Au revoir (or not) Sebastien

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.

12 thoughts on “Au revoir (or not) Sebastien

  1. Very good article Joe.

    Reading it just goes to show, as do the results, that he will be remembered around the level of the da Mattas and the Wilsons at F1 level.

  2. I think something similar would happen to Danica Patrick if she ever ended up in F1, which is why I hope USF1 doesn’t seriously consider giving her a race seat.

    She’s always performed at the level of her car, never above it. She was a mid-pack runner when at Rahal-Letterman, she’s now running in the bottom half of the top 10 at Andretti-Green (behind the dominant Penske and Chip-Ganassi). The only times she’s overperformed (like her win at Motegi) have been as a result of luck or pit strategy decisions on the wall, never as a result of any brilliant on-track driving.

  3. It doesn’t help that we just recently lost both north American GPs. We need F1 to come back and gain appeal…and open wheel road racing in general. I cannot for the life of me understand why watching 2ton+ sedans go in circles is so popular here in the US. F1 is clearly superior and so are the drivers…and I think its a shame that we can’t even keep one race. I’m sick of watching fat old guys drive round and round. We just need F1 and other GP series for our drivers to be aware of and aspire to and get away from oval and straght line racing.

    Also, I am glad that USF1 will be running with the FOTA teams in 2010. I am anxious to see who will drive for them and how they will rate with the current drivers.

  4. It all sounds a little “Scott Speedish” to me 🙂
    Great article and a lot of interesting theories especially by one of the kings of US motorsport Mr Rahal. I spent some time working in champ car and a little bit in F1. First of all champ car is extremely laid back compared to F1. A lot less PR, a lot less pressure which is why fans like it as drivers are failrly easily accesible and willing to chat. I think it has been a combination of things such as:
    schedule
    lack of testing
    the attention being paid to Vettel
    and a lot more buttons to push while you are trying to go 200mph plus

    However most importantly as you said it is the fact that the competition in champ car series was not as great. I feel bad for him but to say you made it to the big time is something he can be proud of. Plus I wouldn’t bet against him going back to the states and kicking ar**e all over again just to try and prove a point.
    By the way I am not sure if the F1 people are arrogant about that east to west thing as Nigel Mansell is a good example that springs to mind. This would be a great article to bring up once we see who the US F1 team are running (I have heard American drivers) and how they fair next year.

  5. As the only driver that I actually watch drive live at Portland, I am sad to see him go. All the luck that he seem to have in ChampCar went away as soon as he crossed the Atlantic.

    I have a theory about Bourdais and why he didn’t do well in F1. It has to do where ChampCar raced and where Formula One races. Compared to Europe, the race tracks over here in America are extremely crude with most races taken place on the streets of a city, airport or parking lot. We have only a few and far between dedicated road courses. Even with those, the idea of a pit lane is a spray painted box with a line of Jersey barriers for a pit wall.

    What Bourdais was a master was in these rough, temporary circuits. On a rough track he was virtually unbeatable in America. However if you put him on a road course like Portland, Laguna Seca, or Road America, he had competition. It’s the reason why his best results in Formula One came from Australia and Monaco, the two tracks the most similar to what he raced on in America.

    Looking at him drive, he could handle the rough and tumble nature of a street track. He could cope with the car bouncing around under braking very well. He had great car control in these circumstances. Since everyone used the same chassis and thus virtually the same set-up, his supreme skill in these circumstance added with a superior team set-up made for a potent package.

    However, those skill are needed less in Formula One. In F1, you need scientific precision in your actions, he looked average. I think Sebatian has a long and very successful career in sports cars in front of him, however you and Graham are right, with LeSeb, he was a case of the right driver, in the right team, at the right time. When the series was crumbling around him, he was the only thing going for it.

  6. I read at BBC that he now wants to sue. The Max Mosley Award (a new one, just announced) should be just the ticket as a cap to his F1 career. Its physical incarnation is a two-inch high statuette of The Max hisself, decked out in Greek gear (which is to say not much in the way of any “gear” at all).

    The thing about Bourdais is partly to do with ability and a lot to do with, er, “personality”. He’s a bit of a whiner (or “whinger”, en Anglais). I remember in particular his beef about Doornbos at Mont Tremblant which boiled down to “it’s against the rules for him to pass me!” Shades of der Shoemaker at his most petulant. But der Shoemaker could also drive like the dickens, and Bourdais really cannot.

    So I really question whether Toro Rosso — especially at the street level, mechanics and so forth — was ever behind him. He arrived in racing with a pedigree of sorts, which can also be not only an attitude but a liability that has to be proven wrong. Unlike the very rare instances of this class — such as the current Rosberg — he turned out to be a loser.

    And compared to Vettel, who is both a very quick driver and an intriguing personality (i.e., German folk music [blech] on his iPod), he was not even in the game. And F1, if nothing else, is a game.

    Buemi on the other hand is nothing if a dogged achiever. That maximum g-force neck says it all. He may be around for awhile.

  7. We’re back to no French drivers in F1 then. Not many coming through either – Grosjean’s not really French is he?

    How much interest in Bourdais was there in France?

  8. Joe,

    RE: the news today of Nick Craw (ACCUS) being nominated to Jean Todt’s FIA ticket.

