“We’ve had the speed, we just haven’t had the finishes.”
Chances are, if you’ve followed racing for any amount of time, you’ve heard this phrase (or some variation of it) used incessantly. Drivers, crew and owners will offer up the answer when they are in the midst of a disappointing stretch of the season.
Few drivers in the 2018 Verizon IndyCar can identify with this statement quite like Sebastien Bourdais. After a promising start to 2018, the Le Mans, France native has endured a disappointing string of results as of late.
Heading into the 2018 season, Bourdais had every reason to be optimistic. He remarkably healed within three months of a devastating Indianapolis 500 qualifying crash that left him with hip and pelvic fractures.
In addition to an engineering staff that was considered among IndyCar’s best, the Frenchman would see the return of Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan to his crew. Vasser and Sullivan, who co-owed Bourdais’ car from 2014-2016, joined the renamed entry, titled “Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser Sullivan.”
The announcement was made on February 5, in conjunction with announcing the addition of paving company SealMaster as the team’s sponsor for 10 races.
At the March 11 season opener on St. Petersburg’s street course, Bourdais started 14th after a disappointing qualifying effort. As they had done the previous year, the team used pit strategy to work their way to the front.
By Lap 25, the defending race winner was in front. He would lead 28 of the first 108 laps and was third during the final restart on Lap 109. When Robert Wickens and Alexander Rossi made contact in Turn 1 after the green flag flew, Bourdais would slip past the two for his second straight win at the track.
Following the race, Bourdais reflected on the win and the struggles of his comeback leading up to it.
“It’s been pretty hard for myself I think in some ways, obviously, but more for people around me and certain people, for my wife.” he noted in his post-race press conference.
“It’s quite an achievement to be able to restart the season and settle the matter right away and get back on the horse and win another one.”
Three weeks later at ISM Raceway, the Frenchman showed he had a feel for the new aero kit on ovals as well.
He earned pole for the 250-lap race, his first in almost four years and first on an oval since 2006.
Afterward, the four-time ChampCar champion spoke about the early season success the team showed.
“This is why we’re out there,” he exclaimed. “We come out every week and try to win it, be on pole, do the best you can.”
“We’ll still a very small organization when you compare to the likes of Ganassi, Andretti, Penske. We just have got a great group of guys working really hard, trying to make it happen. When you do, it’s really sweet.”
Although he led the first 44 laps and set the fastest lap of the race on Lap 2, things unraveled quickly for the No. 18 Dallara-Honda entry.
On the first pit stop of the race, Bourdais hit his tire changer. He would be assessed a drive-through penalty once the restart occurred.
Despite the penalty, he made his way to the front again. The points leader led 18 more laps during the evening. Ultimately, he finished a disappointing 13th, one lap down.
A week later at Long Beach, Bourdais started ninth. He worked his way through the field and despite being forced to surrender third to Scott Dixon after a controversial pass, took the lead on Lap 56.
After being caught out on a Lap 60 caution, he was mired in the back of the pack. Even after being caught in an accident on Lap 72, Bourdais finished on the lead lap, but in 13th.
A trip to Barber Motorsports Park followed and the Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser-Sullivan continued to shine. Bourdais qualified third and led nine laps. While the team’s strategy of switching to slick tires hoping for dry conditions didn’t pan out, they did leave Barber with a fifth-place finish.
On the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, Bourdais would start the 82-lap race in third and led a lap to extend his streak to five races and finished fourth.
A week later, Bourdais would make the Fast 9 for the 102nd Indianapolis 500 and qualified fifth, his best career start in the race. He also carried the honor of being the fastest Honda-powered entry.
He led a lap, but struggled during the race with the new super-speedway aero kit as many drivers did. Ultimately, he crashed out on Lap 138 and would finish 28th.
“The front hooked a little bit and snapped out on me and that was that. I gave it my best shot and, unfortunately, those things were really tricky today with the heat,” Bourdais lamented afterward.
“The downforce was really low and it was very difficult to be flat. I’m just disappointed for the Dale Coyne Vasser-Sullivan guys. They worked so hard all month and we lost a chance on some valuable championship points.”
After the disappointment of Indianapolis, the team headed to the Dual in Detroit on Belle Isle, where Bourdais had won a race in each of his last two appearances in the doubleheader weekend.
2018’s edition of the event would not bring the same fortune. In the first race, Bourdais would start 17th and finish 13th. A day later, he would start 16th and finished 21st, three laps down. The Dual in Detroit marked the first time in the season Bourdais failed to lead a lap.
A week later, the Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser-Sullivan team headed to Texas Motor Speedway. Early on, Bourdais and his team showed their oval prowess, qualifying fifth. Fighting through tire wear struggles that plagues several teams each year at Texas, Bourdais finished in eighth.
Two weeks later, Bourdais returned to Road America, where he had won in the last ChampCar race held at the track in 2007.
Bourdais would make the Fast Six for the third time, but software issues would hamper the team’s effort. They would leave Road America with another aggravating result, a 13th-place finish.
“The prospects were looking good, then I lost all shifting for about 30 seconds.,” Bourdais expressed after the race.
“It started to work again when I got on pit lane. We rebooted, but at that point the race was basically over, as there was never a yellow to reset the field.”
Next weekend, Bourdais and the Verizon IndyCar Series head to Iowa Speedway. Slotted ninth in points with seven races left in the season, the Frenchman will look to build upon his ISM Raceway success for the second short oval of the year.
“We will just keep at it and hopefully catch a break every now and again the rest of the season,” Bourdais added of their approach to the rest of the year after Road America.
As the .875-mile oval looms, Bourdais will look to earn his third straight top ten at the track and rebound from a rocky stretch as of late.
Header image by Shawn Gritzmacher/INDYCAR.