When Sebastien Bourdais rammed into the tires during his first qualifying lap Saturday, he thought he was in for another rough weekend in his adopted hometown.
"Here we go again," Bourdais said. "I just messed up, and it was gone." • Except, finally, it wasn't. • The 38-year-old pulled together a remarkable performance, driving from last to first to win Sunday's Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. An hour after the IndyCar Series season-opening triumph in front of his friends and family, Bourdais was still speechless over how his underfunded Dale Coyne Racing team overcame a horrible start and dominated the sport's powerhouses by leading 69 of the race's 110 laps. Only two drivers in IndyCar history have won while starting farther back — Scott Dixon at Mid-Ohio in 2014 and Max Papis at Laguna Seca in 2001. • "I can't believe I just did that," Bourdais said. • He did it thanks to the good luck that had previously eluded him at his new home track.
Saturday's qualifying error forced him to start last in the 21-car field, but he caught a break when Mikhail Aleshin and Tony Kanaan collided on lap 26. Bourdais pitted three laps earlier; the leaders had not. That let Bourdais' No. 18 Honda jump all the way to second, behind Simon Pagenaud.
"They got a little bit lucky, but you still have to be able to finish it off. …" said Scott Dixon, who finished third.
So perhaps Bourdais was due, given his previous misses at this 1.8-mile, 14-turn street course.
Bourdais won the pole as a rookie at the inaugural Grand Prix in 2003 but dashed his hopes by brushing the wall — a mistake that still bugs him. The France native didn't even get to race when he returned eight years later; his car crashed and caught fire in practice. In Bourdais' five other races here, he had engine problems, a wreck, five finishes outside the top five and zero laps led.
"It just always seemed like there was potential," Bourdais said, "but we never really could put it together."
Once he cycled to the top, Bourdais never dropped back. He drove past Pagenaud, the reigning series champion, in Turn 1 to take the lead on lap 37. Bourdais led 69 of the next 74 laps and pulled away to win by more than 20 seconds.
"When everything's right, he's one of those guys that's really hard to touch," Pagenaud said. "Like today."
And like he was in the past.
Bourdais won four consecutive Champ Car titles, from 2004-07. He was talented enough to spend two years in Formula One, and only five drivers in history have more IndyCar victories than Bourdais (36, after Sunday).
That's why team owner Dale Coyne sought out Bourdais, whose previous team — KVSH Racing — folded in the offseason, and why he reunited Bourdais with Craig Hampson, the race engineer for Bourdais' first 31 IndyCar wins.
"The stars finally aligned," Coyne said.
They clearly did Sunday, despite a star-crossed start.
Coyne's strategy put his team in the right position for its fifth series win. Hampson's small-budget car was quick enough to outrun powerhouses Team Penske (Pagenaud), Chip Ganassi Racing (Scott Dixon) and Andretti Autosport (fourth-place finisher Ryan Hunter-Reay).
And a former champion was in the cockpit, ready to take advantage of it all.
"It was just one of those days like the old days," Bourdais said.
Except, finally, it happened at home.
Contact Matt Baker at [email protected] Follow @MBakerTBTimes.