OK, everyone raise your hand if you predicted that Dale Coyne Racing driver Sebastien Bourdais would be the Verizon IndyCar Series points leader three races into the 2017 season.
Although the four-time Indy car champion saw his margin cut from 19 to six points following an eighth-place finish in the Honda Grand Prix of Alabama presented by America’s First at Barber Motorsport Park, the fact that he's still atop the championship standings clearly demonstrates that even small teams can prosper in the Verizon IndyCar Series.
Even on an admittedly bad day, Bourdais took home a top-10 finish to hold onto the points lead.
“We didn't have a great weekend at all,” said the No. 18 Sonny's BBQ Honda driver, who won the 2017 season opener on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida, in March.
“Performance-wise, we were average the whole time and I was very unhappy with the car, so to salvage a top 10 and P8 like that in circumstances where there really wasn't much going on, you have to feel pretty good about it.”
Essentially, Bourdais' success so far in 2017 would be akin to a mid-field Formula One team winning a race and its driver leading points standings, something that rarely happens. In fact, you'd have to go back four years to find a winner not from the big three — Ferrari Mercedes and Red Bull — when Kimi Raikkonen won the season opener for Lotus. In that same period, 20 Verizon IndyCar Series races have been won by drivers not from its perennial championship contenders: Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport.
That simple reality is why INDYCAR remains an attractive venue for drivers who want to test their mettle against some of the best talents the world has to offer and have real opportunity to take a checkered flag or two, even driving for a smaller team.
“I think the interest here for drivers is that you have equal equipment,” said No. 9 NTT Data Honda driver Scott Dixon, a four-time Verizon IndyCar Series champion for Chip Ganassi Racing.
“Right now in Formula One, unless you're with one or two teams, you don't really have a shot. If you're a driver and come here, you have a great shot at winning. And the equipment is very equal.”
Dixon is second in the championship with 111 points. Team Penske driver Josef Newgarden moved into third on the strength of his win Sunday at Barber.
Hammering home the point that the Verizon IndyCar Series remains hugely competitive is the fact that smaller teams have taken two wins already this year. No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Honda driver James Hinchcliffe took the victory two weeks ago in Long Beach following Bourdais' victory in Florida. Hinchcliffe is fifth overall in points after a sixth-place finish in Sunday’s race.
The close racing is one of the reasons double F1 world champion Fernando Alonso will join Andretti Autosport in the 101st Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.
There's no doubt that jumping from his McLaren Honda to an INDYCAR on a 2.5-mile oval like Indianapolis Motor Speedway will pose a huge challenge for Alonso, but he also knows that, unlike in F1, he'll start the race in equipment with as good a chance as any to win the race. That wouldn't be the case driving his McLaren in the Monaco Grand Prix on the same day.
“It's our (McLaren's) best chance to score big points, but I won Monaco a couple of times and I have been competitive there,” Alonso said during his first Verizon IndyCar series weekend as an observer in the Andretti pit at Barber.
“A third place or a fourth place in Monaco will not compare to the experience of an Indy, so there's a lot to win and not much to lose.”
That's the beauty of the Verizon IndyCar Series, where there's no reason to believe that drivers like Hinchcliffe, Bourdais and others from smaller teams can't keep competing with the bigger teams as the season continues and stay in the title fight.
“The Verizon IndyCar Series is just really competitive and it's super close and we will take anything that comes our way,” Bourdais said.
“We will give it our best and see what happens.”