Profile: Sébastien Bourdais

Racing drivers, both from Formula 1 and CART/IndyCar, occasionally attempt one of the most difficult feats of motorsport: switching continents and succeeding. For every Mario Andretti who crosses the Atlantic and wins a world championship, there is an Alex Zanardi who struggles dreadfully, either through motivation, environment, or simple experience. While drivers like Nigel Mansell saw success in making the switch from F1 to IndyCar, Michael Andretti couldn’t commit to the sport and dropped out before a full season that same year.

Sébastien Bourdais fits into none of these categories. With a direct route to Formula 1 most drivers could only dream of, his results from his junior and professional career until the late 2000s was impeccable, and he would become one of the most successful drivers of his generation. For him however, success came in the new waters of CART, but in his destined home of F1 his career flopped after just a year and a half in spite of his clear talent and ability. In North America, Bourdais’ record ranks him amongst the very best of all time, with a consistent winning record spanning 15 years in the IndyCar/CART series, while in Formula 1 he never finished higher than 7th place.

Nationality French
Date of Birth February 28th 1979
Teams Toro Rosso (2008-2009)
Races Entered 27
Races Started 27
Best Result 7th x2 (Australia 2008) (Belgium 2008)

 

Early years: Fighting with the very best

Bourdais’ initial success came in his teenage years, where he progressed through local karting leagues with almost unanimous success. His first forays into single-seater racing came in Formula Campus by Renault and Elf and the French Formula Renault series. Winning four out of 18 races, he came runner-up in 1997 and guaranteed himself a place at French Formula 3 the following year where the cream of France’s racing crop had graduated (Prost, Panis, Dalmas). Rookie of the year in 1998 and champion in 1999, Bourdais’ graduation to French Formula 3 was also successful. As he rose through the ranks, the competition hardened. He would find himself competing directly against future F1 mainstays Mark Webber and Fernando Alonso.

Moving to International Formula 3000, F1’s feeder series at the time, for the 2000 season with Gauloises Formula Bourdais earned a pole and podium, and was able to beat his more experience team-mate André Couto. Moving to the DAMS squad for 2001, Bourdais took took another pole position and three podiums, including his first international win and fastest lap at Silverstone, where he kept his car on track through changeable weather.

A scruffy season at times – most notably, in Austria when a lap one clip from Webber created a chain reaction that led to an eight-car pileup –  the Frenchman still did enough to improve to 4th overall in the standings at the end of the season, a long way off the dominating Justin Wilson. His team-mate during the 2001 season, American Derek Hill, scored no points at all.

Going into 2002 and his third season in the F3000, Bourdais moved to one of the strongest teams at the time, Super Nova Racing, alongside notorious future F1 lucky bastard Tiago Monteiro. 2002 proved to be his toughest challenge yet, finding himself involved in a three-way championship battle with Tomáš Enge and Giorgio Pantano that went down to the wire.

Sébastien displayed excellent pace all year long, taking six pole positions (more than anyone that year) and eight podiums, including three victories, on his way to a deserved, if slightly inherited championship – Enge was disqualified for failing a drug test after winning in Hungary and Bourdais inherited enough points to make it over its rivals to win the championship. Enge, Bourdais and Pantano would all make it to Formula 1 in some way or another, though by different means and in different times.

2002-2003: A Dance with Briatore

In spite of his success in F3000 and the Renault F1 Team‘s willingness to take him, Bourdais refused to sign Flavio Briatore as his manager alongside a testing role “with no guarantees”. As Briatore was known for being shrewd and untrustworthy, Sébastien steered clear, though it would have dire consequences for his hopes of reaching F1. The French racing authorities, eager to throw money at Flavio to invest in France’s “next big thing”, convinced Franck Montagny, a fellow Frenchman and future reject, to sign instead. Montagny got the job, and after a few years as the Renault third driver, eventually drove half a season with Super Aguri.

When the French government stumped up extra cash, Bourdais was pressured into signing the same contract. His initial refusal, combined with Flavio’s souring relationship with the French authorities, caused him no end of difficulties. Today, he claims Briatore deliberately attempted to stunt his career for the duration of the contract for that initial refusal. It may even have cost Sébastien the seat that would go to Nelson Piquet Jr. in 2008.

