Previous Columns
"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ Sebastien Bourdais achieved many things in his five years with Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing

by Gordon Kirby
Since his Champ Car debut at St Petersburg in February of 2003 with what was then Newman/Haas Racing, Sebastien Bourdais has been the series' man to beat. He qualified on the pole at St. Pete, as he did at his second Champ Car race in Monterrey, Mexico the next month, and led both races before running into a series of problems, eventually brushing the wall and failing to finish either race.

"We knew we had a great group of guys and we were really fast straight off in St Pete," Bourdais recalls. "We had that first pole and looked very strong. It's not always been smooth but we always had that speed and it's very comforting because when you know you've got the speed you know at some point it's going to pay off. And I think that was all along what made it a little easier. Even when it was tough and wouldn't materialize we knew we had the speed and it was gonna happen at some point."

Bourdais scored his first Champ Car win in only his fourth start and went on to take six poles and score three wins in his rookie season. Then followed four superlative years and an all-time record for Champ or Indy car racing of four consecutive championships. Last year Bourdais tied Ted Horn's half a century-old record. This year he stands alone as a four times in a row champion of American open-wheel racing and with one race to go in his Champ Car career with Newman/Haas/Lanigan, Bourdais's remarkable record shows thirty wins from seventy-two starts plus twelve more podium finishes for a sixty percent score of podiums versus starts.

"It's certainly been a lot of fun," Bourdais grinned. "When you look back, it's a big achievement and a group success. It's kind of tough to summarize these five years. So many things happened and so many good things obviously. It was great to top it off with a win in Surfers and become the first repeat winner over there. I have a lot of great memories and great events through these five years. I think Long Beach will probably remain very special for me. We've won a few times there and it's been a track that's been really good to me, but it's not the only one."

It can be argued that Bourdais's period of dominance occurred at a time of small fields and comparatively weak competition. That may be true, but it doesn't dispute the fact that the guy still had to go out there and make it happen, lap by lap, race after race. When you're expected to win it can be a pretty heavy burden and most of the time Bourdais handled it well.

"It kind of took some of the fun away in some respects," Bourdais admitted. "Because obviously when you finished second and you think you've had a pretty decent day, yeah, you were not the best on that given day but you still put in a pretty good performance, and people are starting to say, 'Well, what happened to you? You only finished second today.' That is a little difficult to deal with, I have to say.

"It also contributed to the fact that I wanted to move on to another challenge. Obviously, at some point you're going to fall--you're gonna not win--and that would have been very hard on everybody. But it's always a little tough to manage that pressure."

Bourdais believes his four championships have come from taking each year one race at a time. "I think we've been extremely fortunate to win it four straight times," Sebastien commented. "And it's all to the credit to the relationship we all had together in the team and how much effort has been put together to achieve these results. It was a lot of fun, but we always took the races one at a time and that's probably been one of the keys to the success we've had.

"I hope people think we went after it and gave it our very best," he continued. "We haven't won these four championships by waiting for the points to accumulate and just playing it consistent. We tried to put on the best show we could and we had a lot fun doing it. For me, it's been a race-by-race thing that transformed into one championship and then another, and then another and then another.

"I haven't really looked back and I think it's probably going to take me a few years before I do that. Right now, I'm just looking forward. I think you only realize the importance of what you've done in the past after a few years because you need some time to get it in order.

"When I first arrived in the series I had never been a professional race car driver before," he added. "I learned a lot from a lot of very experienced people in the team from Craig, my engineer, to everyone else in the team. I've learned from the best. Obviously, a lot of things have changed over the years. We've won the championship four times, but apart from that I think I've grown up as a man and as a driver, and now I've become a dad and I got married to Claire. When you look back over the five years a whole lot of things have happened."

Bourdais has great respect for team owners Paul Newman, Carl Haas and new partner Mike Lanigan. "Paul is probably the team's first supporter," he remarked. "Whether you've had a great day, or a not so great day, he's always behind you, always supportive and always pushing to get the best out of everybody. But in a good way, not putting pressure on, but just having a lot of trust in the people in the team. He's obviously a great engine to the motivation and spirit that carries through the team which is always to do everything you can to win and when you don't win to try even harder.

"It's an extremely talented group of people working together extremely well and extremely hard with great leadership from Carl, Paul and now Mike, too. And I think nobody is really irreplaceable. Obviously, the driver is one part of that success and Carl obviously seems to be able to find the right guy for the job and it doesn't necessarily need to be Sebastien Biourdais. It's been other people before and obviously great names between Mario, Michael, Nigel and Cristiano, and I'm sure they'll find someone else who can get it done just as well and build a new group and start a new adventure."

Newman/Haas/Lanigan's general manager Brian Lisles started his career in F1 nearly thirty years ago. Lisles joined Newman/Haas almost twenty years ago and has seen plenty of top drivers during his time in the sport. Lisles holds Bourdais in extremely high regard.

"Sebastien is a perfectionist and also applies himself very hard and has high standards," Lisles commented. "Sebastien has very strong views about things which are entirely of his own making and I think those things together probably causes some raised eyebrows because he holds strong opinions and he has the self-confidence and belief in himself to express them, and that always doesn't go down very well. I think because of that he's seen as a slightly difficult character but in fact, I think that's just because he's willing to state his beliefs and stick with them. I think he gets a little bit of a bad rap because of that.

"As far as the team is concerned he is absolutely a team player but he also knows what he wants and asks for it and expects us to deliver, just as we expect him to deliver in return. He's certainly done everything we've asked of him and I hope we've done most of what he's asked for."

