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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.

Alexander Rossi hopes to dodge oncoming traffic in second Baja 1000

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One of the great viral videos of last year’s offseason was the sight of Alexander Rossi’s Honda Ridgeline off-road vehicle and its near head-on collision with a passenger SUV coming in the wrong direction of last year’s Baja 1000.

The video of the incident overshadowed an outstanding debut for Rossi in the SCORE OFF Road Desert race.

Rossi (pictured above on the right along with fellow driver Jeff Proctor) told NBCSports.com that driving down the same roads still used by passenger traffic is one of the unique challenges of the Baja 1000.

“The most demanding form of racing is IndyCar racing,” Rossi told NBC Sports.com. “But the big thing for me in the Baja 1000 is mentally being able to understand the terrain that is coming at you at 120 miles an hour in the dust and pedestrians and other cars, people and cattle that come along with this race.”

Rossi is becoming a modern-day Parnelli Jones, A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti. He wants to race anything on wheels and win.

Since the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season concluded with the Sept. 22 Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey, Rossi competed in the Bathurst 1000 in Australia on Oct. 13. Earlier this year, Rossi drove for Acura Team Penske in the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring.

This weekend, the winner of the 100th Indianapolis 500 in 2016 and a perennial contender for the NTT IndyCar Series championship will compete in the Baja 1000 for the second straight year.

Rossi will be driving for the Honda Ridgeline Racing team and is the sixth Indy 500 winner to compete in the Baja 1000.

Other Indy 500 winners who have raced in the SCORE Baja 1000 include Jones, the 1963 Indianapolis winner and a two-time Baja 1000 race winner (1971 72); fellow Honda IndyCar Series driver and Andretti Autosport teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay, the Indy winner in 2014; Rick Mears, who won the Indianapolis 500 four times, 1985 Indy 500 champion Danny Sullivan and 2004 Indy winner Buddy Rice.

NTT IndyCar season champions who have raced in the Baja 1000 include Mears, Hunter-Reay, Sebastien Bourdais, Jimmy Vasser and Paul Tracy.

Rossi has a better understanding of what to expect in this year’s Baja 1000 after last year’s rookie experience.

How valuable was last years’ experience?

“It’s hugely valuable,” Rossi said. “The course changes each year. There will be some elements that are the same, but it’s a new route from start to finish this year. That is why we go down a week early. We do pre-running in a similar type of vehicle and take course notes and analyze each individual section of the course, find the danger areas and what you need to do come race day.

“Ultimately, the biggest thing is having the knowledge of how to prepare for the race and what to expect once you roll off the starting line. That is something I will have going for me this year that I didn’t have last year.”

As an off-road rookie, Rossi acclimated to the demands of desert racing as the Jeff Proctor-led Honda Off-Road Racing Team finished second in Class 7. It was the fourth consecutive time the team finished first or second in the Ridgeline Baja Race Truck at the Baja 1000.

“I don’t know that I can pinpoint any highlights other than just the whole experience,” Rossi said of last years’ experience. “The whole week and a half I had down there in 2018 was phenomenal. The team made me feel part of the family from Day One. I just love driving a desert truck through Baja California. It’s an experience unlike any other.

“The entire event was a highlight more than one specific moment.”

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Driving an off-road Honda Ridgeline through the desert of Baja California in Mexico is vastly different than Rossi’s regular ride in the No. 27 NAPA Honda in the NTT IndyCar Series. But Rossi believes there are many similarities, also.

“It’s very different, for obvious reasons, but ultimately, a race car is a race car,” Rossi said. “It has four wheels, and you are trying to get it from Point A to Point B quicker than other people. The general underlying techniques of getting a car through the corner efficiently is all the same; it’s just a different style.

“Everyone here is very talented at what they do and very good so in order to win this race, you have to be at the top of your game.”

The Baja 1000, like most forms of off-road racing, is more against the clock than a wheel-to-wheel competition such as IndyCar. Rossi believes it is a different form of endurance racing, similar to IMSA in many ways.

“You have to compare it like an endurance race,” Rossi said. “It’s a race where the first part of it, you are trying to get through and not take chances and stay in touch with the people you are trying to stay in touch with.

“When you get down to the final 20 to 30 percent, that is when you try to either close the lead of extend the lead of whatever position you are in. That is similar to the Rolex 24 at Daytona. It comes down to the last three or four hours, and we take a mentality closer to that.

“The only difference is if you get it wrong at Daytona, you spin in the grass. Here, it can be more dramatic than that.”

As an off-road rookie in 2018, Rossi acclimated to the demands of desert racing as the Jeff Proctor-led Honda Off-Road Racing Team finished second in Class 7. It was the fourth consecutive time the team finished first or second in the Ridgeline Baja Race Truck at the Baja 1000.

“The Honda off-road guys and my co-driver/navigator Evan Weller make it so easy for me to just jump right in and go to work,” Rossi said. “I can’t wait to share the seat with Jeff [Proctor] and Pat [Dailey] once again, and hopefully, bring home a win.”

The Honda Off-Road Racing Team has had an outstanding 2019 season, including class wins for the Baja Ridgeline Race Truck at the Parker 425, the Mint 400 and the Baja 500; where the team successfully debuted the second-generation “TSCO” chassis; and a second-place Class 7 finish at the Vegas-to-Reno event.

Proctor won his class in the Baja 1000 in both 2015 and 2016 with the Ridgeline, finished second in class in 2017 and 2018; and won the companion SCORE Baja 500 race both in 2016, 2018 and again earlier this year. The Ridgeline competes in Class 7, for unlimited six-cylinder production-appearing trucks and SUVs.

“We are stoked to have Alexander back racing with us in Mexico for his sophomore attempt at this iconic off-road race,” Proctor said. “This year’s 52nd annual Baja 1000 course covers ALL of the toughest terrain and areas in Baja Norte….as always, it will be tough.

“Alex is one of the brightest motorsports minds I’ve worked with, and he is a great asset to our team.”

The Baja 1000 begins Friday and runs through the weekend along the Baja Peninsula of Mexico.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500