This time of year is usually one of hope for St. Petersburg, Florida, resident Sebastien Bourdais. The NTT IndyCar Series veteran is usually the de facto host driver of the event. Bourdais is also a two-time winner of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
But this is an unusual time for the only driver to win four consecutive Champ Car Series championships.
Bourdais will not be a full-time IndyCar Series driver in 2020. Instead, he will compete in just four races this season for A.J. Foyt Racing.
Bourdais was blindsided by the decision last November that led to him losing his ride at Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser and Sullivan. Because Bourdais’ No. 18 Honda did not score any manufacturer points in 2019, team owner Dale Coyne lost a significant chunk of funding.
That forced Coyne into making a serious business decision. He decided to end his agreement with Bourdais. He moved Santino Ferrucci, 21, over to the Vasser and Sullivan side of the operation and hired highly touted Alex Palou for the No. 55 Honda.
Bourdais turned his attention to IMSA and signed a deal with JDC Miller Motorsports co-driving the No. 5 Mustang Sampling Cadillac DPi with Joao Barbosa for 2020. He faced the prospect of being out of the IndyCar paddock when the season started.
Enter racing legend A.J. Foyt and his son Larry.
The Foyts will put Bourdais in the car for four races this season. Those include the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 15, the Honda Grand Prix of Alabama on April 5, the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 19 and the Grand Prix of Portland on Sept. 6.
“It’s only four events, so you’ve got to perform right away,” Bourdais said. “You don’t have many ‘Jokers.’
Bourdais proved he could get up to speed quickly in 2017 and 2018 when he won the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
“It’s a very different set of circumstances from last year,” Bourdais said. “I wasn’t expecting that, but you have to make the best of every situation, and it’s worked out pretty good. The full program in DPI (in IMSA) and four races with A.J. Foyt Racing and reuniting with Chevrolet. It’s pretty exciting.
“It’s kind of in rebuilding phase with A.J. Foyt and trying to see how we can turn the thing around and get some good results. Bringing Mike Colliver and Mike Pawlowski is going to be a huge help on the engineering side. That’s quite exciting.”
Bourdais will be in the famed No. 14 Chevrolet at AJ Foyt Racing. Veteran driver Tony Kanaan, the 2004 IndyCar Series champion and 2013 Indianapolis 500 winner, will drive that car in the oval races on the schedule, including the 104th Indianapolis 500.
Bourdais began his career driving for Newman-Haas Racing with team owners Paul Newman and Carl Haas in 2003. Seventeen years later, he is with the legendary Foyt, the first four-time Indianapolis 500 winning driver and longtime team owner.
“It’s a huge honor,” Bourdais said of Foyt. “You can feel that responsibility to deliver. Tony (Kanaan) mentioned it time and time again when you fly the flag, you feel like you’ve got to give back to him. It’s his name on it, it’s his legacy, it’s his team. You feel quite strong responsibility.
“Bring it back to the point you were mentioning at the beginning, it’s ironic you start your career at Newman-Haas Racing with Paul Newman and Carl Haas and end up driving AJ Foyt’s car on the later part of your career.
“I’m feeling pretty lucky.”
Bourdais could use a little luck, especially after the way he lost his ride on Nov. 5, 2019.
“I think given the right equipment, we’ve been performing well anywhere, but those four venues are definitely a few places I very much enjoy,” Bourdais said. “When Larry (Foyt) came up with the opportunity and selected races, there were different circumstances that prevented doing more, but I told him I’ll do whatever I can to help you.
“I was really honored that they provided that chance to me to stay in IndyCar. Just to keep a foot in it and see what comes in the future.”
One big race missing from Bourdais’ limited schedule is the Indy 500. Currently, Foyt’s Indy 500 lineup is full, and Kanaan has the Indy 500 as one of his races in the No. 14.
Bourdais admits he is looking for an Indy 500 deal.
“As of right now, it’s not part of the plans, but I’d be lying if I said we weren’t working on things so it’s in the papers,” Bourdais said. “We’ll see what comes up and if it happens, but for the moment, it’s not the focus and not set by any means.”
Bourdais is a savvy veteran who has 37 career victories.
But he realizes he doesn’t have “next week” to make up for a bad race. He has to make the most of his four-race opportunity.
“You’re your own worst enemy in those days when you try to overachieve,” Bourdais admitted. “I’ve been there before where you are trying so hard to make something happen because maybe the equipment is not quite up to par or because this year you have only so many opportunities to show what you can do.
“You’ve got to balance your aggression and how many chances you take and what you do.
“Ultimately, I’m a true believer that you obviously can’t carry those things around. You can only give your very best, and that’s 100 percent. Once you try to do more than that, only bad things come your way.”
By realizing that before the season ever starts, don’t bet against this guy, even if he is driving for a team that has to return to relevance to be competitive again.
“We’ll just be focused,” Bourdais said. “We’ll work very hard with the team to get the team to the level they want to perform. And then, obviously, the execution is the last part, which is the critical part of the result when you put yourself in the seat and it’s a possibility to achieve a result.
“First of all, you need to get the team where they want to be and get the car in the groove and have the potential to even compete at the level you want to be at.”
If Bourdais is able to put Foyt’s No. 14 back toward the front, that could create a pathway back to a full-time ride. After all, Bourdais emphasized he did not expect to be in this position before he was given the bad news by Dale Coyne in November.
“There’s no intention to retire from IndyCar racing,” Bourdais said. “It’s the end of the deal in late November, and there wasn’t anything at all, and that opportunity came about, it was as good as it was going to get. I had to find a rescue mission on the IMSA side, which I was extremely grateful.
“Everything on top of that was the cherry on top of the cake. Maybe we can put a few more cherries on top of the cake.
“As far as the future is concerned, it’s definitely wide open. I hope I’ll be able to prove this year that I still belong there and can keep going a few more years. But who knows? If it’s the end, it’s the end. I’ve got a mission to help the team whichever way I can. We started working at the simulator with Chevy. Both Mikes and the whole team is pretty pumped up.
“We’ll try to live up to the expectations and deliver.”