January 28, 2014 | By Bruce Martin
Indy 500 Drivers Excel in Rolex 24 at Daytona
With so much IndyCar talent in this year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona, there was a pretty good chance a former Indianapolis 500 winner would be celebrating in Victory Lane after the “Race Twice Around the Clock.”
It may not have been an Indy 500 winner that was part of the winning but one of the great names in Champ Car Series history – four-time champion and current IndyCar Series driver Sebastien Bourdais – and the 1995 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year Christian Fittipaldi.
For a good portion of the race, it appeared the IndyCar Series drivers that would be able to celebrate would be Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon, a three-time IndyCar champion and 2008 Indianapolis 500 winner, and Tony Kanaan, the 2004 IndyCar champion and defending Indy 500 champion, and Marino Franchitti, brother of four-time IndyCar Series champion and three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dario Franchitti, and NASCAR Sprint Cup rookie Kyle Larson.
Sage Karam, the 2013 Indy Lights champion, was also part of the overall Ganassi team in the No. 01 entry.
In the first race with the Ford Eco-Boost engine, Dixon and Kanaan looked like winners in the making.
But with just a few hours left in the race, mechanical failure sidelined the No. 02 Ganassi entry.
Prior to that, it was a thrilling duel between Ganassi, the Action Express Corvette that included four-time Champ Car World Series champion and current IndyCar driver Sebastien Bourdais and former CART and Indianapolis 500 driver Christian Fittipaldi, and the talented team at Wayne Taylor Racing. Once Ganassi was out of the race, it was an exciting fight to the finish between these two Daytona Prototype machines.
It was Joao Barbosa behind the wheel of the winning car when the checkered flag waved while Bourdais watched from the timing stand, ecstatic that he had captured the Rolex 24.
“It's one of these big races that you just want to put on your résumé,” said Bourdais, who will drive for KV Racing in IndyCar this season. “I've been chasing Le Mans many times to get a Rolex, and that didn't work out, so I came here.”
Bourdais had finished second in this race before, and when team owner Bob Johnson made a Joe Namath-like “guarantee” that the team would win, the four-time Champ Car World Series champion felt the pressure was on.
“Finishing second, I figured at some point they would just take pity on me or something and give me that watch (Rolex Daytona), but that didn't happen,” Bourdais said. “It's just a great feeling. Bob was convincingly, absolutely dead sure that we were going to win it, and I was scared to death because we had the team dinner on Wednesday night, and he shows up, and he's like, we're going to win this thing, and I'm like, oh, my God, here he goes. Last time he did that we probably didn't make first hour.
“I was like, this is like bad, bad, bad, and he was right. The guys were prepared. Everybody was on top of things. Everybody knew exactly what to do and how to do it, and the execution was perfect. The car was reliable. The Chevy engine in the car -- What can I say? It's a dream come true. I've been coming here a few times already and never really had a shot, but this year from the start of the weekend and pretty much even before that, the first test sessions, through the Roar and all week we've been running at the front. In these moments, you're like, hmm, when are things going to go bad, and it didn't. We made it stick, and my teammates did a fantastic job. It's a heck of a feeling, and I couldn't be any happier. Thanks to Action Express, Bob and Jim France because they made that possible.”
Fittipaldi, who finished second in the 1995 Indianapolis 500 as a rookie for Newman Haas Racing, was part of the winning team back in 2004. Ten years later, he won it again.
“I just hope it doesn't take me another 10 years to win again,” Fittipaldi said. “It's been awesome. Action, Joao, myself, Chevy, we had a great run last year, actually things Joao did when both of us were together in the car, and I think it made maybe the 9 car stronger and it made the 5 car a lot stronger.
“I have to admit that the way things were going last year, I thought that we had a chance at the championship, although we only started driving together on race 4. But it didn't go our way, and this race definitely went our way.
“I think preparation for this race didn't start until two, three months ago, it started one year ago when we left this place, and we knew exactly what were our strong points and what were our failures, or maybe like weak points, and where we had to improve to make the whole organization a lot stronger.
