LEEDS, Ala. -- Indy car fans have grown accustomed in recent years to seeing the No. 7 car finish about ninth on road courses.
But they aren't used to seeing a car bearing that number hustling the way it was Sunday at Barber Motorsports Park.
The number associated with Danica Patrick since 2007 now belongs to Sebastien Bourdais -- the same Sebastien Bourdais who won 31 races and four consecutive Champ Car-sanctioned Indy car championships from 2004 to 2007 before returning to Europe to compete in Formula One and Le Mans sports cars.
Bourdais' full-time gig is back in America again this year, racing in the Izod IndyCar Series for Jay Penske's Dragon Racing team. It's the flagship team for the Lotus Indy car engine, and the black and gold satin paint scheme that adorns the Frenchman's McAfee/Bing-sponsored car is even more striking than the famous Lotus F1 liveries from the 1970s and '80s that inspired it.
It's no secret that the Lotus program, which is being run by John Judd's Engine Developments Ltd. in England, is far behind the competition from Chevrolet/Ilmor and Honda/HPD in terms of budget and resources.
But despite getting a late start, the Lotus engine has been reliable out of the box and at least reasonably competitive. And, in the hands of Bourdais on Sunday at Barber, it looked downright racy.
Although Bourdais qualified only 17th in the 26-car field, his time was 0.8 seconds quicker than that of the next Lotus.
In the race, he hounded cars in front of him, sticking right on their gearbox through the first four turns of the twisty Barber road course, only to see them pull away on the straight leading to the track's best passing zone at Turn 5.
In the second half of the race, Bourdais took advantage of other drivers excessively wearing their tires to make up huge ground to finish ninth.
"The car was awesome," Bourdais reported. "I could get in really deep and come out of the corners with them, but then they would pull away. That's why I could not pass anyone until their tires went off. On pure pace, we were a bit faster, but when you're down on power, there's nothing you can do. It's tough enough when you have the same motor."
The key was tire management, and Bourdais massaged his better than most Sunday.
"It was a lot of fun because our car was dialed in and really took care of its tires," he said. "I was being very conservative on power-down and all that, but still, it was taking better care of its tires than Marco [Andretti] and Ryan [Hunter-Reay] and others you could tell. That's what allowed us to move up.
"As soon as they were starting to kill the tires, they would wash out in the corners and I could go side by side and get on the power early, get a run and finish the job under braking. I dive-bombed and went in really deep a couple times but made it because the car is really stable under braking."
Bourdais is generally satisfied with the performance of the Lotus engine, which he said has actually exceeded expectations in the first two races of the season.
"It's not where we want it to be, but everybody is working really hard," he remarked. "Honestly, if you understand that they are six months behind the others, it's better than you would expect. It's reliable and everything. I think we did pretty much as good as we could in qualifying, and, in the race, they killed their tires and we blew by. We passed a lot of cars, and that brings some good memories back.
"Expectations were not super high, and it turned out extremely different."
Lotus still has plenty of work to do. Oriol Servia had a relatively trouble-free run for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing at Barber but started from the back of the grid after an unauthorized engine change. And Alex Tagliani's BHA Barracuda entry failed to complete a lap in the race because of an engine problem.
Lotus is also under fire because it is unable to supply engines for this week's test at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
"It's going to be very hard for us at the beginning of the season," said Olivier Picquenot, IndyCar manager for Lotus Motorsport. "I understand the frustration from the team side about the delays. But we have a good partner in Judd, good partner teams, and a good group of drivers and engineers."