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

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’?â?¬tre of Toro Rosso – but cynics say it is there to share costs with the main Red Bull team. For instance, why did S?â?®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?â?®g?â?® 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?â?®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?â?®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?â?®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.

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

  1. goofy said on 3rd August 2009, 19:47

    Keith, i read your blog because i think it’s a piece of (what we call in germany) qualityjournalismn. This means all reports and articles are well researched and written with twice thinking. But this article obviously fails. Please don’t publish anymore of those falseinformation.

    I think UK is the birthplace of qualityjournalism and of tabloid press (i call that completly rubbish) Please don’t walk that thin line.

    • Williams 4ever said on 3rd August 2009, 20:46

      I second that request…

    • Patrickl said on 3rd August 2009, 23:02

      What’s wrong with it. He gives an overview of several “IndyCar” to F1 transistions and correctly concludes that the drivers who were unbeatable champions in IndyCar didn’t do better than being average drivers in F1. Where some like Andretti, Zanardi and Bourdais were complete failures.

      Doesn’t it say something when the 4 time Champ Car champion gets replaced because he can’t even beat a rookie?

      I guess it hurts people’s ego’s to hear that IndyCar isn’t filled with the worlds best drivers, but that doesn’t mean the article isn’t correct.

  2. I’m sorry if anyone thinks my article was biased, but I looked at all of the drivers who have made a direct transition from IndyCar to F1 in the past decade, and beside some rather poorly-argued points about how good Montoya is (the guy who won half as many races as Ralf Schumacher in the same equipment), no-one has been able to say what IndyCar drivers came up with the goods in F1. That’s because there haven’t been any. And that was my point.

    • goofy said on 4th August 2009, 0:42

      at this point you are right. But your article implents that drivers who ran races in the states can not compete in F1. And that’s just wrong because there are plenty cases that disprove this point. And comments like “He then spent two years in GP2 rehabilitation before coming back to F1″ emphasises this thought. U really think a racer needs to cure from driving in america?
      It’s right that no driver from american racing series became champs in F1 for a decade but does that mean their worse?

      How many former F1 drives went to DTM and did not archive nothing? Is DTM that much better than F1?

      • Goofy, the point of my article was to ask why there is a trend away from F1 teams hiring Indy Car drivers. As Keith’s brilliant series outlined, there have been almost 100 drivers who have raced in both. But only a small handful have made the transition from Indy Car to F1 in recent years, including four drivers who have won Championships in both. My aim is to ask why there has been a change, especially as there is no sign of an improvement on this front.

        It’s not really to say that if a driver is successful in one series then moves to another series and is less successful, that the second series must be better. It wouldn’t be much of a surprise if an F1 driver moved to, say, Nascar, and failed to cut it there because they are radically different series. But Indy Car and F1 are not radically different — or at least, they weren’t. Back in the 1950s, the Indy 500 was even a Formula 1 World Championship event, and many drivers could have successful crossover careers. Not any more, seemingly.

        Historically the link between DTM and F1 has not been so strong, so for me it is not particularly interesting to ask why F1 drivers tend not to be so competitive in it. But if you ask me for an answer it’s this: because most F1 drivers that join DTM do so when they have already had a substantial career and their talent is on the wane. I don’t think any drivers move from Indy Car to F1 because their career is winding down. But I think some drivers move from F1 to DTM with the intention of winding down.

        • Whoops, I messed up my writing of this comment a bit. The first paragraph should read:

          Goofy, the point of my article was to ask why there is a trend away from F1 teams hiring Indy Car drivers. As Keith’s brilliant series outlined, there have been almost 100 drivers who have raced in both, including four drivers who have won Championships in both. But only a small handful have made the transition from Indy Car to F1 in recent years. My aim is to ask why there has been a change, especially as there is no sign of an improvement on this front.

          • Williams 4ever said on 4th August 2009, 13:25

            Sometimes even big teams only have the time and resources to have enough ready for one driver.

