IndyCar: Sebastien Bourdais brings back good memories of racing at Portland


PORTLAND, Oregon – Race car drivers are like elephants: they have incredible memories and never forget, be it a good race, a bad race – or a run-in with an opponent.

Sebastien Bourdais is definitely in that category – the good side, that is.

While the majority of Verizon IndyCar Series drivers are making their maiden voyage around Portland International Raceway this weekend, Bourdais is the most seasoned and successful driver at PIR in the field for Sunday’s Grand Prix of Portland.

Even though he last raced – and won – at PIR in 2007, there’s no debating his career mark there.

Not only is the last winner of an Indy car race at the 1.964-mile track, the 39-year-old Bourdais has an incredible scorecard there. In five prior starts there, he has wins in 2004 and 2007, was runner-up in 2005 and third in 2006.

His only bad outcome was 14th in his first start there in 2003, when he suffered mechanical failure to his rear wing with nine laps remaining in the race.

And going back to the drivers-never-forget theme, Bourdais proved during Friday’s first practice that he hasn’t lost his touch around PIR.

Behind the wheel of the Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser-Sullivan No. 18 Gorilla Automotive Products Honda, Bourdais was the fastest around the track of the 25 drivers entered in the race at 123.183 mph at 57.3975 seconds, both new track records.

It was a good indicator of potential things to come for this weekend, albeit there is still one more practice Friday afternoon and another Saturday before qualifying.

Still, Bourdais has to feel encouraged, especially after the way he made a quick exit following a first-lap crash last Saturday at Gateway Motorsports Park.

Portland will be the 187th IndyCar start for Bourdais, now in his 13th season in the series. He comes into this weekend with 37 career wins (31 in CART/Champ Car, including four consecutive championships from 2004-2007, as well as six wins in IndyCar), which is sixth on the overall all-time open-wheel wins list in the U.S.

He’s also captured 34 combined poles, seventh on the all-time list.

While he looked like he hadn’t missed a step in Friday’s first practice, Bourdais admits PIR has changed a lot.

“It’s very different,” Bourdais told MotorSportsTalk. “The curbing situation makes the track very different. Turn 7 is reconfigured. There’s actually not really much that transfers over. The car feels very different. Everything’s changed so much, the pavement has changed. … It’s almost like it’s a different place.

“Overall, I think our road course setup has been pretty good and competitive. We’ve qualified third twice, we should have won Barber. With the aero package, we find the setup that suits me. Things line up and I have good conditions. It was sprinkling all morning and it wasn’t when i did my laps, so that could be some factor. It’s really, really tricky.

“Still, it’s a good start. It was a pretty good day yesterday during the test here. Hopefully, we can carry on.”

While Bourdais is out of the championship battle (he’s currently 10th in the standings with 334 points), he still has plenty of incentive to race for both this weekend as well as the season finale at Sonoma Raceway.

With four top-five finishes in the first 15 races (fourth at Indy Grand Prix and Pocono, and fifth at Birmingham) two other top-10 showings, Bourdais would love to bookend the 2018 campaign, beginning with a win in the season opener at St. Petersburg with wins at Portland and Sonoma.

“I am looking forward to going back to Portland,” Bourdais said. “The track is challenging, the fans are knowledgeable and the atmosphere at the track was always fun.

“I’ve had some success there and I guess I am the longest defending champion ever since I won the last time we raced there in 2007.”

Bourdais is glad to see the series back in the Pacific Northwest. Fans are, too, as the reserved seats at PIR have been sold out for the last month and there’s been talk that the grandstands could make it sellout on Sunday.

“There were a lot of attempts over the years to come back here, but they just never materialized,” Bourdais said. “Now we’re getting some recognition, and there was a lot of public awareness, a lot of people wanted us back, there was a big push from the city and community. Finally, we got enough of it that could make it happen. I think everybody’s pretty excited.”

Then, Bourdais adds, “I just hope it (his success at PIR) repeats itself.”

