Tampa Bay Sports Day

INDYSERIES: Bourdais Wins IndyCar Opener After Starting Last

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — From last to first in a reunion ride.  That was Sebastien Bourdais in Sunday’s return to Dale Coyne Racing’s Verizon IndyCar Series program. They were most recently paired in 2011, coming together for this new season and already generating terrific results.

The open-wheel veterans combined to win the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg in dramatic fashion, recovering from a last-place starting position to win the opening race of the season.

Bourdais started in the back after a problem in Saturday’s qualifying session. By his own admission, Bourdais misjudged the corner on his first lap out of the pits, locked up the brakes and slid into the barrier. IndyCar’s rule is that anyone who causes a red flag in qualifying is not allowed to transfer out of that group.

Hence, Bourdais’ 21st starting position, but he had no such problems Sunday, showing why he’s regarded as one of the best drivers in the sport.

“We’ve got a heck of a great team,” Bourdais said in victory lane. “Small group, but a great team.”

Bourdais won for the 36th time in his illustrious IndyCar career, breaking a tie with Bobby Unser. Bourdais now stands alone in sixth place, three wins behind Al Unser. Scott Dixon leads all active drivers in fourth place (40 wins).

Bourdais extended his run of seasons with at least one race win — now at four. Only two other current drivers — Dixon and Will Power — have won races each of the past three seasons.

Bourdais’ victory was popular not only because it came with one of IndyCar’s smallest teams but because the Frenchman makes his home in St. Petersburg.

Bourdais made the decision to join Dale Coyne’s team last fall when it became clear KV Racing Technology, owned by Kevin Kalkhoven and Jimmy Vasser, wasn’t going to be able to give him a commitment for 2017.

Coyne’s team is known for being savvy with race strategy, winning four races since 2009 with Justin Wilson (twice), Mike Conway and Carlos Huertas.

In order to join Coyne, Bourdais insisted on bringing a couple of his favorite engineers, including Craig Hampson, who keyed his four consecutive Champ Car World Series titles with Newman-Haas Racing (2003-07). It also can’t be understated how much money Coyne invested in the program.

Together, the group delivered.

“I thought we’d races this season,” Coyne said. “But I didn’t think we’d win the first one.”

The victory also was a big boost for Honda, which won only three of 16 races last season. Chevrolet teams had won the past three races here, all with Team Penske. Roger Penske’s group had Simon Pagenaud finishing second, but he was no match for Bourdais, who won by 10.3 seconds.

Dixon finished third with Ryan Hunter-Reay fourth. Hunter-Reay recovered from brake failure in the morning pre-race practice that led his Andretti Autosport car to slam into the tire barrier in Turn 10.

The brakes, which are new for this season, weren’t the problem some people feared. Spencer Pigot had a failure in the left rear but that was deemed to be the result of his aggressive driving. No other driver had a problem.

Several drivers had a problem on the first lap of the race. Graham Rahal and Charlie Kimball made contact approaching the reconfigured — and tight — third turn, and that caused a chain reaction that saw a few others take damage. Carlos Munoz, in his first race with A.J. Foyt Racing, eventually saw his car succumb to the damage suffered in that incident.

NOTES: Sebastien Bourdais led 69 of the 110 laps … James Hinchcliffe, the runner-up of ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars” contest in the fall, led 21 of the early laps. He finished ninth. Simon Pagenaud led 19 laps. … IndyCar now has a break in its schedule before the Long Beach Grand Prix on April 9.