So the bell has run on the career in F1 of Sebastien Bourdais. He can count himself lucky to have lasted 18 months. He came to F1 with a wonderful reputation, having won four consecutive CART/Champ Car titles in the United States. In the end all that achieved was to strengthen the belief in F1 that the US racing scene is inferior to the F1 world. The other month in the e-magazine GP+ I tried to analyse his lack of performance in F1. It was called “The enigma of Sebastien Bourdais” and I thought I would share it with you.
In America he was almost unbeatable. He came to Formula 1 to show the world that he had always deserved the chance, but things have not worked out for him. He was overshadowed in 2008 by Sebastian Vettel and is now suffering the same fate at the hands of rookie Sebastien Buemi. Does this mean that F1 is right to think that the racing is not up to much in the United States?
Take a look at Sebastien Bourdais’s biography and you can see why he ended up being a racing driver. His father Patrick was a regular competitor in French hillclimbs, touring car and sportscar events. The family lived in Le Mans. In fact Sebastien was born in the Clinique du Tertre Rouge, just 200 metres from the famous corner on the Le Mans circuit, at the top of the Mulsanne Straight. As a toddler he was often at the race tracks and at 11 his father gave him a kart for his birthday. He was soon competing and winning. At 15 he took part in a test at Le Mans to try to win a place in the La Filiere scheme, run by Elf. That won him half the budget he needed to compete in Formula Campus in 1995 – and a great education in racing. The Formula Campus idea was to train teenagers how to race but, at the same time, to make sure that they completed their formal education as well. The drivers raced at weekends and studied during the week. They were a talented bunch, including Jonathan Cochet and Romain Dumas, both of whom went on to international careers. Bourdais was not the star of the show, but he caught the attention of Elf and that helped him through Formula Renault, where he finished second to Cochet in 1997, and Formula 3, which he won in 1999. That got him to Formula 3000 with the Prost Junior Team in 2000. In 2001 he won his first race, driving for DAMS, and in 2002 he won the title with Super Nova Racing, although only after Tomas Enge had a victory taken away from him for failing a drug test.
Bourdais tested for the Arrows F1 team and then for Renault F1, but he refused to sign a management contract with Flavio Briatore and so was not given the job as the team’s third driver. Disillusioned by the F1 world, he headed for the United States and did a deal with Newman-Haas Racing for the 2003 CART World Series. He won his fourth race and finished fourth in the championship, was named rookie of the year and stayed on with the team and won the title in 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007. It was clear that Bourdais was a man with talent, but it is always hard to judge whether or not those who win in America are big fish in a small pond, orwhether they are able to compete at world class level. The arrogant folk in Formula 1 point out that drivers who go from East to West tend to do well, while those who go from West to East do not – with the notable exceptions of Jacques Villeneuve and, perhaps, Juan Pablo Montoya, who were able to get top rides in F1. Others did too, notably Michael Andretti, Alex Zanardi and Cristiano da Matta but – for various different reasons – did not shine.
It is one of the great debates in racing. Whatever the arguments, however, it seemed that Bourdais had done enough to show that he should be in Formula 1. That ambition still burned and once he had signed a management contract with the well-connected Nicolas Todt, son of Ferrari boss Jean Todt things began to fall into place for him. It certainly did him no harm that Scuderia Toro Rosso was using Ferrari engines.
Much was expected of him when he appeared on his Grand Prix debut in Australia in 2008. His 20-year-old team-mate Sebastian Vettel had done eight races and a fair bit of F1 testing, but it was still a surprise that the German qualified ninth with Bourdais 17th.
The race looked a great deal better. He ran fourth, drove well against faster cars and then suffered an engine failure two laps before the finish. He was classified seventh and so scored points on his F1 debut. If you looked more closely at that result, it was clear that luck had played a major part in the result. He was running 13th when David Coulthard and Felipe Massa crashed on lap 28. A Safety Car was despatched and the pitlane was closed when the leaders came past. By the time Bourdais arrived the pitlane was open and he dived in, completed his stop and rejoined. The rest of the field could only pit on lap 29 and when some of them rejoined they were behind Bourdais. He went from 13th to sixth. He gained the two extra places when first Heikki Kovalainen and then Rubens Barrichello ran into technical trouble.
