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.

Robert Wickens in the Indy 500? Bryan Herta making plans to field a car for next year

Robert Wickens Indy 500
Brett Farmer/LAT Images/IMSA
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Bryan Herta wants to enter Robert Wickens in the Indy 500 as early as 2024 – a year longer than preferred as work continues on the hand controls needed for the paralyzed driver.

Wickens suffered a spinal cord injury in a crash at Pocono Raceway in his 2018 IndyCar rookie season. He’s worked as a driver coach for the Arrow McLaren IndyCar team since, but last year with Bryan Herta Autosport and Hyundai returned to racing in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge.

The 33-year-old Canadian won a pair of races (including the season opener at Daytona) driving a Hyundai Elantra N-TCR that is fitted for Wickens to race strictly through hand controls. Herta said Thursday that perfecting that technology for an Indy car in the biggest race in the world has slowed the project he’s determined to do with Wickens.

‘I’M AS HUNGRY AS EVER’: Robert Wickens’ return to racing

“I’d love to take Robbie back to Indy because I know he could do that, and I think that would be a next step for him in his journey,” Herta told The Associated Press. “We’ve spent a lot of time looking at the logistical side of things, hand controls, and I think we have solutions for that.”

Herta said Honda has been supportive of the process, which Herta called “one of the most important things we’ve done in racing” last year.

“We actually looked at doing it this year, but the logistics of it, the timing, it just wasn’t enough,” Herta said. “That’s not something you can rush. There’s some things that we have to work very closely with IndyCar on, and things we just have to get right. It’s a process, but I can see a path to it.”

Wickens, when told his boss was openly discussing the Indy 500, grinned widely. Herta as a team owner won the Indianapolis 500 with Dan Wheldon and Alexander Rossi.

“That’d be fun,” he said of running the Indy 500.

But like Herta, Wickens said the effort has to be both done correctly and be competitive.

“We’d like to do it right. If we started right now, can we get a car ready for the open test in April? Probably,” Wickens told The AP. “But I don’t know where the systems would be and I want to get on proper simulators to make sure its correct.

“We all want to do a proper, professional effort,” he added. “I don’t want to do it for a marketing campaign. I want to do it for a chance to win.”

Wickens in 2021 did a demonstration in Canada that marketed advancements for paralyzed drivers and gave him a chance to again drive. His entire life had been upended 14 races into his rookie IndyCar season, just three months after winning top rookie honors at the Indianapolis 500.

Wickens has since married, returned to racing last year and welcomed the birth of his first child, an son named Wesley whom is infatuated with both race cars and the trip to Disney he took this week during the off days at Daytona International Speedway.

Wickens, who uses a wheelchair but can stand with some support, marks a full year back racing on Friday in the season-opening IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge race. Despite success last season, Herta made changes to his lineups and Wickens this year will be teamed with Harry Gottsacker.