Sebastien Bourdais sounds as if he’s put a humbling 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season well beyond his rear-view mirror.
The ever-intense Frenchman couldn’t be more upbeat to be reunited with familiar faces.
After five seasons elsewhere, he’s back with Dale Coyne Racing. Bourdais described the early runs of his recent test at Phoenix Raceway as “comfortable” in a “very happy car.” He placed ninth on the combined practice speed chart at 190.399 mph and was the third-fastest Honda.
He’s working again with Craig Hampson, his lead engineer during glorious Newman/Haas Racing days in CART and the Champ Car World Series, when they won four consecutive series titles. Bourdais is also teaming with Olivier Boisson, his engineer the past three years with KV Racing Technology.
“We'll see how good we get it, but we're definitely really excited to get back with Craig, and obviously he completes the trio and makes it a really solid group,” Bourdais said at Phoenix. “We've got some really good mechanics and, thanks to Dale, the whole thing has become possible. I couldn't really be any happier.”
Although Bourdais won four races the past three seasons to boost his career total to 35, which ties Bobby Unser for sixth on the all-time list, he couldn’t hide his disappointment in the gradual demise of his former team. He finished 14th in the points last season, which proved to be the final run for disbanded KV.
Bourdais, 37, thought about leaving KV before last season. He was discouraged by the loss of key mechanics and the team’s uncertain future. The idea of returning to Coyne was broached last offseason, but he decided a last-minute move wouldn’t have been fair to KV.
So he stuck it out one more year. His lone series victory came in the first race of the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix doubleheader. He also went home to team up on a Ford GT win in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The successes reminded him what he’s capable of when given a quality car.
But too much of last year had Bourdais increasingly frustrated with being unable to contend with the fastest cars on a consistent basis.
“That was really tough for me because I’m always pretty involved and intense about the effort and the team I work with and stuff,” he said during January’s INDYCAR media day. “It became almost very unhealthy for me to be in that environment, when you kind of brace and wait for the moment when it’s going to collapse and you’re going to watch your efforts go down the toilets. That was really hard.”
The last time he was with Coyne, the team was trying to build a foundation and Bourdais was coming off a frustrating stint in Formula One. Bourdais’ best result for Coyne in 2011 was sixth places (four times) in nine starts.
Why return? He was encouraged by Coyne’s continual commitment to the series and became convinced the team owner would put the necessary people around Bourdais to succeed.
“I guess I don’t know how good it’s going to be, but I’m pretty hopeful we’ve assembled a group of people that are smart enough, that share the same spirit and want to achieve the same things, and adding both Olivier and Craig to the existing team that Dale had last year was obviously crucial to have some continuity and bring some new ideas, some new ways to function and strengthen the engineering office,” Bourdais said. “I’m very much looking forward to the challenge ahead.”
Bourdais conceded his possible landing spots were limited.
“You look at the paddock and there really aren’t many options for me that bring, first an option, period, and then second, one where you can grow a program into something you feel that there is potential,” he said. “Dale has enough of a budget where he can hand-pick his driver and pick his engineers, his mechanics and let the effort go from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31. For sure, it’s not a Team Penske or Ganassi budget – resources are somewhat limited, money is limited, the number of people is limited – but at the end of the day it’s not as much as far as I’m concerned all about means but more about the consistency.
Why Dale Coyne Racing? It’s become why not?
“You’re only as good as the team is and the team is only as good as its people,” Bourdais said. “It can be called Dale Coyne Racing or whatever. It’s just what everybody brings to the table. Dale brings with his commitment to the program the stability and the consistency you need, for sure, to perform.
“Is it sufficient to achieve what we all want to achieve, which is win races and be contenders in the championship? I guess we’ll find out. But that’s the best shot that I’m going to have probably since quite a while now. It’s a two-year program, but there are options. I’d be perfectly happy to finish my career in INDYCAR with Dale and see through this and keep making things better and make the team better and stronger and see how good we can get.”
The 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series begins a week from today with opening practice for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. It is the first of 17 races on the schedule. Knockout qualifying, concluding with the Firestone Fast Six, takes place March 11. The 110-lap race on the 1.8-mile temporary street course is set for March 12 (noon ET, ABC and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network).
For more information about Honda Racing, visit http://hpd.honda.com/.