“In the end the French Federation succeeded in finding a lot of money with the French government, PlayStation and Renault – not Renault F1, just Renault, which pissed Flavio [off] even further – and so it happened … I signed a management agreement with him, because it was part of the deal. Flavio got really angry about that, and from that point on he became a big problem for my career … I just tried to leave him alone and tried to make sure he was leaving me alone as well, but it wasn’t quite this way…”
Bourdais discussing Flavio Briatore in late 2009, by which time both were out of Formula 1 for good.

Where Sébastien did receive genuine support was from managing director Tom Walkinshaw at the Arrows F1 team. Connecting through F3000, Walkinshaw was impressed with Bourdais, and finally got his name down on a contract, for a race seat in 2003 no less! Arrows then proceeded to immediately go bankrupt and instead leave Bourdais with no seat whatsoever. This sudden change caused a sharp drop in career options. Either continuing in F3000 where he had already proved himself, or to take a test driver role “with no guarantees”, Bourdais made a third decision to go Stateside.

 2003: Taking Champ Car by Storm

Despite the differences between the style of racing in Europe and North America, Bourdais did exceptionally well in Champ Car. From the get-go, he was more than impressive. At St. Petersburg (a track he would always do well at, and where he now calls home) he qualified on pole in his first race, and again at Monterrey. In both races, contact slipped him down the order by race-end, though it took only until his fourth race at Brands Hatch, that Bourdais took his debut Champ Car win, successfully holding off that year’s champion Paul Tracy for much of the race. It was Tracy who would be Bourdais’ main rival during his Champ Car tenure.

The pair’s first contact occurred at Miami: the two were fighting for third when Bourdais made a move stick past the Canadian, and at the very next corner Tracy hit him from behind. Both cars were damaged and neither party were best pleased. Although Bourdais was all but out of championship contention, his teammate at Newman/Haas Racing Bruno Junqueira was in direct competition with Tracy, and inevitable accusations arose. Even after Tracy had won the season with a race to spare, he tagged Bourdais yet again from the rear on lap 1 at the season finale in Mexico City.

It was a hugely successful debut for Sébastien, where he earned Rookie of the Year honours with a considerable gap to his rivals. Bourdais took five pole positions and seven podiums – including three victories – on his way to 4th place in the championship. His first season in the sport would be the lowest he would finish in the championship during his Champ Car tenure.

2004-2005: The first Championship Years

With a proper year of experience under his belt, 2004 was the year Bourdais mounted a championship challenge, going up against his team-mate Junqueira as his main competition through the season. While Junqueira only took two wins during the season – against Bourdais’ seven out of 14 races – the consistency of the Brazilian was enough to challenge Bourdais for the title, which eventually fell to the Frenchman. It was an incredible run of domination that saw three wins in succession at Portland, Cleveland, and Toronto. His greatest win that season without a doubt was at Denver, where after tapping his team-mate into turn one at the start of the race, he rose from last through the field to win.

Bourdais Champ Car 2007

“It’s a perfect blend of methanol, salad and olive oil — and that’s a winning combination,” said co-team-owner Paul Newman of Sébastien Bourdais’ iconic McDonalds livery during his Champ Car years. Photo: DonFrance-photos / Creative Commons.

And Bourdais did not slow down going into 2005. He won the opener at Long Beach, while Junqueira led the standings after Monterrey. However, a devastating crash at that year’s Indy 500 put the Brazilian out for the rest of the season, leaving Bourdais with a clear shot at the title. Against his old F3000 rival Justin Wilson and Paul Tracy, Sébastien then won five out of the last seven races in dominant fashion, taking his second championship in a row ahead of Junqueira’s replacement Oriol Servià.

It was also at Monterrey where the Bourdais-Tracy rivalry re-emerged. An overly-ambitious move from the Frenchman left Tracy no room, and the Canadian crashed out. At Toronto, where Tracy usually dominated, the pair collided after Bourdais overtook in the pits, then chopped in front too early. Again the Canadian retired, and again Bourdais took a top-five finish. The biggest points swing occurred at Las Vegas, where a slowing Tracy was taken out from behind by Bourdais for the third time. Bourdais won 2005 with a greater advantage than the previous year, though with more incidents to think about.

