Can Bourdais and Coyne beat IndyCar’s ‘Big Three’ in 2019?

We all know Sebastien Bourdais can boost an IndyCar team to victory lane, and Dale Coyne Racing has surrounded him with top engineering talent. But will that be enough to beat the Ganassi, Penske and Andretti teams over the long haul? David Malsher investigates.

Can Bourdais and Coyne beat IndyCar’s ‘Big Three’ in 2019?

Sebastien Bourdais was in relaxed mood in Mexico City in 2006. Three weeks earlier, he’d clinched his third straight Champ Car title with Newman Haas Racing at Surfers Paradise in Australia… and he’d managed to escape the track without being pelted by beer cans after bashing crowd favorite and race leader Will Power out of contention. Now, here at Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez, Super Seb was going for his seventh race victory of the season.

As we walked from pitlane to paddock after a practice session, I asked him if, having yet again proven himself Champ Car king with Newman-Haas whether he felt he had nothing left to prove with the best team in the paddock.

“Would you ever be tempted to do what Michael Schumacher did 10 years ago by switching to Ferrari?” I asked. “If you brought a midfield team like PKV or HVM to the front, it would prove you’re the ‘difference-maker’.”

Bourdais gave a shrug, pulled a slightly wincing face.

“I know what you mean but it’s not as simple as that,” he said. “I think I brought something to the table at Newman-’aas but it’s a team effort. It’s about working relationships with people like Craig [Hampson, race engineer], the other engineers, and so on. There’s no guarantees how well I’d work with a different group.

“If a big bunch of us moved from this team to another… yeah, probably we could have similar success. But what’s the point when we’re all together already? We’ve got all we want here – a strong team, decent sponsors, and so on.”

Logical point, but the wheel has turned quite a bit in the dozen years since that conversation. For Bourdais, a remarkable fourth Champ Car title in 2007 with NHR was followed by an unfortunately brief episode in Formula 1 at Toro Rosso, success in Peugeot sportscars, and then he was back in U.S. open-wheel racing in 2011, a part-timer with Dale Coyne Racing.

Yet it was his two seasons with Dragon Racing, 2012-’13, where Bourdais showed his class once more, proved that he truly was that ‘difference-maker’ I’d alluded to those several years earlier. There are very few drivers who could have overachieved for Jay Penske’s squad as Bourdais did – and the same was true of his three years at KV(SH) Racing.

At the latter outfit, Seb formed another strong bond with an excellent engineer, Olivier Boisson, and they won four races together. So when the Kevin Kalkhoven/Jimmy Vasser/James Sullivan-owned team folded at the end of 2016, Dale Coyne found himself able to sign both Bourdais and Boisson… and Hampson. Craig had been working at Andretti Autosport but through the ’16 season was heavily courted by his old champ and chum Bourdais. Enticed by the prospect of working with this circle of talent, Vasser and Sullivan joined forces with Coyne to help back Bourdais’ #18 car.

In their very first race as a trio, at St. Petersburg in 2017, Bourdais, Hampson and Boisson presented Dale with victory. Although the little Plainfield, IL-based squad was then rocked by a series of hammer blows last year – the worst of which was Bourdais’ horrendous shunt at Indianapolis Motor Speedway – it bounced back. At St. Pete again this year, the #18 DCR-Honda returned to Victory Lane.

However, by season’s end, Bourdais was seventh in the championship, beaten by one driver from Chip Ganassi Racing, two from Andretti Autosport and three from Team Penske. Maybe that is, realistically, the best that a Dale Coyne Racing driver can hope for, the equivalent of Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg being ‘best of the rest’ with seventh in this year’s Formula 1 World Championship, behind the Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull drivers.

