In some ways, the triumphs of Dale Coyne Racing at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg are not surprising. Sebastien Bourdais’ sublime skills are well-documented, and team owner Dale Coyne reunited him with Craig Hampson for the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season (Bourdais and Hampson won four consecutive Champ Car World Series championships between 2004 and 2007). Ed Jones, though a rookie, was a proven race winner in Europe before relocating to the United States in 2015 and won the Indy Lights championship one year later, further proving his status as a strong up-and-comer on the circuit.
However, a number of factors made it easy to overlook the Dale Coyne Racing duo. Bourdais crashed in qualifying, forcing him to start 21st and last on the grid. The last time a driver won from that far back was Scott Dixon (2014, Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course). And Jones was making his first IndyCar start. As a result, it was difficult to place lofty expectations on the British driver. Quite frankly, running all the laps and finishing the race would have qualified as a strong outing. And, while Coyne has made huge strides in recent years, they will lack the resources and funding of teams like Chip Ganassi Racing and Team Penske.
Yet, race day could not have gone much better. Early pit stops for both drivers paid off after a lap 26 caution and allowed them to start second (Bourdais) and fourth (Jones) on the ensuing restart. Two laps after the restart, Bourdais moved around Simon Pagenaud for the lead and shot off into the distance, leading most of the remainder of the race to secure a surprise victory. Jones, for his part, held his own and drove smartly and efficiently to end the day tenth. While unspectacular, it was a fine performance for a driver making his Verizon IndyCar Series debut.
Because of their results, one might assume the team will now be among the favorites at the road and street courses for the rest of the year. Bourdais, however, is quick to reign in expectations. “I know people will ask if we can win again this weekend at Long Beach. Well, we didn’t expect to win in St. Petersburg!” he quipped. “That said, for us it’s more a question of proving our potential versus getting that ultimate result. Yes, winning was a great bonus for everyone on the team, but we also want to validate everything we’re doing.”
In fact, finishing in the top five could be described as a success for Bourdais. Despite dominating the streets of Long Beach with three consecutive wins between 2005 and 2007, his best finish at Long Beach since 2011, when he returned to the IndyCar ranks, is sixth (2015). Of the six Long Beach races held in the that time frame, Bourdais has only finished in the top ten twice. His recent struggles on the 1.968-mile circuit are not lost on him, but he emphasized that his enthusiasm for the event is not dampened. “I’ve mostly always done well at Long Beach, although looking at my results there the last few years, they were not necessarily what they could have been for different reasons. It’s a circuit that I very much enjoy driving on, like any street circuit to be honest. I think it suits my driving style quite well. If we find the right balance on the car, I think things can go well for us this weekend.”
Jones highlighted that St. Petersburg allowed him a chance to build a notebook, making his confidence much higher entering the second event of the year. “I know a lot more what to expect when I get to a race weekend after what I learned at St. Pete and I can’t wait to bring that experience to Long Beach, work on that and improve from there.”
Jones, like Bourdais has won at Long Beach before, doing so in the 2015 Indy Lights season, the last time Indy Lights visited the street circuit. That success, along with the general atmosphere, makes Jones enthusiastic for a return trip. “I’ve been to Long Beach once before, in 2015, and I won there in Indy Lights,” he asserted. “It was too bad that Indy Lights didn’t race there last year. Long Beach is in my top two favorite events that I’ve done, so I really can’t wait to get back there. It’s always a great atmosphere, a great circuit and racing in California is always nice.”
Practice for the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach begins tomorrow at 4:00 p.m. ET (1:00 p.m. local time).