Nobody asked me but . . .
During my career as an automotive journalist I have had the privilege of calling two French racing drivers my friends. Both had long retired from racing when I met them, and each had made a considerable mark in a second career, one as a restaurateur and the other as an automotive journalist.
And please no letters. I know Paul Frere studied engineering in Belgium, that after the war he became motoring correspondent for various European car magazines and also served as European Editor for my magazine, Road & Track. Sandwiched between those two writing careers was a racing career that included 11 Formula 1 Grands Prix and victory with Olivier Gendebien in a Ferrari at the 1960 24 Hours of Le Mans.
My other friend, Rene Dreyfus, enjoyed great success behind the wheel of various Bugatti, Maserati, Alfa Romeo (racing for Scuderia Ferrari) and Delahaye Grand Prix cars during the ’20s and ’30s. And his exploits during the late 1930s against the superior high tech and more modern German racing cars of that pre-War era made him a French national hero.
Dreyfus fought for both the French and the US during WW II, having come to America in1940 at the behest of the French government to compete in the Indy 500 and then being directed to remain in the US after the Germans overran Paris.
After the war, Rene became an American citizen and brought his brother Maurice back to New York, where they opened a French restaurant, Le Chanteclair, which became the Manhattan meeting and eating spot for the world’s automobile racing community.
Paul and Rene: They defined the word gentleman. Each had a searching intellect and the ability to transcend generations. They lived their lives in an exemplary fashion, garnering the highest respect of not only their peers, but of all they met, regardless of abilities, qualifications, age, background, and social status.
When I sat down with Sebastien for the interview that follows, I knew his background. But I didn’t know Sebastien.
If I knew nothing about auto racing and had been introduced to Sebastien at the 2015 Espy Awards, I could have easily typecast him as a French football (soccer) player. Or a member of the French Tour de France cycling team. At 5 ft 10 in. and 160 lb, Bourdais has a trim chiseled upper body physique that could also easily say: gymnast.
Growing up in Le Mans, France, the son of a racing driver, Sebastien got into go-kart racing at the age of 10 and never looked back. By the age of 24, Bourdais had reached the top step of the podium in every single-seater class he had competed in. The Arrows F1 team came calling, but, unfortunately, they declared bankruptcy before the start of the season and Sebastien decided to follow his American dream and join the best team in the Champ Car World Series, Newman/Haas Racing.
Over the next four years, Bourdais won the Champ Car World Series four straight years (2004-07) with Newman/Haas, scoring 31 victories and 31 pole positions in 73 starts.
Success led to an overture from Toro Rosso, and during 2008-2009 Sebastien competed in 27 F1 races but with mixed success in an underpowered car. He also competed at Le Mans and Sebring for Peugeot Total and drove in several Superleague Formula events. In 2011 Bourdais returned to his first love, Indy cars, adding to his victory total, which currently stands at 34, tied for seventh on the all-time win list with Al Unser, Jr.
[Bourdais currently races the No. 11 KVSH Racing IndyCar. Jimmy Vasser, the 1996 IndyCar Champion, co-owns KV Racing Technology with entrepreneur Kevin Kalkhoven, and is a partner with Kalkhoven and James “Sulli” Sullivan in KVSH Racing.]
For three years, 2010-2012, during his off-season, Bourdais Australian V-8 Supercars.
I would describe Sebastien as passionate about IndyCar racing, focused on winning and intensely proud of his racing accomplishments, as well he should be. In a racing series dominated by one American named Foyt, two named Andretti and three named Unser, only New Zealander Scott Dixon is higher on the win’s list than Bourdais. Sebastien is also outspoken on the impact that track design has on the consequences for mistakes in IndyCar racing vs. Formula 1.
Sebastian Bourdais interview
JD: You had a typical upbringing for a European growing up into auto racing: karts, open-wheel cars, Formula 1. And yet today we’re talking at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California and you’re an Indy car driver and you’ve been doing it for a number of years now. What I find particularly interesting about you is that you’ve done a fair amount of sports car racing and that’s not common for Indy car guys.
SB: I started sports car racing when I was racing Formula 3 in 1999. The first time was at the wheel of a Porsche GT2 at the 24 hours of Le Mans. Being from there makes this race very special to me, and I never stopped combining my open wheel career with endurance races ever since.
As for me moving State-side to race Champ Cars: I had just won the Formula 3000 championship and didn’t get a ride in F1. In the meantime, Carl Haas offered me a test at the end of 2002, and I got the job! Careers get dictated very much by opportunity and, for me, I got the ultimate opportunity to get to do something very special with Newman-Haas in one of the best American teams in the U.S. And then after the championships in Champ cars I got a shot at Formula 1, which turned out to be pretty pathetic, and I returned to racing in America which is what I really like best.
JD: How did you find the transition from European road racing in formula cars over to the ovals and different types of road courses here in the U.S.?
SB: It’s a very different atmosphere, very different traditions. Obviously ovals are nonexistent in Europe. It’s something you have to adapt to and learn. The short ovals and super speedways are very different. Then you have the one-and-a-half mile ovals with high banking, which are different animals too. Each track is unique: the banking, the seams, the mechanical grip, how big the place is. Indy is one of a kind. So is Milwaukee, being a flat, short oval. You come here (Fontana) and it’s kind of half way between Texas and Indy. So it’s a lot of things that we need to get used to.
And then on the road racing circuits it’s kind of European tracks the way they used to be, not much room for errors, pretty narrow… And street courses, they are extremely rough. For the most part it’s usually a combination of asphalt and concrete. Or just purely concrete, which is very rough and bumpy and very different from the street courses we’re used to in Europe where it’s only asphalt and pretty smooth. So, it’s a lot of different things to factor in and learn, but it’s more pure racing as I see it.