But how does that equate to the mantra regularly spouted by IndyCar drivers, engineers and team owners ever since the introduction of the spec Dallara DW12 in 2012 – “There are 20 potential winners on any given weekend”? Looking at the time sheets, you’d have to say that such proclamations are indeed based on facts and figures: the gap between pole and seventh on an F1 grid can cover the whole grid in IndyCar, and some F1 fans will also be envious of IndyCar having 14 different podium finishers in 17 races this past season, as opposed to F1’s seven from 21 events. That and the huge cost-savings are the upsides of IndyCar running cars that are spec in all but engine and shock-and-damper programs.

Nonetheless, there is still a gap between IndyCar’s haves and have-less, and the have-less and the have-nots. So will a near-stasis in IndyCar’s technical regulations for 2019 help the smaller teams catch up with the Big Three, or was last year’s aerodynamic reset the best chance for a level playing field? In other words, can Dale Coyne Racing contend for the championship next year? Hampson, Boisson and Michael Cannon – race engineer for the #19 car – weigh in.

Sebastien Bourdais, Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser-Sullivan Honda, crew

Sebastien Bourdais, Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser-Sullivan Honda, crew

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / LAT Images

Hampson on being honest about deficits

“There’s two ways of looking at our [2018] season,” Hampson tells “The first is to wonder where we might have finished in points had we done a better job on street courses. The other way of looking at it is, ‘Hey, we left a lot of points on the table and we still finished seventh.’ So did we overachieve or underachieve? Did the bigger teams underachieve? That’s for you folks in the media to decide.

“Honestly, my competitive nature is disappointed because there were also weekends where we had a good car and we didn’t optimize its result and that’s always frustrating. Fortunately, all the others had weekends like that too – everyone except Scott Dixon, anyway. I’m sure the Ganassi boys would tell you they didn’t always take advantage of all their best days, but they are also phenomenal – better than anyone else – at extracting good results from their bad days.

“But like I say, we sucked at street courses. Sure, our one win did come on a street course, but we got lucky because the two guys ahead [Alexander Rossi and Robert Wickens] took each other out. Our qualifying pace on temporary tracks just wasn’t good enough. So that’s our area of emphasis over the winter, because we all know that Sebastien should not be struggling at street courses. The problem’s not him, it’s us.”

That said, Bourdais likes his cars to have a stable rear end, and the bumps typically found on street surfaces require teams to increase their cars’ ride-height, making the underbody – the source of most downforce from this spec aerokit – far less efficient. Is Seb simply not jelling with the new car’s inherent downforce-light characteristics?

“With street setups you’re on soft springs for bump absorption, while on road courses you’re on stiff springs,” says Hampson, “and we’re terrible on one and strong on the other. I think it’s probably fair to say that if we spring the car softly then Sebastien’s unhappy because of how the aero map varies with ride-height changes, so to that extent, what you say is right.

“But it’s equally fair to point out that this inherent characteristic of the universal aerokit also left James Hinchcliffe unhappy compared with Robert Wickens, and Simon Pagenaud was clearly more bothered than [Will] Power and [Josef] Newgarden.

“That said, I’m not going to hide behind any of that to explain our underperformance on street courses. It’s clear that teams like Andretti Autosport did a better job – even better than Penske, I think. And we can’t just ask Sebastien to drive differently. He’s one of the greatest drivers of his generation and we need to figure out how to improve what we give him. He knows what a good car should feel like on a street course and we haven’t gotten it there.

“Maybe revising our damping concepts can help, but maybe there are other areas where we are missing something and we should be looking more carefully – different suspension geometry, different weight distribution, different differential, that kind of thing. We’ve made a list of where we might look for answers.

“Then we come back to the old problem – with only three test days, no simulator program, and fewer people, how do we catch up? Even knowing what our biggest flaw is in terms of the symptoms, we have to be very, very smart about trying to fix the cause.”

Cannon on why “outside the box” thinking isn’t an option

Sebastien Bourdais, Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser-Sullivan Honda, with new teammate Santino Ferrucci.

Sebastien Bourdais, Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser-Sullivan Honda, with new teammate Santino Ferrucci.

