BIRMINGHAM, Alabama – Sebastien Bourdais and his crew took a calculated risk – to try to finish a 90-lap road-course race on just two pit stops – and somehow made it work.
If not for sunshine, it might have worked even better than a third-place finish.
Bourdais, race engineer Craig Hampson and strategist Dale Coyne designed a plan Sunday to get to the end of the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama presented by AmFirst on just two stops. That’s 90 laps over a 2.3-mile course – 207 miles on an unforgiving circuit – while stopping only twice for fuel and tires.
Fuel wasn’t the question; tire degradation was.
“As far as we were concerned, we went into the race thinking maybe tire deg wasn’t going to be as bad as it was,” Bourdais said after finishing third behind winner Takuma Sato and runner-up Scott Dixon. “Honestly, had the sun stayed away as it was supposed to, I think we would’ve been in pretty good shape. But, man, oh man, every single lap that the sun was out, you’d lose time. It was really tough to hang on.”
Bourdais and his Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser-Sullivan crew weren’t the only ones to try the strategy, but most abandoned it early in the race. Likewise, Bourdais considered going to a three-stop plan early but stuck with it.
“All along that was the game plan,” Bourdais said. “But by Lap 15 or 16, I was like, ‘Guys, I am not so sure I can hang on to that car for another 10 laps.’ … It was really tricky, and for us to start with the Firestone (softer alternate) red used tires already might have been a little bit over-optimistic. But it worked out. It worked out.”
The result pushed Bourdais back into the NTT IndyCar Series championship hunt after a mechanical failure in the season opener at his hometown race in St. Petersburg, Florida, left him with a 24th-place finish. But a fifth-place effort March 24 at Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas, and Sunday’s podium finish let him climb to sixth in the standings, 53 points behind leader Josef Newgarden heading to this weekend’s Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach.
Afterward, Bourdais thanked his crew for believing in his ability to nurse the No. 18 SealMaster Honda to the finish. That meant saving tires and push-to-pass uses until late in the race, when he was able to challenge Dixon for second place.
“(The team) had maybe more faith than I had myself to be able to wheel that thing,” Bourdais said. “It was very easily achievable, but the problem was to be able to hang on to the tires.”
As he walked to victory lane for the postrace champagne spray, Bourdais marveled at how they were able to make the plan work.
“It was just a weird deal,” he said. “It was very much a catch-up game all weekend. What is the track temp going to be? Where is the wind? What are the tires going to do? It was just a lot of guessing. I was never really sure what I was going to have. I’m usually not very happy with that, but this time we pulled it off.”
He carries that momentum to the famous Long Beach street course in Southern California, which hosts its 36th consecutive Indy car race this weekend. Bourdais won three straight races there in the Champ Car days from 2005-07 and more recently strung together three straight top-10 results, including a runner-up finish, from 2015-17.
He’ll start the weekend by being inducted into the Long Beach Motorsports Walk of Fame on Thursday, along with two-time race winner Will Power. Among those whose bronze medallions have already been installed on the sidewalk of South Pine Avenue adjacent to the track are greats Dan Gurney, Parnelli Jones, Mario and Michael Andretti, Bobby Rahal, Al Unser Jr., Dario Franchitti and Emerson Fittipaldi – but Bourdais and Power own the honor of being the first inducted while still active drivers.
“Joining such an illustrious group of drivers, owners and teams is very special,” Bourdais said. “The fact that I am still an active Indy car driver and, along with Will, will be the first active Indy car drivers to be inducted, is an accomplishment I'm extremely proud of."
Practice for the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach begins Friday with 45-minute sessions that start at 1 and 5 p.m. ET. A third practice is set to start at noon Saturday. All NTT IndyCar Series practice sessions stream live on INDYCAR Pass on NBC Sports Gold.
NTT P1 Award qualifying begins at 2:45 p.m. Saturday and airs live on NBCSN and INDYCAR Pass. Coverage of the 85-lap race on the 1.968-mile temporary street course commences at 4 p.m. Sunday on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.