- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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TORONTO -- Indy car race win No. 32 was a long time coming for Sebastien Bourdais.
The 35-year-old Frenchman dominated the Champ Car sanctioned Indy car series from 2003-07, winning 31 races as well as four consecutive season titles from 2004-07. But a move into Formula One with Scuderia Toro Rosso did not work out, and despite his record in Champ Car and a run of success with the Peugeot Le Mans sports car team, Bourdais found it tough to break back into American open-wheelers in the unified Verizon IndyCar Series.
He ran a limited schedule for Dale Coyne Racing in 2011, and was part time again in 2012 for Jay Penske's Dragon Racing team before committing to a full IndyCar campaign in 2013, also with Dragon.
After spending all of his years in Champ Car with Newman-Haas Racing, one of the most successful teams in the history of the sport, the time spent with smaller teams running mid-pack had to have been tough for a proven winner like Bourdais to digest. He finally achieved a pair of podium finishes at the 2013 Honda Indy Toronto, and it was a year later at the same event that Bourdais finally broke through for his first Indy car victory of the unified era.
The 32nd career win puts Bourdais alone in eighth place on the all-time list of Indy car race winners, breaking a tie with Paul Tracy and Dario Franchitti. Scott Dixon is the active leader with 33 victories.
Now driving for KVSH Racing, Bourdais is showing signs of regaining the form that won him so many races and made him the undisputed man to beat during his first tour through the U.S. open-wheel ranks.
"I've got a big smile across my face and I can't seem to get rid of it," said Bourdais, stepping out of character from his usual serious demeanor. "It's just really cool. The whole race I was stressed out; it felt too easy. It felt like it was way too much under control and it felt like it was going to go wrong at some point."
The Frenchman had reason to be pessimistic after what many observers viewed as a long period in the wilderness. The 27 F1 races he ran with Toro Rosso produced nothing better than a fourth-place finish, and to make matters worse, Bourdais' teammate Sebastian Vettel managed to win a race in the unfancied Toro Rosso chassis and went on to dominate F1 after his switch to Red Bull Racing.
Bourdais got cast aside from STR in mid-2009, and though he remained solidly employed with Peugeot's factory Le Mans program (resulting in a pair of second-place finishes at the 24-hour classic), he was still essentially a part-time racer.
Many were surprised when he stepped back into Indy cars with Coyne in 2011, of the belief that Bourdais felt he had accomplished all he could in America during his dominant five-year run.
But coming back with a smaller scale operation was a challenge Sebastien relished. He also realized the 13-year split between CART/Champ Car and the Indy Racing League (now IndyCar) somewhat tarnished the legacy of all his accomplishments in America in the eyes of many.
All that made Bourdais enjoy his triumph in the first race of Toronto's doubleheader Sunday -- when he led 58 of the 65 laps from the first pole position of his return -- all the more.
"All of us at Newman/Haas probably realized how special that time was when it was behind us, and it's always like that," Bourdais said. "Now when you reflect on everything that happened [winning at Toronto], it was very extraordinary to be able to do it with the density of the field, and the way we have done it today is very special -- and shows that I've still got it and I'm here to stay.
"Hopefully we can get on a roll," he added. "There is not going to be any domination like we had from '04 to '07 just because there are too many good drivers, too many strong cars, the way the racing is these days. You're either P1 or P10, so you can't have the consistency, but we can still be contenders to win a championship in a series."
When Bourdais arrived in Indy car racing in 2003, the balance of power and strength of field was shifting from CART/Champ Car to IRL/IndyCar. Athough Bourdais competed against quality drivers in Champ Car, including Tracy, Jimmy Vasser (now co-owner of KVSH Racing), Patrick Carpentier, Ryan Hunter-Reay, AJ Allmendinger, Justin Wilson and Will Power, Bourdais was never able to measure himself against IndyCar's stars of the same era like Dixon, Franchitti, Helio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan, Sam Hornish Jr., and the late Dan Wheldon.
When he finally got his F1 opportunity, he couldn't turn it down, though ultimately it proved to be a disappointing experience. After Toro Rosso cut him loose in the middle of the 2009 season, Bourdais could have settled into a relatively easy life competing in sports cars.
Instead, he was driven to return to America, to prove himself again on a familiar stage but with some new characters and an unfamiliar car.
"It's been quite a journey, but that's the career of a race car driver," he said. "Obviously I had my success with Peugeot and won a couple of races, and F1 was miserable, but that's what happens. You're only as good as your car is.
"You get some ups and downs, but you have to fight through and hope you keep the motivation and keep challenging yourself, so you stay on top of yourself and kind of keep the passion," he added. "As long as the passion is there, you can make it up and it's a perfect example today. From green to checkered flag, it doesn't get much better than that.
"To be back on the top step the way we have done it today -- pretty much like the 'good ole days' -- it's very special."