Commentary

Bourdais' transition to F1's Toro Rosso 'all coming together'

Just call them "the Sebs." Four-time Champ Car king Sebastien Bourdais and newcomer Sebastian Vettel make up the dream team lineup for F1 team Toro Rosso, writes Dan Knutson.

Updated: January 25, 2008, 4:51 PM ET
By Dan Knutson | Special to ESPN.com

The Toro Rosso team calls its two drivers "the Sebs." And in its press releases, to distinguish between the duo, the team calls them SebastiEn and SebastiAn.

The Sebs are four-time Champ Car World Series champion Sebastien Bourdais and newcomer Sebastian Vettel.

[+] EnlargeSebastien Bourdais
AP Photo/Mark AveryFrenchman Sebastien Bourdais won eight times in 14 Champ Car starts in 2007.

For Bourdais, getting a chance to race in F1 was always his ambition. Like Juan Pablo Montoya and Jacques Villeneuve, he achieved his dream via a North American tour winning championships in CART/Champ Car.

Bourdais' Newman/Haas/Lanigan team is one of the powerhouses in Champ Car. Scuderia Toro Rosso, meanwhile, is one of the smallest teams in F1. But there is still a big difference between the two operations.

"It is a much bigger structure than I am used to," Bourdais told ESPN.com. "In Champ Car, the Newman/Haas/Lanigan team was about 50 people and now you have 170. But on the road it is not that big a difference in the end; it is about 15-20 people more. So it is not that different. It is just that you are getting to know new people and different people."

The Frenchman is gelling well with his new team.

"I've settled in pretty good," he said. "I'm starting to know my engineer a bit more. It is all coming together. It just takes a bit of time."

Bourdais has also made the switch from driving a Champ Car to a F1 car smoothly. While similar in many ways, they are of course different. But he hasn't had troubles maybe instinctively reaching for a button or control in the F1 car that was in a different location in his Champ Car.

"I have compartments in my head because I have driven so many cars throughout my career that I have my sports car box and the F1 box and Champ Car and GT box and so on," he explained." So I can just switch modes. At the beginning it is a bit disturbing. But once you get used to it, it is not a big deal."

"The car was actually quite satisfying," Bourdais said after the first test session of the year. "I am just getting a bit more used to it. We are waiting on the updated power steering. I think I did my best laps so far in the car. So I was quite happy."

Bourdais, who turns 29 on Feb. 28, looks extremely youthful. But his teammate Vettel looks even younger.

Twenty-year-old Vettel earned his way into the record books last year when he made his F1 debut at the U.S. Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He finished eighth in a BMW Sauber, and at 19 years and 349 days of age he became the youngest ever driver to score a F1 point.

I've settled in pretty good. I'm starting to know my engineer a bit more. It is all coming together. It just takes a bit of time.

-- Sebastien Bourdais

Later in the 2007 season, in Japan, Vettel set another record when at 20 years and 89 days he became the youngest driver ever to lead a Grand Prix.

He spent three laps leading the pack, but his race ended ignominiously when, running third behind the pace car, he momentarily got distracted by the seesaw movements of leader Lewis Hamilton. In a flash, Vettel rammed into the back of second-placed Mark Webber and both of them were out of the race.

Vettel redeemed himself a week later when he finished fourth in the Chinese Grand Prix.

Bourdais and Vettel were the dream team lineup for Toro Rosso co-owner Gerhard Berger and team principal Franz Tost.

That didn't bode well for Californian Scott Speed, who parted company with Toro Rosso after the European Grand Prix last July following a torrid argument with Tost.

"It is clear from my bosses that me and [teammate] Tonio [Liuzzi] both have very little support," Speed had said just before that race. "It has been that way for the last two years, and it is a lot more now."

Later, Speed would say of Tost and Berger: "You couldn't pay me enough money to race for those two people again."

Speed headed home to compete in the ARCA RE/MAX series. Liuzzi remains in F1, albeit as a test and reserve driver for the Force India (formerly Spyker) team in 2008.

Vettel took over Speed's seat at the Hungarian Grand Prix last year and competed in the final seven races of the season for Toro Rosso.

The overall atmosphere inside the Toro Rosso team is better this year than last. Watching the friendly interaction between the Sebs at test sessions in Spain clearly shows a positive atmosphere.

"I get along quite well with Sebastien," Vettel said. "I haven't known him for so long, but so far everything is fine."

[+] EnlargeSebastian Vettel
AP Photo/Darron CummingsThen-19-year-old Sebastien Vettel in 2007 became the youngest driver ever to score a point in F1.

Last year's car, the Ferrari powered STR2, was a complex machine. It took the Toro Rosso team more than half of the season before it got the setup sorted out. The car was considerably quicker in the latter races, and that bodes well for the first races of 2008 because the team starts the season with an updated version of the STR2.

The new car won't be ready to race until the middle of May.

"As far as we are concerned," Bourdais said, "we just need to optimize our car the best we can to make the best results for the first few races. We know it is not going to be easy, especially if the others make big steps forwards.

"But we bank on reliability, so we can keep testing and running without any issues. Everybody is working very hard. As we have changed a lot of things on 2007 car, reliability is pretty much an issue for us as everybody else."

Giorgio Ascanelli, who joined Toro Rosso as technical director last March, has been a fundamental figure in improving the team's overall reliability.

Actually, things could work out well for the Sebs as they have a car that is well sorted out and thus they could snatch a few points in the early races while other teams are still honing their cars.

"Starting with the old car, some people say it is an advantage and some say it is a disadvantage," Vettel said. "We will see after qualifying in [the season opener in] Australia what it was. I don't think it will be a big disadvantage.

"We are starting with a car we know; we are finding our way more and more. In the last part of last season we were improving, so hopefully we will continue to do so. Then we swap to the new car and continue."

Bourdais, who has invited his former boss Paul Newman to attend some Grand Prix races this year, is taking a realistic approach to the season. He knows he is not going to win the world championship in 2008.

"We are going to do the best we can with what we have," he said of starting the season with the old car. "We don't have any other choice."

For now, the Sebs are concentrating on winter testing in Spain so that they and Scuderia Toro Rosso can be as prepared as possible for the Australian Grand Prix on March 16.

Dan Knutson covers Formula One for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.

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