Sebastien Bourdais should have been racing in Formula One well before his 2008 debut with Scuderia Toro Rosso but, for one reason or another had to dominate the US-based Champ Car series to finally get a chance to prove himself in the top flight.Read more
A native of Le Mans, and the son of racer Patrick, it was perhaps no surprise that young Sebastien fancied a turn behind the wheel, and it wasn't long before he was racing regularly in karts, winning the Maine Bretagne League title before moving into cars with the French Formula Campus Championship.
He finished seventh in his first season, earning one podium finish, but, unable to let go of his karting roots, Bourdais also won the 24 Hours of Le Mans karting event.
The next step was to Formula Renault, an institution in France, where he made his first real impact on the sport at a junior level, taking four race wins and five poles in 1997, earning eleven podium finishes in 16 races to finish second overall - and convinced that mechanical problems cost him the title.
Stepping up again, he was rookie of the year in the 1998 French F3 series, winning five races and four poles to finish sixth in the championship behind David Saelens, before going on to win the title outright the following year.
That 1999 campaign saw him win eight races, adding three poles and four fastest laps for good measure. He also competed in his first 24 Hours of Le Mans, underlining his racing versatility by campaigning a Larbre Competition Porsche 911 in the GT section.
Bourdais moved up to F3000 with the Prost Junior Team in 2000, starting on the front row in Monaco, taking pole at Magny-Cours and placing a season-high second at the French track as he took the chance to learn the ropes in his first international category. He also finished fourth at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, having jumped several levels to run with Henri Pescarolo's eponymous prototype team.
Having knocked at the door for some time, Bourdais finally took his maiden FIA F3000 race win at Silverstone in 2001, adding pole at the A1 Ring for good measure, having moved from Prost to DAMS. He also earned podiums at Budapest and Hockenheim en route to a fourth-place finish in the championship.
Pescarolo, meanwhile, was also keen to retain his services and, together, the team achieved top 15 finishes in the 24 Hours of Le Mans and 12 Hours of Sebring, although gearbox dramas late on denied them a podium in desperate conditions on home soil. His sportscar ambitions continued with Larbre, for whom he won two races in FIA Sportscar Championship, including victory in the 24 Hours of Spa.
Having been a frontrunner throughout 2001, Bourdais saw his hard work eventually pay off with the 2002 FIA F3000 title, which came on the back of wins at Imola, Monaco and Nurburgring, as well as seven pole positions, having switched to the crack Super Nova operation. His sportscar forays were also proving successful and, although Le Mans again bypassed Pescarolo, the Bourdais-led car did take victory in both the first and last FIA Sportscar Championship events of the season.
That success was enough to earn Bourdais an F1 test with Arrows - just as the team was succumbing to the first throes of financial meltdown. After several attempts to save the operation, Tom Walkinshaw declared bankruptcy, ending any contract with the Frenchman. A few months later, there appears to be renewed hope, as Bourdais gets another test, this time with Renault in Jerez, but his unwillingness to commit to a long-term managerial deal with Flavio Briatore counts against him when the line-up is decided.
When it became apparent that his F3000 title would not be enough to earn him access to Formula One, Bourdais graduated to the Champ Car World Series instead. Despite the numerous outlets for his ability, he chose wisely, and made an immediate impact on the US racing scene with the crack Newman/Haas squad.
The Frenchman opened his debut CART season with a brace of pole positions and, although victory went west in both races, he soon added his name to the list of winners, racking up three wins - at Brands Hatch, Lausitzring and Cleveland - as well as five poles in 2003 by the end of the season, to earn both the rookie of the year title and become the first newcomer to win the Greg Moore Legacy Award.
He was not without the odd sportscar outing, however, and once again teamed up with Stephane Sarrazin and Franck Lagorce to win the Le Mans 1000km for Pescarolo after having had to miss the 24 Hours at the same track because of a clash of dates.
As a result of his 2003 form, Bourdais had marked himself out as one of the major threats to Paul Tracy's title defence in 2004 - and so it proved as the Frenchman led the series in victories, poles, laps led and qualifying average. Unsurprisingly, he also claimed his first Champ Car title, despite contesting only 32 races, on the back of seven wins and a top three start in every round, highlighted by eight poles.