“Whatever happened, Tracy touched wheels with…I’m gonna guess it was with Bourdais”
Derek Daly commentating for the 2006 Grand Prix of Cleveland.

2006-2007: Cementing his legacy stateside

2006 became an historic year for Bourdais. He dominated the season from start finishing, taking another seven wins from 14 races, on his way to his third consecutive title – the first time this feat had been achieved in modern American motorsport. His chief rival was A.J. Allmendinger, who won five races but couldn’t pull together a consistent enough challenge before leaving open-wheelers for a NASCAR career. The year began with little controversy at the front, with Bourdais taking 5 podiums and 4 victories in the first five races of the season. The sixth race of the season, held at Cleveland, wrote another chapter into the Tracy-Bourdais book of conflicts when both drivers made contact on the first lap of the race, causing both to retire on the spot.

Their second contact of that season, however, became one of the defining moments of that era of Champ Car. At Denver, a decisive overtake by Bourdais on Tracy saw the latter try to mimic it with a bungled move that took both drivers out on the very last corner of the lap lap as they fought for second. It was a famous, if stupid incident from both involved, who at this point were now famous for their bitter on-track rivalry. The confrontation that followed became immediately part of American racing folklore. Bourdais’ on-track success in America turned some heads in Europe, and Scuderia Toro Rosso took notice, with the team formerly known as Minardi inviting the Frenchman for a three-day test. Formula 1 was turning its eye to Bourdais again.

2007 was the year that cemented Bourdais as an all-time great. Outside of a few incidents as every year, the Frenchman won eight out of the 14 races, and took his fourth consecutive title in dominating fashion – almost 100 points clear of Justin Wilson (just like the season before). It would be Bourdais’ final year in the series, as shortly after the half-way mark into the season, Bourdais announced his signing of a full-time drive with the Toro Rosso team in Formula 1. The Frenchman finally had a shot at F1, and a great deal of momentum behind him: Bourdais was now, for the history books, one of the legends of American open-wheel racing history.

 2008: The unluckiest man in Formula 1

Bourdais’ signing was met with mixed reception for a variety of reasons: firstly, his ability was under question given the decline of the Champ Car series in its final years. Secondly, was Bourdais’ talented not wasted at a backmarker team like Toro Rosso? Either way, the merciless management by Franz Tost and Gerhard Berger meant that Sébastien was under more pressure than most of the grid to deliver, slow car be damned.

The truth of the matter is that Bourdais was completely overshadowed by his illustrious teammate Sebastian Vettel. Bear in mind, the Frenchman was 29 on début; one of the oldest debuts this century. Vettel was only 20, with far more potential. Vettel ended up outqualifying Bourdais 13-4, and famously outscored the Frenchman by a domineering 35-4. However, stats only tell half the story of Bourdais 2008 season.

The most noteworthy attribute of Bourdais’ year was the number of points he lost due to bad luck. In Australia he qualified poorly, but climbed places through attrition while Vettel, who reached Q3, retired at the first corner. Bourdais was two laps from the finish, running 4th (and about to unrejectify himself on debut) when an engine failure took him out to inherit a lowly 7th on inheritance. A possible five points were reduced to two, and it ended up being Bourdais’ joint-best result in the sport. His strong start to the season was attributed to his experience without traction control, which was dropped in F1 for 2008.

It was from Monaco, when the STR3 chassis debuted, where the Frenchman’s season really fell apart. To start with, he and Red Bull driver David Coulthard crashed within seconds of one another at the same corner, but in the meantime Vettel scored his first great finish of 5th in the torrential rain and unpredictability of that race. Vettel again got the benefit of the safety car in Canada as Bourdais was the final classified runner. It was not until after the summer break that the STR3 came into its own as one of the strongest midfield contenders. Bourdais made every Q3 session from Valencia to Brazil – except Singapore – and Toro Rosso outpaced their parent team, Red Bull, on merit. At every stage, however, it appeared that Vettel was the one with the better pace, almost always outqualifying Bourdais who didn’t reach Q2 until Bahrain, while the German grabbed regular points against the Frenchman’s anonymity.

