INDIANAPOLIS — Sebastien Bourdais was named as the driver of the famed No. 14 Chevrolet for AJ Foyt Racing beginning immediately. Bourdais, was supposed to drive that car on select occasions for the 2020 NTT IndyCar Series season too as he, Dalton Kellett and Tony Kanaan were slated to all three split time in that seat. The plan was for a part time role to lead to a full time role in 2021.
That ended up working out, but it was a wild journey to get there.
Unfortunately, COVID hit and all of Bourdais’ races were scrapped. He was supposed to drive the season opener in it at St. Pete. That was moved to the season finale. He was supposed to run the two west coast races (Portland, Laguna Seca) in it. Those events were canceled. Now, Bourdais has some clarity on his situation again.
Starting in next month’s Harvest Grand Prix doubleheader race weekend at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the French driver was handed the keys to his new ride. The 14 car is now his not just for the final three races of the 2020 season, but all of the 2021 year too.
“Obviously he was a Foyt driver this year,” Larry Foyt said on Tuesday. “We did some testing together. A lot of our plans were changed with the global pandemic which affected everyone in the world unfortunately. We kept our head down, our supporters were great and stuck with us through this. We were able to put this together.”
This move was more about the future than now. See, there’s not much to salvage this year anyways. There’s too little time left and not much time to gain anything new. If they remained status quo, it would have been a rookie in Dalton Kellett in the 14 and Charlie Kimball operating in the 4. Now, they expand to a third car and bring in a four time series champion that’s won 37 times over the course of his highly decorated career too.
“We thought it made great sense to get this started now,” Foyt continued. “Not sure what the testing rules are going to look like for next year, so we wanted to get Seb in the car as early as we could. Good to get this done, announce it, looking forward to the end of this year and 2021.
“It’s tough. This is the most competitive I’ve seen INDYCAR in the time that I’ve been around for sure. To say I’m just going to show up after I haven’t been in a car since February, going to go out there and do amazing things is a tall order. We’re not looking at that.
“We wanted to build on next year to give us the best chance to go into 2021 being competitive. I have no doubt he can get the job done. I think our pit stops and our engineering is in a good place, but we’ll continue to work on it to make it better. Whoever his teammate is going to be, I think will benefit from Sebastien being there.”
“Obviously we knew the more we could run, the more we could prove of where the team was at,” said the veteran driver from France as he’s getting ready to compete in the 24 Hours of Le Mans this weekend. “Getting experience in ’20, that was kind of critical. When the opportunity was denied, it didn’t really stop the plans to try and pursue that avenue.
“Obviously, like Larry said, put his head down, the whole team did, and worked towards that goal. We’re just getting a bit of a launchpad for ’20.
“Really at that point of course I was disappointed not to be able to race, but I was looking more at the big picture, the long game. Kind of all worked out. I guess I’m glad I did.”
See, part of the problem for the struggles in 2020 was that there’s been limited on track activity outside of race conditions. It’s normally just one practice session on most race weekends, qualify, then race. Without the luxury of testing too, you kind of have what you have.
For Foyt, you have two new drivers this year in Kellett and Kimball. Kellett is a rookie with no experience. Kimball is a veteran with setup savvy but he’s not worked with any of these people before. Throw in Tony Kanaan who raced just on ovals only and you get a lot of feedback but not much to do with it. That’s why Bourdais kept his distance. He offered his services to help, but without him racing yet, the only advice or data he could give would be before the Aeroscreen was on. Plus, with so many voices already, the team felt like it was best they just focused on what they had and tried to work elsewhere to get Bourdais here as a driver for them.
It paid off.
“I mean, there’s no doubt that obviously it’s been a bit of a trying season for a lot of people,” Bourdais said of the team this year. “But when you’re trying to revamp and put new strategies in place, you can’t even go test or you have very condensed weekends, it doesn’t really help the overall program to just make improvements, try and throw things at it. I think that’s definitely slowed the process and the progress of the team now quite a bit.