While Thursday’s two test sessions and this weekend’s three practice sessions will be a big help, Bourdais — who was only 10th fastest in Friday’s second practice (there’s one more on Saturday morning before qualifying) has his eyes set in another area.

“Qualifying, as it is on any road course will be important,” Bourdais said. “Fortunately, we got to test there on Thursday so that is good.

“I’m just looking forward to getting back on a road course and hopefully having a good race for our sponsor Gorilla Automotive Products.”

Not only has the Le Mans, France native been proficient in racing at PIR, he also has qualified top-five in his five previous starts there, including a pole in 2004 and a pair of third-place starts in 2006 and 2007.

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Sebastien Bourdais Career Statistics
Seasons 13 Top-Five 75
Career Starts 186 Top-10 109
Wins 37 Poles 34
Podiums 55 Laps Led 2,639
2018  Verizon IndyCar Series Statistics
Starts 15 Top-10 6
Wins 1 Poles 1
Podiums 1 Laps Led 108
Top-Five 4
2018 Verizon IndyCar Series Results
St. Petersburg S/F 14/1 Texas S/F 5/8
Phoenix S/F 1/13 Road America S/F 6/13
Long Beach S/F 9/13 Iowa S/F 15/11
Barber S/F 3/5 Toronto S/F 17/19
INDYCAR GP S/F 3/4 Mid-Ohio S/F 24/6
Indianapolis 500 S/F 5/28 Pocono S/F 8/4
Detroit Race 1 S/F 17/13 Gateway S/F 10/21
Detroit Race 2 S/F 16/21
Portland Statistics
Number of Starts 5 2003 S/F 4/14
2007 S/F 3/1 Best Start 1st  (2004)
2006 S/F 3/3 Best Finish 1st (2004, 2007)
2005 S/F 5/2 Laps Led 146
2004 S/F 1/1


The Thermal Club wants an IndyCar race, and series executives liked its initial impact at test


THERMAL, Calif. – Many teams in the NTT IndyCar Series questioned the relevancy of having a two-day preseason test at The Thermal Club.

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.

FRIDAY SPEEDSThird session l Fourth session l Combined

‘AN AMAZING PLACE’: IndyCar and its big plans for Thermal

“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.”

Felix Rosenqvist makes laps in the No. 6 Arrow McLaren Dallara-Chevrolet during the first day of NTT IndyCar Series testing (Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY Sports Images).

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).

NASCAR is using that same model Sunday at the Los Angeles Coliseum by hosting the Busch Light Clash. The National Football League’s AFC and NFC Championship games were last weekend and next Sunday is the Super Bowl.

“That could work, but we have room where we could separate the public and the private members area, too,” Rogers said. “We could accommodate 4,000 or so of the general public.

“This would be a premium event for a premium crowd.”

Rogers’ dream of The Thermal Club began 11 years ago. He will talk to IndyCar about a return for Spring Training next year with hopes of getting a date on the schedule for 2025.

“Whatever fits,” Rogers said.

Miles and Penske Entertainment, the owners of IndyCar, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the Indianapolis 500, realize Rogers has an ambitious dream of getting a race on the schedule.

Miles, however, isn’t ready to indicate that a race at Thermal is part of IndyCar’s future (though drivers seem open to the concept).

“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.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
Defending IndyCar champion Will Power takes laps at The Thermal Club during the first day of the track’s first test (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

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.

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
With members’ houses in the background, Romain Grosjean navigates the turns of The Thermal Club in his No. 28 Dallara-Honda (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

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.

IndyCar Thermal Club test
Josef Newgarden said his No. 2 team (which has a new lead engineer) used The Thermal Club test as an opportunity for building cohesion (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).
Indycar Series Test - Day 2
Josef Newgarden (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

“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.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
Will Power (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images)

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.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 2
IndyCar drivers turns laps on the second day of testing at The Thermal Club, which is nestled in the Coachella Valley that is ringed by mountains in Southern California (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

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?

“It’s a great place.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500