JD: When I watch an F1 race on television these days, it’s almost like watching a video game because the tracks are so smooth and flat. Here, you’ve got street courses and you’ve got regular road courses but none of them are, as you said, like the surfaces you’d run in Europe. Does that cause an issue relative to setting up the car? Does driver input factor in more heavily because of that?
SB: Yes there are many more factors that come into play. Most of the F1 tracks designed in the last 20 years are by Hermann Tilke and they all kind of look alike. They’ve all got wide, paved run-off areas, so you don’t pay the price for mistakes. You run off the track, but you have more track. And you come back on the track. It’s changed the way that people are racing in Europe as well because track limits are just fictions. There are no track limits anymore.
That has changed the way drivers approach racing. Today young kids show up to Spa and instead of taking all day to get up to speed, creeping up to the limit without ever touching it, because if you touch it you are in the fence, or at least in the gravel trap and probably hitting something and damaging your car, now you go over the white line, over the astro turf, and stay flat and the next lap all you have to do is back down a little bit from what you tried. It’s completely changed the sport, and I absolutely hate it.
You can push walls back, you can push guardrails further from the racing surface, make bigger runoff areas but keep the gravel. Keep boundaries. Keep things that slow you down and maybe hurt the car a little bit rather than paving everything and having no limits and no penalties for mistakes. When mistakes don’t have any consequences on your pace, or your position, it takes away from the racing. Here in IndyCar, if you make a mistake you might bust the car up, but at the very least you’re going to lose positions and time and you’re going to have to try and fight back. In F1 there is none of that because they don’t lose any time if they make driving mistakes.
JD: Do the differences between road courses and ovals cause you to think differently as a driver? Does it cause you to change your approach to a race?
SB: On a road course, you hit the brakes really hard. You get off the brakes. You’re turning really sharp. There are a lot of actions behind the wheel.
On an oval everything is subtle. There’s very little steering input or braking. Everything slows down: your hands, your feet movements. If you get excited behind the wheel, your race is not going to last very long.
JD: I consider the Can Am and Trans-Am series to be the pinnacle of sports car racing in America. You raced in what I consider the spiritual successor to the Trans-Am, Australian V8 Supercars. Tell me about that.
SB: Yeah, it’s a cool series. The cars are very limited in what they can do because they’re pretty heavy cars. They have about 600 horses. But compared to IndyCars there’s not much down force and the tires aren’t really wide. For drivers like us who are used to light cars, high down force and big tires, you have to back it down. Otherwise you’re going to burn out the tires pretty quick, be very slow very fast and make big mistakes. The braking distances are much longer, you can’t carry as much speed through the corners and the car doesn’t put power down or turn very well. You have to rethink your normal instincts: You brake straight, you back off the brakes, you turn in and let the car kind of roll through the corner. And then as you are exiting the corner you can unwind the wheel and get on the throttle. It’s much more feel than just pure attack behind the wheel. It’s interesting.
JD: What races did you compete in?
SB: From 2010 to 2012 I was an international co-driver in the Gold Coast 600 [two races of 300 km each on Saturday and Sunday] held at the Surfers Paradise Street Circuit in Queensland. The last two years I shared a ride with Supercar regular Jamie Whincup and we had 1st and 2nd finishes both years. I’ll be competing in the series again this Fall, but this time I will be driving the three long races: Sandown, Bathurst and Surfers. I will pair up with Lee Holdsworth in the third HRT run by Walkinshaw and I am pretty excited, especially regarding Bathurst because this race has been on my bucket list for a while!
JD: We get some of those V8 Supercar races over here on television, and most of the courses seem rough and narrow.
SB: Yes, Australian tracks are a bit like those in the U.S., basically older tracks. They’re moving the walls out when they can, but they’ve got the same character: narrow, twisty and fairly short. And, thankfully, they really don’t have the money to do what they are doing in Europe, where they’re just killing every track and destroying the character of racing.
The V8 Supercars definitely put on a good show. You see a lot of guys going off the track, and it’s very spectacular. There’s a lot of passing, and the drivers definitely use their bumpers and fenders. It’s pretty exciting to watch.
JD: Sort of like NASCAR on road courses over here.
SB: You look at NASCAR and they run into each other all the time. Even on ovals. They definitely do that a lot on road courses. You watch Watkins and they’re all over each other. They bump into each other, shove each other off. And it’s hard racing. It’s not kids stuff. It’s big boys, that’s for sure.
JD: They’re a bit less aggressive on the ovals when they’re going 200 mph.
SB: But they still manage to take each other out every now and then.
JD: They do but the aero on those cars is so sensitive that if you damage a fender you can go from first to the back of the pack in less than a lap.
SB: You know they try to avoid each other, but they run so close to one another eventually things happen.
JD: One last question. Do you think that IndyCar is more competitive from a driving standpoint because the cars are more similar as opposed to Formula 1?
SB: Well, the quality of drivers in Formula 1 is very high. But I think here, in IndyCar, there are lots of good drivers as well. Everybody starts with the same car. But the bigger teams like Penske and Ganassi have more money, more human resources, more technical resources, more everything. So they have the upper hand, but not by a full second or two seconds like Mercedes F1 sometimes has over the field. In IndyCar it’s much closer racing. If somebody’s got an edge on the weekend, it’s going to be a couple of tenths and then after that all the cars are bunched up. Most of the time you’ve got 15 cars within half a second, maybe a bit more than that, but not much more. The racing is extremely competitive, and you need to make it happen in qualifying because if you don’t, then it’s going to be tough to advance in the race because the performances are so close that it’s tough to pass a car that’s only two-tenths quicker.
JD: Thanks for your time. Good luck in the race.
Photos by: Anna Chen