Under his helmet, Sébastien had a troubling season in Formula 1 almost from the very beginning. Photo: Patrick_Down / Creative Commons

Under his helmet, Sébastien had a troubling season in Formula 1 almost from the very beginning. Photo: Patrick_Down / Creative Commons

The real tragedy occurred at Spa and Monza, where Bourdais’ best chances were taken away from him. Fastest in Q1, he had a great start from 9th on the grid and spent most of the Belgian Grand Prix in 4th. By the end of the race, though, rain started to fall, and both Toro Rossos took the gamble to stay out on dry tyres rather than to risk losing time pitting. In hindsight it was the wrong decision. Following Alonso’s pitstop, Bourdais inherited 3rd and kept it until the final lap, where Alonso, Heidfeld, Vettel, and Kubica all passed him. Seventh place and two points were little consolation. It gets worse: if Bourdais had kept his third place, he could have been promoted to second following Hamilton’s controversial penalty.

Of course, the 2008 Italian Grand Prix ended up becoming famous for hosting Vettel’s first win. All weekend it rained, and Bourdais was overshadowed yet again in spite of taking the best grid position of his career: 4th place . Due to the rain, the race was started behind the safety car, and Sébastien’s STR3 could not find first gear: the car stalled and his race was pretty much done and dusted there. With the race having officially started, Bourdais had the car restarted, re-joining a lap down and last. Being on average the second fastest car on the grid was not enough to lift him out of his position, and he finished a lonely 18th while Vettel reaped the glory. In just two races the Frenchman had lost an incredible run of points through sheer bad luck.

His final defining moment of the season occurred at Fuji, where he was penalised for hitting Felipe Massa after leaving the pits. However, this penalty of 25 seconds was so unpopular that the backlash caused an entire reworking of the stewarding setup to make the process more transparent.  Bourdais lost a well-earned 6th place (ahead of his teammate) to gain no points at all in 10th.

He just squeezed and turned and behaved like I didn’t exist.
Bourdais’ post-race reaction to his penalty at the 2008 Japanese Grand Prix.

And that was how 2008 ended for Bourdais: 4 points when he could have earned as many as 21. But what is F1, if not IF spelled backwards, as Murray Walker once duly pointed out?

 2009: An ignominious exit from the Red Bull machine

The 2008-2009 winter was a difficult one for many in Formula 1, as the sport was impacted by the international recession of the time and the rule changes forced teams to rethink their chassis concepts. For Sébastien, the difficulty came in extending his contract to a second year. Red Bull were very keen on their new youngster, another Sébastien – this time Buemi – who held the team’s hopes as a future winner. Bourdais had the ignominy of competing against Buemi and former Super Aguri driver Takuma Sato in testing for the seat. Bar the Brawn GP drivers, he was the last signed driver on the grid for 2009.

Profile: Sébastien Buemi

Race AUS MAL CHN BHR ESP MON TUR GBR GER Average
Bourdais Qualifying Position 20 15 16 20 17 14 20 17 20 18
Buemi Qualifying Position 16 20 10 17 15 11 18 20 17 16

Although the Toro Rosso chassis was sub-par in 2009 to say the least, Bourdais ended the season with the second-worst qualifying record – behind him, only Luca Badoer.

2008 had not been a fruitful year for Sébastien, and 2009 only got worse. He qualified dead last at Melbourne, and inherited a point for 8th place after Lewis Hamilton was disqualified for lying to the stewards regarding a safety car incident at the end of the race. Notably Sébastien was behind his new Swiss teammate. He spun at a wet Chinese Grand Prix as his teammate took another point. He rarely left Q1, and it meant he was stuck in the pack almost every race, such as in Spain when he was caught up in the crash on the opening lap. He drove well at street tracks like Monaco where he earned his final point in F1, but in the following races he qualified last, finished out of the points or just plain did not finish. It was not a happy state of affairs by the halfway mark of the season.

