The news that he’s off to Formula 1 next year doesn’t seem to have distracted Sebastien Bourdais – in fact he romped to his first victory at Elkhart Lake as if he’d been given a new lease of life.
And trouble for championship rivals Robert Doornbos and Will Power have thrust him further into the lead of the championship as he hunts a record fourth title.
Bourdais took pole by a commanding 1.5s and scorched off into an early lead. Robert Doornbos took up third place behind him but Bruno Junqueira’s rapid rise from fifth to third was an illusion – he was commanded into the pits to serve a penalty for jumping the start.
He took his penalty after the race was re-started on lap four, due to a safety car period triggered by an over-optimistic lunge by Simon Pagenaud on the first lap that took out Paul Tracy and Ryan Dalziel. All three were able to resume.
At the restart Power passed Graham Rahal for fourth but Rahal battled back past Power the next time around. Meanwhile Dan Clarke, who had made a quick pit stop under the early caution, was rising quickly through the field. He passed Justin Wilson for tenth, then took Jan Heylen.
By lap ten he was scrapping with Neel Jani and took sixth off the Swiss. He next target was Alex Tagliani for what had become fourth due to pit stops. Clarke flew past the RSports driver with two wheels off the track.
Oriol Service had made similar progress, passing Wilson on lap six and Heylen on lap 10. By lap 14 the pit stops were beginning but Clarke was able to hold on until lap 17 He resumed second behind Bourdais, with team mate Doornbos and Rahal bearing down on him.
Doornbos passed him easily which set up a hectic three-way slipstreaming battle for second. Clarke stayed ahead as long as he could but finally had to succumb to a desperately late braking move from Rahal. This was classic high speed Road America racing – and great to see two of the sports younger drivers – who’ve had run-ins in the past – keeping it clean.
Rahal passed Doornbos on lap 24 so the top four were the Newman-Haas-Lanigan pair followed by the two Minardi Team USA cars. But not for long. Clarke too got past Doornbos, who slithered into the back of his team mate’s car, lost his nose cone and had to limp back to the pits.
After the next round of pit stops Bourdais led Rahal, Clarke, Servia, Tagliani and Jani. Tristan Gommendy passed Heylen for seventh after they pitted together on lap 28, and Alex Figge was ninth ahead of Wilson, who was having a terrible race.
The order remained largely unchanged until the end but for one major difference – Clarke leapfrogged Rahal at the final round of pit stops and although the NHL driver caught him at the end, he could do nothing to pass.
Bourdais took his first win at Road America in magnificent style, signing off with the fastest lap of the race on the final tour – 1’44.346. With Doornbos and Power both retiring in the pits he is in a commanding position as the championship prepares for its two European races in September.