Sometimes you’re the bag and sometimes you’re the boxing glove. For Sebastien Bourdais, he’s been the bag more times than not this year. More on that later. See, before you get to Bourdais’ situation, you have to rewind all the way back to almost a decade ago. It all correlates together in a mangled mess of a web that AJ Foyt Racing has been trying to get themselves out of.
We’re all well aware of how the organization has had some down years lately. The team hasn’t won a race since Long Beach in 2013. They’ve not won a pole since Belle Isle 2 in 2014. The racing legend just hasn’t found a way to gain enough traction to get his program out of the basement and back into the limelight.
It’s not for a lack of effort. That’s not the issue here. It’s not people. They’ve got boatloads of great people over there. So what is it?
This team tries as hard as anyone and spends a lot of money hoping to turn this passion into more success. They’ve brought in new drivers, new engineers, new manufacturers, everything. The problem is, the results haven’t necessarily changed on track as a result of those alterations.
In 2016, it was Takuma Sato and Jack Hawksworth piloting their two cars. They combined for two top fives (both 5th place runs by Sato) and four top 10’s (again all by Sato). For 2017, they swapped out drivers for Conor Daly and Carlos Munoz as well as new engineers and also going from Honda to Chevrolet power. They had one top five (Daly in Gateway – 5th) as well as 10 top 10’s. Momentum was starting to come around by the end of the year, but for 2018, two more drivers came in via Matheus Leist and Tony Kanaan. Neither driver scored a top five result with Kanaan giving them their only top 10’s with four.
In 2019, they’d bring both drivers back. Would this help? They did get two top fives now and both were better than fifth. In fact, Kanaan’s podium in Gateway was their best finish since Sato’s runner-up at Belle Isle in 2015.
Leist, was also fourth in the wet at the Indy road course too. Combined, it was a pair of top fives and six top 10’s.
That still wasn’t good enough. Kanaan, would come back on a part time basis a year ago and would split the famed No. 14 with Sebastien Bourdais and rookie Dalton Kellett. Also, Charlie Kimball would be a full time driver in the other car. Between this group, you had enough veteran drivers in the camp to turn this thing around.
Then, COVID hit. Bourdais didn’t get to race due to the reorganization of the schedule until last October’s Harvest Grand Prix. Kanaan, was ovals only. It left the bulk of the season to Kimball and Kellett.
The first 11 races saw no top fives out of anyone with Kimball scoring one top 10. Kanaan, had two himself with a best result of ninth. Then, Bourdais hopped in.
He ran both races at Indy on the road course last October. This was his first time in the car with the Aeroscreen. He’d finish 21st and 18th respectively. The next weekend left was the season finale in St. Pete. Bourdais, finished fourth.
For 2021, the full slate in the 14 car was now handed over to Bourdais. Could he be the one to help expedite this program?
His first race was another top five in Barber. He did so with a damaged floor at that. Four races, two top fives. In fact, he was third and fourth at that. In the previous 88 races, they had two finishes better than fifth. In four races, he already equaled that number by himself alone.
He followed that up with another top 10 in St. Pete. Five races in now and three top 10’s. Things were looking up. Then, Texas happened. The almost knockout blow to this season. It’s where all the flashes of coming out of the basement were quickly slammed shut by a bully at the top of the stairs. Not like it was any one drivers’ fault, it was just bad luck at Texas was serving as the big bad bully on the street. The bully invited other bully friends over as the season went along.
Bourdais, was punted by Josef Newgarden on Lap 55 of the first race of the doubleheader race weekend, then was ran over from behind at the start of the race a day later.
Two wrecked race cars in less than 24 hours. For a team trying to still figure this all out on how to gain on the competition, that was the damn dagger in the momentum. Over the next six races, Bourdais had one top 15. Over the next 10 overall, he didn’t score a single top 10 result at that. His best finish was a pair of 11th place runs at Belle Isle 1 and Mid-Ohio.
Texas happened. The bully appeared at the top of the stairs and pushed Bourdais and this Foyt organization down the stairs, turned out the lights and slammed the door at the top shut.
Prior to Texas, Bourdais proved that this organization was on the right path. Everything they had been working for over the last seven years was coming to fruition. Bourdais was that missing piece. Texas halted that as quickly as they got it all turned about around.
“I mean, we’ve had such a complicated year anyways with a lot of crash damage, especially over a 48-hour period at Texas that really doesn’t allow us to wreck a whole lot of material,” Bourdais told me on a zoom call on Wednesday afternoon. “I think Larry (Foyt) is pretty deep in the pocket already, so that definitely sets the tone as far as how much you want to dare it, and plus for the longest time and really until Gateway, we were really starving for points.
“The best way to score points isn’t really to take yourself out of the equation with a very aggressive move, knocking a front wing or something out of the car.
“Fortunately this year we’ve been a lot on the receiving end, but yeah, we’ve definitely been very mindful and conscious of constraints and the need to finish the races.”
What he was meaning by that is, the crash damage forced him to have to play it conservative. At Indy, they had to then go with more downforce and not risk crashing. Bourdais said then that crashing in Indy normally breaks more parts and more parts cost more money. By doing that, one of their four cars didn’t even make the race on speed and Bourdais qualified 27th and finished 26th.