    I don’t really understand this bit, and hope you can explain at some point. My understanding was that the AAA supported Ari Vatanen. I guess this means Craw does not represent AAA to the FIA (or not directly anyway)?

    And what is ACCUS anyway? After following US motorsports for decades, how is it I don’t know about this organization and never hear about it, but its members have such leverage over the international representation of US motorsport?

    According to their web site (www.accusfia.us), ACCUS “is the National Sporting Authority (ASN) of the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) for the United States” and handles calendaring international events and international licensing.

    ACCUS members include Grand Am, IMSA, Indy Racing League, NASCAR, NHRA, SCCA, and USAC — I don’t see AAA or any other non-competition clubs, so I guess that answers my first question. Nor do I see NASA, which is our fastest growing competition club and, along with the SCCA, the only ones relevant to most amateur road racers in the US.

    Given that none of these series, save Grand Am, put on an event that could be considered “international,” I fail to see the relevance of ACCUS to the average American driver/racer.

    Or maybe I’m missing some crucial element of this story?

    Thanks for all your hard work on this blog and Grandprix.com.

    Terry

  9. It’s a shame. I watched him race Stateside and he was impressive, at least to me.

    The key point here is that an F1 car can ruin a career just as easily as boost it. F1’s history is littered with names who were good on paper but could never make it to the top step – names such as Da Matta, Montoya, Panis, Salo, Heidfeld, Davidson spring to mind. In junior categories some of these left future F1 champions eating their dust, but in F1 they just couldn’t click.

    I don’t think this is a reflection of Sebastian Bourdais’ ability (or lack thereof). The truth is we’ll never truly know how good he really was (unless of course he gets a better F1 drive).

    We only have to look at who is currently leading the Formula One World Drivers’ Championship to see a name who many, at this point last year, would have scoffed at upon hearing the suggestion that he could be a future F1 World Champion.

    C’est la F1… 🙂

  10. excellent article Joe, nice to see someone trying to factually delve into the ‘why US drivers don’t make it in F1’ debate.
    I’m a fan of Seb and expected him to do a lot better in F1, I don’t think TR have done themselves any favours by ditching their more experienced driver on the eve of a major car update but quite plainly the results tell the story (or rather the lack of them)
    I think that generally with US drivers the problems are the culture of racing in America, it works against them becoming good at F1 right from the start. In europe we have Karting, then FF and F3 before F2 or Gp2, these all help with fitness and car set up and Karting expecially with the sensitiviies of modern F1 machinery, because the america drivers rarely go through this type of driving upbringing they are definately at a disadvantage, and also general fitness levels are poorer over there than here which will always work against you.

  11. Sebastien was a good driver, racing in a terrible car, for a terrible team. I want to know how most people say Buemi outperformed Bourdais, just because he had 1 more point in the championship? Bourdais’ average finish was 3 positions better than Buemi until STR pulled the plug on him.

    This is what i do know. Give Sebastien Bourdais his 2007 Panoz, elan motorsports Champ Car, and then let him race in F1. Thats a car he actually likes, and has proven to be faster thatn F1 cars. He has stated that he never liked the STR car, it just didnt want to do what he wanted it to. The Champ Car however, beat out several different records in 07 that were previously set by F1 cars.

    Laguna Seca: 2006, Ricardo Zonta in a toyota F1 car ran 1:06.3 with 3 days of testing on the track while Sebastien ran 1:05.7 in only 1 afternoon at the track in his champ car!

    TT circuit Assen Netherlands: which is a very F1 style race track, Sebastien went lap record at 1:18.7. Im curious to see what Formula 1 times would be there.

    Zolder, Belgium: a former F1 track where, once again, Sebastien set a lap record of 1:12.8 in the Champ Car. the very much Retarded Superleague Formula ran there earlier this year, and only mustered 1:19 in qualifying yet they call themselves the closest thing in the world to F1, HA HA HA apparently not!

    Mont Tremblant, Canada: Lap record set by Tristan Gommendy at 1:16.7 in the Panoz DP01.

    And lastly, Mexico City, Autodromo Hermanos Rodriquez: Will power set a lap record of 1:23.5 with the use of a temporary chicane on Recta del Ovalo. A total of 7 cars were able to beat the old lap record!!!

    For those who say that its easier to go from East to West, yes Doornbos did have a bit of success in his rookie yr in Champ Car, but where is he in INDYCAR? 15th place in the standings?
    And Mike Conway? This guy was brought up exactly how he was supposed to, racing in all the small euro series and winning them too. Formula Renault, Brit F3, and GP2 yet he is absolutley TERRIBLE here in the states. This was the 2006 British national driver of the year lol HAHA. Well he is currently 18th in points and has 6 finshes of 20th or worse!
    WTF? I thought it was easy to go from east to west! Apparently all you Arrogant Euro bastards just think your superior when in actuality, your not at all! Bring the F1 race back to the states where its apparently unpopular, yet we set the Attendance records! Ive never seen any Euro Country put 225,000 on race day alone, and prob never will!

    Lets lobby to see the 2007 Champ Car race against a current F1 car, and i gauruntee that the world will be shocked at how fast the Panoz chassis really was. Dont get me mistaken for the Lola Chassis used in 06 and before, that car would get smoked by about 4 sec a lap. But not the 07 Panoz! Its proven to be the only car in the World that has ran faster at tracks than in an F1 car!

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