On Sunday March 12th 2017 Sebastien Bourdais went for a Sunday drive in his adopted American hometown, but it was far from leisurely. The Frenchman charged from last to first to win the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, the opening race on the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series schedule.
Bourdais piloted his No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda to a 10.3508-second victory over countryman Simon Pagenaud in the 110-lap race on the 1.8-mile temporary street circuit to secure the 36th victory of his illustrious Indy car career. It moved the 38-year-old Bourdais past Bobby Unser into sole possession of sixth place on the all-time win list.
"It's probably the hardest race to recover, the (pit) windows are really narrow and it's really hard to pass," said Bourdais, whose Indy car career began 14 years ago at the inaugural St. Petersburg race.
Bourdais moved to St. Petersburg permanently more than a decade ago and rejoined Coyne's team this season after leaving it six years ago.
"It's putting the band back together and hopefully we'll have many more days like this," he said.
After crashing his car in the first round of qualifying Saturday, Bourdais started today's race at the rear of the 21-car field. He had advanced to ninth place when the second and last full-course caution flag waved on Lap 26. When seven cars in front of Bourdais made pit stops under the yellow, Bourdais seized the advantage. He passed reigning Verizon IndyCar Series champion Pagenaud for first place on Lap 37 and led 69 of the last 84 laps.
"Honestly, I'm a little speechless," said Bourdais, the four-time Indy car champion who now has led 2,526 laps in his career, good for 22nd place all-time. "We had a miserable day yesterday (in qualifying) and that was all me, and today we turned it into a great day. Once you're in the lead here, it's awful difficult to lose it unless you throw it away, so I sure tried not to do that again."
Pagenaud finished runner-up at St. Petersburg for the second consecutive year. The Team Penske driver of the No. 1 PPG Automotive Refinish Chevrolet used the 2016 St. Pete result as a launching pad to his first series championship.
"At the end (of the race), I pushed really, really hard at the beginning of the stint on the (Firestone alternate) red tires to try to come back and get (Bourdais) on the pit sequence," Pagenaud said. "And I pushed so hard that actually the tires dropped off really quickly afterwards and I couldn't keep up toward the end of the stint.
"I'm very happy that we finished second, which is where we finished last year, so hopefully that's good luck."
2008 Indy 500 winner and four time series champ Scott Dixon placed third in the No. 9 GE LED Lighting Honda, marking the 90th time the Chip Ganassi Racing driver has finished in the top three and tying the New Zealander with Helio Castroneves for sixth on the all-time podium chart.
Andretti Autosport teammates Ryan Hunter-Reay and Takuma Sato finished fourth and fifth, respectively, giving Honda four of the top five finishers. Bourdais' win is the first for Honda on a temporary street circuit since the manufacturer swept the Houston doubleheader in June 2014, also the last time Dale Coyne Racing won a race.
The next stop on the 17-race Verizon IndyCar Series schedule is the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach the weekend of April 7-9 on another street circuit before the teams then hit the permanent race circuits and the ovals.
Media quotes from Indy Car media and photo from the David Turner collection of Bourdais at the driver intros at the 100th running of the Indy 500.