That trickled down to the other races. In turn, it put them on the Leaders Circle bump line and they had to be even more conservative. They needed to finish races and score as many points by doing so. In a day and age of Indy Car racing where he need to be aggressive in your pursuit of passing, Bourdais couldn’t be. By being aggressive, you cross the line to incur more crash damage. He nor AJ Foyt Racing could afford for Bourdais to put themselves in that situation.
In turn, guys that were pushing hard would just run over Bourdais in their pursuit to the front and in wake of that, the 14 team had more bad luck fall their way.
“The fact that when you are behind the 8-ball like that and you really need to score fairly consistently and at a fairly higher rate than we definitely did, again, to be able to score points, you need to finish the races,” Bourdais continued. “Yeah, you definitely kind of maybe become a little bit more conservative than you should be, and I think unfortunately it kind of showed with the performance of our starts and restarts at times, you just kind of hang back a little bit, you leave a half a car, whatever, and then unfortunately right away you get swarmed with a couple of cars that just get on top of you and lose a couple spots.
“Yeah, it’s definitely a tough balancing act to get on top of, but yeah, it’s just the way it is. The management of aggression is definitely a harder thing to do when you’re trying to cover getting to the finish, not crashing more than you already have. Yeah, it’s not exactly what you want to be thinking about when you’re in the middle of a tight pack as it is these days.”
How do you make passes in the sport when everyone else around you isn’t worrying about crash damage and the expense if they do happen to get into another car or even the wall? How do you pass them when you have to play it safe? How to you avoid someone running into you when you’re trying to play it safe inside of your car?
“I mean, I think that’s kind of the name of the game,” he says. “When you have a monotype series for the most part with two engines that are very closely matched and they’re very high density, you’re going to see very, very high aggression on starts and restarts because unfortunately everybody knows that this is when things are happening, and if you are looking for positions, well, you’re not going to have that many chances. That drives the aggression level up.
“When the gaps are as tight as they are, you have to use pretty much every opening that you see, even if it’s kind of a long shot and a risky move.
“Yeah, there’s definitely a lot of guys that feel a huge urgency to make things happen right away, because we all know how hard it is to make it happen later on.”
That’s what Bourdais has had to deal with and also why he escaped Gateway with a top five the last time out.
“Obviously we had to work our way towards the front with a little bit of strategy and not such a great run in qualifying, but I think it’s just so competitive,” he said of his 81st career top five finish in the sport. “As soon as you’re missing a tenth or two, then you’re just nowhere, and that was another very good example.
“In the race I don’t think we were exactly where we wanted to be as far as just the pure speed of the car, but it seems like we were taking fairly good care of our tires and had a really consistent pace over the long runs that just allowed us to kind of play the long game and just fuel save like crazy the whole race.
“Yeah, finally it just kind of fell in our lap, extending the window on that last stop, a lot of guys got caught out, and we didn’t, and yeah, that was great because thankfully for once we were on the right side of the window and got that top 5. So it was really good for the whole team.
“They’ve been working really hard, and like you mentioned, we really didn’t get a whole lot to back it up since the first race really. We had quite a bit of speed in St. Pete but didn’t show it in the race after a little contact and some front wing damage, and ever since it’s just been kind of okay. It really wasn’t bad, it’s just the competition has been really strong, and we just couldn’t quite capitalize and put all the things together.
“We had glimpses of speed here and there during the weekend and couldn’t quite put a weekend together. Yeah, it was nice to get back in the top 5, and looking forward to that last stretch there with the West Coast Swing and the three races in a row.”
This all still proves that they’re close. They’re on the cusp. The team from this spring is still this team. They’re still in the fight. It’s all down to resources at this point and hoping 2022 starts off a little better.
So, what does Bourdais say the difference is between him coming to Foyt to prepare for his first race for them 11 months ago til now?
“I mean, the real only significant difference is Justin Taylor’s arrival over the winter, which obviously helped us to just do put more work in because it’s just an extra brilliant mind in the program,” he told me. “So we’ve been able to crank up on the simulator side of things, trying to weed out a lot of things.”
Bourdais made note that this whole thing is a heavy process where you just don’t make things happen overnight. He says that you need correlation, so you need to go to the simulator, do your race weekend, do some correlation post-event.
“Yeah, it’s definitely quite a challenge, but as far as the team is concerned, it’s just been mostly a solidification of the base and just making it stronger with the addition of Justin.”
There’s three races left in the season now. What are some of his goals to finish off 2021 on a high note and head into 2022 with this team on track for a bigger year if they’d allow him back?
“I mean, obviously it would have been great to get away with a podium at some point, but it’s obviously quite difficult. I think if genuinely on pace, we can be in the top 10 for the last three events, I think that would be great, and then get a top 5 or two. That would be, I think, a reasonable expectation that I think is feasible.
“But still, to be able to do that, you look at the number of cars that you need to beat, and it’s definitely not automatic. You need to temper the expectations and underpromise and overdeliver.”