            This doesn’t necessarily mean lack of talent,it only means lack of opportunity in F1 because of limited number of seats.And if you have seen in past decade how many drivers without any connections to right people have made it to F1?

            The driver on whose recent ejection from F1 this article was written,if he had agreed to have Flavio as his manager (along with team principle of Renault), Sebass would have got F1 ticket immediately after his F3000 success. Most of the drivers who decided to make career in the US didn’t do out of choice, They honed their skills in Junior Formulae and beating their competitors didn’t necessarily convert into offer from F1. So they had to make a choice and went to other series rather than waiting for the call that may or may not have come.

            Irony is case some drivers who made it to F1 were not necessarily setting the Junior formulae on Fire, but found RIGHT MANAGER and RIGHT PR which proved useful in getting good publicity.

            Classic Example is Jenson Button, He wasn’t exactly setting the world records in Junior Formulae. His fame to glory was 2nd position in Macau behind Darren Manning But the Right PR (and assistance from Brit Press) got him “Driver with Smooth driving style” title and that has seen him through so far. When the car sucks, and his team-mates are scoring better, his PR has ensured that his reputation stays intact.
            In BAR years the car was always designed to his needs making Sato look like fool. The History is repeating with this years Brawn and 2007-08 the car was still being built taking Jense’s needs in mind.

            Its time for you to follow up with article on “Honest Evaluation” of current breed in F1.

          • Williams 4ever said on 4th August 2009, 13:32

            But only a small handful have made the transition from Indy Car to F1 in recent years.

            This doesn’t necessarily mean lack of talent,it only means lack of opportunity in F1 because of limited number of seats.And if you have seen in past decade how many drivers without any connections to right people have made it to F1?

            The driver (Sebass) on whose recent ejection from F1 this article was written,if he had agreed to have Flavio as his manager (along with team principle of Renault), Sebass would have got F1 ticket immediately after his F3000 success.

            Most of the drivers who decided to make career in the US didn’t do out of choice, They honed their skills in Junior Formulae and beating their competitors didn’t necessarily convert into offer from F1. So they had to make a choice and went to other series rather than waiting for the call that may or may not have come.

            Irony is case some drivers who made it to F1 were not necessarily setting the Junior formulae on Fire, but found RIGHT MANAGER and RIGHT PR which proved useful in getting good publicity.

            Classic Example is Jenson Button, He wasn’t exactly setting the world records in Junior Formulae. His fame to glory was 2nd position in Macau behind Darren Manning But the Right PR (and assistance from Brit Press) got him “Driver with Smooth driving style” title and that has seen him through so far. When the car sucks, and his team-mates are scoring better, his PR has ensured that his reputation stays intact.

            And Point to Note is through his entire tenure with BAR-HONDA-BRAWN Car has been designed around his needs and not his Team-mates.

            In BAR years the car was always designed to his needs making Sato look like fool. The History is repeating with this years Brawn and 2007-08 the car was still being built taking Jense’s needs in mind.

            Its time for you to follow up with article on “Honest Evaluation” of current breed in F1.

