ST. PETERSBURG — In 2003, St. Petersburg landed a new street race in the CART series, and a little-known French rookie came to race in it.
Little did anyone know both he and this event — after several racing series had come and gone from the Tampa Bay area over the years — would become fixtures in the area. Four Champ Car titles later, Sebastien Bourdais was a star headed to Formula One and back to France.
But after that stint turned out to be much less than he hoped, Bourdais, 32, returned stateside to join the IndyCar series and moved back to St. Petersburg — and the same house he and wife Claire had left, no less. Here's Bourdais on his memories of the past decade and why this city, site of Sunday's Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, is right for him.
Can you believe it has been 10 years since you made your Champ Car series debut in St. Petersburg?
No, definitely not. I was the new kid in town. It was pretty special. We kind of ran away with it the whole weekend, put it on the pole in both qualifying sessions. We were leading the race, and the yellows came out one after the other. Strategy didn't pan out the way we wanted. I got frustrated and tried to regain the lead too fast and made a mistake and ruined it (finishing 11th). So that was a big disappointment. It was very slippery because they had just repaved the track. I remember we had to spend the first session on wet tires!
Can you have imagined then where your career would take you; to four championships and to Formula One?
After that one, I thought I was going to get fired (laughs). So definitely not. I've never been a big plan-maker. I have just been enjoying the opportunities and having fun, enjoying the moment.
And you didn't live here yet in 2003?
No, back then, I was in Miami for six months. Bruno (Junqueira, his Newman-Haas teammate) was living there and was the only guy I knew. I wasn't very happy over there; not my kind of life. And my wife-to-be got a full scholarship to study at USF (where she also ran track), and we moved to Tampa for the time she was in school. Then we bought the house in Shore Acres.
Why did St. Petersburg suit you better than Miami?
I'm not a big-party, big-city guy. I very much enjoy our area with our water proximity and just being very calm and quiet; very much family friendly.
What are your favorite things to do here?
There's a lot to do here. Hockey games or baseball games. And we just like to hang out around the water. We have a little boat. (We'll) chill out and spend the day on the beach with the kids. Some people just come here to go on vacation. We're lucky that we can enjoy it every day.
This time last year, you were waiting for Lotus to get you an engine for this race (the start of a miserable stint with Lotus for his Dragon Racing team before it switched to Chevrolet). Was that the most difficult moment of your career?
No, I knew we didn't have what we needed to be strong (with the engine), so there were no particular expectations. The toughest moment was the F1 stint. I got hired and promised that the team would work with me. And I showed up, and it was pretty much, "Shut up and drive." If you like the car, great. If you don't like it, too bad. But you still have to drive it.
How disappointing was that? Because being European, you must have dreamed of Formula One.
Very deceiving. You chase that thing for your entire career, most of your life. And you finally make it, and things definitely don't go according to plan. Until then, everything I had been a part of was fairly successful, (always) moving forward. To take big steps back like that when you get to the top was a major setback. … There were tracks where I could kind of fake it because I was feeling better or worse or development was coming and helping our stability at times. For the most part, the car was just absolutely undriveable for me. It was very much no fun at all.
Now that you're back in IndyCar, is it a good feeling, like you have everything in place?
Yeah. Obviously we're not an A team yet, but …
But the difference is in IndyCar, at the right track on the right day, that team can compete. Whereas in Formula One, there are teams that have been there for three years that have never scored a point.
Exactly. Event after event, the consistency, that's the hardest thing when you're a smaller team. But you have most of the same equipment. So given the right people to run the car, you have a very decent shot. Like you said, in F1, if you don't have the right car, you might as well just stay home. Or just pretend because that's all you're going to be doing.