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Sebastien Bourdais has high hopes for new ride

After two years of struggles, St. Petersburg resident Sebastien Bourdais had finally started to figure out the IndyCar series.

He finished on the podium in both races at Toronto. He had a stretch of three consecutive top 10s.

"I was kind of looking forward to building on that," Bourdais said. "It all went away."

As last season closed, the 35-year-old Frenchman watched his ride at Dragon Racing evaporate.

He eventually landed on his feet with a job at KVSH Racing, and he'll drive the No. 11 Chevrolet at his home track in Sunday's season-opening Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

If the early test results are any indication, he might be ready to challenge for his first series win in seven years.

"I expect him to be a contender," said Team Penske's Will Power, the 2010 Grand Prix winner and a three-time series runner­up.

Power's words seemed unlikely as last season wound down.

Sponsorship and business struggles left Dragon Racing unable to field a full-time team. That left Bourdais, a four-time Champ Car series champion and a driver tied for the eighth-most wins in American open-wheel series history, without a job.

Bourdais wasn't surprised; team owner Jay Penske told him in the middle of the season that a full-time ride was doubtful. Bourdais had accepted that risk years earlier.

After tearing through Champ Car, winning 31 of his 73 races, he left a good ride at Newman Haas Lanigan Racing for Formula One before the 2008 season. He lasted 27 races before being replaced midway through 2009.

"I knew once I left, I had taken a one-way ticket," Bourdais said at last month's media day in Orlando. "It's not that I couldn't buy a return, but nothing was guaranteed."

Four years later, nothing was still guaranteed, even after he started to regain his old form in IndyCar.

Bourdais said he was never considered to replace Dario Franchitti in the No. 10 car at Chip Ganassi Racing after injuries forced Franchitti to retire. That spot went to Indianapolis 500 winner Tony Kanaan.

Bourdais and last year's Grand Prix winner, James Hinchcliffe, were considered the top candidates to take Kanaan's car. After Hinchcliffe decided to stay at Andretti Autosport, Bourdais' IndyCar career was saved.

"All along I knew exactly what the deal was," Bourdais said. "I was kind of third in line."

Bourdais said he's not bitter that other teams have passed him by. He just wants to pass them on the track to show that he still has the talent to be in the championship race.

His early 2014 results are strong. He was among the quickest cars at early IndyCar testing, and he won the 24 Hours at Daytona in January.

"He gets everything out of the car and gets something more out of a car than the car has to offer sometimes," said Scott Goodyear, a former IndyCar driver and current ABC/ESPN analyst.

"He quietly goes about things. A lot of people believe in a car with one of the top teams, he would be very hard to beat."

His new team isn't a heavyweight like Penske or Ganassi, but it has had success. Both of its drivers last year finished in the top six at the Grand Prix. Kanaan finally won the Indy 500 in his 12th attempt.

With stability and a good ride at last, Bourdais said he hopes to compete for a championship again.

"For the longest time it just felt like it was not meant to be," Bourdais said. "Hopefully I'm going to prove myself wrong."

Matt Baker can be reached at mbaker@tampabay.com or on Twitter @MattHomeTeam.

.Fast facts

Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

What: IndyCar season opener

When: 3:30 p.m. Sunday

Where: Downtown streets

TV: Ch. 28

Tickets: Check gpstpete.com or call toll-free 1-877-283-5385

Coming Friday: A special section previewing the race, including a profile on defending race champion James Hinchcliffe, capsules on each driver and more.

Sebastien Bourdais has high hopes for new ride 03/26/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 26, 2014 10:20pm]
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