A lot of INDYCAR experts (myself included) raised eyebrows this off-season when four-time ChampCar World Series champion Sebastien Bourdais announced he was joining Dale Coyne Racing for the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season.
And why not? Bourdais and his former employer KV Racing had posted a victory the previous year at Detroit and had collected ten top 10 finishes in 16 events. Once the evidence of an iffy situation at KV was revealed, as mentioned previously on Embury’s Outlook, it appeared the Frenchman was moving quickly to simply secure a full-time seat for the future. The evidence behind Bourdais’ reasoning was then further divulged in a recent interview with Popular Speed’s Ashley McCubbin.
However, now with everything on the table, perhaps the questions are being erased. After all, the off-season has witnessed the Chicago-based operation loosen the purse strings a little bit to bring in top line personnel. Craig Hampson, who was Bourdais’ engineer at Newman-Haas Racing during his four-year championship run has been added to brain trust, while Bourdais’ engineer at KV last year Olivier Boisson, has also been hired. The moves have given the veteran wheelman the belief a team known more for simply perservering in both CART and INDYCAR is now capable of mixing it up with the best of the bunch on the North American open-wheel racing tour.
In this edition of Embury’s Outlook, we will look at what it will take for Bourdais and his new teammate Ed Jones, the reigning Cooper Tires Indy Lights Champion, to become contenders not solely for race wins, but to have an outside chance to win the 2017 championship.
If there is one thing from last year adding to the optimism, it is the fact Coyne’s squad certainly made some steps forward on the road courses, especially in the case of Conor Daly’s efforts. The second-generation driver was within a quicker pit stop away from possibly pulling off an upset win at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, settling for sixth at the finish. The Indiana-native then finished second to Bourdais in the first leg of the Chevrolet Duel in Detroit and placed sixth in the second leg the following day. Daly went on to post two more top six results before taking his services to A.J. Foyt Racing for 2017.
While the road and street circuit half of the equation appear stout, the team must improve its efforts on ovals to become a full-fledged title contender. While Honda’s two 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series wins came on the high-speed circuits, DCR placed no better than 14th in any oval track round this past season.
The team must also qualify higher up on the starting grid. While Daly did post results, a majority of those efforts had to be gained through aggressive driving or clever strategy to make up for lackluster efforts in time trials.
Of course, the other barrier Coyne must clear is a plethora of strong teams that are part of the Honda engine camp. Not only does the addition of Chip Ganassi Racing make the situation more difficult, but when you consider the resumes of Andretti Autosport, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, you will witness four operations which all have shown few weaknesses despite the limited number of victories a year ago.
So while it may be tough to jump from worst to first in one season, a 2017 campaign that sees either Bourdais, Jones, or both pilots reach the top ten on the final points table, should be considered a victory for this operation. After all, they’ve been able to tough it out and continue to battle, while other more successful operations have either regressed or left the sport entirely.
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