It’s already been a big week for Sebastien Bourdais as he has returned home to Le Mans, France, for this weekend’s 24 Hours of Le Mans sports car classic.
On Tuesday, Bourdais celebrated his hometown return by announcing another homecoming, this time in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES.
Bourdais, a four-time series champion, will compete in the final three races of the 2020 NTT INDYCAR SERIES season and a full schedule in the No. 14 Chevrolet for AJ Foyt Racing in 2021.
In many ways, Bourdais’ journey back to INDYCAR has come full circle.
“With the cross stories of Le Mans, A.J. Foyt at Le Mans, me, INDYCAR, the whole racing business really, it's kind of cool,” Bourdais said of making the announcement in Le Mans. “Larry (Foyt, AJ Foyt Racing president) is in Texas. I'm in Le Mans getting ready for the 24. The folks in INDYCAR are in Indy.
“It’s a great opportunity. There definitely was the wish to make it happen in 2021. I couldn't be more thankful and grateful to the team for making it happen. Looking forward to hopefully a great 2020, end of 2020, and going into '21.”
Bourdais is a 37-time INDYCAR race winner and won four consecutive Champ Car titles from 2004-07. In 2020, he was originally scheduled to share the No. 14 Chevrolet with Tony Kanaan and Canadian rookie Dalton Kellett. Bourdais would drive a limited road course schedule, while Kellett would contest the other eight races. Kanaan would compete in the oval races on the schedule.
When the COVID-19 pandemic forced a nationwide shutdown in mid-March, many of the races on Bourdais’ original schedule, including the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach and the AutoNation INDYCAR Classic at COTA, were canceled.
From the outside, it looked like Bourdais would be unable to compete in an Indy car, but the driver and team continued to work on a deal for 2021.
“At that point, I think there were greater or bigger problems in the world, and there are still a lot of issues,” Bourdais said Tuesday. “Obviously, I was looking forward to the things that I was talking about with Larry, trying to explore the perspectives, really trying to come through on the 2021 project.
“We knew the more we could run, the more we could prove of where the team was at. Getting experience in '20 was critical. When the opportunity was denied, it didn't really stop the plans to try and pursue that avenue.”
Larry Foyt admitted it wasn’t the best time in the business to look for sponsorship dollars for 2021. But perseverance paid off with the announcement of the deal Tuesday.
“It was super-challenging,” Foyt said. “I have to give a super thank you to Roger Penske and INDYCAR for giving us the season we've had. I know financially it's been hard on everybody. But it just would have been catastrophic for a lot of us teams if we would not have had a season this year. A big thank you to them.
“We've had some great supporters that we'll be excited to talk more about at later dates. A lot of people have stepped up and helped us to make this happen. I’m thankful for them.”
When Bourdais agreed to a part-time schedule with the team for 2020, the intent was to always build toward the future. Driving an Indy car is something the Frenchman loves more than any other racing vehicle.
“I had no plans on stopping INDYCAR at the end of 2019,” Bourdais said. “When the opportunity came talking to Larry in November and trying to put something together for early 2020, it was always with the mindset to hopefully build something and get another shot at a full-time ride in 2021.
“This coming to fruition is obviously a huge deal. I couldn't be happier to give it another go. Hopefully with all the support that we're going to receive and the engineering team, we can get that 14 car back to where it belongs towards the front.”
Bourdais’ INDYCAR career took an unexpected detour last November when team owner Dale Coyne had to make a difficult business decision, which meant a new driver. With few INDYCAR rides available, Bourdais signed to compete for Mustang Sampling Racing in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.
He signed a partial-season deal with Foyt before COVID-19 hit. Despite the lost races to the original schedule, Bourdais and Foyt successfully met the challenge.
“Honestly, from the get-go, as soon as the door closed on my ride from last year, I wasn't ready to say goodbye to INDYCAR,” Bourdais said. “Christian Fittipaldi and the whole team (Mustang Sampling in IMSA) gave me an opportunity and a safety net to get to do something this year.
“As soon as that was secured, we kept talking to a few teams. Larry was very receptive and was interested in me helping the future plan and the development of the car.
“For me, everywhere I feel like there is a good opportunity in INDYCAR and I can add something to the table, I'm going to be interested.
“It's where my heart is. I love driving those cars. Who doesn't want a good challenge?”