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Friday favourite: The all-conquering Lola that made Bourdais an Indycar star

Sheer statistics mean Sebastien Bourdais’s choice of the Lola B02/00 as his favourite car should come as little surprise. But there's more to his relationship with the machine in which he claimed three of his four Champ Car titles than a bulging trophy cabinet

Sebastien Bourdais

Arguably no driver is as closely associated with the Ford-powered Lola B02/00 Champ Car chassis as Sebastien Bourdais. In its five seasons of competition, two of which as Champ Car became a de-facto single-make category following the disappearance of Reynard from the US open-wheel series by 2005, the Frenchman won three titles on the bounce and made Formula 1 realise what it had missed out on.

From 59 starts with the Lola, before it was replaced for 2007 by the Panoz DP01 in which Bourdais won his fourth and final Indycar title, he racked up 23 wins, 25 poles and 26 fastest laps. His 42 top-five finishes in a car that he picks out as his favourite underlines another key asset in Bourdais’s title-winning arsenal. He was incredibly consistent once settled into a Newman-Haas Racing team which had won the 2002 title with Cristiano da Matta before the Brazilian’s switch to F1 with Toyota.

Bourdais also has fond memories of the Panoz, specifically citing the 2007 Road America race he won after taking pole by 1.5s where he “was just absolutely on rails” and felt able to “do what you want with the car, and you don’t even really think about it, it just happens”. But he says the Lola on street courses that made up a large portion of the Champ Car schedule “really sticks out for me”.

“I had some really magical moments,” says Bourdais, now a staple of Cadillac’s GTP programme in the IMSA SportsCar Championship. “I think the [Bridgestone] tyre fitted me in general extremely well. There are some things that just fit your driving style. It was somewhat less sensitive to ride-height than most flat-bottom cars and fitted my driving style incredibly well.”

Bourdais had faced the prospect of racing for Opel in the 2003 DTM if a Champ Car opportunity hadn’t come knocking, but after impressing NHR in a try-out the reigning Formula 3000 champion quickly proved a sensation. Joining former Ganassi driver and 2002 runner-up Bruno Junqueira, he became the first rookie since Nigel Mansell in 1993 to claim a debut pole at St Petersburg. To prove it was no fluke, he did it again next time out at Monterrey, although mistakes led to lowly positions.

What could have been: When an Indycar champion almost got stuck in a DTM dead-end

A breakthrough win came at Brands Hatch in just his fourth start, before Bourdais sensationally won his very first oval race at Lausitzring.

Bourdais had already shown devastating qualifying pace in his first two outings with the Lola before claiming a first win at Brands

Bourdais had already shown devastating qualifying pace in his first two outings with the Lola before claiming a first win at Brands

Photo by: LAT Photographic

“I actually ended up testing that car in the way it was meant to be used on superspeedways only once,” reveals Bourdais. “I never raced it from thereon out, all of the superspeedways that we did – being Texas and Las Vegas and Lausitz – were run with road course packages.

“It turned into a drag contest. Craig [Hampson, engineer] was really exceptional at it and then gave us the best tools to win the races. It really wasn’t so much about driving skills on superspeedways than just pure car preparation.”

The title in 2003 was disputed between Junqueira and Forsythe driver Paul Tracy, the Canadian ultimately coming out on top, as Bourdais suffered plenty of misfortune – including a rare engine failure at Long Beach, a turbo problem at Laguna Seca and a broken rear wing support at Portland. But for the remainder of the car’s life, he was never headed in the standings at season’s end.

"I remember over the winter and early months preparing for Milwaukee, Craig and the whole team were going absolutely bonkers being like 'we have to find something that allows us to be on it at Milwaukee'" Sebastien Bourdais

“It was the perfect storm,” reflects Bourdais. “It was a bit sad that obviously Ganassi had gone and Andretti had gone [to the Indy Racing League], it was really only half of the good teams [that were left]. But for us it was an incredible time. I just jumped in that car, which fitted me really well, and then had an amazing group of people that had a culture of winning and I fitted like a glove.

