Commentary

Bourdais comfortable with rookie role as home French GP set

Sebastien Bourdais doesn't have much chance of winning his home Grand Prix this weekend at Magny-Cours, France. But he understands his role as a rookie with Toro Rosso, and that is to help score points for the fledgling operation, writes Dan Knutson.

Updated: June 19, 2008, 1:09 PM ET
By Dan Knutson | Special to ESPN.com

MAGNY-COURS, France -- Sebastien Bourdais has no chance of winning his home Grand Prix of France this weekend.

Possible winners are, of course, the Ferrari duo of Kimi Raikkonen and Felipe Massa as well as Vodafone McLaren Mercedes teammates Lewis Hamilton and Heikki Kovalainen. As Robert Kubica proved in Canada, he and BMW Sauber teammate Nick Heidfeld have a shot at victory as well.

[+] EnlargeSebastien Bourdais
Paul Gilham/Getty ImagesSorting out the new STR3 has been a chore for Sebastien Bourdais and Toro Rosso, but they believe they are making progress.

Wild-card winners include Fernando Alonso in his Renault, Nico Rosberg in his Williams Toyota and Mark Webber or David Coulthard in their Red Bull Renaults.

But Bourdais in a Toro Rosso Ferrari? At most, he can hope for a point or two if he can finish in the top eight.

That's quite a shift for a guy who won 28 Champ Car races on his way to earning four consecutive championships. But it is a mindset that Bourdais knew he had to adopt even before he stepped foot in a car to begin testing for his Formula One debut season.

"It does not matter what you are fighting for," he said. "You just are doing your job and doing the best you can, and then you end up where you end up.

"For me it was always very clear. It is trying to enjoy yourself, which is the first target, and give your best for yourself and for the team. And then if the car is only good enough for 15th and you finish 12th it is sometimes even more satisfying than winning a race with a car that everybody knows is capable of winning. You just need to reset yourself a bit."

The car and the team make all the difference whether a driver can win or not in F1. Bourdais' Toro Rosso has the same Ferrari V-8 engine as in the Ferraris of Massa and Raikkonen, but the Toro Rosso team is not the Ferrari team.

"In Champ Car, I won the championship in my second season," Bourdais said earlier this year, "and I could have been a contender in my first. But here it is a different game; nobody has the same equipment so you're not playing by the same rules. If you have a McLaren or Ferrari you have more chance of winning. If you don't, then just scoring some points will feel like a win."

Bourdais' rookie F1 season started off with a bang. He was in an outstanding fourth place in his first Grand Prix, in Australia, when his engine blew with just four laps to go. Still, he was classed seventh and salvaged two points.

Since then, however, good results have eluded the Frenchman.

Mechanical problems eliminated him from two races and accidents from two more. The only time he made it to the finish line was in Bahrain, where he crossed the line in 15th, and Canada, where he was 13th.

Toro Rosso decided to start the season with an updated version of its 2007 STR2 car. The team reasoned that it could pick up some points with a well sorted out car while other teams were still getting to know their new cars. Besides, the 2008 STR3 was not ready in time.

The strategy didn't pay off as Bourdais and teammate Sebastian Vettel failed to finish many races. The debut of the STR3 was further delayed by one race when Bourdais destroyed one in a testing accident.

Still, the team did the correct thing by delaying the new car, says Vettel.

"It was the right decision to start the season with a car that we knew from before," Vettel explained. "So now we have had the chance to test the new car. Obviously it is not enough, you never get enough testing, but it is good."

Finally, the new cars showed up for the Monaco Grand Prix at the end of May.

"We are on a steep learning curve with the new car and are going to make progress," Bourdais said. "We know that the new car is faster. It is just about trying to get it right and put everything together.

"We did not show what we wanted to show in Monaco because we were lost in the setups because of lack of knowledge, and because the track is so atypical that it is difficult to be spot on."

Bourdais struggled on the street track in Montreal as well. Having raced on the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve and done well there in Champ Cars, Bourdais was looking forward to the Canadian Grand Prix. But he had a miserable weekend because of the crumbling track.

"I could not do anything with the car," he said afterwards. "I went slightly off the line and got on the gravel. If this happens once or twice you are concerned it can happen again which is not good, especially when you're running last.

"It was a complete disaster for me so I just forgot about the possibility of trying to drive fast, just tried to bring the car home … and even doing this was a challenge.

"This was the worst race ever for me, the worst weekend of my entire career. I have never experienced anything like it. I'm looking forward now to the next race, my home race and at a circuit where the track doesn't break up!"

Team co-owner Gerhard Berger fully supports Bourdais.

"His first race he could have finished fourth," Berger told ESPN.com "And that race in Australia is always a tricky one; there is always a lot of incidents, yellow flags and that type of thing, showed that he is really a racer because he did not get flustered. He reacted well to each situation. That is the sort of experience that money can't buy and he learned it from wheel-to-wheel racing in America.

"He has struggled a bit since then, at some tracks more than others. But he is facing a steep learning curve. He is still a novice at F1. We are happy with what he has done so far."

Sebastien Bourdais

Pressure is always there, and you are the one who puts it there. You want to do well. It doesn't matter where you are.

-- Sebastien Bourdais

Having tested the new car in Barcelona last week, Bourdais is confident that he and the team will have a much better race weekend in France than they did in Monaco or Canada.

The team was just guessing at chassis setups for the new car in the last two races. Now that they have been able to test again they can now head in the right direction.

"We have had a disastrous last four races," Bourdais admitted candidly. "It has been quite disappointing. We have been in positions where we might have done quite well, like Spain and Turkey, but things went wrong. It is part of your career as a race driver: Sometimes it goes your way and sometimes it doesn't, but you just have to keep working and plugging away."

When he was a kid, Bourdais didn't dream of racing in his home Grand Prix because in the beginning he was just racing for fun. But he is looking forward to racing in front of the French fans.

Ticket sales are up 12 percent this year at the Magny-Cours track, no doubt due in part to Bourdais racing. An entire section of the grandstand seats in front of the Toro Rosso pit has been sold to the Bourdais fan club.

"To come here and race in front of your home crowd is a bit special," Bourdais told ESPN.com.

But he feels no extra pressure racing at home.

"Pressure is always there, and you are the one who puts it there," he said. "You want to do well. It doesn't matter where you are. If we perform well here and have a strong result it would mean more than somewhere else. But if you put more effort here than anywhere else then it means that you are not giving 100 percent everywhere. So I am going to drive as best as I can and do the same job I always do."

Bourdais won't win the French Grand Prix. But a solid race, even if he doesn't get into the points, will mark a turnaround point for his rookie F1 season.

"The pace is there," he said. "It is just that things have not gone our way. Nobody cares about excuses or reasons; you just need to get the results. It has been a bit tough lately but at some point it will turn around."

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

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