RACING

The Indycar champ is reaping the rewards of his commitment to sports cars

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With the 24 Hours of Le Mans on the horizon, Sébastien Bourdais says his sporting odyssey “is about to get even crazier”. He’s not wrong.

The Frenchman has been a regular in sportscars for the better part of the past two decades, but the difference this time is that it’s not alongside a single-seater programme. For the first time since 2010, the four-time Champ Car champion did not drive in the United States this year. Instead, he splits his attention between the IMSA Sportscar Championship with Chip Ganassi Racing’s Cadillac DPi-VR and the World Endurance Championship with Vector Sport in the ubiquitous LMP2 ORECA-Gibson 07.

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Bourdais acknowledges that the door to a return to IndyCar is now “almost” closed.

“I was always hoping there might be something this year towards the end of the season with maybe a third car launch program to help that,” he told Autosport before winning a second. IMSA win of the season at Belle Isle in Detroit. “But I think everything is pretty much buried at this point.

“Going forward, the Cadillac contract is pretty much exclusive, so it’s very unlikely to open doors. Yeah, I think it’s pretty much [done]. Not so much by choice, but just by opportunity – racing is a lot of that.

The brilliant IndyCar chapter of his career may be behind him, but Bourdais is excited about what lies ahead. This is the last season for the 2017 era Daytona Prototype international cars before LMDh arrives to take on Le Mans Hypercars in IMSA and WEC. Details of Caddy’s plans for its Dallara-based LMDh that will race in the Hypercar class of the WEC and IMSA GTP will be fully revealed on Thursday, but Ganassi is expected to play a major role in the development of General Motors’ latest project.

“It’s supposed to start very soon,” Bourdais said. “It’s always great to be early in the development of the new baby, and I think we’ll feel the same in the program.

Bourdais has four pole positions in six races in IMSA this year and is expected to play an important role in Cadillac’s LMDh project.

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt/Motorsport Images

“This DPi car is just fantastic to drive, being a relatively new program at Ganassi and we are still making great progress. Perhaps Acura wasn’t really an Acura track anymore, despite the fact that we were 25 pounds heavier than them.

“That’s the cool thing about racing – when you think you’ve hit a dead end or the car’s maximum potential, then there can be something left. That’s what you strive to try to keep raising the bar.

As Bourdais hints, Ganassi is still finding his feet in IMSA. He joined the DPi class last year with just one car before expanding to two for this year and brought Bourdais back into the fold (after being part of Ganassi’s Ford GT effort) to partner with Renger van der Zande. And although the duo’s two wins are the only podium finishes they have to show for their season so far, leading Bourdais to admit that “we’ve already had at least one wild card too many” to be considered as Automatic title contenders with four races remaining, their pace was certainly not in doubt.

“Doing this in coordination with the F3000 program, it was a very quick moment for me to learn how to develop cars when we had the C60 [in 2001] with André de Cortanze and Claude Galopin and a bunch of super smart guys who have become a kind of second family” Sebastien Bourdais

Bourdais has taken four pole positions in the last five races, at Sebring, Long Beach, Mid-Ohio and Detroit, all setting new lap records. His searing opening pass that secured victory at Long Beach, returning to the lead after an early delay in traffic dropped him to the back of the DPi pack, was as convincing as you’ll see anywhere this year.

“There was no restraint!” said Bourdais, reflecting on Long Beach. “Maybe I wouldn’t have had to push so hard if we had control in mind and didn’t need to blow the BoP and put another 10 kilos in the car for the next race…

“But at the same time it was the pace of the car all day before and when you really feel like one in the car, confidence and comfort has everything to do with how fast you’re going to go and how much you you can challenge the car. It was a really dominant qualifying performance and then it went into the race.

Bourdais says his huge bank of IndyCar experience gives him “a bit of an edge” to make the “normal transition” to prototypes. But he also has an extensive catalog of endurance racing to draw from, dating back to his first exposure to sports cars in 1999. That year he shared a Porsche Larbre Competition GT2 with 1970s Formula 1 star Jean -Pierre Jarier and Pierre de Thoisy. The trip was originally planned for his father, the 1991 French Clio Cup champion Patrick.

“He really wanted me to get my feet a little wet in this stuff and try to get some experience in bigger cars,” Bourdais explained. “Initially we were trying to do it together and we just didn’t have the money to buy us two seats, so he gave me his seat.”

