By Christopher DeHarde, Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG — Two-time defending race winner and St. Petersburg resident Sebastien Bourdais left Friday’s practice for the opening round of the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season with a bit of frustration ahead of Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
The Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser/Sullivan driver was 11th in the first Friday practice session and 18th in the second practice session and the No. 18 Sealmaster Honda was not handling the way Bourdais wanted it to.
“We know what’s not working, we just don’t know how to fix it,” said Bourdais. “We’re running out of ideas, I think there’s a bit to do with me and the fact that I can’t really handle a very oversteer-y car and unfortunately every time we try to find front grip we have to make the car worse at the back, not really improve the front but just destroy the back of the car and that’s not working for me.
“We tried a couple of different concepts and we’re just not going anywhere with it so we’re just going to have to go back and see what we decide to do but it’s just frustrating. All I need is just the front grip that I’m looking for in the middle of the corners and unfortunately we can’t get that without creating worse enemies so it’s tough.”
Bourdais’s skill around street circuits is well known with over a dozen wins on street and airport circuits during his time in CART, Champ Car and the NTT IndyCar Series. What may not be well known is that the teams have little time to correct setup deficiencies that they have from testing.
“We’re really stuck with what we have, I mean unfortunately you only get three days of testing plus two days at COTA,” said Bourdais.” We did two days at Sebring which is really difficult to pinpoint how it’s going to translate here. It’s difficult to correlate both so we tried but we failed, that’s pretty clear and then Laguna Seca was an aborted day.”
Bourdais’s engineer Craig Hampson has a lot of experience winning with Sebastien dating back to the days at Newman/Haas Racing in the mid-2000s and has been with Sebastien for the last couple of years after spending time at Andretti Autosport. With Bourdais’s win at St. Petersburg in 2017, that came with the older manufacturer aero kits. Last year, Bourdais’s win came after a couple of front runners got together but that was with a newer universal aero kit that performs very differently than the old kit did.
“The back end is not as secure as it was with the manufacturer aero kits,” said Hampson. “It’s very sensitive to movements at the rear and in particular that really has bothered Sebastien kind of since we first drove the car. If I had to actually pick one kind of track that we struggled at the most last year, it would be the street courses so it’s ironic that we did win St. Pete as a street course. But you know if you look at our performance in Detroit, our performance in Toronto we weren’t very shiny at all.”
With St. Petersburg there are a variety of corners to get the car set up for. Having a good car for the last corner means that you won’t get passed down the main straight but that if you’re near another car, your car might be the one doing the passing.
“There’s a lot of compromises going on,” said Hampson. “You know, all street courses, you definitely want to be able to brake. You want to be able to put the power down. I suppose you could argue that understeer isn’t usually as critical, but like I said, with that long corner leading onto the main straight, we do need to focus on it more than than might be normal if it was all 90 degree corners, like city block kind of corners.”
Bourdais and Hampson will have a mountain to climb to get into the second round of qualifying if the handling isn’t fixed but if anyone can win from the back, it’s the Frenchman.