- Dan Knutson
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Sebastien Bourdais' Formula One future hangs in limbo.
The four-time Champ Car World Series titleholder had a difficult F1 rookie debut with Scuderia Toro Rosso. Although his form improved considerably in the latter races of the 2008 season, he is now waiting while team management decides on its driver lineup for next year.
"Obviously there is nothing I can do that will change their way of thinking, other than driving the best I can," Bourdais told reporters before the Brazilian Grand Prix, the last race of the season. "They will make a decision when they feel it is time for them, and if I need one before then I will be straightforward and ask them what they want to do. That is the only way I can manage the situation."
As of Nov. 24, Toro Rosso's co-owners Dietrich Mateschitz and former F1 driver Gerhard Berger along with team principal Franz Tost still had not informed Bourdais if he would drive for them again.
Then on Nov. 25, Red Bull announced it had bought back Berger's 50 percent control of the team. Bourdais' F1 future now lies in the hands of Mateschitz and his longtime trusted advisor, ex-F1 and sports-car driver Helmut Marko.
With Toro Rosso's star Sebastian Vettel moving on to Red Bull Racing, there are two seats open on the team. Bourdais has a three-year contract but admits that won't guarantee he will be back.
At least four drivers are in contention: Bourdais, Red Bull protégé and F1 test driver Sebastien Buemi, unemployed F1 driver Takuma Sato and Rubens Barrichello, who may or may not stay on with Honda next year. Add to that list any driver with the right combination of talent and sponsorship.
"The problem is purely financial," Bourdais told the official F1 Web site. "The team needs some money, and I think until they find a driver package which is fast enough and has got the funds -- or they find a solution themselves -- they won't find a solution for their lineup.
"As far as I am concerned I don't see a decision being made any time soon, because I don't see anybody being able to guarantee money right now, or tomorrow or the next day."
Red Bull magnate Mateschitz told Austrian media outlets that his driver lineup will be made after the final F1 tests in mid-December, and that Buemi is likely to be one of the pairing.
Switzerland's Buemi, 20, competed in the F1-feeder GP2 series in 2007 and '08 as well as being an F1 test driver for Red Bull.
The last time ESPN.com caught up with Bourdais was at his home Grand Prix of France in June.
He had started his F1 season off with a seventh place in Australia (which would have been a fourth if the car had not broken down), but a number of retirements and lowly finishes followed.
It got worse before it got better.
Vettel, too, got off to a slow start to the season. In those early races the two drivers were not that far apart.
Toro Rosso used a modified version of its 2007 car for the first five races of '08, and Bourdais clicked with STR2B. He outqualified Vettel twice in the first five races. Then along came the new and improved STR3, and Bourdais faced new hurdles.
"I was happy with the STR2B and was very closely matched with Sebastian," Bourdais told ESPN.com, "and then was terribly unhappy with the balance of the STR3, which made most of that part of the season for me very much of struggle.
"It is not that they tried to deliver a car that was not to my liking.
It was just that the new car came out this way because that what was going the best in the wind tunnel, and they did the best job they could. In the end, too bad for me.
"It is always last impressions that count, so for sure nobody really remembers or cares what I did at the beginning of the season with STR2B. The only thing they really look at is what happened in the last few races."
Vettel, meanwhile, found the new car nicely tailored to his driving style, and he set off on a points scoring streak. The highlight came in Italy where Vettel earned the first pole and win for both himself and Toro Rosso.
Bourdais should have had a great result in the Italian Grand Prix, as well. He lined up fourth, his best qualifying effort of the season.
Because of heavy rain, the race started behind the safety car. But as the rest of the cars pulled away from the grid, Bourdais' Toro Rosso stalled. By the time his crew had pushed him into pit lane and solved the electronics problem he was already a lap down.
Without the electronics issue, Bourdais probably would have finished third on that particular day and shared the podium celebrations with Vettel and team co-owner Berger, who had won the 1988 Italian Grand Prix.
Instead, he soldiered to 18th place.
"When I tried to get first [gear], I couldn't," a devastated Bourdais said afterward, "and so then I let go of the [gear selector] flipper a bit quickly, and when the gear selected I stalled, when normally the
anti-stall should have come in. Then we couldn't get neutral, and that was it.
"I had lost a lap immediately. It should have been a dream weekend with a chance of finishing first and third, but sadly for me it was first and nothing. However, this has been a great day for Sebastian and the team."
While Bourdais' results weren't showing it, it was around that time that he and the team finally started to find the setup solutions for the STR3 that suited his driving style.
At the same time the team was getting a better understanding overall about the car thanks to technical director Giorgio Ascanelli, who went off in a different development direction than the engineers did with the same chassis at sister team Red Bull.
Vettel scored points nine times and finished eighth in the drivers'
world championship. Bourdais ended up 17th.
The STR3 was designed by Adrian Newey, who created championship winning cars for Williams and McLaren before joining Red Bull.
