Bourdais: Determination to return in 2017 fueled fast recovery

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MADISON, Ill. – Sebastien Bourdais’ return to Verizon IndyCar Series active competition isn’t just sooner than expected, but also fueled by motivation to silence any doubters or questions about his readiness to return.

He’s back in the No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda ahead of the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 presented by Valvoline (Saturday, 9 p.m. ET, NBCSN), only 14 weeks after his unreal accident during qualifying for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

Bourdais was determined to avoid an offseason of discontent and questions about his recovery, which fueled him to get back in the car for the final three races of the year.

“That’s really the whole thing for me, to get back in the saddle, obviously prove to everybody that nothing has changed, that I’m still the same guy, plus a little bit of hardware, but that’s another thing,” Bourdais said Friday at Gateway, when speaking to reporters.

“I think you always have to prove yourself or re-prove yourself in racing. There’s no doubt about that. Because those questions are going to be in people’s mind and everything, I just wanted to make sure that that’s taken care of and we just can go back to work and just not worry about it.”

The deal came together this week, with Bourdais finding out on Tuesday once contact was made with Coyne that he’d be good to go. Figuring out Esteban Gutierrez’s status was the next step; the team will keep Gutierrez’s full UNIFIN sponsorship and livery at least for this weekend with UNIFIN signage expected to continue the rest of the year.

A third car was expected for Bourdais for Sonoma and the season finale at the least, but the decision was made to move up his return to this week. He wanted to get back on an oval, at a track he’s tested at twice with Coyne, albeit on the prior surface before the repave.

“We never really know exactly the timing of things,” Bourdais said, as he explained the recovery process. “We knew six weeks for weight-bearing, providing the that X-rays looked good, and eight for walking.

“We did eight and a half for weight-bearing and transitioned really quickly into walking, got out of the office and started walking. I was feeling good enough at that stage, and the doctor in Tempe was pretty happy with what he saw, and then Terry and Dr. Scheid didn’t exactly agree with it, so there was a little setback and the cane popped back and things like that, but I’d say overall as soon as we did X-rays and the bone looked pretty strong, I knew things were looking good.

“And then we went out west for the trip that was planned a long time ago with the family, and that went very well, and when I came back, drove the coach back from Vegas to Indy and went to see Dr. Scheid again, and we did the final — what had the potential to be the final check but not necessarily on the 15th of August. He really obviously was pleased with the X-rays and everything looked really strong.

“At that point it was a green light, and let’s go racing. I couldn’t be any happier about that. Yeah, just looking forward to putting this story behind and just getting back to work.”

Expectations are minimal for Bourdais this weekend, not because of how he’s feeling but more due to the anticipated gap between the Chevrolet and Honda aero kits, in the final oval race for the manufacturer aero kits over a three-year period before the 2018 Dallara universal aero kit comes into the series next year. The Chevy kit has less drag than does the Honda one.

“It’s obviously a bit of a difficult one because we knew going into this one that it was not going to be the easiest of weekends for our package,” he said. “But Honda has worked really hard, and so we’ll see exactly where we’re at. But I think it’s very much of a Phoenix scenario as far as where we stand with field position. We’ll see how things go, but I mean, we’ll just try and do the best we can, and for me to get back in the saddle.

“I think it’s a great layout, and obviously now with the new pavement, it looks like a first-class facility, so it’s awesome,” he added about Gateway. “You know, hats off to the organization. I think a lot of people had doubts about the organization being able to pull it together and repave so fast and be ready for a race like that.”

Bourdais hasn’t lost his sense of humor and candor, either. Asked whether he wanted to forget the Indianapolis crash best as he could, he said you can’t and instead have to focus forward.

“There’s no forgetting it, and I think it would be a mistake to forget it. I think it’s a good reminder that obviously you should not disregard the signs that the car is giving you sometimes, and I did.

“Like I said, I got caught up in the moment, and I paid for it. So, probably don’t want to do that again.”

Jack Miller wins the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix as Fabio Quartararo stops his downward points’ slide

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Jack Miller ran away with the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix at Motegi as Fabio Quartararo stopped his downward slide in the championship when a last-lap accident from his closest rival in the standings caused Francesco Bagnaia to score zero points.

Starting seventh, Miller quickly made his way forward. He was second at the end of two laps. One lap later, he grabbed the lead from Jorge Martin. Once in the lead, Miller posted three consecutive fastest laps and was never seriously challenged. It was Australian native Miller’s first race win of the season and his sixth podium finish.

The proximity to his home turf was not lost.

“I can ride a motorcycle sometimes,” Miller said in NBC Sports’ post-race coverage. “I felt amazing all weekend since I rolled out on the first practice. It feels so awesome to be racing on this side of the world.

“What an amazing day. It’s awesome; we have the home Grand Prix coming up shortly. Wedding coming up in a couple of weeks. I’m over the moon; can’t thank everyone enough.”

Miller beat Brad Binder to the line by 3.4 seconds with third-place Jorge Martin finishing about one second behind.

But the center of the storm was located just inside the top 10 as both Quartararo and Bagnaia started deep in the field.

Quartararo was on the outside of row three in ninth with Bagnaia one row behind in 12th. Neither rider moved up significantly, but the championship continued to be of primary importance as Bagnaia put in a patented late-race charge to settle onto Quartararo’s back tire, which would have allowed the championship leader to gain only a single point.

On the final lap, Bagnaia charged just a little too hard and crashed under heavy braking, throwing away the seven points he would have earned for a ninth-place finish.

The day was even more dramatic for the rider who entered the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix third in the standings. On the sighting lap, Aleix Espargaro had an alarm sound, so he peeled off into the pits, dropped his primary bike and jumped aboard the backup. Starting from pit lane, he trailed the field and was never able to climb into the points. An undisclosed electronic problem was the culprit.

For Quartararo, gaining eight points on the competition was more than a moral victory. This was a track on which he expected to run moderately, and he did, but the problems for his rivals gives him renewed focus with four rounds remaining.

Next week, the series heads to Thailand and then Miller’s home track of Phillip Island in Australia. They will close out the Pacific Rim portion of the schedule before heading to Spain for the finale in early November.

It would appear team orders are not in play among the Ducati riders. Last week’s winner Enea Bastianini made an aggressive early move on Bagnaia for position before the championship contender wrestled the spot back.

In his second race back following arm surgery, Marc Marquez won the pole. His last pole was more than 1,000 days ago on this same track in 2019, the last time the series competed at Motegi. Marquez slipped to fifth in the middle stages of the race, before regaining a position to finish just off the podium.

In Moto2 competition, Ai Ogura beat Augusto Fernandez to close the gap in that championship to two points. Fernandez holds the scant lead. Alonso Lopez rounded out the podium.

Both American riders, Cameron Beaubier and Joe Roberts finished just outside the top 10 in 11th and 12th respectively.