Sebastien Bourdais’ troubles show why IndyCar drivers struggle in modern F1

Posted on | Author Duncan Stephen

Sebastien Bourdais made his last F1 start at the Nurburgring
Sebastien Bourdais made his last F1 start at the Nurburgring

F1 Fanatic guest writer Duncan Stephen, who writes Vee8, looks at how Indy Car drivers have fallen out of fashion in F1.

The departure of Sébastien Bourdais from Toro Rosso brings into focus two trends that have emerged in the driver market.

The first is the high turnover of drivers in the Red Bull teams, particularly Toro Rosso. This has been picked up elsewhere (including on F1 Fanatic and James Allen’s blog), so I will discuss it only briefly.

But another aspect has not been mentioned quite as much – the trend away from drivers who made their name in IndyCar.

Red Bull’s driver management

In its short history, Toro Rosso has built up a history of managing its drivers poorly. Since Toro Rosso’s first season in 2006, the team has gone through six different drivers. That is more than almost any other team, although McLaren has also gone through six in the past four years. The Woking-based squad has had some high profile driver management problems of its own in that period – first with Juan Pablo Montoya, then with Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton.

Back to Toro Rosso’s problems, the team’s management famously had a rift with Scott Speed in 2007 which ended in the driver accusing Toro Rosso boss Franz Tost of physically assaulting him. Needless to say, that was the end of his relationship with the team. Toro Rosso’s other driver at the time, Vitantonio Liuzzi, also ended up being disillusioned with the situation and has since cut his ties with Red Bull.

The parent Red Bull team has not had the most stable of situations with its drivers either. Its first season in 2005, also involving Liuzzi, was a disaster on this front. Although they had brought in veteran David Coulthard, who would serve as a stabilising influence and remains on the team’s books to this day, Red Bull intended to share their second seat between two drivers, Liuzzi and Christian Klien.

At first the promise was for the two Red Bull Junior Team graduates to be given roughly equal time in the race seat, with the drivers swapping places every few races. But this policy was quietly dropped after Liuzzi’s first four races, after which Klien became the permanent second driver.

Klien stayed on for the following season, but the relationship with Red Bull soon soured. Klien was not offered another year at Red Bull Racing, and was instead offered a drive at a Red Bull-backed ChampCar team. Klien baulked at this idea, and severed his ties with Red Bull, being replaced by Robert Doornbos for the remainder of the season. Following a stint at Honda, Klien is currently BMW’s reserve driver.

Red Bull heavily invests in young driver talent through its Red Bull Junior Team programme. This is the official explanation for Red Bull’s constantly changing driver line-up – it wants to give as many of its drivers a seat in F1 as possible.

This is supposed to be the raison d’??tre of Toro Rosso – but cynics say it is there to share costs with the main Red Bull team. For instance, why did S??bastien Bourdais – not a Red Bull Junior driver – got a race seat there? Moreover, neither of Red Bull’s longest-serving drivers, David Coulthard and Mark Webber, were nurtured by Red Bull.

Red Bull point to the success of Sebastian Vettel, saying that he is proof of the success of Red Bull’s approach towards driver development. But the fact is that BMW can have a better claim to having prepared Sebastian Vettel for F1. It was BMW who gave him his first test in a Williams-BMW, his prize for winning the German Formula BMW championship in 2004. He became BMW’s permanent test driver in 2006. It was BMW who gave him his first race drive, when he scored a point at Indianapolis in 2007.

Vettel is not the only BMW prot??g?? either. Robert Kubica is another successful driver whose skills have been nurtured by BMW.

The tide against IndyCar drivers

Bourdais won four Champ Car titles from 2004-2007
Bourdais won four Champ Car titles from 2004-2007

The departure of S??bastien Bourdais also brings up the question mark surrounding the skills of American open wheel racers. Once upon a time, it was common for IndyCar drivers to make the switch to Formula 1. In fact, almost 100 Champ Car drivers have had involvement in F1, and four Champ Car champions have also become Formula 1 World Champions. Keith wrote a wonderful series about drivers hopping over the pond last year.

But today, open wheel racing in America is a shadow of its former self. Particularly over the past decade or so, the quality has decreased dramatically. But question marks over the ability of Champ Car drivers have been around for even longer.

No driver has successfully made the leap to Formula 1 from Champ Car or IRL for over a decade. The last successful Champ Car driver to compete in F1 was Jacques Villeneuve. He won the World Championship in 1997, but few would say he was among the most deserving drivers to become a World Champion. From this point onwards, the ability of Champ Car drivers to join F1 fell rapidly.

The next driver to make the jump was Alessandro Zanardi, also with Williams. Zanardi had raced in F1 before, but with a string of poor teams – Jordan, Minardi and Lotus which by then was on its last legs. But he had a more successful time in Cart, winning two titles in 1997 and 1998. This was enough to convince Frank Williams to give him a three year contract. But his first season turned out to be a disaster.

Zanardi lacked the speed and failed to get to grips with the complexity of Formula 1 cars. Towards the end of the season he even ran with heavier steel brakes, saying that he preferred them to the more modern carbon brakes used by everyone else. After a year of rumours, Zanardi’s three year deal was cut short at the end of the season, having failed to score a point while his team mate Ralf Schumacher scored 35.

Despite this experience, Williams obviously did not clock onto the fact that Champ Car drivers were no longer up to scratch because the next driver to make the leap into F1 was 1999 CART champion Juan Pablo Montoya, once again with Williams. However, this relationship was much more successful than the one with Zanardi. Montoya even came relatively close to winning the Championship in 2003.

But despite gaining seven wins in F1, doubts about the Colombian’s abilities increased as his F1 career progressed. His relationship with Williams soured before his move to McLaren in 2005. While driving for McLaren, he failed to get on top of the handling of the car.

Meanwhile, doubts about his fitness were constantly raised. While at Williams, he gained a staggering 10 kilograms (over 1½ stone) in weight during the course of one season. He did not go up in many people’s estimations when he had to sit out two of his first races for McLaren following a “tennis accident” which is said to have actually been a quad bike accident.

That was the last time Williams dared hire a Champ Car driver, but other teams failed to take notice. Toyota signed Cristiano da Matta for the 2003 and 2004 seasons after winning the CART series in 2002. His first season was a relative success, but in 2004 his performances were anonymous and disappointing. He finished in the points just once all year, before being replaced by Ricardo Zonta mid-season. Afterwards, Da Matta bitterly vowed never to race in F1 again, complaining that there was too much emphasis on cars’ technology – another sign of Champ Car drivers’ inability to handle the more sophisticated F1 machinery.

Since then, Formula 1 teams have generally given Champ Car / IndyCar drivers a wide berth – until Toro Rosso signed S??bastien Bourdais for the 2008 season. Bourdais’s record seemed impeccable though, winning an unprecedented four Champ Car championships in a row.

However, by this time US open wheel racing was a shadow of its former self. Bourdais disappointed in F1, failing to capitalise on the opportunities he was given, thoroughly outclassed by his team mate Sebastian Vettel, and even this year by rookie S??bastien Buemi. On the BBC’s coverage, Force India’s Ian Phillips recently scoffed that the problem with Bourdais was that he was used to driving “lorries”.

This year’s IndyCar series increasingly under fire for being too processional and producing poor racing. The sanctioning body has drawn up plans for a “push to pass” system to be introduced mid-season in a desperate bid to spice up the series (which, on the strength of last weekend’s race, seems to have worked). Somehow I think Bourdais will be the last IndyCar driver to make the switch to F1 for quite a while.

Read more