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Jourdain Returns To Indy After 16-Year Hiatus

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, April 25 2012

Michel Jourdain Jr. will get back together with IndyCar Series team owner Bobby Rahal for next month's Indianapolis 500.

When Michel Jourdain Jr. begins “scraping off the rust” at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway next month, he might need a sandblaster.

Sixteen years after competing in his first Indianapolis 500, Jourdain will attempt to qualify for the 96th edition of the race on May 27 for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. Team co-owner Bobby Rahal, the 1986 Indy 500 champion, announced Tuesday that Jourdain will drive the No. 30 Office Depot Mexico RLL Dallara/Honda as teammate to fulltime IZOD IndyCar Series driver Takuma Sato.

“It’s really a dream for me to get back into driving in IndyCar, especially to get back with Bobby’s team,” said Jourdain, a 35-year-old native of Mexico City, Mexico. “I spent the best years of my life with Bobby, and I think it’s a good situation to get back in it.”

Jourdain became the youngest driver to start a Champ Car race on the Streets of Long Beach in 1996 at the age of 19 years, 6 months, 12 days. He made 152 starts in CART/Champ Car from 1996-2004 plus three in the Indy Racing League, including the ‘96 Indy 500, in which he qualified eighth and finished 13th.

Jourdain won races at The Milwaukee Mile and in Montreal, Canada, in 2003 en route to a third-place points finish with Team Rahal. He moved to RuSPORT for the 2004 season when Team Rahal focused solely on the IRL – the sanctioning predecessor of INDYCAR. Jourdain’s Champ Car career ended after

Bobby Rahal turns to an old friend.

the 2004 season with one pole, two wins, nine podium (top-three) finishes and the desire to return to IMS.

“Well, really, you know, I came to the Vegas race (last October) and I’ve been following, of course, IndyCar all this time,” Jourdain said during a teleconference. “I have all this time a lot of friends there, and then I want to come and try to do something. I spoke to Bobby and then spoke to the guys from Office Depot in México, and things have started running.

“I have been working out harder than ever to make sure I am as fit as possible. I know it is a huge challenge to drive at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway after so long and with this type of cars, but I hope that I will feel at home in a few days.”

The Indy 500 event record between starts is 17 years (1930-47) shared by Cy Marshall and Roland Free.

“We’re very excited about this partnership again,” Rahal said. “Michel did a very, very good job for us really at some of the high points in Indy-car racing in 2002, 2003, and probably should have won a few more. Not through his fault, but other things.

“I’m just pleased that we’ve been able to put something back together with him. He’s still only 35-years- old. I think people forget how young he was. He was 19 when he went to Indy for the 500 the first time, so he’s only 35  – younger than (Dario) Franchitti and many others in this series. I think good drivers are good drivers. They acclimate themselves to whatever it is they’re driving quickly. So I anticipate we’ll have a very good month with Michel as part of the team.

“I’m very pleased with where we’re going technically. I think we’re in form. My feeling is that now we can have a competitive month. It’s going to take a lot of effort to be sure, but no different than with anybody else. It’s just up to us to make the best of it.”

With support from Ford Motor Company, Jourdain moved to NASCAR’s Nationwide Series from 2005-2008 and also competed in the Camping World Truck Series in 2006. He has logged stints in the FIA World Touring Car Championship, A1 Grand Prix Series and World Rally Car.

“It’s not like he’s not been doing anything,” Rahal said. “But I think he’s been looking at getting back into IndyCar racing. So knowing we had such a good relationship before, I think he reached out to us first. Of course I had an ongoing relationship anyway.

“I think very highly of Michel. So I said absolutely, that I’d be very interested and would welcome him. He works hard, and we’re very fortunate to have Office Depot and many of the other sponsors, Grupo Indi, Grupo Multi. So it’s really almost like a coming-home party in many respects. We anticipate a pretty seamless re-entry into IndyCar racing.”

Jourdain has been traveling with the team during the season’s first three races, acclimating himself to key personnel.

“I don’t think that there will be any issue with the team or Michel getting along,” Rahal said. “And I think from an engineering standpoint and from a team standpoint, many of the people that will be with us at Indy this year were with Michel way back when. So I think there’s a lot of familiarity with most of the people there, and I think that will go a long way towards minimizing this decade-long absence.

