When Sebastien Bourdais' 18-month Formula 1 career quietly ground to a halt with a hydraulic failure on lap 19 of the German Grand Prix, few in the paddock took much notice. Most had written him off long ago. The same old story, they said. Yet again, a big fish in a small pond, an American open-wheel superstar, had been exposed as a very average fish in the only pond that mattered. Like Michael Andretti, Cristiano da Matta and Alex Zanardi before him (this line of reasoning tends to ignore the success of both Jacques Villeneuve and Juan Pablo Montoya, who did convert their Champ Car titles into F1 success), he showed that victories in North America mean nothing in the rest of the world.
But to those who saw Bourdais – nicknamed "Seabass" by his U.S. fans – in his Champ Car pomp, when he won four consecutive titles during a five-year spell with Newman/Haas/(Lanigan) Racing, or those in Europe who paid attention to his success in junior single-seater categories and sports cars, his F1 failure is more puzzling. To them, it's not so easy just to write him off as an also-ran, as merely a very good driver among the great. So how do you explain his record of just four top-10 finishes and six points in 27 F1 starts?
Arguably the man in the best position to judge is Scuderia Toro Rosso technical director Giorgio Ascanelli. An engineer unusual in that he firmly believes that drivers make the difference – not surprising for a man who has worked with Ayrton Senna, Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet – he is damning in his faint praise of Bourdais after working with him for a season and a half.
“I don't think Bourdais is a World Champion,” says Ascanelli. “When you find a World Champion, you recognize him but Bourdais is an average professional. Has he had it easy? No.
But you do not expect a driver coming from his success in Champ Car to be outqualified seven times out of nine by a rookie [his teammate Sebastien Buemi]. I'm not slagging him off, and I think he could have become better. But I don't know whether he would have.”
It had all started so promisingly. Early last year, he seemed to have the edge over the “the new Schuey.” While teammate Sebastian Vettel racked up four straight DNFs, Bourdais, who was denied fourth place on his debut with a driveshaft failure in Australia, looked very at home in Formula 1. He was – and therein, peculiarly, lies the problem. The Toro Rosso STR2B was very much to his liking, being both predictable and well-balanced. Then came the introduction of the STR3 at Monaco and, two races later, a major upgrade package from Red Bull that Bourdais didn't like.
“You have oversteer in the slow corners, massive understeer in the high-speed corners and you have a half-decent in between,” said Bourdais after a couple of races with his new machine. “But I don't do well with oversteer at slow speed and I don't do well with understeer at high speed so I get the short end of the stick and get pretty badly kicked. It has always been my problem.”
This meant that Bourdais was lacking that last percentage of commitment to a corner in qualifying. The real problem was that, by contrast, Vettel was untroubled by the change in handling characteristics. Asked about his teammate's difficulties, and the German would simply shrug and say, “It's no problem for me.” From this point, Toro Rosso's and Vettel's fortunes skyrocketed, while Bourdais' slumped as he lost confidence in the car. From the German Grand Prix onward, Vettel was always a top-eight threat, and took that sensational win in the Italian Grand Prix at Monza. At year's end, he had 35 points, Bourdais had just four.
It wasn't explicit, but Bourdais clearly felt that the team's focus had switched firmly to Vettel, but given the disparity in performance between the two, who could blame them?There were times when Bourdais was quick, in the opinion of Ascanelli, “because the speed of Vettel compelled him to be,” but things just seemed to go wrong even on the few days where there were flickers of promise. On the faster tracks, he found the car less of a handful, and at Spa-Francorchamps, for example, he outpaced Vettel all weekend and ran fifth for much of the race. Then the rain came and he chose to stay on slick tires in a chaotic finish. Bourdais briefly held third on the last lap, but could only watch as he was bumped down to seventh by the charge of the wet-tired runners.
“This is my season,” Bourdais remarked afterward. “Strong all race, but then, something I have no control over causes me to lose almost everything.”
