Sunday, February 18, 2018
Sports

Sebastien Bourdais again starting from scratch entering Indy 500

TAMPA

St. Petersburg resident Sebastien Bourdais' first season in the IndyCar Series has been filled with one of the toughest things for a driver to do.

Nothing.

Between a missing engine heading into the season-opening Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and a manufacturer switch that cut almost all of his track time before Sunday's Indianapolis 500, Bourdais has been watching almost as much as he has been racing.

"What's been toughest so far is all the waiting that went on," Bourdais said Monday after flying home for a few days of rest.

The waiting began in the offseason, soon after the four-time Champ Car series champion signed with Dragon Racing. The team's engine manufacturer, Lotus, started its production later than Chevrolet and Honda and couldn't catch up.

His No. 7 Dallara DW12 didn't receive its engine until a few days before St. Petersburg's grand prix. He qualified last in the 26-car field.

"Everybody had expectations," Bourdais said, "but at the same time it was like, 'Whoa, we really need to weigh what's happening here because the expectations have to be reasonable.' "

The rest of the season has continued to be a test of the 33-year-old native Frenchman's patience. He rose to third place in St. Petersburg before car problems forced him to drop out after 73 laps.

Bourdais has qualified outside the top 15 in every race so far. His only top-10 came at the Grand Prix of Alabama when he waited for competitors' tires to wear before charging to finish ninth.

His early struggles this season are a far cry from the successful career Bourdais has established. He earned five top-10 finishes in nine races during a part-time season last year, and only six drivers have more North American open-wheel series victories than Bourdais (31).

"It's a good challenge for me, because it's one thing to get on a team where everything is sorted out and you've got the best stuff," Bourdais said. "It's another one to build up and get there with a team from scratch, which really is what it is."

Leading up to Sunday's 96th Indianapolis 500, Bourdais and his crew are starting from scratch again.

After a lawsuit and days with an idle car, his team reached a deal Thursday to switch from a Lotus engine to a Chevrolet. That gave his team less than 48 hours to learn their new machine and get it ready to qualify for the season's biggest race on one of the world's most iconic tracks.

"It kind of feels like St. Pete all over again," Bourdais said.

The difference is that Bourdais' waiting could end soon.

As Lotus struggled — Bourdais has the engine's only top-10 finish so far — Chevy has dominated by winning all four races and claiming four of the five poles including Ryan Briscoe at Indy. Chevrolet engines make up the entire first two rows for Sunday's race.

But Bourdais isn't there yet. With little practice time, he failed to qualify on the first day and will start 25th. His team has only one day on the track this week to test race setups.

Bourdais said it's still an improvement from where he might have been without the switch. His qualifying speed (223.760) was 9 mph quicker than the fastest Lotus, and with seven road/street courses left on the schedule including a Detroit street race the week after Indy, Bourdais remains optimistic that his waiting will pay off.

"It's not going to be easy, but I'm very much looking forward to after Indy," Bourdais said. "The season starts in Detroit."

Matt Baker can be reached at [email protected]

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