July 17 2009 – Frenchman Sebastien Bourdais has responded to his sacking yesterday by the Scuderia Toro Rosso team by saying he is not only ‘shocked’ and ‘disappointment’ but that he feels the team are in ‘clear violation’ of the team’s contractual obligations and has his lawyers investigating if there is a case to take to court. Without knowing the actual contract details it is impossible to ascertain if Bourdais has a case or not, but it is irrelevant as whatever the outcome the 30 year old will not be driving a F1 car again this year and probably not ever again. If you were the boss of Torro Rosso, Franz Tost, would you have sacked Bourdais? And if yes, would you have done it now or wait until the end of the season?
Tost explained his decision, “Sebastien’s second year with us has not met our expectations. Therefore we have decided to replace him from the next round of the world championship, the Hungarian Grand Prix.” The replacement driver has not been announced but it is widely expected that Spain’s British F3 champion and the new reserve driver for Toro Rosso, Jaime Alguersuari , will be brought in to partner Swiss Sebastien Buemi. In 2008 Bourdais was completely dominated by German Sebastien Vettel in his rookie year and this year he has not been a match for F1 newbie Buemi. He has not delivered at all on his great potential and so has to go, right?
Bourdais came into Formula One with a lot of promise having won the Champ Car title four years in a row (2004-2007) with the Newman/Haas team, the first driver ever to accomplish such a feat. He was F3000 Champion in 2002 and was even offered a F1 drive by Arrows for the 2003 season but they unfortunately went bankrupt. He moved to America and was phenomenally successful in Champ Cars, producing an incredible winning percentage of 42.4%, winning 31 races from 73 starts. Even if you don’t consider Champ Car to be anywhere near the same calibre as F1, this is still a mightily impressive performance. Toro Ross must have had such high expectations when he signed up for them in 2008.
It wasn’t just that Vettel blew him away scoring 35 points to Bourdais’s 4 points, it was that Bourdais never seemed to get to grips with his car and did not imbed himself into the Toro Rosso team in the way he had done at Newman/Haas in the US. The Toro Rosso was not the best car, but Vettel was comfortable and at very much at home with the car to be able to get the most of out it, to push it to its limits and in doing so even managed to win the race at Monza in Italy. Vettel qualified in pole for that race and Bourdais three places behind in 4th, but by the end of the race Bourdais was 18th and over a lap behind his teammate.
So the pressure for Bourdais to perform was definitely on in 2009 but he had a year of F1 under his belt, he knew the team and would have a new rookie teammate racing next to him. He would have spent the winter preparing mentally and physically and the first race in Australia started off reasonably well with both cars scoring points as Bourdais finished 8th and Buemi a place ahead in 7th. This has been Toro Rosso’s best race so far of the season and Buemi has out-performed his teammate scoring a total of 3 world championship points to Bourdais’s 2 points. However, it is in qualifying that Bourdais has really struggled with his inexperienced teammate starting higher up the grid no less than 7 times of the 9 races.
So would you have sacked Bourdais? Absolutely! As a team owner up against fierce competition and strong commercial pressures striving to get results and repeat any of the success of last year, you would say you have given Bourdais a good chance but it has not worked out. It is a logical decision and the right decision. However, would you have done it now? Is there an advantage into bringing someone new into the team? Or could he just not handle another year of 2 drivers called Sebastien?!
Unless the person being brought in has a lot more experience and potential than Bourdais, then what is the point of bringing in someone new mid-way through the season? Alguersuari is the reserve driver but has only been there a matter of days and is completely new to the team, the car and F1. He will take some time to get up to speed and there is no particular likelihood that he will outperform Buemi’s results. Perhaps Toro Rosso are thinking about 2010 and rather than bring in a rookie then, they can have a driver who has had half a season under his belt and acclimatised to the world of F1. They can also evaluate if he is any good and has potential.
I feel sorry for Bourdais as he must not understand why he has not performed in F1 like he has done at other levels of motor racing and must know his F1 career is now over. Tost was right to sack him, but I think it has not been handled as well as it could be (can it ever be handled well?!) and perhaps giving Bourdais a clearer ultimatum of needing to get results by a certain race, say the Belgium Grand Prix, would have been more productive and fairer as this would still give 5 races to anyone new coming in.