“Although definitely we’ve seen some good things. Tony has been wheeling the car, putting it in good positions. Unfortunately the level of competition these days in INDYCAR is so unforgiving that if you have the smallest thing that doesn’t go to plan, instantly you end up at the back.
“We’ve seen good things. We’ve seen not-so-great things. I think there is definitely potential. Regardless of where we’re at right now, I do believe there is a really good opportunity for this team to keep growing and hopefully put it back towards the front of the field which is what we aim for and be working towards.”
Foyt, said that with that condensed schedule, if you’re off on the wrong foot, you don’t have time to find the light at the end of the tunnel until it’s too late.
“These weekends are so condensed right now,” he said. “We hit it out of the box at Texas. Obviously Charlie was very fast there. T.K. got a top 10 there. Some weekends, like this past weekend at Mid-Ohio, we unloaded in a place that Charlie didn’t feel great about his car. It just makes that whole weekend a struggle. Even though we improved it by race two, you’re already kind of on your back foot in qualifying. Just makes for a long weekend.
“With these INDYCARS, we’re just gathering data all the time. Having three cars out there will be great just to get more data. We can try more things. Dalton is doing a great job having to learn on the fly here without much time, not much experience. Having Seb there will help him. Charlie has good feedback, too.
“These weekends are just tough, but it will definitely be a help the more cars we can have on track.”
Foyt, is just pleased to have Bourdais here now and to use what he can bring to help propel them forward again with that experience and data he brings.
“Well, obviously any time you look at Sebastien’s résumé, it’s pretty impressive,” Foyt said. “What I’ve been impressed by is what he did even going to smaller teams. I think he brought a lot to those teams and helped them.
“I think we saw that even in testing, that he’s very good at knowing what he wants out of the race car. His feedback was exceptional. The engineers were really impressed. It just seemed to click really well.”
Foyt also said that this move is to help their longterm growth as well. They don’t want to remain a two car back of the field team. They want to expand to a three car team if the money and situation is there in the future. They want to move up the grid further. To do that, bringing in a guy like Bourdais and doing so in the manner that they’re doing with starting now instead of next year, is a maneuver that can help speed this process up.
“Our goal is to grow,” Foyt said. “This is a big piece of that, a big part of that, to start that.
“But as well, we know Sebastien can get the job done. Like I said earlier, this is the toughest INDYCAR field I think I’ve seen. Sometimes you can throw a blanker over the whole field. You see one guy on one doubleheader is up front, and he struggles the next day because other guys figure something out.
“It’s so tough and so tight. We just have to work together, have to work smart. I think by doing that we’re going to be successful, I’m pretty sure of that.”
Would part of the growth include another season with Tony Kanaan? The popular Brazilian driver hasn’t ruled out a return in 2021. In fact, he’s openly said he’s pursing any ride he can get as he doesn’t want to go out this way in the middle of a pandemic. Foyt, said that he thinks there’s a path for Kanaan to come back to the team in fact.
“Yeah, I think it is,” he said if there’s a chance Kanaan can return for a second final lap. “We just have to see. I talk to T.K. all the time. We’re definitely open to continue to work with him. We have a great relationship. I know his plans got thrown kind of askew with all this. He’s such a fan favorite.
“For T.K., he doesn’t want to end his career with no fans for sure. He’s still very motivated. Definitely could see what happens there. Don’t know what other options he has. I’m sure he’s looking at things all around.
“But, yeah, we have a great relationship with T.K. Love working with him. We’ll be working on that as well.”
Would TK be in the hunt for the No. 4 car? Would Kimball be back?
“Not certain at the moment,” Foyt said of the second entry. “We’ll certainly be two cars. If the right opportunity came to grow to three, we would do it the right way, we would potentially look at that.
“We’re talking to all our current guys right now. It’s a bit open at the time. We’re just going to see where that shakes out. This was the first piece that we wanted to get in place, and now we’ll start working on the others.”