August 27, 2014

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The need for speed: grand prix of cleveland

Bourdais ready to go fast, reclaim Cleveland crown

Tom Withers
The Associated Press
CLEVELAND — Like the average dad on a summer road trip, Sebastien Bourdais obeyed the speed limit while driving the family motorhome down from Wisconsin along with his wife and 6-month-old daughter.
He hardly broke 65 mph, not easy for someone accustomed to accelerating through traffic at 200.
The motorhome safely parked, Bourdais will spend the next few days driving solo.
And just as fast as he wants.
The three-time defending series champion and Champ Car’s current points leader, Bourdais goes for his fourth win in five races this season in Sunday’s Grand Prix of Cleveland, which will begin with a standing start for the first time in its 26-year history.
Bourdais won the event — his first U.S. victory on the circuit — in 2003 and repeated in 2004. He finished fifth in 2005, but a crash on the first lap last year ended his race and sent him to the hospital.
“We’ve had two good ones and two bad ones here,” Bourdais said Thursday. “Hopefully this can be another good one.”
For the Frenchman, they usually are.
Bourdais has become Champ’s champ.
With 15 wins in his last 25 races and 26 in 63 career starts, the 28-year-old is the driver to beat each time he slides into the cockpit and flips down his visor. Except for a 13th-place finish to open the season in Las Vegas (he crashed in qualifying), Bourdais has won the last three events and is favored to make it four straight on Cleveland’s 2.106-mile course set up on the runways and taxiways of Burke Lakefront Airport.
“I love this track,” Bourdais said. “It’s a good challenge and a lot of fun.”
Not last year.
Starting on the pole, Bourdais navigated his way through Cleveland’s treacherous Turn 1, where temptation often results in wrecked cars and enraged drivers, only to crash seconds later when he got spun around out of Turn 2 and had Paul Tracy’s car climb over and land on top of him.
Although Tracy’s tire slammed into his head and left marks on his helmet, Bourdais wasn’t seriously injured, and after a brief hospital visit for tests, he was back at the track before the race was over.
“It was pretty crazy,” he said, recalling the scary accident. “But it’s something you can’t let bother you or affect your focus.”
Bourdais said that while being a new father — he and his wife, Claire, welcomed Emma in December — has given him a greater appreciation for life, it has not affected his mind-set on the race track.
“I have to drive the same way and be smart about what I do,” he said. “That hasn’t changed at all.”
After winning at Portland on June 10, Bourdais flew home to France and finished second in the 24 Hours of LeMans, driving for a Peugeot team making its return to the classic race after a 14-year absence.
The finish was a proud moment for Bourdais, who could be on his way to other glory this season.
No Champ Car driver has ever won four consecutive championships, which is a rarity in any sport. Last year, Bourdais became only the second to win three titles in a row and the first since Ted Horn from 1946-48.
It’s early, but the way he’s performing in the Newman-Haas-Lanigan team’s No. 1 car, Bourdais could run away with another title.
“He’s got amazing focus on race day,” said teammate and series rookie Graham Rahal, whose father, Bobby, won the inaugural Cleveland race in 1982. “Seb is able to block everything out and go about his business better than anyone.”
Champ Car’s decision to abandon a rolling start for a standing one at Portland was greeted with skepticism by Bourdais, who worried that cars would stall off the grid and there would be more accidents.
But things went smoothly, stunning some drivers.
“My plan was to wait for a few cars to stall and then go past them,” said Katherine Legge, who finished eighth in her Cleveland debut in 2006. “But when nobody had any trouble, I was like, ‘Uh-oh, I’d better get in catch-up mode.’”
That same mentality could make for major problems in Cleveland. With a long straightaway leading into the first turn, aggressive drivers angle toward the inside hoping to be the first through the corner.
Those who try usually end up on the infield grass, back in the pits getting a wing replaced or new front tire or towed to the garage.
“It’s always interesting,” said Rahal, who won two Atlantic Series races in Cleveland last year. “The first corner is a wild card. Rolling start, standing start, it doesn’t matter. Something is always going to happen there.”

GP OF CLEVELAND
WHEN: Sunday, 1 p.m.
WHERE: Burke Lakefront Airport, Cleveland
TV: Channel 19
TODAY’S SCHEDULE: Gates open at 9:30 a.m.; Champ Car practice 12:15-1:30 p.m.; Champ Car qualifying 4-5 p.m.