Last year they were both rookies in Bridgestone Presents the Champ Car World Series Powered by Ford, attempting to make a name for themselves in North America-based open wheel racing. SÃ©bastien Bourdais. Photo by Todd Corzett. By the...
Last year they were both rookies in Bridgestone Presents the Champ Car World Series Powered by Ford, attempting to make a name for themselves in North America-based open wheel racing.
Much was expected from the [now] 24-year-old Frenchman from Le Mans, France and the 2002 F3000 champ didn't disappoint. Bourdais earned three victories and five pole positions last year, becoming the first series driver to take pole in his first start since 1992 Formula One champion Nigel Mansell did it in 1993, also for NHR.
Bourdais began this season in the #2 McDonald's Lola with good form, taking a single point for being fast qualifier on the second day of time trials at the 30th Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach last month and finishing third behind teammate Bruno Junqueira and winner Paul Tracy. It was a big turnaround from his 2003 Long Beach result, when Bourdais was the victim - the only one in 2003 - of a failed Ford-Cosworth engine.
"Definitely a much better start than last year," Bourdais commented. During the first qualifying session, he was waylaid by traffic but in the Saturday afternoon exercise Kermit (the frog, as his team calls him) "the track was not good enough to improve the lap times." Rain in the morning practice scotched that.
Hailing from Sao Paulo, Brazil, Mario Haberfeld also came to the Champ Car World Series from Formula 3000 where he competed for four seasons after earning the British F3 title in 1998. Haberfeld linked up with first-year competitors Conquest Racing in the #34 Mi-Jack Reynard/Ford- Cosworth/Bridgestone racer.
Haberfeld was competitive from the get-go, but the maligned Reynard chassis and his team's inexperience in the Champ Car wars left him 12th in the final points tally, with a best start and finish of fourth place.
Haberfeld was out of a ride when Briton Justin Wilson joined Mi-Jack Conquest but he landed in an optimal spot, driving Derrick Walker's #5 Cummins Reynard in 2004. Their deal came together just a week before the Long Beach season opener, but the duo seemed to click from the start.
"We sort of achieved our objective [by finishing in the top ten] and now we need to improve a bit more. We'll be down in Homestead in a week's time for testing, doing two days there to learn a bit more," Haberfeld said. With this two-day test he expects to "find out the good things about the Walker car and bring some good things that I learned last year from the Conquest car." Familiarity with the package definitely should help out.
"I think you have to learn the way the engineers work because everyone in the team is different. I just have to get used to everyone and see how they work, improve some places, learn some good things that they have. I'm sure we'll be okay for the next race," he said.
The second Champ Car race of the season takes place at Fundidora Park in Monterrey, Mexico, marking the series' fourth trip to this central Mexican industrial stronghold. Bourdais held pole there in 2003, his second P1 start in a row, but he finished 17th after minor contact. The Frenchman had a radio problem that caused him to fall to the rear of the field following the first pit stops and had worked up to sixth before bowing out.
"The [Bridgestone Potenza] tire this year will be different. They brought a new compound again, so we're going to have to tune the car to match that," Bourdais explained. "I know that the baseline setup is very good. I should start strong and hopefully make some improvements that will make for a strong race finish, too."
Like most any other driver on the Champ Car circuit, Sebastien Bourdais likes the atmosphere at Fundidora Park. "It's a great venue and the Mexican people are really enthusiastic. It's a slow racetrack, for sure and it's really technical. It's challenging, but it's slow. Because the walls are pretty far from the track, if you do a mistake, you rarely have contact," he explained.
Haberfeld agreed with Bourdais and noted the Fundidora Park circuit is "very, very slippery. The track will be improving a lot as the weekend goes on. I believe it's only used once a year so it's kind of a street circuit." The Mexican fans' ardor for motor sports got Haberfeld's attention in 2003 and are among the reasons he enjoys the Monterrey race: "It is so great to see all the fans. The race is really crowded, there's a lot of fans which really like motor racing and it's just a lot of fun."
The 2004 Champ Car season should present fewer problems for both Bourdais and Haberfeld because they know their way around tracks where the tour competes. But it won't be a walk in the park because the competition level has increased since last season.
"Even with the knowledge of a year of experience," Bourdais explained, "it's not so easy. I guess it makes it less confusing because I know where I'm going," he chuckled. "I know where I'm going to start as a car, as a driver, so it's much easier to get some references." That said, he still realizes, "You are fighting to try to achieve wins and pole positions and that's never really easy."
Walker's huge amount of experience with the Champ Car World Series should make it an easier transition for Haberfeld in his second year, despite changing teams. "For sure being with Derrick is a great thing and the whole team is very, very well structured. Last year with Eric [Bachelart] everything was quite new for me and for the team and it was a little bit harder. By the end of the season," he remarked, "It was a great team also."
In racing continuity is a good thing and Bourdais certainly has that aspect on his side, staying with a Newman/Haas squad that rarely has any turnover of crewmembers.
"With the experience I have now, I think it should be not only easier, but it should be easier to realize the target. Now the only unknown thing is the tire," Bourdais explained. "If it's not so far, which I think it will not be that far away from what we had last year, we should keep the same philosophy on the car and hopefully it's going to work just fine," both in Monterrey and through the season.
Bourdais' apprehension about new rubber is tempered by his enjoyment of Champ Car's newest driver tool, the "push to pass" button that gives drivers another 50 horsepower for up to 60 seconds per race. "I definitely think it is a great tool to create some more passing. Hopefully we'll be able to race each other a bit more."
Sebastien also thinks the stewards might tinker with that and other rules a bit as the season progresses. "Last year we were able to push and the pit window, I think was good. I just like to come back on that, you know, it's a great show. We have more passing than Formula 1.
Haberfeld, who didn't get good experience with the softer, option Bridgestone tire at Long Beach is a big fan of push-to-pass. "For sure that's really good. It makes a big difference and the driver has to have some strategy on his mind of when he's going to use it and try to save it to the end if someone is wanting to pass you. It's very exciting not only for the fans but for the drivers and the teams also," his eyes dancing.
Neither Haberfeld nor Bourdais thinks a bump in the push-to-pass power level is needed at this time, both agreeing an up-tick presents the problems of "reliability issues. I think it's a good compromise [now]," Bourdais said. "It gives you between three and five miles [per hour] advantage depending on the sight line." He thinks push-to-pass will be a hoot at Elkhart Lake's Road America and Montreal, both with long straightaways.
There are many drivers entering the Champ Car World Series who have experience in the European theatre, and Bourdais is ready for the action. "We have a very good field this year, very competitive teams, very good drivers coming with a European background," mostly in FIA F3000 and national F3 competition. "I think it's going to be close and difficulty," Bourdais predicts.
The Cummins team - having come together in such short order - will be spending the weeks leading to Monterrey getting to know one another again, as "Walker Racing is the team who gave me my first Champ Car test. I believe it was September or October two years ago," Mario Haberfeld revealed.
Race two for the 2004Bridgestone Presents the Champ Car World Series Powered by Ford commences with practice May 21st at the 2.104-mile Fundidora Park downtown circuit in Monterrey, Mexico. The fourth annual Tecate/Telmex Monterrey Grand Prix takes place on Sunday, March 31st and will be telecast at 4PM same day by Spike TV. HDNET carries start-to-stop weekend coverage where available.
It's a good bet these two sophomore sensations will be right in the thick of it.