Photo by: Scott R LePage / LAT Images

The debate over whether the introduction of new rules help level a playing field or provide the perfect opportunity for the best teams to show why they’re the best is one that can run and run. But Michael Cannon, who will next year run Santino Ferrucci in the #19 car, emphasizes that the size of a team is not the deciding factor when it comes to performance gains.

He remarks: “There’s so much symbiosis in this industry between, team owner, team manager, drivers, engineers, mechanics, it’s sometimes very easy to go down the wrong hidey-hole when you get a new rules package. We’ve been very fortunate over the past three years in that we’ve had Craig, Sebastien and Olivier, who not only have a chemistry and knowledge-base, but also are so wary of falling down those holes that they avoid them.

“The continuity and chemistry of guys who’ve achieved big things together in the past will always streamline processes and help avoid the pitfalls. So as well as their accomplishments individually, you have this unit that is even greater than the sum of its parts. That’s what Craig, Olivier and Sebastien bring to Dale’s team – and we need it because we’re up against partnerships with similar levels of success, like Dave Faustino and Will Power at Penske, Chris Simmons and Scott Dixon at Ganassi, Ray Gosselin and Ryan Hunter-Reay at Andretti.

“I mean, even with Craig and Seb on our side, although we may strike gold in a new-rules season, it’s difficult to steal a march – one that actually lasts for more than one race – on all those usual suspects. Sooner rather than later, they’ll catch up. And honestly I think that’s less to do with team size and facilities – although obviously that can be a huge help – but more about that shared experience of winning.”

Ferrucci took part in four IndyCar races last year, and Bourdais has already commented on how very different his own driving style is from that of the 20-year-old rookie from Connecticut. Next year, when they are fulltime teammates, it seems natural to expect that disconnect to slow the team’s progress as a whole.

Hampson agrees, saying: “If you end up with two drivers with very different driving styles, that makes it hard for the team because setups are gonna go in different directions, damper development will go in different directions, and so on.”

But Cannon is more positive about what a talented rookie can contribute to team development.

“Look, everyone would love to have two Sebastiens, but they’re few and far between. So we are very lucky to have one Sebastien and we have a rookie who can use him as a role model to help turn himself into another Sebastien or Scott or Will.

“As you say, Santino wants the car to handle somewhat differently than Sebastien, but if Sebastien is obviously your team leader and knows how to make the car fast, you can shape the fundamentals around what he prefers and then fine-tune the other car to Santino’s preferences without going too far off the island.

“Remember, every single thing you do to these cars has a knock-on effect and we operate inside a fairly small box because of how spec the cars are. You literally can’t get too far out. So one of your guys might be in one corner of the box, the other guy is in another corner, but it’s still the same box. Going outside the box, even if it’s permissible, will leave the car completely uncompetitive.”

That is not what happened to Coyne on street courses this year, insists Cannon. Instead the team went down a development avenue in the offseason that left them mid-grid on temporary tracks.

“Yeah, we simply didn’t get it right as a collective, and we ended up merely average,” he says, “and up against those drivers and teams we mentioned before, that isn’t going to get the job done. The problem is that in the offseason we have just two or three days to test at Sebring – the only track we test at that remotely resembles a street course – and no real development can be done on a race weekend. We have three 45-minute sessions and then we’re into qualifying.

“So if you got one of your sums slightly wrong in preseason testing, that hurts you for a long time. So the next offseason, you start again in the areas where your car sucked, and start making changes, while bearing in mind that for every area that’s adjusted there is a knock-on effect. You always have to weigh the upside against the downside.”

Boisson on the importance of Bourdais feedback

Sébastien Bourdais, Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser-Sullivan Honda examines his Firestone tires

Sébastien Bourdais, Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser-Sullivan Honda examines his Firestone tires

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / LAT Images

Supporting Cannon’s point about the size of a team not necessarily being the deciding factor when it comes to matching assiduity with accomplishment during the dawn of a new era of racecar, it was noticeable that even the mighty Ganassi looked unexceptional until raceday at the fifth round of the season, the IndyCar Grand Prix at IMS. Even after that – or at least until the finale at Sonoma – Dixon never looked a potential polesitter on a roadcourse. Meanwhile, according to Hampson’s assertion, Andretti Autosport appeared to have the best car on street courses, so therefore even Team Penske still had things to find on the lumps, bumps, and jumps of a typical temporary track.

