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KERMIT KICKS BUTT IN CART

When Sebastien Bourdais came to Newman/Haas Racing as the 2002 FIA Formula 3000 champion, the media spin was huge. Many writers chose the French rookie to win the Champ Car title this year.

True, Bourdais was going to the most recent championship team, but there have been changes for all teams since the 2002 Champ Car season ended.

After his initial success in testing at CART's 2003 Spring Training, held in February at Sebring International Raceway, the expectations for Bourdais grew. He would win it all, the pundits claimed.

And the Frenchman obliged at St. Petersburg by taking pole position in his initial Champ Car race, becoming the first to do so since Nigel Mansell in 1993—when he drove for Newman/Haas Racing.

Bourdais made a rookie error in his first race—yet still finished 11th—and followed that by taking pole and committing another blunder in his second contest in Monterrey, Mexico.

By the time the tour reached Long Beach, the kid was almost pleased not to take pole position in the #2 Lilly Lola/Ford-Cosworth/Bridgestone racer. Perhaps his luck would change? Nope, not even close. Sebastien experienced Cosworth's sole engine failure in the first nine races held to date!

So it was off to England and Germany, two more tracks Bourdais had never driven. His experience in F3000 helped, as there's precious little track time available in that series prior to each race. "Sebastien has this great ability to learn tracks very well," said Craig Hampson, his NHR engineer.

The NHR crew never lost hope and Sebastien—whom they'd nicknamed Kermit because he's French, a "frog"—rewarded them with his first win of the year at Brands Hatch on the tiny 1.029-mile Indy course. The next weekend Bourdais took win #2 at the 1.5-mile EuroSpeedway Lausitz oval after earning his third pole position.

Back on US soil in late May and June, Bourdais had no luck. "Greg [Moore] and I used to call it our June swoon," current points leader Paul Tracy recalled with empathy.

Bourdais took ninth place in Milwaukee in CART's first night race from 13th on the grid; he didn't finish at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca or Portland despite racing to what could have been podium slots both times. Mechanical failures took Kermit out. "We just can't get a result in the States," he wailed.

It was getting depressing for the 24-year-old. After Portland, he participated in testing at Road America and Mid-Ohio with the car now painted red for its three-race McDonald's sponsorship agreement.

Red seems to be a luckier color for Sebastien than black, doesn't it? "It feels very good [to win again], because the car turned red for this event. I'm very glad of that because it looked like the black car was a synonym of bad luck and now it's gone," he laughed.

This Le Mans native won race #9 in Cleveland from his fourth pole position, beating Tracy and teammate Bruno Junqueira in a one-lap shootout for the victory.

A sprint from a short caution in the 115-lap US Bank presents the Cleveland Grand Prix decided the outcome. Bourdais caught the green flags just right and ran away from the duel behind him for second place between PT and Bruno.

Finally, he had his win on American soil. Car co-owner Paul Newman pointed to the destroyed left rear Bridgestone Potenza as a badge of merit after the race, but Paul, he blew that rubber doin' celebratory doughnuts, not racing!

While Bourdais was waiting for the next calamity to strike in the waning laps at Cleveland, there was Adrian Fernandez, taking his line at the third turn and coming in contact with the 11-second leader when only five laps remained. "I have no idea what happened with Adrian but I thought 'oh, no, not again'. I was so scared something happened."

This Cleveland Grand Prix was no lah-di-dah Saturday night drive. It was so tough on the top two that they shared an ice pack for their blistered hands during the post-race press conference.

The heat, the humidity after a late-afternoon storm drenched the 2.106-mile runways and taxiways at Burke Lakefront Airport were difficult for everyone, even the fit drivers of the Champ Car World Series.

Does this mean things will change for Bourdais? Will he fulfill the promise? Hell, I'm impressed. So is Paul Tracy. After the final round of pit stops, Tracy knew his fate. "He was too far down the road for me to catch him. We pretty much ran the same pace," second place finisher PT acknowledged. "Well, you know, if I do catch him, passing him is another thing."

For once, luck shone on the rookie. If there was damage to the #2 McDonald's/Lilly Lola racer, it didn't stop Sebastien Bourdais from coming first to the checkered flags. "I was really upset in the cockpit the last laps. I was so tired in the car and it was very difficult to concentrate to the checkered flags," Bourdais said.

"We knew Sebastien would be very, very good this year. He was clearly the best candidate for this job," Hampson noted later. "He's showing a little better than we expected, though."

With a 57-point lag on leader Tracy even with ten races left to run, Hampson thinks a top-three finish is possible for his rookie, currently fifth in the standings. "Our goal is to win more races than anybody this year."

They've got the tools to get that job done. Sebastien Bourdais is turning out to be a very good Champ Car driver, if not the acknowledged champion some thought he would be.

There's still a long way to go to the end of the season at California Speedway November 2nd, and Sebastien Bourdais will be right in the thick of it all. He can race with the best Champ Car drivers out there and he's having fun. "It's been very frustrating because we should be in the fight for the championship. Now all we need is a bit more luck."

—Anne Proffit

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