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Hildebrand reflects on difficult 2017 IndyCar season

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When Ed Carpenter Racing confirmed that Spencer Pigot would assume full-time driving duties in the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet, thoughts subsequently jumped to the future of that entry’s current driver, JR Hildebrand.

Hildebrand, who previously raced with ECR in part-time efforts for the IndyCar Grand Prix at Indianapolis and the Indianapolis 500 from 2014 to 2016, signed with the team as a full-time driver of the No. 21 car last year, and expectations were high that they could achieve results similar to his predecessor, Josef Newgarden.

In looking at the results on paper, it’s clear that things did not materialize as they hoped. Though the team’s short oval program remained stout, with Hildebrand finishing third at Phoenix and second at Iowa, ECR’s lone podium finishes of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season, Hildebrand’s finishes on road and street circuits suffered. He never finished higher than 11th (Long Beach, where he coincidentally suffered a broken hand after last-lap contact with Mikhail Aleshin that forced him to rest the next race at Barber Motorsports Park), and was often outpaced by Pigot, especially on race days.

Results on road and street circuits were hard to come by for JR Hildebrand and Ed Carpenter Racing. Photo: IndyCar

In a blog entry posted earlier today, Hildebrand discussed what has been a troublesome season, and acknowledged the lofty expectations he and the team had when he signed.

“The chance to race in the Series full-time again was one that I was proud to earn and optimistic about taking advantage of,” Hildebrand wrote. “There were clear and reasonable expectations: we’d capitalize on our existing strengths at places like Indy and Iowa where we knew we could be highly competitive, while we’d work to develop and show progress elsewhere — we would need to learn and grow through the year.”

Still, with new personnel on board – lead engineer Justin Taylor, for example, came over from Audi Sport’s LMP1 program in the World Endurance Championship – Hildebrand acknowledged that there was always going to be a learning curve.

“As a team we entered the season with a bit of general uncertainty as the primary roles on the No. 21’s engineering staff were new faces and many of us would be working together in full-time capacity for the first time,” he continued. “Though I expected these differences to create for a revised learning curve, I looked at that less as a concern and more as a chance for us all to develop together — new perspectives and abilities are often behind movement forward, after all.”

The new personnel and the diversity of their backgrounds ultimately resulted in new experiments regarding car setups, an approach that ultimately one that proved problematic.

“While the No. 20 car often stayed close to the team’s traditional direction of setup, particularly on road and street circuits, we often diverged to seek new answers in the hopes of finding something that would give both of us a better chance to compete for 5th instead of 15th. Unfortunately neither approach was able to give us an entirely clear direction to build on as a group weekend to weekend,” he detailed.

Further, trying to do so with limited testing and practice time hampered their efforts.

“Learning quickly enough to translate those processes into high-level execution during race weekends, with few tests days or breaks to supplement our effort, proved to be a tall order that would simply require more time and specialized focus in my estimation,” Hildebrand asserted. “Getting the most out of a known setup with a known driving approach is a task that requires substantial effort; the necessary bandwidth to implement and break down new strategies in either driving or engineering on top of that became a difficult thing to find within the season’s compact schedule, despite the clear value doing so might have.”

Though frustrated that things did not go according to plan, Hildebrand is no less proud of the effort he and the No. 21 group put forward and believes there are plenty of positives to take away from the year, even if the results don’t show it.

“I’m not happy with the overall results we produced this season, but for my part, I do not regret approaching the year like I did,” he held. “While testing my own methods was trying, there are now things that I will forever do differently and better with greater awareness going forward for how to take those gains further. While we did not always arrive at critical insights quickly enough to turn our weekends around, I’m not disappointed that we experimented with new ideas as much as we did on the 21.”

A second-place at Iowa Speedway was Hildebrand’s best result of the year. Photo: IndyCar

The 29-year-old Hildebrand now enters the off-season without a contracted ride for 2018 and faces an uncertain racing future. But, for the time being, he isn’t concerned and is putting all his energy into ending the year on a high note.

“I’m ready to get on track this weekend and finish this thing strong, so how about this for now — if you don’t stress about it, I won’t either,” he finished.

Hildebrand enters Sunday’s GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma (6:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN) 15th in the championship standings.

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Bourdais hopes last year’s crash turns into Indy 500 Cinderella story on Sunday

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Sebastien Bourdais has relived his May 20, 2017 crash during Indianapolis 500 qualifying over and over in his mind, day after day, week after week and month after month.