Come Monza, it was a similar story. Despite finding the car a little unpredictable in the wet (a stark contrast to the 2009 car, which he enjoyed in tricky conditions), Bourdais managed fourth on the grid behind Vettel's pole. But a too-fast clutch release, the failure of the anti-stall and suddenly he was a lap down barely before the race had started.
A podium had been possible, certainly, perhaps even a completion of a Toro Rosso 1-2 finish. That might have given the increasingly fatalistic Bourdais a big lift.
“I would have finished third at least,” he said, “but this is normal for the season – my lap times were good in the race but because of the anti-stall I missed out. It's the story of my year.”
Some late-season modifications made the car a little bit more stable in the slow corners and there were flashes of promise. But at Fuji he lost sixth on the road after a penalty for clashing with championship challenger Felipe Massa while the Ferrari was exiting the pit lane. It was a very harsh penalty – probably too harsh – and once again, he was left with little to show for a strong performance.
“We are a customer team so we cannot develop the car much in our own way,” said Bourdais in Japan. “The car does not suit me and there's nothing I can do to change it. With the rule changes next year, hopefully things will be better.”
But the end of the season was the beginning of a long waiting game. Former Honda driver Takuma Sato had entered the frame and was confident of pulling in serious yen from Japan, a growing market for Red Bull, and Bourdais had to wait. And wait. And wait.
Come December, he was still waiting and was clearly impatient.
“I don't know when the decision will be,” he said at the Jerez test “All I hear is money. Money, money, money."
Eventually – in February – it turned out that Sato didn't have the green and Toro Rosso decided to keep Bourdais on for his experience alongside rookie Buemi. It was a new start for Bourdais. And he was determined to prove his point.
“I'd like to really put on paper what I can do,” said Bourdais. “It didn't materialize in 2008, but that's racing. The most frustrating part of the season was running against the system. I was always honest that I needed the car a certain way, and it was a struggle for most of the year.”
Partnered with Buemi, Red Bull's latest golden boy, Bourdais was happier with the balance of the car but very unhappy with its pace. Buemi scored points in two of his first three races, and from that moment the die was cast. Bourdais himself didn't feel that the team was getting behind him like it should; there were rumblings that Red Bull was very keen to see Buemi emerge as the lead driver; and despite a great drive to eighth place in the Monaco Grand Prix, he cut an increasingly forlorn figure.
The infamous Bourdais attitude – which showed in Champ Car – was much in evidence, and this surely hastened the decision to give Bourdais the boot and throw Jaime Alguersuari in the car instead. As Champ Car nemesis Paul Tracy remarked in his blog here at RACER.com, “The guy was a misery even when he had the best car and was winning everything, so I guess he's been pretty unbearable this last 18 months. He's a great driver, but I bet his attitude didn't exactly encourage the team to solve his problems.”
Sure enough, it wasn't unusual to hear Toro Rosso insiders suggest that the time Bourdais spent moaning would be better directed into upping his game – a clear sign that his time with the team was winding down.
But the bottom line is, was Bourdais quite good enough? Sure, circumstances were sometimes against him, but F1 is the harshest of environments and your results have to do the talking. David Coulthard, a Red Bull stablemate, puts it best.
“The Bourdais scenario is confusing to motorsport fans who have watched his performances in America,” he says. “Unless there are clear reasons that he can put forward as to why he wasn't supported in a way to deliver his talent, he needs to take a long look in the mirror.
“I don't think that age is the issue. Look at Alex Zanardi – he became a superhero in America, then came back to Formula 1 and was fairly average. Why is that? Do they suit the cars better, or did they feel loved more and was that what allowed them to deliver that level of performance? Baffling.”
Baffling indeed. For whatever reason, Formula 1 didn't see the best of Bourdais. There will be those who just choose to write him off as a no-hoper. But for anyone who saw what Seabass was capable of in a Champ Car, there's the uncomfortable feeling of a considerable talent left unfulfilled.
This story is abridged from an article originally appearing in the October issue of RACER magazine. To purchase an issue, click here.