“It was just an incredible moment of my career. There is no arguing that obviously we were winning all those races and doing everything we were doing because we were better-prepared. We had better means, being financial or technical and human, and it’s always the case. You don’t dominate a series or a formula for no reason, it’s always on the back of some kind of unfair advantage.”

Junqueira was forced to settle for runner-up for a third year in a row in 2004 as Bourdais notched seven wins from 14 starts, including a hat-trick across Portland, Cleveland and Toronto. He started inside the top three at every single race, having built a tight-knit relationship with engineer Hampson, and his victory at Denver after a first corner clash with Junqueira which left him at the back of the field was Bourdais at his imperious best.

“There was definitely some leftover frustrations from the weekend prior where we tangled slightly and Bruno came out worse of it,” recalls Bourdais. “He was clearly frustrated about the incident at Road America and took the aggression level to the next step, pinching me a bit to the inside. But it came out this time with a dominant weekend and a dominant car.

“It was one of those kind of moments on street courses where everything comes together and you can put all the frustration and the energy behind the wheel and turn it into lap time. That’s always super-enjoyable.”

Victory at Denver in 2004, celebrated with team co-owner Paul Newman, was made all the more special given his first corner clash with Junqueira

Victory at Denver in 2004, celebrated with team co-owner Paul Newman, was made all the more special given his first corner clash with Junqueira

Photo by: Leland Hill / Motorsport Images

Junqueira led the points two races into the 2005 season, but he injured his back in a crash in the IRL’s Indianapolis 500 and was replaced for the remainder of the season by Oriol Servia. The likeable Spaniard won once at Montreal, but he too was powerless to stop the Bourdais steamroller. Another Bourdais hat-trick across Edmonton, San Jose and Denver put the brakes on Tracy’s aspirations.

And Bourdais opened his 2006 account with four wins on the spin, his advantage so great that AJ Allmendinger’s own hat-trick upon trading RUSPORT for Forsythe didn’t come close to loosening his grip on the championship. The 89-point championship margin he enjoyed over Justin Wilson made it the most comfortable of the quartet, and it was only fitting that Bourdais won the final race of the Lola era in Mexico City.

But perhaps most satisfying in 2006 was that Bourdais finally conquered Milwaukee, where he’d never previously finished in the top-five. He’d struggled to ninth in 2003, while Junqueira crashed early, then crashed out himself in 2004 after a misunderstanding passing Rodolfo Lavin. Unlike the superspeedway layouts, Bourdais says car set-up demands for the Milwaukee short oval – the only one of its kind on the calendar, an hour down the road from the NHR headquarters in Lincolnshire, Illinois – were “very different”.

“I spent the entire weekend pretty much pooping my pants just trying not to hit anything,” he recalls of 2003. “Bruno almost hurt himself at the start of the race, backed it in at the start, and I think that was kind of like the confirmation that that package was no Bueno!

“We just really struggled, the next year I think it was starting to get a little better but I made a mistake, got caught out in the grey and we were only doing one race like this per year. So the rate of understanding and learning was difficult.”

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He finished sixth in 2005, but picked up a stop-go penalty for speeding in the pitlane after forgetting to pump his spongy brakes – the result of a broken master cylinder – ahead of his final stop. NHR’s frequent struggles prompted a vow that it would address its Milwaukee jinx.

“In 2006 finally the team was like ‘screw this, we’ve got to fix this, this is ridiculous’,” recalls Bourdais. “‘We’re destroying the series, we’re the reference, and we can’t get out of our own way on ovals, so we’ve got to do something’. I remember over the winter and early months preparing for Milwaukee, Craig and the whole team were going absolutely bonkers being like ‘we have to find something that allows us to be on it at Milwaukee’.

“Finally, they just came out with one of the best oval cars I have ever driven. We were on pole, then we got a puncture and we fell a lap down, then we came back and won the race anyway. At that point, it was like ‘yep, we fixed this’ and then we never raced on ovals ever again after that [in Champ Car]. It was a very chaotic story on ovals!”

Victory at Milwaukee in 2006 after four years of disappointment at the track was a fitting way to sign off Bourdais's oval career with the B02/00

Victory at Milwaukee in 2006 after four years of disappointment at the track was a fitting way to sign off Bourdais's oval career with the B02/00

Photo by: Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images

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