Is Sebastien Bourdais really an enigma wrapped in a riddle surrounded by four Vanderbilt Trophies? Or is he just a bit taciturn? More a speak-when-spoken-to kind of guy? And what about that tenure in F1? Was it painful and disappointing or more "frustrating" and "unfortunate?"
It turns out the somewhat bookish appearance of Bourdais actually fits him pretty well. The angular Bourdais with his rectangular glasses is a bit of a science geek, always wondering how the car works and what makes it react as it does. And he's a collaborator -- someone who likes to work the engineers and others to massage his cars into optimum setups for his driving style. That strong character trait may have made him the square peg in a round F1 hole.
The Vanderbilt Cups -- trophies for his four consecutive Champ Car World Series Championships -- give Bourdais literal street cred, as do his 31 wins in 73 starts in Champ Car, an outlandish 42% winning record.
Today Bourdais drives for Dragon Racing in the IndyCar series, sharing a car with teammate Katherine Legge. He talked about all this and more Monday:
Sebastien: (Laughter) Well I guess when you get taken out three laps to the end, yeah it’s never a nice feeling but it’s, unfortunately, it’s always a scenario that can happen and you know you never want to be the one that gets the butt-stick. but yeah that’s the way it is.
pressdog: So when that happens as a driver what goes through your mind right away, is it like instant rage or is it; control your emotions or how do you deal with that?
Sebastien: No it’s just a big (disappointment) obviously, but what are you going to do? You see how these race cars go and you got to take your chance and if you don’t go you get hit and if you go you still get hit sometimes. You know I think the biggest problem we have is that we have to – double file re-starts are a very difficult thing to endure and particularly in Toronto and even more so when it’s very late in the race like this, so everybody feels like you’ve got a shot at the win and then some guys go crazy so, it’s never an easy thing/ It’s just the timing. The whole action became, you know, just a perfect scenario for a big mess, so I was the unlucky one in the whole thing.
pressdog: It seemed like Toronto was sort of like your season in a microcosm; I mean you signed with Dragon and it looked good and then the Lotus engine and then Chevy and part-time. You seem kind of snake bit lately, is that accurate?
Sebastien: No I think the whole Lotus relationship went just about as badly as possible. I mean it was unreliable and under-performing and very late and there was a lot of contractual issues. (Team owner) Jay (Penske) had to do something about it because we couldn’t just not afford to get parked like the others at Indy. That would have put us in a terrible position team-wise. And unfortunately, obviously there were some financial consequences to this because Jay already had paid and committed to most of the two leases on both engines with Lotus and the Chevy was not going to be the same price because it was an additional lease on their part so it was going to be full price. So we could only afford it for one car. From there it was just trying to, you know, get with the sponsors and come up with some kind of solution where the team was going to make it through and try and get some good results. So Katherine has had to do the ovals only and I’ve had to concentrate only on the road and street courses.
Yeah I guess we knew the start of our season was going to be Detroit; as far as I’m concerned. Detroit was going fairly well and I think it’s a fair statement to say that we might have been able to do a little better in qualifying but I made a mistake in Q2 which prevented us from going in Q3 and then from there with a fairly good race we were seventh and then we had a mechanical issue so that kind of took us out. And we went at it again in Toronto and we had a bit more success there being a little more competitive and qualified fourth and we were running very strong in the race until that (first) yellow came out and put us all the way back in the field. We overcame that and then unfortunately only to end up being taken out. So yeah that’s the way it is but you know, at the end of the day we still have four races to go and the most important is to focus on these four and repeat what we did in Toronto and try to get the result out of it.
pressdog: So when you first drove the car with the Chevy engine in it at Indy or maybe even at Detroit what was your reaction? Was it like, Oh my God?