When you analysed the performance it was decent, but nothing special.
But from then on he was overshadowed almost everywhere by Vettel. There were occasions when Bourdais looked good, but he never seemed to have any luck on his side. At the end of the year Vettel was promoted to Red Bull Racing and Toro Rosso had to decide what to do. If Vettel had stayed, Bourdais would probably have been ditched, but theteam needed continuity and the only driver who could provide that was Bourdais. The team did look seriously at Takuma Sato, but his potential – and his faults – were well known. Bourdais’s performances hinted at some promise and in the end Toro Rosso decided to stick with him.
“Vettel was a bit of an issue,” admitted team principal Franz Tost. “If you come to a team as an experienced driver, it’s not easy if you have a young driver as a team-mate who is very fast. There was also the change from ChampCar to an F1 car. They are very different, in particular the tyres. Sebastien still did a good job last year, and I am quite convinced if he can get everything together then he will do a good job this year. It is the reason why he is with us.”
On his own website, Bourdais summed up the situation.
“After an experience-filled first season in F1 racing for Toro Rosso, Sebastien is back and ready to fight in 2009,” he said. “With all the regulation changes, his knowledge of the team and the tracks, and the very promising STR4, it will surely be an exciting season!”
Alas, that has not been the case.
Toro Rosso in the end decided to replace Vettel with Switzerland’s Sebastien Buemi. It seemed an odd decision at the time as the 20-year-old had built a career finishing second in championships and never seemed to have that extra edge that signals a champion.
As it has turned out, Buemi beat Bourdais soundly in qualifying and finished seventh, to score points of his F1 debut. Bourdais finished eighth, scoring a point, but no-one was too impressed by that. In Malaysia Bourdais outshone Buemi all weekend, but in China Buemi made it all the way through to the Q3 session and qualified 10th, while Bourdais was knocked out in Q1. In the race Buemi picked up two more points, Bourdais was 11th. Bahrain saw Buemi four-tenths faster in qualifying but Bourdais outdid him in the race, finishing 13th to Buemi’s 17th. In Barcelona Buemi was again faster (by three-tenths) and made it through to Q2. Bourdais ran into the back of Buemi in the first corner accident and both were put out of the race. The Swiss newspaper Blick quoted Red Bull’s Helmut Marko saying that “Maybe he should have put his glasses on”. That did not help.
Then, before the Monaco GP, there were reports in Italy that Scuderia Toro Rosso was considering putting GP2 champion Giorgio Pantano in to replace Bourdais.
Both Sebs made it to Q2 in Monaco but again Buemi was quicker by four-tenths. He qualified 11th but then made a mistake and crashed. Bourdais qualified 14th and survived to finish eighth.
But what happened to the driver who could win in such style in America? How is it that he is struggling to compete with a rookie? And a not very highly-rated one at that.
Bourdais has argued that the lack of testing was the problem, as the new car arrived very late (March 9) and Scuderia Toro Rosso had very little pre-season running.
“I think the team knows that I’m doing the best I can,” he says. “It has been obviously a steep learning curve for us as we had zero kilometres, or nearly, before the first race. The car has been changing every race, so it hasn’t been easy to understand the car and optimise it. Here and there we felt we did a good job. In Barcelona we got a major update and we were hoping for a big step forward and a great performance which didn’t come. I think as a whole we didn’t optimise what we had and that was a bit of a shame. I think the car has a lot more potential and it is up to us to use it better. We were definitely lacking downforce and that is what you need these days to go quicker.”
But this does not explain why he is being beaten by his team-mates. In F1 circles the feeling is that, after a year getting used to the game, Bourdais ought to have established himself as the number one driver in the team, rather than being beaten on a regular basis by Buemi.
The question that is often asked is whether a four-time American champion can be accused of being over-rated. Are there any Americans who would say such a thing? Who is even qualified to make such a judgement? Most Champ Car team owners know very little of modern F1 – and vice versa.
