When four-time Champ-Car champion Sebastien Bourdais announced his promotion to Formula One as part of the Scuderia Toro Rosso, many questions were hanging in the air.
Why now? He had a comfortable life in America and was getting on in years. Why join Torro Rosso? Although Toro Rosso employs the services of famed designer Adrian Newey, no one can argue that even their highest hopes consisted of placing solidly in the midfield.
These questions are answered simply. All European-bred open wheel racers dream of driving in Forumla One. And when oppurtunity comes a-knockin', there is no hesitation, you run through that door. To add to that, he is a 4 time Champ Car champion and only moving up to F1 will satiate the competitive spirit innate in all successful racers.
As a racer, Bourdais is known to be a master of controlling the race and extracting the best result possible, whatever the performance of his car. Although gifted at playing the percentages game, he does not hesitate to use agression and raw speed to acheive his goals. More of a Prost than a Senna, if you will.
This is not to say he is a “cruise and collect” driver, for when the situation arises, Bourdais can be one of the most aggressive on the grid. His many encounters with Paul Tracy and, of course, the pass on Justin Wilson on the last lap in Mexico 2006, is proof that Bourdais will not shy away from any wheel banging (or fist banging for that matter) when required.
Sebastian Vettel is regarded as one of the rising stars in F1. As Bourdais’ counterpart at Toro Rosso, the 20-year old German debuted in a BMW at the 2007 United States Grand Prix, finishing in eighth position, taking home one point. This was an impressive result for a rookie in his first race, and consequently put his name on the map.
It was, of course, his domination of the Formula BMW series, and the impressive pace shown as a test driver that brought him this drive, and consequently, the hype. It is not a negative spin to say hype, but merely the truth, as it stands now. Although Vettel has shown great potential, especially for his age, he has yet to display the real results that place him among the top tier of drivers in F1.
It seems like no one has a negative opinion of Vettel. At worst, he is said to be a young driver with great potential, and at the other extreme, he is the second coming of Michael Schumacher. His genuine and open personality to the media, and charmingly goofy smile do nothing to tarnish his positive public opinion.
Going into the first race of the season, no one could be sure of how this teammate battle would develop. Some said Vettel would inevitably triumph at the end of the season. After all, he has had a season’s worth of testing and racing in Formula One, and has also been in the team long enough to develop good relationships.
Bourdais, on the other hand, was the new kid, despite his age. After spending five years driving Champ Cars, and racing against what is widely considered to be inferior competition, how quickly could he get up to speed in this vastly competitive and technical world of F1? Can you really teach an old dog new tricks?
History was not on his side either, as former Champ Car transplants like Zanardi, Da Matta, and most infamously Michael Andretti, had shown that in the top league, you can quickly go from hero to zero.
There were others who claimed that Bourdais would get the better of Vettel. Bourdais was different from the previous Champ Car failures. He had honed his racing skills in the talent-rich waters of Europe’s developmental ladders, and was destined for F1, if not for an unfortunate falling out with Renault’s Flavio Briatore.
He also brought with him five valuable years of racing in high-powered open-wheel cars without traction control. With the ban on TC this season, it could be a valuable advantage at the beginning of the season. More importantly, he brought four championships with him, and had the mentality of a winner.
As it is well documented in the sporting world, there is often a mental barrier that is broken after your first win is achieved that allows you to continue winning.
The Score So Far
After four races this season, it would appear that neither has the clear upper hand. In the first race in Australia, Bourdais was on course for a very strong fourth place when the Ferrari engine blew. It was a very good call by the team, coupled with a high retirement rate, that put him in such a position. Nevertheless, he was certainly up to the task as the Renault of Alonso and McLaren of Kovalainen could not gain any ground on him in the closing laps of the race.
Vettel, on the other hand, suffered some problems with the car, which resulted in a bad start, and ended in a first corner collision with Giancarlo Fisichella.
Malaysia was a write-off for both drivers, as Bourdais suffered gearbox difficulties, and ended up going into the gravel. Vettel was having a good race until his gearbox also started acting up, and then the car caught fire.
Bahrain was uneventful for Bourdais, but also unsuccessful as he finished 15th. Similar to the opening race, Vettel retired on the first lap in a collision with Force India.
And finally in Spain, another disappointment for the team, as Vettel again retired on the first lap and Bourdais collided with Piquet on the sixth.
The standings show Bourdais with two points and Vettel with zero. It, of course, cannot be concluded that one performed better than the other so far, as the combination of bad luck and an unreliable car has served to mask their potential.
It really is more a case of Vettel hitting a string of bad luck than Bourdais showing his talent. Some say that you make your own luck, a statement which does have much merit. Can you imagine Michael Schumacher crashing out on the first lap in three out of four races, even in a Toro Rosso at the back of the field?
Both will undoubtedly improve in the coming races, and especially with the introduction of the new car. Vettel really has nowhere to go but up, and Bourdais will continue to improve (recently beating his teammate in qualifying) as his experience grows.
It would be foolish to believe either driver sees their future with Toro Rosso. Bourdais took this deal as a last ditch effort to drive in F1. One can only assume his goal is to try to impress everyone in his debut season and land a spot in one of the top teams. It is also safe to assume Vettel is using his current team as a stepping stone to bigger and better things. There have been rumours that Vettel will move up to Red Bull racing, to replace the aging and poorly performing David Coulthard next year.
Red Bull advisor Helmut Marko has gone so far as to say Vettel will likely join Red Bull the following year. "I think so, yes," he told Autosport during the break before the Spanish GP. "He's a special one, and he is very developed for his age.”
Team co-owner Gerhard Berger added, “The team all like him, he's the hero. We're equal for both drivers, but Sebastian has been in the team a bit longer and the guys all like him." This should make Bourdais wary of his chances for promotion within the organization as, from the comment, Berger comes dangerously close to saying Vettel is the favoured driver and gets greater support from the team.
If we are to assume the Red Bull management is already poised to move him up to Red Bull, then Vettel’s performance so far will have at best placed doubts in their minds and moved their decision into a precarious balance.
What if Bourdais continues to improve and ends up beating Vettel handily at the end of the season? How will they justify such a move for Vettel? To be sure however, the Toro Rosso owners are not exactly known for their just behaviour. Since Franz Tost tried to strangle Scott Speed last year for his crash at the extremely wet Nurburgring (a race in which many lost it in exactly the same spot), the management have come into some very justified disrepute.
It is conceivable that Bourdais has stepped into a very bad situation at Toro Rosso, where Tost and Berger will do everything in their power to make Vettel a star, while leaving his teammate in the dust. The best advice for them both, and to all drivers for that matter, is to concentrate on their driving and deliver the best performance possible.
Whilst drivers’ fates in F1 sometimes have less to do with ability than with politics, obtaining great results in an inferior car is a sure-fire way to make people take notice.