Lisles says the team knew Bourdais was something special from his first laps testing a Newman/Haas Lola at Sebring back in the winter of 2002. "From the first test he was very quick and smart, knew what was going on with the car, and was saying all the right things when we changed the car," Lisles recalled. "He had a lot to learn, but his learning ability has always been very rapid."

Lisles says Bourdais employed his Le Mans sports car experience to teach everyone in Champ Car some big lessons about how to drive fast and conserve fuel at the same time. "In one way he has transformed Champ Car racing by showing everyone just how much fuel you really can save as a driver," Lisles remarked. "He no longer has that advantage when we first started with him because he set a mark and they all raised themselves to that mark. It took some of them two or three years to do, but I don't think any driver in the series up to that point had realized how much fuel you can save even while going close to a very healthy pace.

"In some ways he's changed the way we go racing," Lisles added. "We no longer can mechanically turn a switch to save fuel. It's all up to the driver and with his sports car experience he brought that at a very high level, and all of his competitors have had to learn how to do that. Some of them have got very good at it, but I'm not sure we would be where we are now if he hadn't shown everyone in the series what was possible."

Lisles also points to Bourdais's ability to drive through the field when required to do so. "Often some of the most memorable drives with any great driver is when they have a setback and have to overcome that," Lisles observed. "Not all drivers can do that. He gets upset but it makes him more focused. He just drives a little harder because he's upset.

"He doesn't spend all his time with his finger on the radio button complaining and cussing. He just gets angry and channels it into his driving and you get drives like Denver a couple of years ago when he came from the back to the front, and several others like that. A remarkable number of drivers can't do that. They tend to lose focus rather than gain."

Lisles believes Bourdais continues to find more speed in his driving. "I think he's actually got faster while he's been with us. He's actually learned to drive harder for a longer period of time and has really applied himself to that. And he's mentally strong. He only has to sleep on it to get over any setbacks which always happen every now and again.

"He's been really pretty low-maintenance from our point of view," Lisles added. "He thinks about it and calls us. He works hard at the track and works hard away from the track to keep himself fit."

Bourdais's feel, feedback and technical knowledge are as good as any driver Lisles has worked with. "One of his strengths is that he hasn't led us in the wrong direction in terms of developing the car," Lisles observed. "We have had the occasional wrong turn but it becomes very apparent to him very early that we're not where we need to be and that makes it easy to backtrack and get back to your baseline and go off in another direction.

"To make sure you don't go off the boil is all part of maintaining a winning position. Staying at the top for a long time is stressful because you're at the peak and whichever direction you move you're liable to be on a slippery slope. But Sebastien has been very helpful whenever we've slipped off the peak a little bit. He's always helped to push the team back onto the peak."

Lisles says Bourdais has an uncanny ability to set a car up correctly for any given race. "Undoubtedly he has a very good feel for the car and in particular what he needs, not particularly for qualifying, although his qualifying performances are pretty outstanding. But in particular he knows what you need for the race to be able to race hard and run lap after lap on the limit and have a car that's not going to help you make a mistake, to have a car that's straightforward to drive and isn't going to go away on you as the race goes on."

Bourdais moves on to F1 next year with Toro Rosso of course. It will be a big transition for him from the best team in Champ Car to a midfield F1

team. Sebastien is fully aware of the challenges facing him.

"I want to be competitive and do the best I can," he says. "It's the beginning of a new adventure for me and we'll see how it shakes out. I'm just going to do my very best, like I did in 2003, and we'll see what happens. I think you can only give your very best and it's not worth thinking about what's going to happen.

"It's obviously different from Champ Car. In Champ Car everybody has the same car and it's up to you and your team to do the best you can to beat the other guys by setups. In F1, it's a bigger scale. You need the best design, you need the best engineering team to use the car at its maximum. There are more people involved and it's a little more complicated, but it's still a car that has an engine and four wheels and you've gotta make it around that racetrack the quickest you can. So we'll see how we do."

He believes the banning of traction control and introduction of a common ECU to F1 next year will help his cause. "It's something I'm very much looking forward to," Bourdais remarked. "It puts it a little bit more into the hands of the drivers and also it's going to dictate quite a few changes to the way you have to approach the setup in F1. So my feedback might be even more interesting for the team. I'm certainly glad it's going this way. The common ECU will also [remove] quite a few assistances in the driving, including the engine brake control system. So there are quite a few changes and I'm sure it's going to play into my favor. How much is a little difficult to say."

Brian Lisles believes Bourdais will be successful in F1 if the Toro Rosso team and engineers embrace and listen to him. "I hope he does well in Formula 1," Lisles said. "I think if the engineers listen to him once he gets used to and understands the car, and that'll take probably a year, but I hope they pay a lot of attention to what he's saying and give him what he needs. If they do that, I think he'll be successful. But if the team don't listen to him, they're not going to give him a car that he's going to race well with. I hope that doesn't happen to him, but it's all too common unfortunately in Formula 1."

And who will replace Bourdais at Newman/Haas/Lanigan next year? "There are a number of drivers in Champ Car who are lobbying hard and there are one or two drivers in Europe who I think are very good who are very interested," Lisles commented. "So we will have to see what shakes out."

A great era comes to an end in Mexico City in two weeks. What the future holds for Bourdais, Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing or Champ Car remains to be seen.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2007 ~ All Rights Reserved

Top of Page