- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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There is no doubt that the Champ Car World Series field isn't as deep
as it used to be, but there is also no arguing that as a two-time
series champion, Sebastien Bourdais must rank among the Champ Car greats.
By claiming his sixth win in 12 starts Sunday at the Lexmark Indy 300
on Australia's Gold Coast, Bourdais locked up the 2005 Vanderbilt Cup
one race early, despite a new championship scoring system that was
instituted in 2004 in an effort to prevent such domination. He became
the first repeat titlist since Gil de Ferran in 2000 and 2001.
Bourdais, a 26-year-old native of Le Mans, France, has won 16 of his
44 Champ Car starts since joining the series with Newman/Haas Racing
at the start of the 2003 season. He has finished in the top three in
24 of 44 races and started from the pole 18 times.
The only Champ Car driver in recent memory who performed as well as
Bourdais during his first three years of racing in the United States was Alex
Zanardi, who earned 15 wins and 10 poles in 51 starts between
1996 and '98. From July 1997 to October 1998, Zanardi won 11 of 26 races
and finished on the podium in nine others; the charismatic Italian
also won the Champ Car title in his second and third seasons in the
Bourdais' record in his two championship campaigns -- 13 poles and 13
wins in 26 starts -- is equally impressive. And it came in a period of
relative turmoil for Newman/Haas Racing, with regular driver Bruno
Junqueira sidelined for most of the 2005 season after suffering
severe back injuries while driving in the Indianapolis 500. But
Bourdais and replacement pilot Oriol Servia jelled quickly and Champ
Car racing's most successful active team never missed a beat.
"We had to find someone to replace Bruno until the end of the season
and obviously when Oriol presented himself as a possible replacement,
it was great news because he's the friend of both of ours and we just
got along very well," Bourdais remarked. "I think Oriol did a very
good job for the team and overall, even with Bruno's accident, it
stayed just a great season.
"I won back-to-back championships, but without the Newman/Haas
organization around me, I would be nothing," he added. "I can't be
grateful enough for all of their hard work and to finish first and
second in the championship for the second year in a row is great.
It's tough to keep up with that and I guess Newman/Haas is going to
have a tough time to top it next year."
One thing that will make the task of repeating easier for Newman/Haas
is the fact that its champion driver has re-signed for 2006. Champ Car's most recent double champions (Zanardi and de
Ferran) didn't stick around to try to complete a trifecta; in fact,
if Bourdais is successful in his title defense, he will become the
first three-time consecutive champion since Ted Horn in 1946-47-48.
"There's always more to come, I hope to believe," Bourdais commented.
"I guess it would be pretty cool to put my name on this very, very
short list of drivers who win three in a row. But every time you win,
the season ends and you just have another one in front of you.
"We signed a deal for 2006 with Newman/Haas Racing and so far I think
there's been a great relationship with the team. I have enjoyed every
bit of it and I'm really looking forward to another championship. I
know it's going to be extremely tough and we will start to work on it
as soon as this 2005 season ends."
Bourdais admitted that the 2005 championship was marred by at least
three on-track altercations with his chief rival, 2003 Champ Car
champion Paul Tracy. Those clashes have led to some icy relations off
"I think it has not been as enjoyable as last year because of the few
incidents we had along the way," he noted. "But at the end of the
season, if you look at all the figures, we still pulled off six wins
with one race still to go. The results came late, but the performance
was there all the time and if not for the incidents at the beginning
of the season, we probably could have more wins than last year
[seven]. I think we have to be really happy with what we have done."
Still, the Frenchman must harbor some disappointment that he has
never gotten a fair shot at Formula One, particularly at a time when
the Renault team has achieved championship glory. The combination of
Bourdais and Renault would seem to be a natural, but Bourdais and
Renault team boss Flavio Briatore have never really seen eye to eye.
"[Briatore] has got a great organization, a world champion team and
driver, and there's nothing you can really bitch at, really," he
said. "It's just the way it is. Obviously, Renault is a French
company, but it's also a multi-national company with markets all over
the world and they probably have interest to have non-French drivers.
So far I think they showed that they were right."
Bourdais said that his 2006 Newman/Haas contract will allow him to
test in F1 if the opportunity presents itself. If not, he is
intrigued by the challenge of developing the new chassis package that
Champ Car plans to implement in 2007.
"The truth is, apart from Formula One, there's not many things over
Champ Cars," he noted. "So far nothing has really happened and all I
can say is I am pretty successful and happy in Champ Cars. In 2007,
it will probably be my last chance to make it to F1 and I'd very
much like to make the jump, but if I don't, it's going to be a great
challenge ahead of me and a lot of teams to try and develop the new
Champ Car and win something different at the beginning of a new era.
Both scenarios are going to be a great challenge for me in 2007."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.
Never mind the fact that the Champ Car field isn't as tough as it used to be. Sebastien Bourdais could compete, and thrive, in any era.