Bourdais Shocks Field During IndyCar Opener

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Sebastien Bourdais won the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and picked up a class win in the Rolex 24 this year. (Al Steinberg Photo)

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Sebastien Bourdais put the band back together from the glory days of the Champ Car Series and he got off to a perfect start on Sunday with a victory in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

Bourdais, the only four-time champion in Champ Car Series history who now resides in St. Petersburg, led a French revolution in his adopted hometown on Florida’s Gulf Coast. Bourdais drove the No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda from last on the 21-car starting grid to first in the season-opening race of the Verizon IndyCar Series season.

Bourdais, who crashed in turn 13 during qualifying on Saturday and was unable to post a time, had to start last in the field. In his first race with team owner Dale Coyne since a limited schedule in 2011, the driver from Le Mans, France, was able to use an alternate pit strategy by pitting early on lap 23, which got him out of sequence with the rest of the field.

Coyne is a wizard at using this strategy; especially in rain races in the past such as Carlos Huertas’ stunning win in one of the Houston double-header races in 2014. It didn’t rain on Sunday, but Coyne once again helped Bourdais advance through the field through pit strategy.

Once he was in that position, the rest was up to Bourdais as he pitted three times, saved enough fuel when it mattered, and when it all shook out he crossed the finish line a whopping 10.3508 seconds ahead of fellow Frenchman and defending Verizon IndyCar Series champion Simon Pagenaud.

“I just threw it away (in qualifying) and I just really didn’t know what to do with myself,” Bourdais said. “To turn that from yesterday into today, I just don’t know what to say except thank you to the guys.

“It was kind of redemption day here. To come out on top with obviously a lot of friends and family on-site, the whole community supporting the effort, it was just a great feeling. I couldn’t really be any happier for Honda and Dale for giving me the opportunity to put the band back together and make it happen.

“Everybody works really, really hard. We’re a small group. There is nobody at the shop that doesn’t travel. But it works. It’s a great little group. We’re sure not going to stop there. “We’re just going to keep on trying.”

Bourdais was emotional with this victory, the 36th of his Indy car career, including 31 wins in the Champ Car Series. It was his first Verizon IndyCar Series race with Craig Hampson as his engineer.

Hampson was Bourdais’ engineer at Newman Haas Racing in the Champ Car Series and in their first race of their reunion, they scored another win – the 32nd win Hampson and Bourdais have enjoyed together.

“It’s putting the band back together and you don’t know if you’ll have many more days like that,” Bourdais said.

Bourdais’ strategy combined with getting lucky on when the two yellow flags of the race waved, enabled him to lead 69 of the 110 laps in the race. James Hinchcliffe led 21 laps, Pagenaud 13, pole winner Will Power five and Takuma Sato two.

Sato was a leading contender for victory in his first race with Andretti Autosport. He pitted on lap 82 but an air-gun issue extended the pit stop costing the driver from Japan valuable time in the pits. Pagenaud was the leader when he pitted on lap 83 and cycled back on track in second just 4.0634 behind Bourdais.

Sato was issued a warning and is subject to a post-race monetary fine for unsafe pit release for his botched pit stop.

With 20 laps remaining Bourdais was leading Pagenaud by 2.3314 seconds with Scott Dixon third and Sato fourth. Ryan Hunter-Reay, who had to overcome a hard crash during Sunday morning’s warm-up when his rear brakes failed, had managed to make it up to fifth.

From that point on, Bourdais was in solid control as Pagenaud was unable to gain any ground on his fellow Frenchman.

“First of all, I want to congratulate Sebastian,” Pagenaud said. “That’s tremendous what they did today. What a great job. Congrats to him. He must be very happy. Honestly, he was untouchable. He was really strong. We were strong as well. We got very lucky at the beginning of the race.”