There is, however, one: Bobby Rahal, former team principal of Jaguar Racing and an Indycar team owner. Not to mention being a three-time CART champion in 1986, ‘87 and ‘92, plus an Indianapolis 500 winner in 1986. He was also, albeit very briefly, an F1 driver for two races in 1978.
What does he think of Bourdais?
“It’s simple really,” Rahal says. “In America Bourdais drove for a dominant team in a dominant car, until the new Panoz came along.”
That was at the start of 2007 when the old Lola-Cosworth B02/00s used by CART were replaced by a new car built by Don Panoz’s Elan Motorsports.
“After that he was one of many winning,” says Rahal. “In fact in the rain he was very average. I remember Tim Cindric at Penske saying they couldn’t rate him because he was driving against no-one really, and in fact was beaten more than once by AJ Allmendinger, Paul Tracy, etc.”
The statistics do not really bear this out. In 2007 Bourdais won seven times in 14 races, and the other victories were shared between four other drivers. There were moments of weakness not least when Robert Doornbos, who had raced in F1 for Minardi and Red Bull, appeared in Champ Car with the Minardi team and made a big impression, finishing second on his debut and then following up with three more podiums in four races before his first victory at Mont-Tremblant. That put him equal on points with Bourdais and there was much friction as Bourdais accusing Doornbos of overly aggressive racing.
“I don’t think Sebastien would have forecasted that he would be tied halfway inthe season with a guy who’s come from Europe as a rookie,” said Paul Tracy, Bourdais’s usual rival, with more than a hint of dry humour.
In 2006 Tracy and Bourdais had got mixed up in a very public fight after the Canadian driver criticized the Frenchman rival for knocking him out of several races.
Rahal’s claim of Newman Haas domination is, however, hard to challenge. At the end of 2002 Chip Ganassi Racing, Andretti Green Racing and Mo Nunn Racing all quit CART to become full-time IRL competitors for the 2003 season, alongside Penske Racing, which had jumped a year earlier. Team Rahal and Fernandez Racing split their efforts between the two series. Some of the top CART drivers went with them, including Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Kenny Brack and Dario Franchitti. They joined Penske drivers Gil de Ferran and Helio Castroneves, who had gone 12 months earlier.
This left Newman-Haas in solid position in 2003. Paul Tracy won the CART title with Forsythe Racing, with seven victories, but Newman-Haas drivers Bruno Junqueira and Bourdais won five between them. In the course of the four seasons that followed the team won 55% of the races, Bourdais taking 26 wins of the 54 races between 2004 and 2007. Other Newman-Haas drivers picked up four additional wins. The most dominant season was 2004 when Sebastian won seven of 14 races. Junqueira added two more, giving Newman-Haas at total of nine (64%); in 2005 Bourdais won six times but Junqueira winning one before he was injured and Oriol Servia, his replacement, winning one later in the year, giving the team eight wins from 13 races (61%).
In 2006 Junqueira returned from injury, but was not as competitive as he had been, and so the team had to rely on Bourdais alone. He scored six wins (46%). In 2007, partnered by new boy Graham Rahal, Bourdais collected eight wins in 14 races (57%). His only consistent challenger in any of the four seasons was AJ Allmendinger, who beat him five times in 2006. Paul Tracy beat him four times over the years, as did Justin Wilson, but others won only one or two.
Perhaps the most interesting reflection from Rahal is something his son mentioned.
“Having driven with both Bourdais and Wilson, Graham feels that Wilson is the better driver,” said Rahal. “That tells you something.”
Bourdais still has the chance to show the F1 world that he is as good as his results in the United States suggest he was, but if he cannot do that, he will go down in history as a driver who was simply in the right place, at the right time and made the most of it…
Doing your best is all that a racing driver can do.
There is no doubt that Bourdais did exactly that – and he is no doubt doing the same this year. It may just be that his best is not quite good enough, no matter what the record books might say.
GP+ is a e-magazine available in PDF form around five hours after each event. It is full colour and is usually around 70 pages with all the news, views, features and inside information from the race weekend.