Lotus Dragon Racing owner Jay Penske pumped his fist as the black and gold No. 7 car zipped past to the checkered flag at Barber Motorsports Park on April 1. High-fives and handshakes followed the ninth-place finish – a season high for the Lotus engine program that was late to the starting gate compared with its competitors Chevrolet and Honda.
“It was a great run and nice to be able to put on such a race for the guys who worked really hard,” driver Sebastien Bourdais said. “It was pretty rewarding. Still, there’s a long way to go to be where we want to be.”
Info to go for the race weekend in Long Beach:
Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach entrant list || Practice Group 1 || Schedule
Pit lane assignments || Tickets, event info || Firestone Indy Lights entrant list
That cautionary “still” frequently pops up in post-race analysis among IZOD IndyCar Series drivers, and in this instance it’s not an overstatement. Sure Bourdais, a four-time Champ Car champion with 31 Indy car victories, knows the new chassis-engine package is a work in progress and he’s lacked significant seat time (only a half-day test at Sebring International Raceway before the season opener at St. Petersburg and race weekend track time) to deconstruct the nuances and develop the components.
The competitor, however, wants more – of everything – now.
“On the Lotus side, trying to play catch-up during the season is never easy, and that’s the one thing that worries me a little bit,” Bourdais said. “They’re willing and capable but they’re going up against really strong people in the Chevys and Hondas.
“I think the peak of power of the engine is good; we just lose time as we ramp up. You can’t spin the wheels in second gear, which is an indicator that there’s not enough power at the bottom. The engine has potential; it’s all the figuring and adjusting that takes time and money and people. As long as everybody’s willing, there is light at the end of the tunnel.”
Bourdais qualified 17th on the 2.36-mile, 17-turn road course in Birmingham, Ala. – nine spots better than on the 1.8-mile street circuit in St. Petersburg a week earlier – and, as is the mark with all great drivers, quickly unearthed a gem in the form of tire management to overcome the low-end power.
“Going to Barber where teams tested three or four times and we didn’t turn a lap, and then we only got 30 laps on a dry track before the start of the race, I wasn’t high on expectations and it turned out to be a great race,” he said. “No, we didn’t pass people on pure pace, but passed people because I took really good care of the tires and some did not and they fell off. It’s great to have such a result, but you still have to look at the big picture and make sure people don’t get too optimistic. I don’t want to be pessimistic because they did a helluva job given the time we had, which is next to nothing, and to be where we are I’m proud.
“We’re happy given the circumstances, but nobody’s happy with ninth place compared to where we want to be.”
Bourdais’ race plan for this weekend’s Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, which he won in 2005, ’06 and ’07, is to again massage the Firestone Firehawks on the 1.968-mile, 11-turn temporary street circuit to potentially take advantage of opportunities.
“Long Beach is hard on tires, and everybody is refiguring things out,” he said. “Having a little less horsepower at the bottom induces people to take care of the tires better. When you get to that (Turn 11) hairpin you have a long straightaway that’s a dragstrip and we’re going to hurt there for sure. But it doesn’t mean you can’t make some time somewhere else.
“The target is to qualify better and make our lives easier. I’ve enjoyed success in Long Beach and hope we can have a great weekend.”