Monday, July 23, 2007
Bourdais decision on F1 could come down to desire for challenge
By John Oreovicz
Special to ESPN.com
EDMONTON, Alberta -- Ten days from now, Sebastien Bourdais will probably have a much better idea what his future holds.
After staking his claim for a record fourth consecutive Champ Car World Series title with a convincing victory at the Grand Prix of Edmonton, Bourdais is waiting for a call from the Scuderia Toro Rosso Formula One team. STR has an option that expires at the end of July for the 28-year old Frenchman's services in 2008.
STR co-owner Gerhard Berger and team principal Franz Tost publicly praised Bourdais at the European Grand Prix this weekend, saying that the Champ Car star did everything that was expected of him in what amounted to a full-scale audition for an '08 race seat at the recent Spa-Francorchamps circuit in Belgium.
At Edmonton, where he was at his dominant best in earning his third race win of the 2007 season, Bourdais said that people should avoid jumping to the conclusion that he will be on the F1 grid in 2008.
"It's not black and white," he said. "There are a lot of factors to consider, and I would be very happy to continue here in the states with Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing.
"Obviously, I'm really happy that I got to drive a Formula One car at Spa. If there's one place you want to be testing, it's over there. It's a great track. It was an awesome feeling and I had a ton of fun.
"So if that was my last time in an F1 car, it was a great memory to leave with."
The smart money is betting that even though he is playing it down, Bourdais will indeed end up in F1 next season at Toro Rosso -- or a rebranded version of the team under the direction of Nicolas Todt.
Speculation in Europe has Todt (the son of Ferrari sporting director Jean Todt) acquiring STR from Red Bull magnate Dietrich Mateschitz and running it under the ART Grand Prix banner that has won the last two FIA GP2 championships with drivers Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton.
The younger Todt also happens to be Bourdais' manager. He reportedly hopes to maintain technical links with Red Bull Technology to benefit from design director Adrian Newey's expertise. Through the Todt connection, ART could also emerge with stronger links to Ferrari, which will continue to supply the team's engines in 2008.
Clarification of the relationship between Formula One's "works" and "second" teams will be a key factor influencing Bourdais' decision to accept an F1 offer -- if it comes.
But not the only one.
Bourdais says it would be hard to walk away from one of the best open-wheel rides in America. On the other hand, the birth of his infant daughter Emma has Bourdais and his wife Claire longing to return to a European base, closer to the grandparents.
Mario Andretti, the 1978 world champion, has lobbied for Bourdais to get an F1 opportunity for the last couple of years, and Andretti hopes his time has finally come.
"I think it's a wonderful thing that Sebastien is finally getting some attention," Andretti said at Edmonton. "Formula One, for a single-seat driver, is the ultimate test, no question about it. It has always been. And Sebastien deserves a good opportunity there.
"I think he has been overlooked and underrated in every way. He is a very special talent, and he has shown that over and over again."
Andretti's concern is that Bourdais' team doesn't measure up to his talent.
"That's a question mark," he admitted. "Toro Rosso could be one of the top three teams next year, though they certainly haven't shown it so far. But F1 has had that problem for many years. Unless you go to one of the top three teams, you have no chance to show that you can win. But you can show moments of brilliance with a secondary team and get noticed.
"Talent will always surface, will always come to the forefront. I wish him well, because he is world-champion material with the right team."
It's unfortunate that Bourdais and Renault F1 czar Flavio Briatore couldn't agree on a contract in 2002, because Bourdais would seem to be a natural for the French team. But he chose to race in America for the last five years rather than be subject to Briatore's contractual demands.
Two-time world champion Fernando Alonso took the Briatore management route, and look where it got him. But Bourdais has no regrets about his highly successful five-year relationship with one of American racing's greatest teams.
Paul Stoddart gave Alonso his F1 break in 2002 in the team now branded Toro Rosso. Now owner of the Minardi Team USA in the Champ Car series, Stoddart says it's now or never for Bourdais.
"For Sebastien, it's the right time, but it might be the wrong team," Stoddart said. "It's going to be tough for Toro Rosso to move up the grid, no matter how good a job he does.
"It could be a no-win situation, but then you don't get many second chances in Formula One."
It's not realistic to believe that Bourdais or anyone else could have regularly scored points in this year's Toro Rosso car. But the combination of a motivated and talented new driver and potential design improvements from Newey and new recruit Geoff Willis could move the team into F1's top 10 next year.
Assuming he gets the call, Bourdais will have to decide whether scratching for points is a better alternative than continuing to beat up on his Champ Car competition.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.
Obviously I'm really happy that I got to drive a Formula One car at Spa. If there's one place you want to be testing, it's over there. It's a great track. It was an awesome feeling and I had a ton of fun. So if that was my last time in an F1 car, it was a great memory to leave with.