However, both Simmons and Ganassi driver advisor Dario Franchitti have told that CGR and Dixon himself made significant steps to improve the team’s roadcourse performance just before the end of the season, and they’ve since confirmed their findings with a promising test at Barber Motorsports Park. Meanwhile, Power, Josef Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud were highly encouraged by their test earlier this month at Sebring, and believe the Penske engineering braintrust has uncovered a significant ‘find’ to help aid its street course performance.

If these two mighty teams – which, despite their issues with the new aerokit, were able to win nine of the 17 races in IndyCar’s latest season – have already welded shut some of the gaps in their armor, where does that leave Dale Coyne’s far smaller operation? Does it have a hope in hell of breaking into the top five in the championship next year? Olivier Boisson is optimistic for his compatriot Bourdais.

“I think it’s always the case that the big team is going to have the edge with the budgets they have,” he says. “Even with the same aerodynamics as the year before, they have the resources to find new things. But I think the aerokit was a reboot, it did mix things up a little bit, because the old setups don’t work any more. It was about how fast you can react once you have the new data, and although the big teams have a natural advantage, a small team with the right people can still do good things. And that’s what we’re trying to do here.”

The problem for Dale Coyne Racing is that deficiency in street course setup philosophy is the hardest to remedy.

“Yes, that is correct,” agrees Boisson, “because Sebring is not perfect for this – it’s just the closest we have to a street course. If we struggle on road courses, we can find time to go to Barber, Mid-Ohio, wherever, but street courses we just have to do what we think will be right based on Sebring testing. Plus we don’t have a lot of simulation on our side, we don’t have the time to figure some things out.

“So we need to listen to the driver more to figure out what he wants and hopefully that will get us near to the big teams. Sebastien knows very well what he wants and so we rely on him quite a lot. We do that for another reason as well: the fact is, our teammates have much less experience, often they are rookies. But Sebastien knows what a good car feels like, and if it feels a certain way in two laps, he can figure out what it’s capable of over a whole stint, because his tire feedback is amazing. If he doesn’t know what feedback and data he can trust from a new young teammate, has learned to rely on his own instinct and we have learned to rely on him.

“If he then struggles to make the car quick the way he sets it up, he can still try a setup that one of his teammates has found, but it still has to make sense in his head before he will buy into the project. But he’s open and prepared to investigate different avenues because he knows we may find something that, OK, doesn’t work this weekend but may be useful at another track. That’s important when we don’t have a lot of testing.”

An air of optimism

Just one experienced driver (albeit one of the aces in the pack), restricted resources in terms of staff size (albeit containing three of IndyCar’s engineering aces), restricted budget for simulation work, restrictive testing rules from IndyCar… You can see how the odds stack against a team like Dale Coyne Racing.

But is seventh the best Bourdais can hope for at season’s end, given the quality, size and budgets of the opposition?

Boisson: “No, I think top five, maybe even top four is definitely possible.”

Cannon: “I think if we can make a good step on street course setup, bring it up to the level of our road courses, I think top five is within our reach. We have the driver and engineers to do it.”

Hampson: “Any decent team who heavily reduced their errors last year could have pushed Dixon much harder. We all gave too many points away. If we can be the team that gets more slick operationally on race weekends and if we make progress on street courses, then yes, I think we can be much nearer the top of the points table.

“It’s going to be tough though.”

That it is. As always.

Sébastien Bourdais, Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser-Sullivan Honda, celebrates his second straight victory at St. Petersburg, FL.

Sébastien Bourdais, Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser-Sullivan Honda, celebrates his second straight victory at St. Petersburg, FL.

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / LAT Images

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