Bourdais made his first Le Mans start in 1999, when he shared a Porsche GT2 with Jean-Pierre Jarier and Pierre de Thoisy

Bourdais made his first Le Mans start in 1999, when he shared a Porsche GT2 with Jean-Pierre Jarier and Pierre de Thoisy

Picture by: Motorsport Images

Then, after winning the French Formula 3 championship, came into contact with Le Mans legend Henri Pescarolo, who had just ended his racing career after a record 33 starts in the big race. Bourdais was signed to drive a Courage C52 with former F1 driver Olivier Grouillard and Emmanuel Clerico for some races in 2000 alongside his main Formula 3000 programme, finishing an excellent fourth at Le Mans behind a trio of factory Audis .

“It really started the whole sports car love affair for me,” Bourdais says of a period that culminated in two FIA Sportscar Championship wins in his 2002 F3000. “It was a very family atmosphere.

“Doing this in coordination with the F3000 program, it was a very quick moment for me to learn how to develop cars when we had the C60 [in 2001] with André de Cortanze and Claude Galopin and a bunch of super smart guys who have become a kind of second family.

“The involvement that I had in sports cars being with the smaller teams that could and trying to take it to the big ones, being Audi and so on, was super interesting. A lot of things happened thanks to Henri and the team, and the family behind it, for me in endurance.

Given that sports car racing has been a sideline for Bourdais so far, his track record is impressive. He won the 24 Hours of Spa with the Viper de Larbre in 2002, won the 24 Hours of Daytona in 2014 (as well as in the category in 2017) and also has two 12 Hours of Sebring victories to his name. He won the GTE Pro class at the 2016 24 Hours of Le Mans, driving the Ford GT run by Ganassi, and finished second outright no less than three times driving for Peugeot.

It’s Sebring’s wins he treasures the most, having raced through the field with Action Express on an “incredible day” in 2015 – “When you end up riding a Ganassi car that hasn’t really had a problems, you know you did something right” – and fought back after two laps to win with a broken rear wing for underdog JDC-Miller Motorsport team Cadillac last year.

“I don’t think there was anyone in the team who thought they would win the race after six, seven or eight hours,” he recalled. “We were still two laps down and not particularly fast. For it all to come together and feel like it goes away when the rear wing failed, but still wins in the end, it was a total rollercoaster.

But he still has an important bucket list item to check off. Bourdais acknowledges that an outright win at Le Mans remains “probably the biggest goal” and stresses that “three second places doesn’t get you anything towards a win”.

Dominant 12 Hours of Sebring victory alongside Joao Barbosa and Christian Fittipaldi cements Bourdais as one of his greatest sports car triumphs to date

Dominant 12 Hours of Sebring victory alongside Joao Barbosa and Christian Fittipaldi cements Bourdais as one of his greatest sports car triumphs to date

Photo by: Richard Dole / Motorsport Images

Coming back to Le Mans this year as a prototype for the first time since 2012 aboard a Pescarolo Dome will be the best possible preparation, even if the Vector team is still a young team only starting its third race. Bourdais knew team boss Gary Holland when they worked together in the 2020 24 Hours of Le Mans with the Risi Ferrari team.

“Obviously having the effort to go back to Le Mans hopefully with Cadillac next year if we get an invite, so that was pretty simple and automatic interest,” he says of his response to Holland’s offer.

Bourdais had to skip the WEC season-opening 1000 Miles of Sebring because Cadillac had not given him approval to enter the day before the 12-hour IMSA race – where early mechanical problems destroyed the poleman’s run. But he joined Audi DTM ace Nico Muller and Irishman Ryan Cullen for round two at Spa.

In one of the most chaotic WEC races in recent memory, which was red-flagged three times, the trio finished 10th in class after Bourdais was one of several drivers to crash into the conditions while passing a slower GT car and got stuck in the gravel. .

“We know we’re up against very strong opposition, so we’ll try to do our best to maximize our chances so we can come out of this with our heads held high.” Sebastien Bourdais

“It was a very difficult and difficult start for the team,” he acknowledges. “There are still ways to improve, for sure, we are not exactly where we want to be. But obviously, if I hadn’t messed up in the race at Spa, the result would have been different!

A top five in LMP2 at Le Mans “would be a very good achievement”, Bourdais believes, given the experience of other teams with the proven ORECAs.

“We’re definitely on a steep learning curve and have a tough challenge ahead of us, but we’ll do our best,” he said. “We know we’re up against very strong opposition, so we’ll try to do our best to maximize our chances so that we can come out of this with our heads held high, feeling like we’ve done a good job. Hopefully we put all the bad luck in a basket and that we used it up, so we could enjoy a good race.

No matter where the Vector team ends up, it will be invaluable experience for both Bourdais and Cadillac – it could have a big reward this time next year…

Bourdais is back at Le Mans for the first time in a prototype since 2012 with LMP2 team Vector Sport

Bourdais is back at Le Mans for the first time in a prototype since 2012 with LMP2 team Vector Sport

Photo by: Rainier Ehrhardt

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