In recent weeks – and particularly, for very good reason, since the Italian Grand Prix – praise of Sebastian Vettel has been fulsome and widespread. No surprise there, for the youthful German has impressed at virtually every race, and as the competitiveness of Toro Rosso has improved (due in no small part to the efforts and inspiration of Giorgio Ascanelli), he has come ever more to the fore. It may have been something of a shock to see team and driver win a Grand Prix (and from pole position), but from the outset it was apparent that Vettel’s talent was something out of the ordinary.
In the meantime, his team-mate has been somewhat overlooked, and I think that a pity. Back in 2003 Sébastien Bourdais, having made his name in F3000, had his hopes of going straight into Formula 1 with Renault, but a falling-out with Flavio Briatore put an end to all that, and Bourdais, unable to find an F1 drive elsewhere, was obliged to go off to the United States, where he joined the Newman/Haas team. For four years he raced Champ Cars – and in every one of them he won the championship.
Very well, I’ll accept that the quality of the competition wasn’t that high, and many suggested that Bourdais, if he were a driver of any real consequence, damn well should have dominated the series. In many ways he was in an invidious position: if he won, well, so he should; if he didn’t, what was wrong with him?
That said, longtime members of the Newman/Haas team – who have had the likes of Jones and Mansell, to say nothing of the Andrettis, pere et fils, through their doors over time – reckon that Bourdais is one of the very best drivers they ever worked with. He may have acquired a name for being a bit of a whinger, but in the car he was difficult to fault, and when the occasion demanded he proved himself to be a hard racer, prepared to take on anyone. When he took part in the IROC series, racing on ovals mainly against the NASCAR brigade, he very much gained their respect, and once actually beat the lot of them.
All the time he was in the States, though, Bourdais was fundamentally a man in exile, and he never lost his ambition to be in F1. When an offer came from Toro Rosso, he accepted immediately, well knowing he was going from being a big fish in a small pond to the very opposite.
It was some time, too, before he made much of an impression, and he admitted that he was finding it mighty difficult to come up with a Toro Rosso/Bridgestone set-up that suited his style. As the team progressed, though, so also did he, if not quite to the same degree as Vettel. At Valencia, on the sort of street circuit with which he had become familiar in the USA, Bourdais was into his stride before anyone else, and at Spa – the driver’s circuit – was actually fastest of all in the first segment of qualifying. In the race he looked like making the podium, and had the upper hand on Vettel all the way – until the last, rain-soaked lap, when, as he admitted, he backed off too much to make sure of finishing.
Finally, at Monza, Bourdais qualified fourth, only to have to start late, a lap down, when his gearbox glitched before the formation lap. While Vettel raced on to a sensational victory, his team-mate – almost unnoticed – ran an incredibly fast race, all the while knowing it was for no reward. En route, he set the second fastest lap, beaten only by Räikkönen.
It was an irony at Monza that, while – against all expectation – Kimi’s Ferrari contract was extended by a further year, Sébastien’s future with Toro Rosso looked much in doubt, amid rumours of a well-financed return to F1 by Takuma Sato. On the strength of his recent performances, Bourdais is well worth a place in F1, and one hopes that his team will keep faith with him.