He would think of the worst crash of his open-wheel racing career at least once — if not several times — a day, particularly when he’d experience a slight twinge of pain.

“I think about it every day,” Bourdais told MotorSportsTalk. “Even though I’m functionally 100 percent now, it’s still very rare that during the day that there’s not a little pinch or something that reminds me of what happened.”

But this past weekend while qualifying for this year’s 500, one year later, the French driver said he was finally able to work past the mental roadblock that just would not leave his mind.

The solution was simple: complete the task he wasn’t able to do so last year, namely, qualifying for the race – and qualifying well.

Bourdais will start fifth in Sunday’s 102nd Running of the Greatest Spectacle In Racing, in the middle of Row 2.

“(Last year’s crash is) still in my mind,” Bourdais said. “But I think the biggest hurdle, at least mentally, was qualifying last weekend, putting yourself back in the same set of circumstances, going back on the line there.

“It felt a little bit the same, chances of rain, some rain, delays, you get back in line, conditions change, everything gets harder because it gets hotter, but that’s the biggest hurdle to overcome. After that, it’s back to business.”

Bourdais has already won once in 2018 – the season-opening race in his adopted hometown of St. Petersburg, Florida.

It helped jump start him to a strong overall run in the first five races of the season, including a fourth-place showing two weeks ago at the INDYCAR Grand Prix of Indianapolis, coupled with entering the 500 third in the Verizon IndyCar Series standings.

Now, he wants to win the biggest race of his career. If he does so, he’ll feel as if he finally and completely has come full circle from last year’s devastating wreck that shattered his pelvis, going head-on into the Turn 2 wall at a reported 228 mph.

“Well, it’s the Holy Grail of IndyCar, it doesn’t really get any bigger than that,” Bourdais said of the 500. “It’s the biggest achievement that you can accomplish in IndyCar.

“I don’t think I’m any different than anybody else: we all want to win it pretty bad, but I’m sure after what happened after last year, it’d be a Cinderella story.”

But there’s a caveat to Bourdais writing that story: “There’s 32 other drivers that want to accomplish the same thing, and it’s a one day event. We’ll give it our best shot … you can only give your very best and see what happens on that given day.”

Bourdais has a lot going for him heading into Sunday. First off, he’ll start from the highest qualifying position he’s ever had in what will be the seventh Indy 500 of the 39-year-old’s racing career.

Second, his confidence and comfort level are higher than they’ve ever been coming into the annual classic at the 2.5-mile Brickyard oval.

Third, he’s forgiven himself – not IMS – for what happened last year. He has no ill feeling towards the racetrack, nor does he seek revenge. If he were to start thinking that way, it would serve no positive purpose.

“No. I’m not really that way,” he said when asked if he wants revenge over the racetrack. “The track didn’t beat me up, I beat myself.

“The bottom line is there were a couple of reasons why it happened, but I got more comfortable and more confident and confidence and comfort at some point just bite you at Indy.

“You just do your laps, you get into such a rhythm and the week had gone perfectly with an awesome car and there was not a doubt in my mind it was going to stick (going into Turn 2), and that’s when it happened – and I paid the price.”

So, Bourdais is simply going to go out and race, again, hoping to complete what he started last year before being so painfully derailed.

His best finish to date in the 500 has been seventh (2014). He just needs for his Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser – Sullivan Honda to finish six places higher on Sunday.

And if he does, his move to Dale Coyne Racing last year – he’s competed in 13 of 23 races with two wins, 3 podiums and one pole – would only serve to make what already has proven to be a great move into a potentially brilliant move.

Because, yes, Bourdais isn’t just thinking Indy 500 win, he’s also thinking of a potential championship this season.

“I sure hope so,” Bourdais said when asked if his team’s success will continue. “I like to say it’s (the success that the Coyne camp has had since he came there) a little bit of my baby, bringing in Craig (engineer Craig Hampson) and Olivier (race engineer Olivier Boisson) and reinforcing the existing crew.”

Bourdais is no stranger to winning championships. He won four straight combined titles in CART and the Champ Car World Series from 2004 through 2007 (he also won 28 races in that four-year span).

“Obviously, it’s one thing to get into a winning team and basically meet expectations,” Bourdais said. “It’s another thing to try and build something and change the status of the underdog and turn him into a contender week in and week out.

“We got a glimpse of that last year, and this year, we’ve been competitive every weekend so far, and that’s a great feeling. Once you’re able to be competitive on street course, road courses, short ovals and superspeedways, then you can start saying and thinking championship.”

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