  3. Alex 3 said on 3rd August 2009, 23:34

    With the exception of Micheal Andretti I tend to disagree with this judgment of IRL/Champ Car drivers not cutting it in F1.
    JPM did well but I do not see anything that suggests that the car was the pits and remains so to this day albeit it seems to have some improvement this season but it is far off the race pace of others.
    The same can be said today of other cars.
    STR is well behind the curve and changing drivers will not affect that until the car is better.
    Piquet has been dumped by Renault with no IRL/Champ Car experience. His is all Europe, F3 GP2 etc. Even Alonzo with his years (vs 1. seasons)sees the current car as being the pits.
    LH had a good car in 2007 and wasted his championship efforts on two occassions the most notable China. He has no IRL experience either. In 2008 he had a great car and won only in the closing laps of the last race. This year he sucked badly until Hungary.
    Bourdais has equally suffered from a lack of quality in the car this year but as I recall in 2008 when the car was dialed in somewhat more that STR can usually do he did well until either the car let him down or someone else in a Toyota took him out.
    De Matta? Same issue. Lousy car after his first year.
    Andretti? The McLaren was not up to snuff either but I do not feel MA was committed to F1. You cannot fly over on Wednesday, practice or test Thursday and Friday, qualify and race only to jump on a plane and fly back to the US. It lacks commitment to the team and the people in the factory, limits the time in the car and obviously affects your mental and physical strength so it was not a surprise he failed miserably.
    My understanding was Speed did a lot of the same.
    F1 is a team/package sport. The best driver cannot make a lousy car competitive week in week out. A good car in the hands of any good driver will produce results.
    Before the teams start blaming the drivers like Piquet, Bourdais, De Matta, JPM etc et al they need to ask “did we give them the best car out there and still they failed or did we give them a mediocre car with which they did their best based on their level of experience?.
    And while I am at it JV as I recall drove every race in a car that was marginally competitive and like everyother champion finished at least 1 point ahead of his rivals of the day in the championship. He also committed to the sport unlike a lot of drivers including putting up his own money for BAR and Honda did nothing with that team either with Button and Rubens. He was as worthy and deserving of his championship as anyone. I only wish he had stayed with front running team. He would have won more championships had he done so.

  4. Alex 3 said on 3rd August 2009, 23:47

    Another reflection.
    Last Saturday at Kentucky Speedway the IRL event was amazing. For most of the last 80 of 200 laps it was wheel to wheel at 215 MPH at the front, at 3rd and 4th and at time all the way back to 7th and 8th. The margin at the checker was about 3 ft.
    Yes this was an oval but it has been a helluva long time since I have seen this kind of driving sustained at any F1 venue lap after lap after lap. There is skill here that may be different but skill never the less.
    When teams give these drivers a competitive car they will win. JPM is living proof. He won in CART, he has won in F1 and he has won and is closer to the big prize on NASCAR than most who have been there for years.
    I suspect given a chance to drive a Red Bull or even the revamped McLaren he would make things happen.
    Good drivers can make for good results only if the team and the package are there.

  5. Steve K said on 4th August 2009, 3:10

    Montoya is currently demonstrating that he is one of the top racers in the world. That’s not to say he is the best, but most drivers don’t leave show the variety others have. He is the modern day AJ Foyt or Mario Andretti. CART, F1, Grand Am, and NASCAR. Kings to Juan.

  6. verasaki said on 4th August 2009, 3:53

    News to me that Indy drivers were ever “in fashion” in F1.

    Kudos to Duncan, though this is a difficult piece to tackle because really, you’d have to go into the details of every driver and what the individual circumstances were, because that’s what it boils down to, not that Indy drivers just aren’t as good as F1 drivers. I mean why didn’t Nelson Piquet succeed in Indy when Fittipaldi did? Would he have if he hadn’t shattered his legs at Indy?

    I think maybe the writer got bogged down and tried to make this a comparison piece starting in the middle of the history (at one time Indy was part of the F1 championship as well as a race in it’s own right, so F1 and Indy drivers were racing side by side,I believe-I could be wrong but how fun is that?!) instead of just tackling “why the heck do Indy drivers not succeed in F1 in the last decade or so”. This seems to start with the JV era which would be okay but there is an allusion to Indy car drivers “no longer being up to scratch for F1″. That sort of makes it sound like they were jumping to F1 in droves all along, which is not true. There is a history of Indy drivers and F1 drivers making the switch but, it has never been quite as regular a feat as implied.

