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Sebastien Bourdais hopes another fast start at St. Pete can last

ST. PETERSBURG, Florida – At 40 years old, Sebastien Bourdais still has the competitive fire and desire that he did 16 years ago when he was about to become a Champ Cars Series legend.

He remains the only driver to win four straight championships (2004-2007), but that came in an era when American Open Wheel Racing was split into two rival factions – the IndyCar Racing League and the Champ Car Series.

In 2019, the NTT IndyCar Series may be as deep as it has ever been in the history of this form of racing. There remains “The Big Teams” that feature the stars of the sport such as Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport, but there are many other teams deep in the field that are highly competitive and can win.

One of those is Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser and Sullivan and the No. 18 entry driven by Bourdais, who was born in Le Mans, France, but has lived in St. Petersburg, Florida since 2003.

Since returning to the team in 2017, Bourdais has won the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg two years in a row, catapulting himself into the early season points lead.

In 2017, he followed up his St. Pete victory with a second-place finish at Long Beach and an eighth-place at Barber Motorsports Park in Leeds, Alabama. That gave Bourdais the championship lead heading into Phoenix for a late April race.

Bourdais had returned to prominence and was a legitimate threat for the 101stIndianapolis 500. But that dream ended in a thunderous crash in the Turn 2 wall on the second lap of his first qualification attempt on May 20, 2017. Onboard telemetry showed Bourdais was at 97 percent throttle and was traveling 227 mph at the time of his impact into the SAFER Barrier.

He sustained multiple fractures to his pelvis and a fractured right hip.

Bourdais made an impressive recovery and was back in the No. 18 Honda for the remaining three races of the 2017 season.

Determined to continue the promise of 2017 that got derailed with the violent crash, Bourdais placed himself in position to capitalize when the top two cars ran into each other entering Turn 1 on the final restart of the St. Pete race with two laps remaining. Rookie Robert Wickens was the leader and fierce, aggressive Alexander Rossi was second when the two essentially took each other out of contention for the win.

Bourdais rallied to win the race for his second straight hometown victory.

Unlike 2017, however, Bourdais’ time at the top of the standings didn’t last long. A pair of 13th-place finishes at Phoenix and Long Beach dropped him to fourth in the standings. He finished fifth at Barber and fourth in the IndyCar Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to climb to third in the standings.

What followed was a three-race stretch that doomed his championship. He was 28thin the 102ndIndianapolis 500 – taking a big hit because it was a double-points race. He finished 13thand 21st in the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix doubleheader and entered the summer months ninth in points.

He eventually would finish seventh in the 2018 championship.

“There was a tough stretch from the 500 to Detroit to Texas, and that is not where we wanted to be,” Bourdais told NBC from the St. Pete race course on Wednesday. “We had a near-DNF at Road America, but we came back and finished 13thwhen we should have been on the podium.

“Just little things, but that is what it is all about. It’s that competitive that as soon as you have a misstep, you go back real fast.”

Bourdais is determined to get off to a fast start in Sunday’s NTT IndyCar Series season opener – the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. The challenge this year, is to keep that momentum going for the rest of the season and hopefully challenge the major teams in the series for the 2019 title.

“It’s hard because you are competing against really well-sorted organizations that have multiple cars and a lot of input and a lot of engineers,” Bourdais said. “There are just a few of us trying to come up with the solutions. Sometimes, we just run dry with ideas or run out of time.

“Hopefully, we’ll see more of the same – some good things, some strong showings and minimize the impact of the not-so-strong showings. It’s so competitive in the NTT IndyCar Series, you really need a super-strong group and a driver that doesn’t make mistakes. And I’ve made my share of mistakes last year.

“I need to clean up my game a little bit. We were best of the rest last year and hopefully, we can up that by a few positions.”

To win in his hometown is huge to Bourdais, who started his first career Champ Car Series race in the 2003 St. Pete Grand Prix.

That was big for many reasons because Bourdais had found a series where he would ultimately shine and a hometown, all in the same weekend.

“I came over the Sunshine Skyway Bridge after spending a couple of months in Miami with Bruno Junqueira, and we fell in love with the place,” Bourdais told NBC Sports. “The whole area, the bay, was quite impressive. And it was destiny because my wife, Claire, got a full scholarship to study at the University of South Florida in Tampa. We established camp in Tampa Bay.

“As soon as we graduated, we found a house in St. Pete, and we have never looked back.”

Looking back at Bourdais’ past two seasons in IndyCar could be a case of, “Oh, what might have been?”

Had it not been for the injuries he suffered in the crash at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2017, who knows what would have happened? Bourdais believes that was the best car he had ever had for the Indianapolis 500, but instead of racing in it, he was a spectator as he recovered from his injuries.

“My start in 2017 from a performance standpoint was better than last year,” Bourdais said. “(Race engineer) Craig Hampson came with a lot of knowledge on the Honda aero kit, and we put it to good use. We had a bullet at the Indianapolis 500, but we ended up colliding with the wall.

“I think 2017 was strong as far as preparation and level of understanding. The level of resources we had with the 2018 aero kit wasn’t really helping, but we still managed to pull through with some solid showing.

“We aren’t going to get it right every weekend, but I think we can surprise and be at the sharp end of the field quite a few times this year.”

Bourdais and his team get a fresh start Sunday in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. He remains confident that his racing is as good as it has ever been, and that’s saying something considering his four straight Champ Car Series titles.

“Hopefully, we’ve found some good gains over the winter,” Bourdais said. “We’ll find out very soon, as soon as we hit the track.

“It doesn’t get any easier, though. The drivers and teams and cars in IndyCar have never been higher. That is why it is so rewarding to get it right because you know you have beat a lot of really good combinations. We do it with really good people and limited resources, so that makes it even more special.

“We have a chance every weekend, and that is why we race. We can do some pretty amazing things this year. I’m so fortunate to be 40 years old and as competitive as ever and still be in good health. I sure hope the hard work is going to pay off.”