ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — There was never a question if Sebastien Bourdais would return to racing after suffering serious injuries from a crash at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
It was rather a matter of how fast he could get back in a car. Doctors told him 2018; Bourdais said he’d be healed in time to race again last year. He succeeded.
But a fiery accident that caused a broken pelvis and a broken hip can change a driver’s mentality no matter how determined he was to race again, so it was reasonable to wonder: Would Bourdais be the same driver?
His comeback from a vicious wreck, the kind that can end careers, was completed Sunday when Bourdais showed he’s still a winner. He made it two straight at St. Petersburg, the adopted hometown for the Frenchman, and won IndyCar’s season-opening event.
It doesn’t matter how it happened, or that Bourdais was gifted the victory, only that he could indeed win again.
“I was very emotional in the car. I think you get the questions from people: Is he going to be the same? Is he going to come back? Is he this? Is he this?” Bourdais said. “I really try not to leave any room for uncertainty as far as what I was going to do and how forward I was going to go by coming back last year, 2½ months later.
“It’s been bumpy, it’s been tough, it’s been everything in between. It’s been pretty hard for myself. It’s quite an achievement to be able to restart the season and settle the matter right away and get back on the horse and win another one.”
Bourdais won because newcomer rookie Robert Wickens, in his IndyCar debut, lost.
The Canadian dominated the race, leading 69 of the 110 laps, and the win was in his grip until two late cautions set up NASCAR-style late restarts, and contact with Alexander Rossi on the final restart of the race ruined his day. Rossi dove inside of Wickens in the first turn with two laps remaining, Wickens defended his position and the two cars touched. Wickens went off course, Rossi slid back to third and Bourdais sailed by for the 37th victory of his career.
“It would have been a fairy tale to finish that well, but sometimes it’s just not meant to be,” Wickens said. “My opinion, he just went too deep, locked the rears and slid into me. There’s really no other explanation to it. The only pity is he carried on to a podium, and I ended up in the fence.”
Wickens ended up 18th.
Even Bourdais, who wept after his win, understood that the race had been Wickens’ to win.
“I was really happy for Robert and I’m heartbroken for him,” Bourdais said.
Wickens was a star in touring cars in Germany but defected to IndyCar this year at the coaxing of good friend James Hinchcliffe. Although he was one of seven rookies in the 24-car field Sunday, he is 28 and a proven winner.
He is part of an all-Canadian lineup at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, and he and Hinchcliffe were strong the entire weekend. Wickens was only the third driver since 1993 to win the pole for his IndyCar debut — Nigel Mansell did it in ’93 in Surfer’s Paradise and Bourdais at St. Pete in 2003 — and the victory would have been a firm announcement of his arrival in the American open-wheel series.
Instead, two late cautions gave Rossi a chance to take it away. Wickens said IndyCar’s pace car did not follow the same procedure it had used on the previous restart, and Wickens wasn’t able to get the jump he wanted on Rossi.
Rossi was not penalized for the contact and believed he had done nothing wrong.
“I feel bad because I feel like I could have won and he could have gotten second,” Rossi said. “They made it very clear in the drivers’ meeting that the rule on blocking was you can’t move in reaction. If he defended the inside … and then I continued to go to the inside down the white line, then yeah, that’s my decision and that’s putting my car in danger. But there’s no reason why I can’t pop and stay next to him. I don’t have to be all four wheels in the part of the track that nobody goes on.”
The American, who recently appeared on the reality TV show “The Amazing Race,” said he not spoken to Wickens but imagined that Wickens was upset with him.
Bourdais, meanwhile, had positioned himself to capitalize when Wickens and Rossi went haywire.
Bourdais now ranks sixth on IndyCar’s all-time list, two wins behind Al Unser for fifth. It was the sixth victory for Dale Coyne Racing, the first since Bourdais won at St. Petersburg last year. The team this year has been bolstered by the ownership group of Jimmy Vasser and James Sullivan, which reunited Bourdais with his former bosses and a new sponsor in SealMaster.
He always believed he’d be back, even after that accident in Indy 500 qualifying last May. In a rehabilitation center and stitched together as the Indy 500 went on without him, Bourdais vowed to get his car back before the end of the season. He made it in time for the final three races of the year, and could have done it sooner had Coyne not already sold the seat to another driver.
Then he almost won the Rolex in January, and cemented his comeback Sunday on his home streets.
“Once I knew what the injuries were and there were not going to be any lasting events, then it was like fast forward and get back on the horse and get back to what I do, get back to my life,” Bourdais said. “I don’t know my life any other way. I’m 39, and I’m aging, and everybody is starting to make me feel old. This is my life. This is what I want to be doing, and as long as I’m competitive, this is what I’ll be doing.
“It’s just a great feeling to be able to, like I said, restart that way and make a statement.”
The race debuted IndyCar’s sleek new race car that is designed to improve competition, level the playing field and cut costs. Sunday saw a race-record 366 on-track passes, breaking the mark of 323 set in 2008.
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