Sebastien Bourdais enjoys portraying the role of underdog in the NTT IndyCar Series.
And he plays it well.
The 40-year-old Frenchman enters Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg as the two-time defending race winner.
FIRESTONE GRAND PRIX OF ST. PETERSBURG: Starting lineup/tire declaration
While widely recognized as a four-time Indy car champion (2004-07) during his days at Newman/Haas Racing, there has been added fulfillment the last couple seasons taking his No. 18 SealMaster Honda to St. Pete’s victory lane for Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser-Sullivan.
“There have been two very distinct stages to my career,” said Bourdais. “One where you learned as a rookie with a championship-winning team, with a great structure and great people around, and (won) lots of them.
“Then a little excursion back in Europe (to race in Formula One in 2008-09). Then you come back to the States and you're with underdog teams. It's very different, but it's satisfying when you get it done because you know you've either overachieved or done something that not any other team is capable of. It's extra satisfying. Obviously, it takes more close relationships and hard work to get it done.
“It’s extremely satisfying.”
Bourdais will need to overachieve again in Sunday’s 110-lap race. He will start the season opener from the 19th position in the No. 18 SealMaster Honda after he was unable to post a timed lap in the first round of Saturday qualifying interrupted by a pair of red-flag stoppages.
“The good news is the Dale Coyne with Vasser-Sullivan team has plenty of sticker (new) tires, both the Firestone (alternate) reds and (primary) blacks, so I am excited,” Bourdais said in trying to find the silver lining. “Obviously, we will be playing the long game again. That's all you can do from where we'll start. We'll give it our best shot. We've done it the last two years from there (winning from the 14th and 21st starting positions the last two years), so we know it's possible."
A mark of Bourdais’ ability to surprise with smaller teams is the fact he’s won at least one race in each of the past five seasons. Among active drivers, only Scott Dixon (who’s won at least one race in an Indy car-record 14 straight seasons) and Will Power (10) have done better.
There’s reason to believe Bourdais’ streak will continue after he put together four top-six results over the final five races of 2018, including a podium in the penultimate round at Portland International Raceway.
The 37-time race winner (sixth all time) called it “an interesting season last year.” Even though the lone win came on the streets of his adopted U.S. hometown of St. Pete, Bourdais felt the team struggled on temporary street courses.
“Our pace on the street-course setup was not so great,” Bourdais said. “We could pull a good race together but the ultimate pace was a struggle.”
With a full year of data on the universal aero kit that debuted for all cars in 2018, there is optimism for greater results.
“I think obviously now we have a bit of an understanding of what the car is like and what it's going to feel like at most places,” Bourdais said. “There are two new venues this year (Circuit of The Americas and WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca), but it's two road courses so I'm not dreading that too much.
“The road-course setup, there is a bit of the platform (already in place) there, so then you can investigate things. It's not as evil to find solutions there as ovals can be when you hit the track wrong.
“So I am pretty happy to start the way we are after the winter we had. Hopefully, we can capitalize on a lot of good things.”
Bourdais had a flair for the dramatic in 2018, including winning the pole position at ISM Raceway, making the Fast Nine shootout in Indianapolis 500 qualifying and charging from 24th starting position to finish sixth at Mid-Ohio. He finished seventh in the final standings – his best championship showing since winning the 2007 Champ Car title – and seeks more in 2019.
“We were a top-five contender in the championship, which is pretty remarkable given who you’ve got to fight,” he said, referring to the Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport powerhouses.
“But every year is different and you hit the reset button. All we can do is keep our heads down and do the best we can. I'm looking forward to the challenge. On performance, we had a heck of a season last year. I didn't foresee us being in that position that many times.
“I think we have been maybe a bit too much of the entertainer for the last year. Wish we would have been more of the closer than the entertainer. We'll definitely give it our best shot and try and close the deal more often than not this year.”
FIRESTONE GRAND PRIX OF ST. PETERSBURG FAST FACTS:
Race 1 of 17 on the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series schedule
Track: 1.8-mile, 14-turn temporary street course comprised of city streets and a runway of Albert Whitted Airport
Race distance: 110 laps/198 miles
Fuel: Each car receives 70 gallons of Speedway E85 ethanol
Push-to-pass: Each car has 150 seconds total duration for the race, with a single maximum use of 15 seconds. Push-to-pass adds approximately 60 horsepower when utilized.
TV: NBCSN, 12:30 p.m. ET
Radio: Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network, 1 p.m. ET (including network affiliates, Sirius 216, XM 209, IndyCarRadio.com, IndyCar.com and INDYCAR Mobile app powered by NTT DATA)