Sebastien: Well it’s a very different configuration with very different gearing but yeah, I mean the engine management obviously is a lot more sorted, the gearshifts and everything. It’s just – you know that when you get in the car instantly you have an understanding that you are on the same level as everyone else and you can go and fight where obviously before that there was just not a chance. So yeah it’s a nice feeling and at the same time, you know, you’re not in a development period. As nice as the guys at Lotus were, it was just everything to do. And we’re at race weekends and changing engines more often than not and so it was very complicated. All that work is something that you want to be doing in the winter not on a race weekend where you can’t test and every time you change the engine you get a penalty … it was very different.
pressdog: Amy Konrath is a friend of mine and she tells me you’re kind of a gear-head or kind of a science guy; you like to know how it works and why it works, is that right?
Sebastien: Yeah, I’ve studied the science. I was in college for two years so yeah, I’ve always been very interested in what goes on with the car and trying to give a knowledgeable input about what’s going on and it’s been my passion to — I don’t like to let things just be not understood; I just like to know why it’s going like this and what I can do better to try and improve it.
pressdog: So you like to get in there with the mechanics and see how it all works and talk about aerodynamics and all that sort of tech stuff?
Sebastien: Yes. I’m not a car freak or anything; like on the mechanical side of things. I can’t tell you how the engine works or everything about the dampers or anything but I just like to -– on the analysis of the car and the vehicle dynamic and everything I like to understand what relates to me, what I can really obviously use to my advantage and also trying to communicate and relate information to my engineers as best possible because I think it’s a very important way and a very effective way to make a car go faster for you.
pressdog: Sharing the ride with Katherine (Legge); you talked about that just a little bit. Has she been good to work with? I talked to her in Iowa (read it here) and she was very complimentary about your help at Indy. Is that relationship pretty good?
Sebastien: Yeah I think — I mean none of wanted to share the car, you know, there was none of that when we started the season but I think she’s put up with the situation as well as she could. I tried to help her as much as I could as well. You know, it’s always very difficult I think. She’s been out of open-wheel racing for a couple of years and not being able to winter test and do any kind of testing until actually she got to Iowa with a couple of days under her belt. It was very hard. I think she’s getting there but obviously the switching back and forth between the two of us is not giving her much time so it’s a complex situation for her but our relationship has been pretty good.
pressdog: How does the DW12 -- the Indy Car -- compare to some of the other cars that you’ve driven and there’s been a few; the DPO1 and the Lotus Champ Car, of course the F1 car. How does it compare the strengths and weaknesses to those other cars?
Sebastien: Well I think that the new car is a nice improvement from last year’s car. We’re about the same power right now and I think that this year we’re still working with the manufactures to see what can be done for the future but that first year was very pivotal so I think it was very important to get additional reliability although there was an engine war and everything. So on that side of things it’s making progress and I think we’ll see quite a bit more.
As far as the car is concerned, you know, it’s a proper car, I will call it. It’s a car that’s designed to go on street and road courses and also ovals, where before obviously the old car was a pure oval car which obviously got kind transformed to the best possible way in order to make it useable on the street and roads so that was a kind of a compromised car from the get-go. We’re not in that scenario any more so I definitely got more downforce, it’s an easier car to work on for the mechanics and the engineers and for the driver’s it’s a better package. It’s quite a bit faster than the old car although it’s the same power. So I think it’s a nice improvement for all of us.
pressdog: I read the bio on your website which is very well done (here) and your career has been a bit of ups-and-downs. I mean your four Champ Car championships obviously were quite a high point and your time in F1 but then your time in F1 came to an end and Champ Car went out of business. I mean how do you deal with — as a driver I asked this a lot to other drivers — how to you deal with the whole uncertainty of, I don’t what’s going to be next year and how do you --
Sebastien: (Laughter) Not so well. I guess it’s never nice really. You know, it’s something you just have to put up with; it’s not something you want to go through but, yeah, I’ve been very fortunate for five seasons to know what I’m always going to do. Then arrived the F1 stint, which was very much not enjoyable for various reasons but mainly because I was uncomfortable in the car and it was just not a car I couldn’t drive basically, at least not very well.
