Monday, November 12, 2007
Bourdais leaves Champ Car on a high note on and off the track
By John Oreovicz
Special to ESPN.com
MEXICO CITY -- With 31 race wins and four series championships in just five years, there is no doubt Sebastien Bourdais is one of the greatest drivers in the history of Champ Car racing.
Just ask his teammates and rivals.
Bourdais overcame a prerace penalty and a late caution period to claim what is likely to be his final Champ Car race win Sunday at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez. He is set to begin testing for his new employer -- the Scuderia Toro Rosso Formula One team -- on Tuesday in Barcelona, Spain.
After three days in the Toro Rosso/Ferrari, there is one last bit of Champ Car business for Bourdais to take care of: He jets back to the States for Friday night's Champ Car banquet in Indianapolis, where he will take possession of his fourth consecutive Vanderbilt Cup trophy and a seven-figure check.
It promises to be the last bit of extended time the 28-year-old Frenchman will spend with his friends and co-workers from the past five years, including engineer Craig Hampson, who offered effusive praise for his driver.
"A lot of the speed you have seen out of the team the last five years is due to his ability to develop the car and its setup and guide the mechanics and engineers in terms of what we need to do to be better,"
Hampson said. "It's really sad that we're losing him, and he's meant a tremendous amount to the McDonald's team. He's clearly very fast and a very canny, smart racer.
"I'm happy for him with his new Formula One gig," Hampson continued.
"He deserves it, certainly. And honestly, if that team listens to him and tries to deliver what he asks for and what he needs and gives him the kind of support that he's used to, he'll be capable of doing some giant-slaying over there, as well."
Hampson noted that Bourdais might have driven better than ever once the pressure of clinching his record-tying and -setting third and fourth Champ Car series championships faded. Sunday's race in Mexico, when Bourdais had about a third of his "Power to Pass" time taken away because of a practice session infraction, was a case in point.
"We recognized going into the race that not having that Power to Pass time would be a significant disadvantage, mainly because there is such a big speed difference here and using the P2P on the whole front straight was worth about half a second," Hampson said. "Those last five or six laps were probably very hard for Sebastien. But he was quick enough in all the places you can't pass -- from Turn 6 through to 15. He could maintain a big enough gap that Will [Power] couldn't get him on the straight. Sebastien was smart enough to know that."
Oriol Servia was Bourdais' teammate at Newman/Haas in 2005, winning one race to the Frenchman's six while they completed a 1-2 finish in the championship for the team co-owned by Carl Haas, Paul Newman and, more recently, Mike Lanigan.
The Spaniard said racing alongside the Frenchman was a valuable experience.
"I loved to be his teammate and see how much it takes," said Servia, who finished third for PKV Racing at Mexico City. "When you race for another team, you look at Sebastien and you always think, 'OK, he's on the best team, and Newman/Haas, they are so much better.' The team is great, obviously, but Sebastien definitely drives to the limit every second he's out there, and I learned a lot from him. I think I became a better driver when I was his teammate and I was lucky to be there.
"There's not much to say about his record. I feel he's the fastest guy out there, and I think he's going to show Formula One the level that we have here in Champ Car. He's going to do a great job there."
With five poles and two race wins, Team Australia's Will Power came closest to matching Bourdais' pace in 2007. The Australian also paid tribute to his victorious rival.
"He's the best and most complete race driver I've ever raced against," Power said. "He's always working at it, just looking at every single aspect. He's not just a really quick driver; he's very technical and very good on the engineering side of things. He's been the pacesetter for four years in Champ Car, and he really deserves a Formula One chance.
"I think he's going to do a really good job there."
Even Paul Tracy, who developed into Bourdais' most bitter rival during his five years in America, was full of praise for his competitor.
With 31 race wins apiece, Bourdais, Tracy and Al Unser Jr. are tied for sixth place on the all-time Champ Car victory tally.
"All the Champ Car people want to see him do well in Formula One, and I just wish him luck," Tracy said. "He's a great driver, and he's a fantastic personality. Me, him and Al Jr. are all on the same number [of wins], so I'm going to try to get ahead of that next year."
By winning his 31st race, Bourdais tied Michael Andretti for the most wins in Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing history. He secured podium finishes in 44 of his 73 Champ Car starts and matched his victory total with 31 pole positions.
"SeaBass" also led 2,103 out of 6,905 possible laps in his Champ Car career.
"He has accomplished everything there is to accomplish over here," Hampson said. "So he's ready for a new chapter, and it's time for a new chapter for us. We're very sad to see Sebastien go, but I think we're all looking forward to seeing if we can be as successful with someone else."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.
I loved to be his teammate and see how much it takes," said Servia, who finished third for PKV Racing at Mexico City. "When you race for another team, you look at Sebastien and you always think, 'OK, he's on the best team, and Newman/Haas, they are so much better.' The team is great, obviously, but Sebastien definitely drives to the limit every second he's out there, and I learned a lot from him.
-- Oriol Servia