I’ve got a contract, I’m going to Hungary, and that’s all there is to it.
Sébastien Bourdais’ final words to the press as a Toro Rosso driver.

Ignoring the press, and confident the strength of his contract, Bourdais seemed to be the last person to know he had been sacked. After Germany he was out the door, replaced by the fresh-faced rookie Jaime Alguersuari. It was almost exactly two years after his initial signing with the team.

Knowing the security of his contract, Bourdais consulted his lawyers, who approached Toro Rosso and reached a settlement of €1.8 million for a breach of contract. From there, Bourdais stated that he was considering an immediate return to IndyCar.

“I had this opportunity with Toro Rosso, for sure if I had known that it would happen like this after the fact, I’m not sure I would have gone there. But hey, overall at least, there is no regrets. I gave it a go and it didn’t go well. It’s over, we move on.”
Bourdais’ immediate reaction to his messy F1 exit in 2009

 2010 to present: Return to IndyCar

Before settling down for what would be a full-time IndyCar career, Bourdais entered a stint in the unusual Superleague Formula series, where car manufacturers were replaced by football clubs as the main sponsors for each team. Representing Sevilla FC for the remainder of 2009, and then Olympique Lyonnais for the first half of 2010, he scored three wins. However, Superleague Formula was a very conceptual series, and nowhere to make a career. In 2010 he also guest-starred at the 2010 Gold Coast 600 for Australian V8 SuperCars as a driver with an ‘international reputation’, where he promptly finished 19th!

Bourdais in his Superleague Formula car

Sébastien called the short-lived and rather novelty Superleague Formula as “the best alternative to F1“. Here he races for FC Sevilla, despite admitting he doesn’t watch football! Photo: automobilsport

During his junior and Champ Car career, the Frenchman had made regular attempts at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, initially from 1999 to 2004 in all-French line-ups driving a Courage C60. Between 2007 and 2011 he became a Peugeot factory driver in the series, and got closest to winning in 2009, only a lap behind the race winner. He never even got to drive the pole-sitting Peugeot on race-day come 2010, after his teammate Pedro Lamy suffered suspension issues to retire early on. In the end, it was not until 2011 where Bourdais’ career really began to restart, and even then it was a slow process.

He would find his return to IndyCar far more difficult than when he left it. Teams such as Dragon Racing and KV Racing placed him at the back of the field more often than not, though he outperformed his teammates Katherine Legge and Sebastián Saavedra and brought home the occasional top-five finish. 2012 proved largely fruitless, though by the back half of 2013 Bourdais appeared to have found his mojo once again. After three podiums in five races, he even led the season finale at Fontana for some time. In 2014 Bourdais earned two poles, and his first open-wheeler victory since 2007. It sparked a small rejuvenation for his career, and the season ultimately yielded a 10th-place finish in the overall standings.

The Monégasque Stefano Coletti joined as Bourdais’ rookie teammate in 2015 after the Frenchman had dominated Saavedra the previous year. The Frenchman was again strong, doubling Coletti’s points by season-end with another 10th overall place in the standings. The season was more erratic, with many more incidents running for the important positions – a three-car crash in the rain at New Orleans could very nearly have been fatal as he was hit by former and future IndyCar champions Ryan Hunter-Reay and Simon Pagenaud. The glory continued, and Sébastien picked up his first oval win since his Champ Car days at Milwaukee where he lapped the entire field – putting together a drive that reminded everyone of why he was a legend of the sport.

2016 was less fruitful. At Detroit he took advantage of a safety car to make one stop less, and it earned him a sole race win. It was proof that, even outside of a top team, Bourdais was more than capable of dragging a car to a win on regular occasion. It was to be his final season with KV Racing Technology, as the Frenchman returned to Dale Coyne Racing for the 2017 season, where he reunited with his old Champ Car buddy, Craig Hampson.

The Hampson and Bourdais partnership was reignited from the get-go, with Bourdais turning the #18 Dale Coyne Racing entry into one of the strongest packages of the field. He won the first race in the streets of St. Petersburg and finished second at Long Beach, before taking an 8th place at Barber Motorsport Park. Bourdais was the championship leader after the first three races. Two less than ideal events followed at Phoenix and the Indy GP, but that year’s rendition of the great Indy 500 was to be Bourdais’. He had one of the fastest packages all through the Month of May, but unfortunately, it all came to nothing come qualifying.

