As expected Sebastien Bourdais was confirmed this week as Scuderia Toro Rosso’s second driver for 2008.
Bourdais deserves to get his chance in Formula One having gradually built up a formidable racing pedigree. He has won the Champ Car World Series three times in a row and is well on his way towards a fourth title. He previously won the Formula 3000 Championship (now GP2) and has driven to second place at Le Mans. Bourdais is a man who knows his way around a racing car.
The question everybody wants answered though is will he be any good in Formula One?
History indicates that he won’t find it easy.
There are several drivers who have had great success in both Formula One and Champ Car, but they have done so after leaving Grand Prix racing behind. Jacques Villeneuve is the only man to have used the American system as a stepping stone to Formula One glory. No other driver in Grand Prix history has won the F1 World Championship after taking victory in the American equivalent.
Along with Villeneuve, four other drivers have won Champ Car titles before launching careers in Formula One. Three of them were sacked mid contract for underperforming.
In fact only three drivers have taken a Grand Prix victory after winning the Champ Car title – Nigel Mansell, Jacques Villeneuve, and Juan Pablo Montoya. Even then you have to consider that Mansell was barely an F1 rookie when he took victory at Adelaide in 1994.
The two most disastourous attempts to jump the pond came from Michael Andretti and Alex Zanardi.
Andretti came up against Ayrton Senna at McLaren in 1993 and although the Brazilian was keen to help his rookie team-mate, he utterly thrashed Andretti on the track. It was difficult for Michael because Senna would have trounced anyone but Andretti didn’t help himself with some poorly timed mistakes. He failed to complete a single racing lap in his first three Grands Prix and was replaced mid-season by Mika Hakkinen.
When Zanardi joined Williams six years later it was his second crack at Formula One having previously raced for Lotus, Jordan and Minardi. It was possibly the most difficult time for a driver to switch from Champ Car to F1 because the machinery was incredibly different. The Formula One cars cornered much faster but were extremely difficult to drive. It was only the second year that F1 teams had dealt with grooved tyres and everyone was struggling to find grip. Zanardi had become used to ground effect aerodynamics and slicks so the switch for him was monumental.
He was also unlucky to be doing it with a winning team that was on the decline, making his efforts appear worse than they really were. He struggled throughout the entire season and although there were a few flashes of speed towards the end of 1999, Williams terminated his contract a year early.
Switching to Formula One will be much easier for Bourdais than it was for Zanardi. F1 tyres are now far grippier and the cars also have traction control. Not only that, but Champ Cars are no longer built to race on ovals so their cornering speeds are much closer to that of Formula One. Both series raced at the Circuit De Gilles Villeneuve in 2006 and the Champ Car was only a second slower than the Super Aguris.
Bourdais will never have the same acclimatisation problems as Zanardi but his situation is significantly different. Perhaps the best comparison to Bourdais is Cristiano Da Matta.
Just like Bourdais, Da Matta joined a midfield F1 team after winning the Champ Car title in 2002. He drove in 28 races for Toyota but sadly never looked the part. During practice for his first race at Melbourne in 2003 Da Matta was braking so early that he had to get back on the throttle before the corners. It was a sign he was not up to speed and he rarely impressed throughout his spell in Formula One. Cristiano’s best results were a trio of sixth places in races dominated by attrition.
Partway through the 2004 season Da Matta was dropped by Toyota. Ricardo Zonta and Jarno Trulli joined the team and Toyota’s performance improved noticeably. Da Matta had been holding the team back and although he was never going to set the world alight in a Toyota, his results were disappointing.
Andretti and Zanardi could argue they failed in Formula One due to timing and circumstance, but Cristiano Da Matta does not have that luxury. He simply wasn’t good enough. Da Matta’s poor results ruined Champ Car’s reputation in Europe and have since made it very difficult for drivers in America to break into Formula One.
In reality Bourdais is only getting his chance at Toro Rosso because of the success he had racing in Europe. He won the 2002 Formula 3000 Championship against seven other drivers that eventually made it into Formula One. He also took victories in the French Formula Three and Formula Renault Championships.
A healthy background in European racing is crucial because the competition is not as strong anywhere else in the world. It is unlikely Bourdais would have earned a Formula One drive on the strength of his Champ Car efforts alone.
The deterioration American open wheel racing is a real tragedy. It used to feature legends of the sport such as Emerson Fittipaldi, Mario Andretti, Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet. The CART Championship attracted some great drivers and it was a genuine stepping stone towards Formula One.
However it was destroyed by the unforgivable IRL split in 1994. Indianapolis Motor Speedway boss, Tony George, started his own series because he didn’t like the fact that CART was becoming too expensive and was being won by foreign drivers. He subsequently created the Indy Racing League and American motorsport has never been the same. Champ Car lost popularity whilst it competed with the IRL for market share and the top racing talent eventually followed the money to NASCAR.
If Bourdais doesn’t perform admirably in 2008 it will be even more bad news for the Champ Car Series as it battles to regain credibility. It will be a crushing blow if their shining star is not good enough to compete at the sports highest level. Bourdais isn’t just racing in Formula One for himself but for the whole Champ Car Series. If he doesn’t deliver the goods it will be a very long time before someone gets to make the switch again.
Working against Sebastien is that he is joining Scuderia Toro Rosso, a team that has recently proven to be unforgiving towards its drivers. Not only may Bourdais find the team environment uncomfortable but he will be up against the highly rated Sebastian Vettel. The young German will be no pushover and he is already gaining experience in the car this year having replaced Scott Speed. By the time Bourdais finally steps into his 2008 challenger, Vettel will have a six month head start.
If Bourdais wants to win in Formula One he needs to join a bigger team than Toro Rosso and if he wants to do that he needs to do something pretty special next year. There is an enormous depth of talent in Grand Prix racing at the moment so a coveted ride with a winning team will only materialise if Bourdais totally annihilates Vettel. He will also have to take advantage of every rain shower, every first corner crash, and every safety car period to earn any decent results in uncompetitive machinery. It will be extremely hard for Bourdais to prove his worth with Scuderia Toro Rosso.
Time may also be against him. Alonso is two years younger than Bourdais and is already a double world champion with 18 grand prix victories. Whilst it may be unfair comparing Bourdais to the youngest ever world champion, it suggests that Sebastien wont emulate Alonso’s results and that he can’t take his time trying.
So will Bourdais be good enough?
Of course he will be. He has taken victories in almost every car he has driven including the IROC, FIA GT and American Le Mans Championships. At this weekend’s Champ Car race he took pole position by a whopping one and a half seconds, and he did so at one of the toughest circuits on the calendar.
Bourdais’ talent and speed will probably not translate into Grand Prix wins but he will certainly be quick and he is a very welcome addition to the Formula One World Championship.