Napoleonic IndyCar Driver Test: Sebastien Bourdais

 

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Images from autosport.com and napoleon-empire.com

KVSH’s Sebastien Bourdais was born on February 28, 1979 in Le Mans, France near the site of the oldest automobile endurance race in the world. His arrival came mere weeks after the first ever running of the Paris to Dakar Rally, the same month Peugeot introduced the turbo-diesel engine and ominously during CART’s revolutionary formation in the U.S. Are all these motorsport-related events in Gallic history occurring within a six week period mere accident? We think not. As Napoleon said, “there is no such thing as accident – it is fate misnamed.” Strangely similar to Napoleon, dethroned Champ Car Emperor Sebastien polarizes people like few others, as fans tend to either love him or despise him due to his past glories and commanding role in the bitterly contested “Indy-onic” wars. The Emperor of the French himself once observed, “there is no place in a fanatic’s head where reason can enter.”

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Photos from usatoday.com and IndyRaceReviewer

Like “meteors intended to burn to light their century,” the stunning successes enjoyed by both deposed Emperors are undeniable even to their most determined detractors. In a hundred thirty one career starts, Bourdais won thirty one races and four straight championships in Champ Car and a thirty second at Toronto last July during his fourth season in IndyCar – his first open wheel victory in seven years. The Frenchman’s wide ranging conquests that propelled him to “the summit of greatness” are inarguable. He’s claimed thirty three poles, sixty two top fives and eighty six top ten major league open wheel finishes as spoils of war around the globe.

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Photo from autosport.com

For comparison, Napoleon won over forty major battles, lost only a handful and ruled western Europe for fifteen years after the French Revolution. Emperor Sebastien ruled Champ Car during IndyCar’s Great Schism taking championships from 2004-2007, paradoxically benefiting from and at the same time being injured by the sport’s revolutionary blood-letting era. After all, “war is the business of barbarians.” A diluted field of drivers became Bourdais’ ally, while a divided sport diminished his accomplishments and served as enemy to all. Although he couldn’t have known it, Bourdais’ career followed precisely the same arc as Bonaparte’s, having peaked relatively early before a very lengthy and public decline.

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Photo from napoleon-empire.com

Adhering to Napoleon’s axiom to “not fight too often with one enemy, or you will teach him all your art of war” as ruler of Champ Car, Sebass departed east for new European battlefields of Formula 1 in 2008. Like Napoleon’s disastrous Russian campaign two centuries before, it was an uncharacteristically fruitless foray resulting in neither wins nor even top fives and several stinging losses. Having failed to conquer F-1, he eventually returned to IndyCar in 2011 defeated and dispirited. Initially his comeback was tepid and only for non-oval races, though he’s raced full time in the series since 2013. Bourdais’ similarity to the exiled Bonaparte is in some ways uncanny, with faded glory rather than triumphalism becoming the primary focus of the latter phases of their respective careers, despite some flashes of former brilliance.

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Photos from dailymail.co.uk and racing.ap.org

The IndyCar driver exam tests drivers’ media and PR skills – “all the drivel which appears in print” – as well as their record in battle, for as Bonaparte said “four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets.” English speaking rivals and critics led the race to condemn the Emperor as dangerous or worse, and this negative narrative largely stuck. Image is also one of Bourdais’ greatest vulnerabilities, as with other conquerors before him his public persona is neither warm nor endearing and often viewed only through the prism of his fall. When asked recently about his 2014 campaign in an interview on indycar.com, Bourdais unwittingly illustrated just how far he’s fallen. “I think it was a great season. We showed more pace than we showed results, but that’s the way it goes.” Despite the facade of French arrogance, those certainly aren’t the sentiments of an all powerful conqueror at his zenith.

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  Images from autosport.com and napoleon-empire.com

Bourdais continued. “The target of the season was to win a race or a couple. We won one and next year the goal is to fight for the championship. Hopefully, we’ve set the foundation.” These words are more reminiscent of the late-career, returned from exile Napoleon facing an entire continent arrayed against him at Waterloo rather than the victorious Emperor at Austerlitz in his prime. Fact is, Bourdais has never been particularly adept with the media or at connecting with most IndyCar fans. His recent surprise return to the top – two poles, five top fives and seven top tens – hasn’t helped his lack of popularity or enabled him to overcome his controversial reputation. Bourdais may well agree with his Imperial countryman’s comment that “glory is fleeting, but obscurity is forever.”

In fairness, Sebass did soften some hearts with his victory lane/belated Bastille Day celebration in July, which featured his adorable towheaded kids and wife. At thirty five, the bespectacled Bourdais is one of the most senior drivers on the circuit, dating back to disco and nearly to De Gaulle. Again similar to Bonaparte, Bourdais has mellowed in middle age and now is only vaguely evocative of his previously prickly public self – or for that matter his former greatness.

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Photo from concordmonitor.com

Tellingly, he now finds himself under the rule of fellow Frenchman Simon Pagenaud, the King Louis XVIII of IndyCar who with the help of powerful outsiders supplanted Emperor Sebastian’s reign over France. Pagenaud certainly comes off as more likeable (for a Frenchman) and less threatening than Bourdais and doesn’t have his carriage train of baggage. Nor does he have the results, although King Pags recently reaped the rewards of victory in signing a compact with Team Penske. Meanwhile Bourdais languishes in IndyCar exile with KVSH, IndyCar’s equivalent of St. Helena, or at least Elba. “Greatness is nothing unless it’s lasting.”

King Pags

Due to his short-lived yet historic reign of Champ Car alone Bourdais passes the driver test, but only barely. Just as jealousies, biases and fear – rightly or wrongly – shape Napoleon’s image in people’s minds to the present day, Sebastien’s public perception has been similarly forged. Sadly and also like the middle aged Bonaparte, he leads an imprisoned, exiled existence knowing his best days are behind him. In this confused world, genius is rarely accompanied by warmth or fondness. Fallen rulers always have been difficult to deal with – especially when they insist upon making a comeback. As the faded Frenchman’s fellow famous fallen figure in Franco history frankly divulged, “all celebrated people lose dignity upon a close view.”

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Images from reuters.com and napoleonguide.com

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