By Chris Medland
I came to Indy for the first time last year to see how some guy called Fernando Alonso would get on trying to tame the 500, and I knew that IMS could bite. But in Saturday qualifying, Sebastien Bourdais showed just how hard.
When the No.18 Dale Coyne Racing car hit the wall exiting Turn 2, there was no doubting the risks that the drivers are taking and the damage that can be done when it goes wrong.
Fortunately (in a sense), Bourdais was able to return to racing by the end of the year and was back at Indianapolis this month. But watching him put it all together yesterday to reach the Fast Nine was mighty impressive given what had gone before.
Today actually marks an exact year — May 20 — since the crash, so after the Frenchman delivered the best Honda performance of qualifying with fifth place for the 102nd running of the Indy 500, I had to ask him: Just what was going through his mind when he was about to go out and fight for pole?
Bourdais breathes out, deeply.
“Oh man it was so much harder this year, so much harder!” he says with a wry smile.
“The car has felt on top of the track all week and with the thinner air and a bit of wind and track temps up there it really got on top of the track. I really wish we had put some downforce on it.
“That lap three there I got into Turn 1 and man oh man… I don’t know if I got a gust or something but that thing got awful light and I didn’t feel like turning the way I should have and I didn’t pick up the apex and I had to roll off of it. Not the greatest feeling after what happened last year…
“I go from one end to the other like loose and then understeer a little bit, it was pretty hard. So I’m glad it’s over. I’m glad I’m not going to visit Dr. Scheid [IndyCar orthopedic consultant Dr. Kevin Scheid] and we can move onto the next one.”
To be able to pull out such a performance, you’d imagine Bourdais can just shut out the memories of 12 months ago once he puts the helmet on. Racing drivers are a rare breed after all…
“No! In qualifying last year I probably would have stayed in it and pinned it down and not really thought much about it. But I owe it to myself, my wife and the crew to not put myself in that same position again, especially since this year we’re not even going to be fighting for pole. We knew that. It was missing a mile an hour and there was nothing we could do about it.
“The guys at HPD did a great job; they were the class of the field for the last three years and this year [Chevrolet] fought back hard and they came strong. That’s the game, everybody’s chasing each other and someone’s going to have the upper hand. But I’m glad we’re carrying the Honda flag.
“I had a little mishap there, I’d say lost a mile an hour on lap three which equals a quarter of a second on the average lap, but if you look at it it doesn’t even change anything on the classification, so nothing to really overthink. It’s a non-event pretty much except that I was wise and sensible and didn’t hang it out when it would not have mattered!”
You can sense the two sides of Bourdais in conflict with each other this weekend. He wants to go as quick as the car possibly can when he’s in it, but when he analyzes the grand scheme of things his crash is telling him to leave just that bit more of a margin.
While he wrestles with himself, it’s a draining situation emotionally and means even such an impressive qualifying run doesn’t result in delight or pride once it’s over.
“The overriding feeling is relief, for sure. It’s a very high-stress weekend, qualifying always is. But especially after what happened last year. I could sure use a drink right now. And at the end of the day the worst of it all is that all of this is completely meaningless. You had people going and winning the race from dead last. It’s just for show.
“That’s what at some point, especially when you go through what I went through last year you kind of put things in perspective. Yeah, you owe it to your boys to put it up there but is it worth the risk to take the ultimate chance? Probably not. So definitely this year was a bit of a transition. But we’ll go back, go through the race, score some big points and keep plugging away.”
Despite his outlook, Bourdais is still starting in the middle of the second row and in a strong position to run at the front from the start of next week’s race. So does his mindset now at least change to dreaming of victory? The sensible part of him insists not, but then the racer that makes him so quick has the final say…
“I mean honestly I don’t think very much like that. I just try to give myself the best chance at performing the best I can. We struggled all week in race trim, in traffic, and it’s been tough. To me it almost feels like the reason that thing is so quick in qualifying is because it just doesn’t seem to make anywhere near as much downforce as everybody else!
“So we’ll see. But I’ve struggled very much in traffic and we really haven’t found anything that made a big difference, so unless we can fix that I don’t see us being in the mix.
“But we’ll give it our best shot and that crew time and time again has proved never to count them out because we’re in it to win it.”