“I'm very happy for Action. I'm really happy for Chevy. Joao did an okay job. No, Joao drove like really, really perfectly the last couple of laps, Sebastien, also, Joao did very quick with us, and I guess the three of us, it worked pretty okay. We'll see what can happen in Sebring, but I'm definitely looking forward to the next race, also.”
Bourdais has won some pretty impressive endurance races in his career including the Spa 24 Hours, the inaugural Brickyard Grand Prix, V8 Supercar races, and 31 Indy car races.
Bourdais has been the runner-up three times in the 24 Hours Le Mans in his hometown.
“It's done today, and it was done fighting hard for it and it really feels good for the entire Team Chevy and everybody because we went and grabbed this one,” said Bourdais, who will compete in IndyCar this year in the No. 11 entry for KV Racing.
"I'm elated that he's going to come into the season after this victory and boost his confidence, which has been building with his finish last year of top-10 finishes in four of the final five races," said KV Racing Technology co-owner Jimmy Vasser, the 1996 CART champion. "You don't win 31 races and four championships in a row if you don't know how to win. He led that team and had the fastest lap, and he was just phenomenal. I'm really happy for him and look forward to what lies in store for the IndyCar Series season."
More than a dozen IndyCar Series drivers competed in the 52nd annual Rolex 24. Charlie Kimball (2013), Justin Wilson (2012) and Graham Rahal (2011) were the previous IndyCar Series drivers in that span to be part of the winning team and earn the signature watch.
Bourdais has hinted that he could compete in the 12 Hours of Sebring because it would fit in nicely with his schedule.
“Thankfully the IndyCar season only starts after Sebring, so I could do pretty easily Daytona and get warmed up and do the 12 hours, as well,” Bourdais said. “And then after the season do Petit. It worked out really good. I had a great opportunity to drive with these guys, and I couldn't be any happier right now. There are worse ways to start the season for sure.
“And then more races, I don't know. Obviously they don't need me on a two and a half hour event, and I can't make Watkins Glen, so that makes it pretty easy. I think the IndyCar schedule from the end of March to the end of August is not going to give me much room to do much else. Just going to try and do well at what I've already committed and hopefully grab a bunch of wins this year.”
Fittipaldi had stepped away from racing to return to Brazil and start a family. Now that he has returned to victory lane, could the former IndyCar driver consider a comeback?
“Well, let's put it this way: I have a U.S. passport, so I'm American, also,” Fittipaldi said. “I intend to be here a long time. I really enjoy this place. I really love the country a lot. Not only in my sports car days but also back in my IndyCar days, Newman Haas, Carl Haas, Paul Newman, which my partner here also drove for them like they were a very special family, and I owe a lot to them. They gave me a lot of opportunities.”
“And now like in sports cars and with Action and Joao and Bob and obviously like the whole team, I feel very, very comfortable, and hopefully they feel the same with me.
“Why not? I think sports car racing in this country is starting a new era right now, and we don't know where this is going to lead like in the next couple of years. But I am happy to be running together with them, extremely happy, and I'm putting all my effort into the program right now.”
While Bourdais and Fittipaldi were able to celebrate their victory, Dixon was behind the wheel of the Ganassi car when mechanical failure dropped it out of the race, just a few hours short of the finish.
“I started hearing some things under the floor, and then in that last stint it got real bad,” said Dixon, the defending IndyCar Series champion. “Something started to peel back, and then the front end started to get really light, so we brought it in. It was really fun. Traffic was kind of crazy. Unfortunately for us, even at speed we didn’t have what the Corvettes had. We were doing the best that we could and Ford has done a hell of a job bringing this new engine to the 24 hours.”
Kanaan, the defending Indianapolis 500 winner, was part of that team and was impressed with the Ford engine as he made a rare sports car appearance.
