A lucrative offseason investment in new drivers and engineers translated to a surprisingly fast start to the Verizon IndyCar Series season for Dale Coyne Racing.
Four-time Indy car champion Sebastien Bourdais, reunited with former engineers Craig Hampson and Olivier Boisson, was leading the points after an opening win at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and runner-up finish in the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. Ed Jones showed tremendous promise in the 22-year-old rookie’s jump from Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires with top-10 finishes in his first two starts.
But then, as Bourdais put it, his team’s effort was “derailed.”
The driver of the No. 18 Honda was caught in an opening-lap, five-car incident that wasn’t his fault at Phoenix Raceway, then encountered an engine failure in the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.
If, as the superstition goes, trouble comes in threes, Bourdais’ third encounter of bad luck was the worst. On the third lap of a run on pace to be fastest on the opening day of qualifying for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, Bourdais suffered a horrific crash in Turn 2 on May 20.
Much like Bourdais, who needed three months to recover from multiple fractures to his pelvis and right hip, Coyne’s team would regroup. Jones finished third in the Indy 500 and went on to win Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors for the season – though many felt he also should have been named the top Indianapolis 500 rookie ahead of Fernando Alonso.
Many also didn’t expect Bourdais back until next season following the crash, but he returned for the final three races. Three drivers – James Davison, Tristan Vautier and Esteban Gutierrez – filled in for Bourdais during his absence. Davison (Indianapolis 500) and Vautier (Texas Motor Speedway) were both impressive, running up front and leading laps in their respective one-off races as the Coyne team showed its strength on superspeedways. Gutierrez, the former Formula One driver, was solid if unspectacular in the seven races he hopes to use as a precursor to a full-time ride next season.
After a year of what might have been, team owner Dale Coyne looks forward to 2018 with even greater anticipation.
“We both have unfinished business,” he said, referring to his team and Bourdais.
Bourdais, 38, is hopeful that’s the case, but reminds teams will be driving cars with the new universal aero kit that he expects will be faster in the straights, slower in the corners and have less downforce. Everyone will be adjusting on the fly.
“I don’t know how we’ll fare next year,” the Frenchman said. “I sure hope we hit the ground running and find the right chemistry and get everything working in the right direction. It doesn’t matter what you think or what you want, you just have to work and give yourself the best chance to perform and hopefully collect the fruits of your labor.
“There’s no given in racing. All you can do is try your very best and your hardest. Sometimes, you’ll get the reward. Sometimes, you’ll get more reward than you probably deserve. And sometimes you get nothing. Sometimes, you get a big kick in the ass and you get set down.”
Bourdais is under contract for 2018. Coyne is optimistic Jones, who finished 14th in the points, will be re-signed.
“I’m pretty sure we’ll get something done,” said Coyne, who completed his 34th season as an Indy car team owner in 2017.
Jones impressed his new team with his grounded approach. The stage wasn’t too large for him. He had four other top-10 finishes in addition to his memorable Indy 500 run.
“Ed has been such a pleasant surprise,” Coyne said. “I did not think he would do this well this year. He’s really done a great job.”
Rookies typically make mistakes and encounter their share of incidents in that learning curve. Jones took care of his cars. The first time the 2016 Indy Lights champion didn’t finish was in the eighth race, and that was due to a mechanical issue.
“Coming through the Mazda Road to Indy was key to my success this year,” Jones said. “Before 2015, I only raced in Europe. Learning all the American circuits was really important for me. To do that in Indy Lights was really helpful. Learning ovals, a part of that was the Indy 500. It's key for young, up-and-coming drivers like myself to go through that to make it in INDYCAR.”
Bourdais finished ninth in the season-ending GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma to give him five top-10 results in the eight races in which he drove. It gave Coyne pause to wonder what might have been had his veteran driver remained healthy.
“We started out with more than we thought we were going to have,” Coyne admitted, referring to Bourdais leading the points through the first three races. “We were hoping for some performances like that next year, in all honesty. To start that strong, be leading the championship and have a chance at the pole at Indy and all the things that were happening, it was pretty special.”
Even at Indianapolis, where Bourdais blames himself for losing control of the car to cause the crash, Coyne smiles about how his team – and not bigger-budget Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing or Andretti Autosport – was setting the pace in “Fast Friday” practice and then was halfway to being fastest in Day 1 qualifying with a pair of 227-mph laps.
“Those first two laps of qualifying were pretty exciting,” Coyne said. “I’ll never forget those two … or three.”