Having acquired a taste for success in Champ Cars, Bourdais was not about to let it go. He duly became the first driver in four years to defend his crown, taking six wins and five poles to cement the 2005 title. Despite starting the year with victory in Long Beach, he did not win again until Edmonton, but that kicked off a run of three straight victories that put him in the series lead and led to the Vanderbilt Cup returning to his sideboard in Surfers Paradise.
Ever-willing to diversify, Bourdais also became the first Champ Car driver to win an IROC race for nine years when he won at Texas Motor Speedway, and added the Race of Champions, the Rolex 24 at Daytona, the Sebring 12 Hours and Baja 1000 to his schedule.
The following year was much the same, with Bourdais again the dominant force as he completed a hat-trick of Champ Car titles. Starting the season with four straight wins - in Long Beach, Houston, Monterrey and Milwaukee - had a demoralising effect on the rest of the field and, although victories were harder to come by as the year progressed - he took just three more - Bourdais duly expanded his collection of Vanderbilt Cups on the back of seven poles, seven wins and eleven podiums.
Late season pressure from Justin Wilson and AJ Allmendinger had prevented Bourdais from running away with the series and, with the American off to NASCAR and Wilson hamstrung by a team in transition, Bourdais could have been excused for thinking 2007 might be an easier proposition. However, a new Panoz DP01 chassis and fresh threats from Will Power and rookie Robert Doornbos made for an exciting season, as all three took turns to win races and top the standings.
Although an early-season hat-trick of wins in Long Beach, Houston and Portland made up for a retirement in Las Vegas, Bourdais' experience only began to tell in the latter stages, where he won five of the last seven events, including the series' return to Europe at Zolder and his last-ever Champ Car outing, in Mexico City, having already clinched the title in Australia.
The move to F1 had been mooted several times during Bourdais' successful run in Champ Cars, but always failed to come off - leading to the Frenchman actually admitting that he had given up on the idea. That claim, however, only seemed to provoke more interest and, with Nicolas Todt now representing his interests, Bourdais was soon at the wheel of one of Toro Rosso's STR02s for testing.
Although kept under wraps for some time officially, the expected was confirmed when the Frenchman was announced as one of the team's two drivers before the end of the season, replacing Tonio Liuzzi and leaving rookie team-mate Sebastian Vettel as the only true graduate of Red Bull's development scheme in any of its four F1 seats.
Having finally made the grade, it was now up to Bourdais to prove that he was worthy of his place among the elite, despite knowing that repeating his US success would be nigh-on impossible with a relatively small team.
His likely aim of attracting the attention of one of the bigger F1 players, however, proved tougher than perhaps even Bourdais imagined. Although his debut, in Melbourne, yielded his first points – and seventh place could have been fourth had it not been for a late engine failure - the introduction of Toro Rosso’s new car in Monaco contrived to tip the balance in favour of Vettel, as the German went from strength to strength with the STR3.
Although his performances gradually picked up with time spent adapting the car to his own preferences, luck contrived to heap more pressure on the Frenchman’s shoulders. Unlucky to end up only seventh at Spa following a last lap free-for-all in wet conditions, there was further frustration at Monza where, having qualified fourth behind poleman Vettel, his car failed him, ending any chance of a podium at an event where Toro Rosso tactics had come up trumps. With no further shot at points in the remaining four races – where Vettel scored three times – Bourdais’ debut season yielded a total of just four and left him 17th overall – and with question marks hanging over his involvement for 2009.
While the official line was that the team needed to find sponsors to maintain its progress, Bourdais was eventually confirmed alongside rookie Sebastien Buemi at the eleventh hour. The pressure to perform was there again, however, particularly with a newcomer alongside him in one of Adrian Newey’s sharpest designs to date, and the Frenchman failed to rise to the challenge. Although he scored a point first time out in Australia, and again in Monaco with the new STR4, that was not enough to save his job and, after falling out with the management, he was replaced during the summer break by untried teenager Jaime Alguersuari.
Despite rumours of a return to IndyCars, Bourdais saw out the season in Superleague Formula and the odd sportscar ride, with his plans for 2010 unclear.