Gutierrez 43 23 25 91
26 7 Sebastian Saavedra 19 61 80
27 16 Oriol Servia 21 40 61
28 7 Jack Harvey 40 17 57
29 29 Fernando Alonso 47 47
30 63 Pippa Mann 32 32
31 13 Zachary Claman DeMelo 26 26
32 77 Jay Howard 24 24
33 24 Sage Karam 23 23
34 40 Zach Veach 11 12 23
35 18 James Davison 21 21
36 18 Tristan Vautier 15 15
37 44 Buddy Lazier 14 14
38 7 Robert Wickens 0 0

Ed Jones adds name to IndyCar’s elite as top rookie in 2017

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Sure, you can say Ed Jones didn’t have a full-season counterpart for IndyCar’s Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors in 2017 and so he was always going to win the award.

But in a year when you don’t have competition and the other first-year drivers did only selected races, you have to compare yourself to the rest of the field at large and make an impression – and Jones clearly did so for Dale Coyne Racing.

Per Trackside Online, Jones joins this list of drivers in the series’ full-time lineup who won top rookie honors in their year of eligibility: Alexander Rossi, Carlos Munoz, Simon Pagenaud, James Hinchcliffe, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti, Will Power, Sebastien Bourdais, Scott Dixon, and Tony Kanaan.

FORT WORTH, TX – JUNE 09: Ed Jones, driver of the #19 Boy Scouts of America Honda, sits in his car during practice for the Verizon IndyCar Series Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 9, 2017 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Heading into last year’s offseason, Jones was not the favorite to take over the No. 19 Boy Scouts of America Honda; fellow Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires veteran RC Enerson was on the heels of three impressive debut races at the tail end of 2016.

However Jones was always going to need a place to land with the $1 million Mazda Motorsports advancement scholarship for at least three races. Between that and with additional budget gathered, Jones found his way into Dale Coyne’s second seat alongside Sebastien Bourdais and together the pairing clicked.

Coyne had his eye on him throughout 2016, and watched him win the Indy Lights title at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca – albeit under somewhat controversial circumstances when Carlin teammate Felix Serralles pulled aside to allow Jones through.

“It was Indy Lights. We went to his last race at Laguna Seca when he won the championship,” Coyne said. “We kept an eye on him. We keep an eye on all Indy Lights guys as well. It’s close, we can see them, watch them race, see how aggressive they are.

“He was always smooth in the car. I didn’t know how good he was going to be, because he was smooth. He doesn’t look like Paul Tracy in a car, but he drives better than Paul Tracy, at least in the beginning, at least Paul’s first year. He was a pleasant — it was the biggest surprise we’ve ever had.”

Jones, the 22-year-old Dubai-based Brit who makes his U.S. residence in Miami, was an instant hit on results if not on outright pace. But with finishes of sixth, 10th and 11th among his first five starts and other results lost due to circumstances outside his control, he immediately made a positive impact in the paddock.

Where Jones grew up fastest in a year where he matured so much from a more quiet and reserved driver in Indy Lights – much of that thanks to the family atmosphere at Coyne and its ace PR rep, Karina Redmond – was in May. Bourdais went from points leader and potential Indianapolis 500 contender to hospital-bound after his devastating accident in qualifying.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 28: Max Chilton of England, driver of the #8 Gallagher Honda, Helio Castroneves of Brazil, driver of the #3 Shell Fuel Rewards Team Penske Chevrolet, and Ed Jones of the United Arab Emirates, driver of the #19 Boy Scouts of America Honda, lead a pack of cars during the 101st Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 28, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Jones, meanwhile, was suddenly thrust into the unexpected role of team leader, not knowing week-to-week who his teammate might be depending on the issue. Similar to Alexander Rossi last year, Jones carried a quiet swagger during the month of May in Indianapolis, and was aggrieved for getting knocked out of the Fast Nine shootout.

What he did on race day was equally as impressive as Rossi’s 2016 win in the ‘500 if not more so, considering the disparity in equipment and the fact Jones’ car was damaged in the nose from debris contacting it earlier in the race.

That third place finish (and the double points that went with it) was enough to earn many votes for this year’s Indianapolis 500 top rookie honors (including from this writer) although it wasn’t enough to supplant Fernando Alonso for the award, somewhat controversially. Coyne couldn’t resist trolling during Jones’ season-long top rookie acceptance press conference at Sonoma.

“Obviously Indy, third place there. Did you get Rookie of the Year at Indy or no? Didn’t get that, okay,” Coyne deadpanned.

Alas, Jones pressed on anyway with a consistent appetite for learning, thanks to Coyne’s tutelage, Michael Cannon’s sharp mind on the engineering stand and a crew that embraced him.

“It’s hard to say. There’s a lot of advice that Dale’s given me,” Jones said. “But, you know, he’s always been very supportive of learning everything step by step, learning from Seb. Every time I get to every weekend, even every session, I remember early on it was try to learn as much as you can, take it step by step, there’s no need to overdo it early on.

“I seen myself as well as one of the guys, rookies, younger guys that would come in and they try to be right at the front the beginning. In a series that’s so competitive like this, it doesn’t really happen that often. It’s extreme difficult to do it. Sometimes doing that, you can actually take steps backwards because you kind of lose where you’re at. It’s always better to sort of take it step by step, yeah, get there that way.”