Having set the fastest first lap speed out of anyone at that point, Bourdais suffered a  catastrophic crash coming through turn two. The violent collision with the wall shattered his pelvis and left him out of racing for the majority of the 2017 season. It was the first time in his entire racing career, and indeed his life, where he had been seriously injured.

I’d never had a car like that to top Fast Friday and [I thought] “Oh my God, will this ever happen again?
A dejected Bourdais at the end of 2017 season thinks about what could have been

That incident marked the last of Bourdais’ potential for glory, despite showing in 2018 and 2019 he still had pace to fight with the best. In 2018, he took a sole victory at St. Petersburg on his way to 7th in the championship – the second best ever result by a DCR car in their IndyCar history – and in 2019 ran a consistent season to score 11th in the standings. Due to budget problems at DCR, Bourdais was released for the 2020 season, not being able to honour his final year of contract with the squad. He returned in late 2020 with A.J. Foyt Enterprises, where he has stayed for 2021.

Bourdais wins at St. Pete's, 2018

Sébastien’s most recent win came at his adopted home circuit of St. Petersburg, Florida in 2018. Since his Champ Car debut in 2003 it marks a period between first and last wins that is longer than Michael Schumacher’s. Image: CityofStPete / Creative Commons.

Looking Back

As a result of the motorsport rivalry between Europe and North America, even at the height of Bourdais’ career there was scepticism of Champ Car’s talent pool, and in spite of the Frenchman’s success, many still doubted his talent against the very best. Was he merely the best of a bad bunch? Or is it true from his own words that in Formula 1 he was unfairly and politically treated? He was slower than Vettel, but then Vettel himself also became a four-time world champion.

Context is important, and Bourdais has raced a career heavy with context. His racing record is confusing to have been so successful in one discipline, yet so unsuccessful elsewhere. And in spite of his success, there is a hole that succeeding in Formula 1 would have filled as a way of cementing his reputation internationally. Perhaps a misplaced belief that Formula 1 is the only route to success has treated Bourdais with unjust prejudice.

The truth is that Bourdais seems to have absolutely prospered in America rather than Formula 1. On his day, he is one of the best giving it 100% inside a race-car – especially in an IndyCar. Accepting a smaller salary, he finds IndyCar far more entertaining, thrilling, and challenging. After all, that is where he has won the most – at the time of publication he sits 7th on the all-time win-list in American open-wheel racing. About Europe he says:

“Too much in Formula 1 is all about the wrong reasons: money and position – it is not about the racing … F1 has ruined every track. They have taken the character out of them, made them vanilla…Monaco is now a friggin’ parking lot with a couple of turns.”

Nowadays we have seen time and time again the mechanism of Red Bull’s management chew up and spit out drivers mercilessly when they have not provided results, and one wonders whether Bourdais would have prospered in another team. Then again, no other team gave Bourdais the light of day, and like any other driver he had to earn his place. His final word on his Toro Rosso years are as such:

“It’s something that I have a lot of trouble with. F1 is evolving at such a high level of technology that basically they don’t need drivers like they did in the 80s or 90s telling them ‘I need the car to do this or that’. They just need a driver who gets in there and adapts to the characteristics of the car and pulls the maximum potential out of it.”

Bourdais is the most recent driver at the time of writing to have arrived in Formula 1 from American racing, and his experiences seem to have deterred others from trying the same. Nowadays it seems the process has reversed: F1 drivers (and especially rejects) more commonly find homes in IndyCar after their international careers are over. As the frigid relationship between Europe and North America has begun to ease following the efforts of Fernando Alonso at the Indy 500, one can’t help but wonder if a young American success story like Colton Herta might repeat the trajectory of Sébastien Bourdais – though hopefully with a little more success.

Special thanks to Anna Hunt and Miguel Rocha for assisting throughout the writing of this article, especially with regard to Bourdais’ years in North America. It would be half the article without them.

Sources: racefans, autosport, thecheckeredflag, f1metrics, f1only