Friday's inaugural Brickyard Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was one of the stranger races I remember watching. Whether it was the seemingly empty IMS grandstands, the rare Friday afternoon start, the cars going backwards down the straightaway (something I've yet to get used to) the constantly changing weather, or all of those things combined, I cannot exactly pinpoint. However, I can definitively pinpoint one thing I found odd yesterday: I was rooting for Sebastien Bourdais.
Bourdais, of course, co-drove the No. 2 Soloson Import Ford-Riley Starworks Motorsport entry with Alex Popow. During the final stint, Bourdais masterfully negotiated the variable conditions, and ultimately found victory lane. Further, Bourdais' first win on American soil in five years, provides something of a unique opportunity to re-evaluate how we once judged the seemingly prickly Frenchman.
Obviously, Bourdais' talent has never been in question. Simply put, the 33-year old Le Mans, France native is a BAD ASS behind the wheel. From 2004-2007 he won four consecutive Champ Car titles, and an astounding 31 races in 73 starts over 5 seasons. Now, many will correctly point out the CART/Champ Car field during Bourdais' run lacked the quality and depth it boasted in the 1990s. However, Paul Tracy, A.J. Allmendinger, Justin Wilson, Will Power, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Bruno Junqueira, Cristiano da Matta, Jimmy Vasser, and Patrick Carpentier, amongst others, all ran Champ Car during that time, and Bourdais regularly cleaned all their clocks.
However, despite dominating the final years of the Champ Car circuit, Bourdais wasn't exactly building himself a legion of fans. While never problematic, or volatile, Bourdais was never exactly engaging either. Donning those professorial glasses, and a seemingly always sour demeanor Bourdais displayed about as much charm as your average doornail. When he won it didn't seem to be with a youthful joy of say, a Helio Castroneves, rather the clinical precision of a cold-blooded assassin.
The combination of Bourdais' dominance and charm deficient personality, resulted in the Frenchman often finding himself in the role of villain. Whether it was Paul Tracy playing the lovable bad boy, A.J. Allmendinger as the wholesome all-American, or Robert Doornbos as the affable upstart, the cold, grumpy, publicly withdrawn Bourdais, made for an easy protagonist. When he left Indy Car racing to join the Toro Rosso Formula One team for the 2008 season, no one seemed too disappointed.
F1, of course, didn't exactly work out. In 27 career starts, Bourdais never finished better than seventh, and was dropped midway through 2009 by the notoriously cut throat Italian team. Since then, Bourdais has competed in numerous race series and found some success, winning three times each in Superleague, LeMans Series, and International LeMans. He also won last fall in Australian V8 Supercars at Surfers Paradise.
Still, since being dropped by Toro Rosso, Bourdais has not really found a permanent home. Over the past two seasons, he has made a combined 17 IndyCar starts, mostly running part-time with underfunded teams. Last year, he ran the road and street course rounds for Dale Coyne Racing. This year, Bourdais was expected to lead Dragon Racing's Lotus effort and contest the full 2012 schedule. However, due to a lack of available engines, Dragon cut ties with Lotus in favor of a one car Chevrolet effort, with Bourdais contesting the road races, and Katherine Legge the ovals. Sadly, Bourdais' best 2012 IndyCar result has been a ninth place finish.
Yesterday, however, we once again were treated to Bourdais at his best. The French ace, driving for a top-line team, partied like it was 2005. Strong in the rain, strong in the dry, Bourdais passed inside, he passed outside, never putting a wheel wrong. With 31 minutes remaining took the lead and never looked back.
But unlike the Champ Car days, Bourdais was not the villainous front-runner yesterday. We weren't rooting for a Great American Hope, like Allmendinger. We weren't rooting for Tracy to carry the Champ Car flag. No, Bourdais was carrying the Izod IndyCar Series flag yesterday. A unified IndyCar Series. Where that joyless clinical precision once was used to beat a beloved Tracy or Allmendinger, yesterday Bourdais used it dust the Grand-Am regulars, proudly representing IndyCar in the process.
Of course, with Bourdais cast in a different role yesterday, the timing is right to re-assess our prior conceptions of him. Certainly, he did make for a good villain in the Champ Car days, particularly in his battles with Tracy. Further, Bourdais did not then, nor will he ever have the personality of say a James Hinchcliffe, Helio Castroneves, or Tracy. For example, could you ever imagine Bourdais in a Go-Daddy commercial or climbing a fence after he won?
And in hindsight, that is error I and so many others made in judging Bourdais. In bemoaning what he was not, we missed what he actually was: A no-nonsense throwback, who is fast in whatever type of car he drives; a supreme talent, who isn't concerned with the pomp and circumstance of being a star. He doesn't tweet fifty times a day. He doesn't seem to care about anything except kicking ass.
And yesterday, kick ass he did. Further, he displayed every bit of that clinical precision so many of us once loathed. For once, we were able to appreciate it. Brian Carroccio, The Chrome Horn