And then from there it’s always been kind of one year after one year deals and you never quite know what’s going to come up after that but that’s the way it is you know. And the deals seem to happen just later and later these days so it’s definitely not helping. But it’s my passion. It’s what I want to do and if you don’t want to move through the waiting game and the uncertainty then you got to find another job because that’s just the way it is these days.
pressdog: That strikes me — as F1 and what you said there — it seems like they build the F1 car and then they say, “here drive it.”
Sebastien: Yeah, absolutely. That's exactl what it is.
pressdog: The driver then has to conform to the car basically —
Sebastien: Yeah basically, and that’s through the season as well because the car could have one characteristic at the beginning and be completely different when they put in a different floor and that changes the aero map and obviously the balance and the evolution … it’s just – I’ve never been good at that; I’ve always been good at, you know, getting a car, liking it, not liking it, but Identifying problems and finding solutions with the engineers and then going fast and that’s always been my strength and the opportunity and in F1 there is none of that.
It’s basically you get pretty major update every two or three races and the car is going to be different and whether you like it or not you’re going to have to drive it and do the very best of your abilities and that better be 100 percent out of the car otherwise you’re going to get your butt kicked. It just wasn’t going to work for me like this. But I tried and I went all the way and there was no regret in it just — I’m just happy that it’s over and I can go on with my career and do other things where I’m much better at.
pressdog: Was that a bit of a disappointment? I mean a lot of people I assume like you where they strive for F1 and they aspire and they dream about it and then you got there and it wasn’t quite what you expected?
Sebastien: Oh for sure it was a deep disappointment and I was miserable for most of the two years and yeah I guess, you know, I just got to cross that out of the list and move on.
pressdog: So how would you rate the competition in Indy car based on your experience with other series?
Sebastien: It’s very high. I think the field is very dense this year and obviously have some drivers that have improved for the most part and the engine manufacturers have kind of really helped that as well; just take a look at the field in Toronto and how tight that was and you’re like, hmm okay, oh now I get it. You know you better get your stuff together if you want to make it into Q3 and every time you do you feel like, you know, you just kind of survived. And it’s great. That’s the way racing should be and you get a lot of fast cars as well to beat and that’s -- I’m enjoying it.
pressdog: So I take it based on your talk about F1 that the engineers and everyone at Dragon are receptive to your input and you’re working well together with them?
Sebastien: It wasn’t people related really, you know in F1. I can’t say that they didn’t want to work with me on it. It’s just that cars; there is nothing you can do to it to really change it, like you can’t – you know, you can’t change the roll center height you know, and you name it. It’s just, you can’t work on them for the most part. I’m not saying I could not have been fast in F1, but it’s just the way the teams have to operate in order to stay in touch with everybody else. It’s just — it doesn’t give any room to really optimize set up and chassis-wise the potential of the car.
You just have to keep bringing updates and aero bits to the car which I’m going to make the car such-and-such. There’s no sorting out. It’s just really can you do your little thing. A bit of bar, a bit of spring, a bit of ride height and front-wing and your weekend’s over. And obviously in Indy Car you change a lot of things and you can have completely different set-ups which are going to make a completely different car and yet have very close potential.
pressdog: So you find that working with Dragon, your relationships there seem pretty good?
Sebastien: Yeah. I’ve worked with (engineer) Neil Fife who you see last year already and I was pretty happy with the way things went. So when Jay asked me who I wanted to work with and who might be available, Neil’s name came up and we just kept going and I think we’ve done a fine job. We haven’t gone testing. The first day we did was Sonoma last week. To be in the fast six in Toronto feels like a victory you know, because we haven’t been on the shaker, we haven’t done any testing and yet the car is actually pretty good. I think there is more to come from us but it just took a little longer than we would have hoped for, obviously with all the adversity that we had to overcome.
pressdog: So the relationship between a driver and an engineer; how much of that is like personality-based, you know, somebody you have to be able to relate to personally as opposed to knowledge and technical?