After a ninth place at Detroit race one, Jones’ results suffered the rest of the way through a myriad of mishaps – be it tough setups, bad caution timing, an occasional spin or pit stop issues. A seventh at Road America was the lone bright spot, and a potential top-10 championship finish went begging. Losing Bourdais hurt primarily from a setup standpoint.

“I wasn’t always sure if it was just me or if it was a lot with the car. Yeah, that was the main thing. Seb is really good with setting up the car. Having his feedback to work off from was really helpful,” he said.

“If I ever wasn’t sure about something, I could use him to back something up. Not having him there, yeah, made it harder. Sometimes I was guessing a bit more. So, yeah, that was the toughest part.”

Jones said his driving and development got better as the year went on as, paradoxically, the results got worse.

“It’s always difficult not having another full-time rookie to compare to. Then again, I’ve looked at the rookies over the last few years. I’ve seen it’s extremely tough. I feel pretty happy with how it’s gone in comparison to other guys recently,” he said.

“I wanted to finish top-10 in the points. Halfway through the season, we were on track to doing that. We had a good opportunity to do it. The last few races, things have maybe not gone to plan.

“But I feel like as a driver, I got stronger. Early on in the season, I had some really great results. I was driving well, but also a lot of things fell my way. I was pretty lucky in that sense. Now I think we’ve gone better, me as a driver, also binding with the team. We got stronger, but things just haven’t gone our way. It’s been frustrating.”

None of the issues were egregious and as Coyne related later, Jones was one of the cleanest drivers he’d ever had in a year where the crash damage bills added up fast.

FORT WORTH, TX – JUNE 09: Ed Jones, driver of the #19 Boy Scouts of America Honda, and Tristan Vautier, driver of the #18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda, practice for the Verizon IndyCar Series Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 9, 2017 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

With a rotating driver in the second car, be it James Davison, Esteban Gutierrez or Tristan Vautier before Bourdais’ welcome and surprise return at Gateway, Jones was the unexpected but needed rock in the driver lineup.

“I think it’s been a whole progression the whole year. We’ve run a lot of rookies over the years. We run rookies in tests that have never made it to a race, we ran rookies that made it to races,” Coyne said.

“He’s just a puppy. But he’s done a good job, very, very good. I don’t think he scratched the car. He actually did hit the wall at Pocono. The smallest amount of damage I’ve ever seen anybody do hitting a wall at Pocono. Done a very good job all year long, every track.”

Jones isn’t back yet for 2018, but Coyne said “We’re very, very close. I would love to have Ed back next year,” and wants to have a deal struck in the next few weeks.

Looking at what he did as a rookie was quite impressive. The five top-10s matched Conor Daly’s number last year as the lone full-season driver and while Daly was 18th in points in his first full season, Jones ended 14th.

That 14th place in the standings is a Coyne driver’s best finish in the standings since the late Justin Wilson’s incredible run to sixth in 2013, and actually a spot ahead of where Wilson was the following year in 2014, in 15th.

Jones’ qualifying average of 14.3 was 3.5 spots higher than Daly’s last year and Jones out-qualified his teammates nine times this year in 17 races, including Bourdais on three of eight attempts.

What he did for the team this year overall in a tough season will be remembered more than the results itself which again, were impressive given thee circumstances.

“It’s been very tough. But the whole team together, everyone within the team works very well together from the beginning of the year. A big shame to lose Seb after quite a few races. Everyone got on well with it. I remember after the accident, actually Dale got everyone together. We pushed forward,” he said.

“I think there’s been a lot of times that on Dale’s team, there’s things that have happened, gone up and down. As we’ve seen, they’ve always come back stronger.”

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McLaren ‘very close’ to agreeing new F1 deal with Alonso

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McLaren is “very close” to agreeing a new Formula 1 contract with Fernando Alonso beyond the end of the 2017 season, according to team racing director Eric Boullier.

McLaren announced last week in Singapore it would be splitting with struggling engine supplier Honda at the end of the season, linking up with Renault from 2018.

The decision was made in a bid to lift the team to the front of the field, having struggled for much of the past three years while working with Honda.

Alonso has made no secret of his frustration throughout the three-year stint, prompting the Spaniard to consider his future with McLaren upon the expiration of his contract at the end of the year.

With the driver market closing up, Alonso looks poised to remain with McLaren for 2018, but said in Singapore he is considering options in many series.

Speaking to the official F1 website, Boullier expressed his confidence in Alonso staying for 2018, saying a deal was “very close”.

“Fernando wants to stay. You can see it in his body language and the way he speaks,” Boullier added.

“There are marketing details that have to be sorted out, and that Zak [Brown, McLaren executive director] is working on.”

Despite suggestions of an ultimatum regarding its Honda partnership being issued to McLaren by Alonso, Boullier stressed that the team made the decision to switch to Renault by its own accord, with the drivers then fitting in afterwards for its 2018 plans.

“McLaren’s DNA is to be competitive. The team has always been in the top three and we belong there again,” Boullier said.

“Today we know that we have a decent chassis, which would allow us to be in the top three again with an equal level engine.

“So for us as a business it is important to be competitive, no matter what role Fernando plays. We had to make a decision for us.

“But if you want to be competitive you not only need an engine, you also need a driver. That is when Fernando comes into the picture.

“We did what we did for McLaren first, but the package includes also the driver.”