First turn, no more first place for Sebastien Bourdais.
Although he entered Saturday night’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix atop the Verizon IndyCar Series points standings, lingering concerns about an inability to maintain a consistently quick race pace had Bourdais convinced he would be supplanted from the top spot.
That it occurred on the first lap had the Frenchman fuming.
Bourdais’ No. 18 Sonny’s BBQ Dale Coyne Racing Honda was among five cars eliminated when Mikhail Aleshin spun in the No. 7 SMP Racing Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda.
“I knew we were not going to get out of here with the championship lead,” Bourdais said after the incident, briskly walking away from the medical center after being cleared. “I didn’t know it was going to be definite after Turn 1.”
Bourdais finished 19th out of 21 cars to fall to fourth in the point standings after the fourth of 17 Verizon IndyCar Series races this year. Defending series champion Simon Pagenaud of Team Penske won the 250-lap race and reclaimed first place. Four-time series champion Scott Dixon of Chip Ganassi Racing and Josef Newgarden of Team Penske stayed second and third, respectively.
“I don’t know. Mikhail lost the car and junked us all and that was that,” Bourdais said. “It’s dumb. When you go in there like that, you’d like to think that people would keep a little margin at something, but some don’t.”
Space got tight in a hurry as cars bunched up and tried to avoid each other on Phoenix Raceway’s 1.022-mile oval.
“I just felt the rear of the car just suddenly went,” said Aleshin, who finished 17th. “I couldn’t do anything at that time. I don’t know what was the reason for that. Maybe the tires were not warm enough or something else.”
On the day before the race, Bourdais spoke of how his team has exceeded expectations with a season-opening win in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg that was aided by a timely caution flag. He also considered himself fortunate after effectively saving fuel to finish second in the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.
Despite not having his weekend go as expected in the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, he still finished eighth April 23. Bourdais conceded he had been lucky so far.
“Sometimes results and points and potential are not an indication,” he said before qualifying 10th at Phoenix. “Right now, it feels that way. We got a lot of things going our way and I’m soaking it in and enjoying it.
“There’s nothing wrong with having a little bit of luck, but it ain’t gonna carry us through the championship.”
His words couldn’t have been more prophetic.
Bourdais, 38, has won four Indy car titles and his 36 career race victories rank sixth on the all-time list. As much as he likes being among the leaders, he's realistic because he knows what it takes to be one of the best. His four series titles were in CART from 2004-07. His top points finish in the Verizon IndyCar Series was 10th in 2014 and 2015 with KV Racing Technology.
“The pace hasn’t been exactly where I was hoping to be,” he said. “We’d like to be a legit top-five pace setter and I have not been able to give that to the team. We haven’t found the combination we’ve been looking for. St. Pete was pretty much the only exemption to that. We definitely had a legit top-five car and ended up winning after a nightmarish Saturday.
“Long Beach was tough. We qualified 12th and didn’t really have much for anything. On race pace, saving fuel, I think we were pretty good. But still, we benefited from some helpful circumstances with some buys bailing out on the two-stop strategy. The first two races had really gone our way then Barber, we didn’t have it the entire weekend. In qualifying, we struggled. We tried something and it didn’t work.”
He paused and reiterated the bottom line.
“Pace-wise, we’re not where we need to be,” Bourdais said.
To add insult to injury from Saturday’s first-lap crash, Bourdais’ car was damaged enough that it could not be repaired in time for today’s open test at Gateway Motorsports Park outside St. Louis. The Dale Coyne Racing team’s plan is for Bourdais and teammate Ed Jones to share time in Jones’ No. 19 Boy Scouts of America Honda.
After that, the series shifts to Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the road course May 13 and the 101st Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil on the 2.5-mile oval on May 28.
“Hopefully we can elevate our game,” he said, “and come out of this season stronger than we entered it.”
Today’s testing from Gateway Motorsports Park will stream live on RaceControl.IndyCar.com. The on-track schedule is as follows: Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires from 11:45 a.m.-12:45 p.m. ET; Verizon IndyCar Series from 1-4 p.m.; Indy Lights from 4:15-5:15 p.m.; and Verizon IndyCar Series from 5:30-8:30 p.m.