Sebastien: I don’t know. I don’t think personality does (anything). I mean obviously I -- you know it all depends on how strong the personalities are -- but I think I go along with professionals very well because as long as I feel that people are giving their best and they are capable of doing a good job then I just keep plugging away and just work at it and feel like we get something out the whole system. I just enjoy basically going through the whole process and working hard. As long as I feel that the passion is here, you know, I have a lot of respect for the guys I work with and I think they feel the same way with me and usually that makes the whole chemistry gel pretty well.
pressdog: You do a lot of sports car racing obviously. Is there a -- do you have to switch off your open-wheel brain and switch on your sports car brain when you do that or is there a lot of crossover or how do you approach that?
Sebastien: Nah. I don’t know; I think I probably do; I don’t really think about it but I probably do. I think every car is different and you have to focus on whatever car you’re in at the present moment. It’s always been a very good gymnastic for me. It’s always made me stronger to jump from one car to another. It’s made my adaptation period shorter and it’s made a better driver out of me so that’s why I always did it and always enjoyed it. Also because it’s fun to discover and face different cars and challenges; so, yeah it’s — every car and series has its requirements and you have to be good at different things to be fast. It’s always good to feel like you’re challenged and that you can do a good job at doing this.
pressdog: Among fans Sebastien Bourdais is well known for your on-track excellence and your championships and your various achievements, but people don’t seem to know much about you (as a person) and that’s one of the reasons I asked Amy if we could talk. What do you think are some of the misconceptions about you as a person that fans have and what would you like them to know?
Sebastien: (Laughter) I don’t know. I think I’m not a very public person. I don’t, you know – I’m not very outspoken or a show-off or anything. I’m a very simple guy who just enjoys racing very much and I guess when people don’t know you sometimes they just exaggerate things or make things up so – I don’t know but I think globally, in the US I’ve always received a very good support from the fans. I’m kind of socializing now; I’m on Twitter now (@BourdaisOnTrack) so I guess it’s all good.
pressdog: It’s a big breakout for you there.( Laughter).
Sebastien: (Laughter) Yeah I’ve never been really good at just kind of exposing my life or anything else. I’ve always been, you know, business has been business and it’s been my passion and I’ve always done it to the best of my abilities as possible but obviously it’s – I guess I’ve never really a very, very social person.
pressdog: So do you live here in the US during this season or …?
Sebastien: Yeah we’re back in St. Pete’s because we’ve had a house in St. Petersburg since 2005 and we came back at the beginning of the season.
pressdog: Isn’t your wife a writer of some type?
Sebastien: She was working as a PR with the Atlantic series for a couple of seasons. She’s got a communication degree. And then we have two kids so now she’s very busy.
pressdog: Does she get to the races much when you race?
Sebastien: This year she hasn’t made it very much because we have a 2-year-old and at that age it’s never very fun to travel or being trapped at the race track but I think hopefully next year we will be able to be a bit more all together.
pressdog: So the last question is; next year how does it look? Is it too early or are you hopeful or are you back in that whole “I don’t know what’s going to happen” mode?
Sebastien: Well Jay has an option obviously and I can say that I would like to keep going. I think it’s very important to carry over if possible. It’s a very important thing if you can bring the knowledge from the previous season and keep plugging away it’s a big gain but you never know, I mean it’s always money-related and sponsors and so we’ll see what happens. For the moment I’m just really focusing on trying to get the best out of these last four races for me and that’s –- I think it will probably have a big influence on what’s going to happen next year because you have to sell something all the time obviously and you have to show the potential. I think we’re starting to do this but it’s always easier to sell when you have some proper results in your hand.
pressdog: Yeah. Well thank you very much. I won’t keep you any longer. I appreciate this ...
Sebastien: No worries.
pressdog: .. and good luck in your four races.
Sebastien: Yeah. Thanks.