"I have to say 'thank you' to Adrian Newey and Red Bull Technology for giving us the car that gave us the chance to get the results that we did," Berger told ESPN.com at the Brazilian Grand Prix. "Our guys did a fantastic job to get the best out of the STR3. We did not get the new car until the Monaco Grand Prix, and it took us a few races before we understood it.
"It is a Newey car. So it is complicated and fragile and fast."
What specifically was it about the new car that did or did not suit Bourdais' driving style?
"The STR3 is a very quick car and had a lot of potential," he explained, "but it is a very unstable car on the entry to slow corners, and we had massive initial understeer in the high-speed corners, which are two things I am definitely not a fan of.
"So we ended up having to make big compromises from one track to another, because to get the balance right in the high-speed corners I just could not drive the car in low-speed turns, and vice versa. It was a no-solution deal. We were always shooting in between, and it was always an unhappy driver and slow lap times.
"The little improvements definitely helped go in the right direction, plus it was better or worse depending on the track configuration as well."
After failing to qualify in the top 10 in the first 11 races of his F1 season, Bourdais then started in the top 10 six times in the remaining seven races.
But Bourdais' seventh place in the Belgian Grand Prix was the only other time other than Australia that he scored points during the season.
On seven other occasions he finished between 10th and 13th.
Further tweaks, especially the aerodynamic update package introduced for the Singapore Grand Prix in late September, gave the car better stability, and that helped Bourdais. In Japan and China, his race pace was slightly quicker than Vettel's, although the latter eventually finished ahead of him.
In fact, Bourdais finished a fighting sixth in Japan, one spot ahead of Vettel. Afterward, in a controversial ruling, race officials dropped Bourdais to 10th for what they determined was causing an avoidable collision with Felipe Massa.
Bourdais was exiting the pits when Massa swooped into the first turn and they collided. Many observers, including Mark Webber, who benefited from the penalty by moving up to eighth, thought the affair should have been termed a "racing incident" because Massa and Bourdais were fighting for track position.
So what should have been a good result for Bourdais became a 10th place in the statistics that will have no indication of what really happened.
"Is it good enough?" Bourdais asked of his improved form in the final races of the year. "For sure it is not 100 percent of what I would like to do. But it is quite close. It has been a lot more consistent."
In Brazil, the 18th and final race of the season, Bourdais qualified ninth and was running eighth when Jarno Trulli pushed him off the track. Bourdais finished 14th while Vettel took fourth.
The race in Brazil, just as in Italy and in Australia, summed up Bourdais' season.
"Every time something can go wrong, it does," he told Autosport.
"It has been like this the whole season, so it has been the worst year for me in terms of success. And I am not talking about winning races or anything -- just to materialize what is achievable. It is quite frustrating, but what do you want to do?
"In racing you have good seasons and bad seasons, and it doesn't really seem like this when it is a good one! But if I get the chance to stay a second year it will be good. My first year in Champ Car was just as miserable, although it wasn't the same kind of density. We had so many failures the first year I can't even put them on one hand."
Fellow F1 rookie Nelson Piquet had a similarly frustrating season with Renault in 2008. Renault took its time considering, but eventually re-signed Piquet for '09. It makes sense after both team and driver have invested and learned so much in their first season together that they roll that investment over into the following season.
The same thing happened with rookie Satoru Nakajima at Williams this year. The team's technical director, Sam Michael, expects Nakajima to improve considerably next season.
"With all [rookie] drivers, one thing that I have seen is between their first and second year you see a massive step because they go through it, then he has all winter to think about all the things he did wrong, takes a rest and comes back stronger in the second season,"
Michael explained to ESPN.com. "You see that on almost all drivers -- a big step from year one to year two."
Of course, while Bourdais was a rookie in F1, he is far from inexperienced. After all, he spent five years in Champ Car, competed in IROC, won Formula 3000 and Formula 3 championships in Europe and raced four times in the Le Mans 24 Hours.
Bourdais is bound to be a better all-round F1 driver in 2009.
Furthermore, it would behoove Toro Rosso to keep him so there is continuity in the team, something that would be missing with two new drivers.
But then Toro Rosso started 2008 with new drivers as Vettel and Bourdais replaced Tonio Liuzzi and Scott Speed, who left before the end of the 2007 season, saying "You couldn't pay me enough money to race for those two people [Berger and Tost] again."
And so Bourdais is in limbo even though he has two more years on his contract.
"It was a three-year deal, obviously with options," he told the official F1 Web site. "And in the end it does not matter whether you have a three-year deal or not. There is always a line in the contract which says that if they are not happy with you, they can get rid of you.
"The fact is that there is no such thing as a sure deal in racing, whether it is F1 or any other series. As long as it works it's good for everyone and then it is all rosy, but if it doesn't work out as expected, then 'Ciao!' That's the way it is."
Dan Knutson covers Formula One for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.
It's out of Sebastien Bourdais' hands. Will his marked improvement over the course of 2008 be enough to convince the powers that be at Scuderia Toro Rosso that he should return to the cockpit for '09? Bourdais can only wonder, writes Dan Knutson.