For a long time it looked as though Sebastien Bourdais would never make it into Formula 1. After a five year spell racing in America he finally struck a deal with Scuderia Toro Rosso to race in 2008 – but he was dropped by the team halfway through his second season.
Racing in France
He was born in Le Mans, home of the classic French 24 Hour race, in 1979. After badgering his parents for years he received a go-kart for Christmas in 1989 and began racing. He was fourth in the cadet championship in 1992 and won the French League in 1993.
A move to open wheel racing saw him finish sixth in Formula Campus in 1995, aged 16. He moved up to the French Formula Renault series the following year and finished seventh, then rose to second in 1997.
That led to a move up to French Formula Three. He was top rookie in 1998, finishing sixth overall with two podium finishes. In 1999 he won the championship with eight race wins.
Formula 3000 – and Le Mans
That year he also made his first appearance in his home town’s 24 hour race. He shared a Larbre Competition Porsche 911 GT2 with Pierre de Thoisy and former F1 driver Jean-Pierre Jarier, but the car retired after 134 laps with engine failure.
Bourdais would continue to contest the 24 hour race, returning in 2000 with Henri Pescarolo’s team. Sharing a Courage C52 with Emmanuel Clerico and Olivier Grouillard the trio finished fourth behind the dominant factory-backed Audi R8s.
His third Le Mans the next year was a disappointment. Bourdais drove a punishing overnight stint in heavy rain but gearbox and engine problems on the Courage C60 meant it only completed 271 laps – a let down for the Pescarolo team and Bourdais’ team mates Jean-Christophe Boullion and Laurent Redon.
In the meantime Bourdais’ single seater ascent continued. In 2000 he moved up to Formula 3000 with Alain Prost’s Grand Prix Junior team. He scored points twice at the Nurburgring (fourth) and Magny-Cours (second) to finish the year ninth.
A year with the more competitive DAMS team yielded a win at Silverstone and fourth overall in the championship behind Justin Wilson, Mark Webber and Tomas Enge.
He stayed in the series for a third year in 2002 and finally nailed the championship with the Super Nova team. He beat Giorgio Pantano by two points, winning at Imola, Monaco and the Nurburgring. But the disqualification of Tomas Enge from the Hungarian race due to a drugs infringement helped Bourdais’ cause.
Bourdais continued to develop his parallel sportscar racing career, appearing for Pescarolo in one-off rounds of the American Le Mans series in 2000 and 2001. He did five FIA GT races from 2000-2, winning at Spa-Francorchamps in 2002 in a Larbre Competition Chrysler Viper GTS-R shared with Christophe Bouchut, David Terrien and Vincent Vosse.
He returned to Le Mans in 2002 as well, finishing tenth overall (ninth in the LMP900 class) in another Pescarolo Courage C60 shared with Bouillon and Franck Lagorce.
Early F1 tests
But Bourdais’ target was Formula One and he tested for Arrows, but the team dropped out of F1 halfway through 2002 with severe financial problems.
A test for Renault at Jerez followed at the end of 2002 but although Bourdais lapped closely to regular driver Jarno Trulli’s times, it was Franck Montagny that got the Renault test drive instead. It has been suggested that Bourdais didn’t get the drive because he refused to be managed by Flavio Briatore.
Champ Car and more sports cars
That appeared to be the end of any hope Bourdais had of racing in F1, so he opted to take his career to America. A successful test for Newman-Haas saw him join the Champ Car World Series.
The championship had fallen into dire financial circumstances and was slowly beginning to rebuild. Many of the top teams and drivers had deserted it, and Bourdais and the Newman-Haas team swiftly established the new pecking order.
He took pole position for his first race and won three times in 2003 to end the year fourth overall and best rookie. That set up three years of domination by Bourdais which saw him crowned champion in 2004, 2005 and 2006.
By the start of 2007 he was one of the series most successful drivers ever. He had also formed a sizzling rivalry with series veteran Paul Tracy, whose tally of 31 victories he equalled by the end of the year, on the way to a record fourth consecutive Champ Car World Series championship.
He missed Le Mans in 2003 but returned with Pescarolo in 2004. He shared a Courage with Nicolas Minassian and Emmanuel Collard but the car retired after 282 laps with engine failure.
Bourdais also made a few appearances in American sports car racing, winning a round of the IROC championship in 2005 and taking an American Le Mans Series win in 2006.
He continued his competitive form in Champ Car in 2007, but facing stronger opposition from the likes of Will Power and Robert Doornbos. The introduction of the new Panoz chassis into the series also made the championship closer.
After a two year absence he returned to Le Mans again, this time with the works Peugeot team and its new diesel powered 908 HDI FAP cars. Although not quite able to rival the Audis, Bourdais’ car (shared with Stephane Sarrazin and Pedro Lamy) finished the race second.
Formula 1 in 2008
He tested for Toro Rosso in late 2006 and during 2007, prompting speculation that he was about to finally move to F1. The team confirmed him as Sebastian Vettel’s team mate for 2008.
He finished seventh on his long-awaited debut at Melbourne, and would have been higher had his car not failed a few laps from home. Bourdais damaged his standing in the team by crashing a new STR3 chassis shortly before its intended introduction, delaying its arrival until the Monaco Grand Prix.
Once it had arrived team mate Vettel did a conspicuously better job with the car, though on occasions Bourdais’ luck was nothing short of cruel. His best qualifying position of the year at Monza was destroyed when his car failed to start. And he was robbed of a strong finish at Fuji by a dubious stewards’ decision following a collision with Felipe Massa.
During the off-season rumours circulated that Bourdais was going to be replaced by Takuma Sato. Toro Rosso eventually confirmed he would continue at the team alongside newcomer Sebastien Buemi.
Buemi often had the measure of Bourdais over the first half of the season, and following the ninth round Bourdais was dropped by the team. He later returned to racing in the USA.
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