“There are many ways to look at it -- it's quite obvious that we don't have as much (speed) as the Chevy,” Kanaan said. “That could happen, or we could have come here and had a lot more. The biggest props will be that we are still in the race. It's not over yet, it is more difficult for sure, but for the first race for the EcoBoost, I can tell you three weeks ago that there were a lot of people in this paddock thinking that we're not even going to run for three hours because we struggled at the test. That shows the capability of this team. Nobody gives up until the checkered flag. Yeah, I wish we could have a little more, but drivers are never happy. We always want more.”
Dixon was running second when his car got a flat tire. That would later turn into mechanical failure that would keep the team from contending for the victory as the car went to the garage.
“If you look at this race or the Indianapolis 500, everybody is going to have an ‘if’,” Kanaan said. “But yes, that's a shame, because that's not something mechanical, he didn't hit anything. It's like a NASCAR race. People blow tires, and yes we're fourth, but I think realistically we could be top-three easy. I wanted to see when it comes down to an hour left if we're in the fight, are they going to turn it up?
“That I don't know, because we're not up there.
“We were in the fight all day. Things could have happened to them as well and didn't, and that's how you win races. I'm pleased. I had a lot of fun. I've done this race before. Once you've done it with an organization like this, it's going to be hard to come back and do it with anybody else because for me, at this point in my career, it's very overwhelming and I'm just overwhelmed with how everything works. I had a rough three years with my friend Jimmy, it's nobody's fault, but things are different.”
And for the young 2013 Indy Lights champion, his first international sports car race left quite an impression.
“This is my first Rolex 24, and to do with a team like CG is an honor,” Karam said. “I had a lot of fun. I drove from like 2 to 4 this morning and I just got out of the car, so like 8 to 10. I did a lot of driving and I'm really tired actually. Those are some graveyard hours right there. We had some misfortune in the beginning there. The team is such a cool unit to work with, they're so together, they really worked well just to get the car back together and get some laps. Even though we're really far behind, everybody is still pushing like we are in the lead. That's just the attitude of this team, that's why I really love working with these guys is they never give up and they always want to win.
“Before this race, I'd driven Indy Lights and I'd only really been in the car at one point for about an hour, so this is the first time I've been in the car for more than an hour at a time, and also it’s the first time I've ever done pit stops, the first time I've ever shared a car with people. It's a completely new experience for me. I look at it as the more cars you drive, the more tools you start to become familiar with and can use in different types of racing. It's almost like when I'm wrestling; you've got four different types of wrestling. You've got Greco, free style, folk style; all those things can transfer over to all the other things. That shows how I look at it, and I really love the sports car experience. It was a lot of fun and it's definitely not boring because you're passing like 10 cars a lap so, definitely really cool and I think it's on to something. I think you're going to see the series grow in the next few years and become really popular.”
Simon Pagenaud, who finished third in last year’s IndyCar Series standings, drove for Extreme Motorsports and finished seventh in Prototype, 11th overall.
“My triple stint in the car was good,” Pagenaud said. “The HPD was fast and quite enjoyable in the night running; I really had a good time with the car. We were trying to play ‘catch-up’ and we could keep improving our position and moving up in the standings. Overall, it went pretty well. I think the HPD held up very well with all the mayhem out on track. There was a lot of contact, as well as passing. It was good racing, but certainly, it was also mayhem at times.”
Ryan Hunter-Reay, the 2012 IndyCar champion, drove for SRT Motorsports and was third in GT, 12th overall. Graham Rahal drove for BMW Team Rahal Letterman Lanigan and was fourth in GT, 14th overall. Dixon and Kanaan finished eighth in Prototype and 15th overall. IndyCar rookie Mikhail Aleshin drove for SMP/ESM Racing and was fourth in GTD, 21st overall. Justin Wilson was part of Michael Shank Racing, which finished 12th in Prototype and 47th overall. James Hinchcliffe drove for SpeedSource and was 14th in Prototype, 57th overall and Ryan Briscoe was one of Corvette Racing’s drivers with a 10th place GT finish, 60th overall.
These drivers helped show an international audience that the IndyCar Series has some of the most diverse race drivers in the world.