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.”
The team owners, drivers and engineers believed the 17-turn, 3.067-mile race course that winds and twists its way through a gated private community (about 45 minutes southeast of Palm Springs) had no relevance to any track on the 17-race schedule.
To the leaders of IndyCar, however, there was plenty of relevance to hosting its “Spring Training” at a sort of motorsports country club that caters to extremely wealthy residents who also are automotive enthusiasts.
“Both with our stakeholders and the media that covers IndyCar, we wanted them to know that we are going to do things differently,” Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles told NBC Sports from the private VIP viewing area that overlooks the long straights and twisting turns of the course. “This is going to be a year when we expect our growth to go to a whole new level.
“What better way to send that message than to be at a place we have never been that is exceptional?
“The quality of this place; the facilities are off the charts. The customer service, the welcoming feeling you get from the staff here. The track itself is fast. The drivers are having a great time on it.
“It really sent a message to our other promoters and our drivers and team owners that something is up. We want fans around the country and the sports industry to know that something is going on with IndyCar this year.”
The Thermal Club is a concept driven by Tim Rogers, who made his fortune by supplying gasoline to 7-Eleven stores in 36 states. He wanted to create a private community that mixed multimillion-dollar homes and luxury villas with a high-speed race course.
The two-day IndyCar “Spring Training” was the most ambitious motorsports project yet for The Thermal Club.
Rogers wants it to be the first step in a long-term goal for the community.
“Our endgame is we want to host an IndyCar Series race at The Thermal Club one day,” Rogers told NBC Sports as IndyCar hit the track again Friday morning. “This was a good trial to see how the facility can handle it and if the facility works for them.”
The two-day test was closed to the general public. It was open only to credentialed news media, members of the Thermal Club and a limited number of their guests.
With the spectacular backdrop of the Coachella Valley that is rimmed with snow-capped mountains, The Thermal Club could provide a great setting for an NBC telecast of an IndyCar Series race (and possibly line up a big sponsor for a return on its investment with a larger than normal audience during a ripe time such as the first weekend of February).
“Tim and everybody at The Thermal Club have done a phenomenal job of being hosts here for this test,” Miles said. “Everybody is very happy we are here, and I expect we will find a way to continue to be here. Whether that means a race and when is really a bridge we aren’t ready to cross yet.
“We really like opening the championship season each year in St. Petersburg, Florida. We’ll have to see. But it’s a great way to start the season in this way, and right now, we are happy to be here.”
On track, it was a successful two-day test session with 27 car/driver combinations that will compete in IndyCar in 2023. It’s the largest field for IndyCar since the 1990s. There were a few spins here and there but no major incidents across 2,560 laps.
Kyle Kirkwood led the final session Friday while getting acquainted with his new No. 27 team at Andretti Autosport. Kirkwood has replaced Alexander Rossi at Andretti, whom Kirkwood drove for in Indy Lights.
His time of 1 minute, 38.827 seconds (111.721 mph) around the 3.067-mile road course was the fastest of the fourth and final session. But the fastest speed over two days was defending Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson of Chip Ganassi Racing in the Friday morning session (1:38.4228, 112.182 mph in the No. 8 Honda).
Callum Ilott of Juncos Hollinger Racing was second in the final session at 1:38.8404 (111.707 mph) in the No. 77 Chevrolet. Rookie Marcus Armstrong of New Zealand was third at 1:38.8049 (111.707 mph) in the No. 11 Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing. Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing was fourth at 1:38.8718 (111.672 mph) in the No. 10. Defending NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske rounded out the top five at 1:38.9341 (111.602 mph) in the No. 12 Chevrolet.
Ericsson was the fastest in combined times followed by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Christian Lundgaard at 1:38.5682 in the No. 45 Honda, Kirkwood, Ilott and Armstrong. Positions 3-5 speeds were from the final practice session on Friday.
Drivers didn’t know what to expect before hitting the track. After the two-day test was over, NBC Sports asked several drivers what they learned from The Thermal Club.
“I think it’s a first-class facility, no doubt,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden of Team Penske said. “I think the entire facility here at Thermal really rolled out the red carpet for us. They did a tremendous job.
“It was a fairly flawless test, I would say, for two days. I think the great thing about this was we had a two-day test, which was fantastic. You got to have this warmup; this preseason build. That was the biggest positive for me, is that we were here, we were running cars. It was a great facility to do it at.
“I think the track was a lot more fun than we anticipated. It was challenging, definitely technical. I don’t know how relevant it is. For us, it wasn’t really relevant to anywhere we’re going, but that’s OK.”
But even though the track has no sector particularly similar to any road or street course on the schedule, there still were benefits.
“In a lot of ways, it is relevant,” Newgarden said. “For us it was relevant for building the team up, trying to work in a competitive environment, be competitive together. That’s everything. So regardless of is the setup going to apply to a certain track or another, (it) doesn’t really matter.
“For us, it was applying the principles of how we’re going to work together. From that standpoint, it was very productive for everybody. Raceability-wise, it’s hard to say. It was chewing tires up. Big drop-off from run one to two. I think from a race standpoint, that would be quite positive. You’d have big tire deg here.
“You’d have to do more work on runoff areas if we wanted to race here, but it’s possible. I don’t think it would take much effort to do the things to run an actual race.”
Kirkwood found speed in his Andretti Autosport machine, but he used the test to create a smooth working relationship with his new crew.
“I wouldn’t say that we found something here that is going to translate to anywhere, right?” the 2021 Indy Lights champion said. “This is a very unique track, although it was a lot of fun to drive, and it kind of surprised me in the amount of grip that it actually produced.
“It was quite a bit faster than what we expected.”
Many of the NTT IndyCar Series teams will test later this month at Sebring, Florida, as they prepare for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg to kick off the season March 5.
“It’s a very nice facility, a nice area, it’s pretty cool to have two days of testing here with a lot of high-profile people,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske told NBC Sports. “It’s a very technical, tough track.
“It’s pretty good.”
The Thermal Club received rave reviews, welcomed IndyCar and provided exposure to the movers and shakers of the business community that own the luxury villas and homes in this ultra-rich community.
Could it be a venue of the future for a series that sells lifestyle as much as on-track competition?
“This is a fantastic facility and the circuit is a fast circuit,” team owner Bobby Rahal told NBC Sports. “It’s pretty exciting to watch the cars run around here. I think it would be attractive to people.
“I’ll leave that up to Mark Miles and (IndyCar President) Jay Frye and everybody else whether we have a race here, but why not?