    And I have to disagree, JV’s first two years were pretty decent. The wheel fell off in Japan (punishable by death these days, apparently) which was not actually his fault. Montoya had a good start-his pass on Schumi in Brazil is one of my favourites to this day. He probably should have done better but really, Williams dominance was on the wane by that time. His stint at McLaren- well, I still have questions about that and a few theories I’ll keep mum about. Michael Andretti is not even mentioned and there is a lot more there than just him being crap, alot of it his own doing but not all. Personally, I think Unser Jr. would have fared a bit better,(not much) but he was too smart to go for the deal being offered. Zanardi-well, he just had to give it another shot and he was certainly the most honest F1 driver to ever grace the sport-he just ‘fessed up to being under par in the new cars. He could not get a handle on left foot braking. The Champ Cars were heavier and braked entirely different than the F1 cars-which had evolved quite a bit since he’d last driven one. The fact that after his return to CART he was well on the way to being back on form by the Portland race and winning by the time he crashed in Germany should tell you he wasn’t exactly past his sell by.

    I grant you, I can’t name a single Indy driver now who could or should make the transition (though I admit to a perverse desire to see the sweetheart of the rodeo get a clue about herself)but you really can not view Indy as being the same series that emerged in the ’90′s. I can barely watch it for any length of time. However, as F1 gaggles about with who’s in charge, who’s on page 1 of the tabloids and what the rules are and what the configuration is and on and on, I can see a possibiity that the two series might be edging closer to each other. Especially if F1 doesn’t stop dithering about what path it’s going to take to what future it can’t decide about.

    • Gman said on 4th August 2009, 5:35

      Back when the Indy 500 was part of the F1 Championship, I don’t think many- indeed, if any- F1 drivers or teams made the trip to race in the event.

  7. Gman said on 4th August 2009, 5:45

    Well, we all poured in a slew of diverse opinions on this one, diden’t we?

    As a fellow guest writer, I will come to Duncan’s defense on the fact that he was trying to cover one key issue- drivers making the jump from Indycar/IRL/Champ car to F1- and that blew up into a range of related debates. I don’t think he has any bias towards American-based racing, but he rightly dose point out that few IndyCar Drivers have been making the switch to F1. To me, it looks like the majority of IndyCar drivers are more than happy to be in that series and have little to no interest in taking on F1. We’ll se eif any of the young Americans- Andretti, Rahal, Hunter-Reay- take a chance with USF1, but most of the others seem happy to be over here.

    The one thing I disagree a bit with is Duncan’s opinion on Montoya. Sure, he got out-performed by Ralf and never won the title, but he’s still a top-tier driver in my books. He was a champion in Europe, a champion and Indy 500 winner over here, and then was far more successful in F1 than many others who try. Now he’s finally starting to make a charge in NASCAR…to me, that shows raw racing talent.

    Good article Duncan..you know you’re writing something good when you’ve got debate and chatter going on. Otherwise, they woulden’t bother to offer the coments ;)

    • Thanks Gman. It’s the best way. I’m not here to tell anyone what they expect to hear – there’s no point in that. I like to save my more thought-provoking articles for F1F rather than my own blog. Normally there is a big debate on my articles here, which I’m happy about. :)

  8. Ever since the split, US drivers only adapted just on
    ovals. It is a huge discrimintation towards US drivers
    when the split occured. And despite the reunification,
    we still see only 5-7 US drivers on the grid. And even
    in Indy Lights, only 4 or 5 are in the grid.

    The possible US hopeful from Indy Car who can run a
    USF1 car would be JR Hildebrand. Everyone has shun
    him since USF1 announced their 2010 entry. His name
    was never mention. Everyone think it will be Jonathan
    Summerton, Scott Speed, Danica Patrick, Kyle Busch,
    Ryan Hunter-Reay among current drivers. But JR
    should be on that list.

    • Gman said on 5th August 2009, 5:56

      JLS, I have in fact heard JR mentioned by a few sources for the USF1 seat. I know he drove the last few A1GP races for Team USA this year when Marco was unavailable. If I am correct, he’s still young and coming up, so many people who were mentioning those drivers may not yet have heard of him. For sure he’ll be a talent to watch in the very near future.

  9. Pertudit said on 11th August 2009, 19:40

    Methinks you have the title wrong. Shouldn’t it be….

    “Sebastien Bourdais’ troubles show why drivers shouldn’t go from a top team of one series to the dungheap of another”

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