- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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SURFERS PARADISE, Australia -- They say timing is everything, and Sebastien Bourdais might have picked exactly the wrong time to be a three-time champion in the Champ Car World Series.
"It's frustrating, but I know this is the way the game is played. There are tons of very good drivers who don't get opportunities, and I was hoping not to be one of those. But it's not something that you have control over."
-- Sebastien Bourdais
Bourdais matched Ted Horn's achievement from a very different era by clinching his third consecutive Champ Car crown, doing so with an eighth-place finish in Sunday's Lexmark Indy 300 on Australia's Gold Coast. Ten or 15 years ago, that would have made him a hot property in Formula One, but the declining stature of the American open-wheel racing scene on a worldwide basis appears to have scuppered the 27-year-old Frenchman's dreams of landing a drive in what many consider the pinnacle of road racing.
Not that he is complaining.
"How many guys would kill just to be in the position I'm in -- in a great team and making big money?" he said. "You have to be positive, and you also have to be content with what you have."
What Bourdais has is three Vanderbilt Cups, representing the three Champ Car titles he has earned with Newman/Haas Racing. Comparisons are pointless, but Horn (1946-48 under USAC sanction) is the only other driver to have accomplished the feat in the 99-year history of the Champ Car formula.
Bourdais' latest championship triumph came after what admittedly wasn't one of his best individual performances. He came under heavy criticism from outspoken Team Australia co-owner Craig Gore after accidentally bumping pole winner Will Power out of the race at half-distance.
In fact, it was a fraught weekend for Bourdais that included a crash in final qualifying. But A.J. Allmendinger's championship challenge faded as the only American in the field suffered a pit fire before crashing out.
"Once I saw [Allmendinger] stop on the racetrack, I knew the championship wasn't in doubt," Bourdais said. "I went on the radio and said, 'Let's go racing now,' because we've been holding back all the time and making sure not to get into any kind of trouble.
"So I went and I tried, but it didn't work."
Bourdais copped a drive-through penalty for causing avoidable contact with Power, dropping him to 12th and ending hopes of capping his championship run with a victory or podium finish.
Since joining Newman/Haas Racing at the start of the 2003 season, Bourdais has racked up 22 wins and 23 poles. The championship was the seventh under CART or Champ Car sanction for the Chicago-based team owned by Carl Haas and actor/philanthropist Paul Newman.
"When I came to the series in 2003, I never thought I would be part of such a dream," Bourdais said. "I have to give special thanks to Carl and Bernie Haas and Paul because without them, I wouldn't be here in front of you guys."
Bourdais maintains hope of breaking into Formula One, but he realizes that, at 27, the odds are stacked against him. Born in the city of Le Mans, he would be a natural for French manufacturer Renault, which will continue to employ the world's most overrated driver (Giancarlo Fisichella) in 2007, but he got offsides years ago with Renault F1 boss Flavio Briatore.
Instead, Bourdais is likely to return for a fifth season of Champ Cars with Newman/Haas, and at least will have the challenge of developing a new car. He is happily settled in St. Petersburg, Fla., and he and his wife, Claire, are expecting their first child.
"It's frustrating, but I know this is the way the game is played," Bourdais said. "There are tons of very good drivers who don't get opportunities, and I was hoping not to be one of those. But it's not something that you have control over."
Allmendinger, who became the Frenchman's biggest championship rival after teaming with Paul Tracy at Forsythe Championship Racing at midseason, paid tribute to the three-time series champion.
"For me, Sebastien has raised my game more than I ever could have expected, and on the racetrack, I still respect the guy more than anybody out there because he is an amazing driver," Allmendinger said. "I think he has been very fortunate to come to the series and go right to the best team and that's part of all the success that he's had. But the guy can drive, and he doesn't give you any mistakes so you can go off and catch him.
"The guy is amazing, and he makes me a better race car driver on the track because you know that you have to be on your A-game every time. You want guys like him that will push you to the max. He will take you to the edge and more."
Even Tracy, with whom Bourdais has clashed on-track at least half a dozen times, had kind words for his bitter rival.
"He is a great driver, fantastic at what he does," Tracy said. "He has done a great job, and to win three championships in a row makes him the measuring stick that everyone wants to beat.
"I know that he wants to get to Formula One, and I think he deserves the chance to be there," Tracy added. "He has done everything there is to do here, and the longer he stays in Champ Cars, the less likely it is that he will get to F1. So, as a series, we would like to see him stay, but it would be nice to see him get an opportunity."
Unfortunately, the relatively poor performances in F1 of former CART champions Michael Andretti, Alex Zanardi and Cristiano da Matta have doomed any Champ Car titlist's chances of stepping directly into a race ride -- even if he is a triple crown winner.
"I don't see an opportunity in F1 happening right now," Bourdais said. "The conditions required of me are not acceptable. They want me to be a test driver for a year with no guarantee of anything. I have too much to give up here for a 'Maybe.'"
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.
Three straight titles likely would have been good for a promotion to F1 a few short years ago. It's not likely for Sebastien Bourdais, writes John Oreovicz.