“Our technical director, Jay O’Connell, was with us during the years with Ford. He was with us during those years in Champ Car, so there’s a familiarity there. Of course Scott Roembke, who is our strategic head now but was an operations guy, he called many of the races for Michel, and he’s going to do the same thing in May. And Cole Selva, a specialist that was with Michel then. So yeah, there’s quite a few people that were involved.

“And then the engineering for Michel will be (handled by) Bruno Couprie, who was Oriol Servia’s engineer last year from Newman/Haas. He qualified on the front level with Michel, so he got something figured out there. I guess all-in-all when you start to add up all the assets that we have on the engineering side, I think we’re pretty strong.”

Jourdain said he has seen plenty of “old faces” in the paddock this season, along with the current generation that includes Graham Rahal, Bobby’s 23-year-old son.

“The last couple of years, I’ve done a different kind of series and racing with guys that you don’t know,” Jourdain said. “And in the end when you are inside the car, you don’t care if it’s your best friend. Through the years being in México I’ve raced against my father, my uncle, my best friend and I spent so many years in Champ Car I was racing with great friends. But I don’t care if I know them. If I don’t, I try to race my best all the time.”

Team Rahal won the Indianapolis 500 from the pole position in 2004 with driver Buddy Rice.

Although he will be classified as a veteran for the Indianapolis 500, Jourdain will participate in a “refresher” course May 10 in conjunction with the Rookie Orientation Program. Opening Day at IMS is May 12.

Minor alterations to Sao Paulo’s 2.536-mile, 11-turn temporary street circuit and venue for the Itaipava São Paulo Indy 300 presented by Nestle will be noticeable to drivers and spectators this weekend.

Circuit designer Tony Cotman said the painted Turn 1 runoff, which became a skating rink when wet last year, has been addressed along with a “pretty significant” bump in the transition from the concrete surface of the Anhembi Sambodromo to the asphalt leading into Turn 1.

“The layout of the track has not changed and the curbs have not changed,” Cotman said. “Reducing some of the bumps was among the goals that have been addressed. Also, drainage in five or six locations has been addressed. Now that it’s all done, we hope we don’t need it.”

A grandstand will be added in Turn 11 – the right-hander that flows from the longest straightaway on the IndyCar Series schedule and one of the best overtaking areas into the Anhembi Sambodromo _ as a structure that prevented its placement the previous two years has been razed. Also, directional signage and concession stand placement have been addressed.

“They are subtle things to help people get around,” Cotman said. “A lot of people won’t notice the things, but it will be more efficient, more fluid and it will be fun. They’re such passionate fans and take a great interest in this race.”

Sunday’s race, Round 4 of the series, will be televised by NBC Sports Network at 11 a.m. (EDT) and broadcast by the IMS Radio Network on SiriusXM (XM 94 and Sirius 212), and affiliates.

The role of Cotman’s company, NZR Consulting, in the event also has evolved to the benefit of his down time. In constructing the circuit, 27,456 feet of fencing, 41 miles of fence cabling, 5,450 fence poles, 11,000 tires, and about 100 miles of reinforcing steel rod (for building the 5.2-miles of concrete barriers) were used. Because of the heavy traffic _ there are seven million vehicles in use in the city _ the event will be held on the weekend only.

“The city’s support has been incredible, and the people who are working on the ground have enough of a knowledge base now that they know what to do and what to expect,” Cotman said. “This year, we’re a week ahead of past years.

“You look back to Year 1 and it was do whatever you could to get the race on. Year 2 was a significant repave of the entire circuit with higher-grade asphalt and reducing bumps. The lap times were quicker, but we weren’t able to utilize it on race day because of the weather. Year 3 is about fine-tuning some of these areas. For us, it’s more of an overseeing role like it should be, rather than a hands-on role and that’s been the biggest difference.”

First-year engine supplier Lotus is preparing to release Dreyer & Reinbold Racing and Bryan Herta Autosport from its fledgling program.

Lotus has struggled to keep pace with the 2.2-liter V-6 engine programs launched by Chevrolet and Honda in terms of its parts pipeline and horsepower during the season’s first three events. INDYCAR’s regulatory requirement to supply multiple teams, the late timing of Lotus’ entry and the unanticipated difficulties caused by a change of ownership prompted the decision to downsize.

Former Champ Car champion Sebastien Bourdais’ ninth-place finish for Dragon Racing at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Ala., is the best by a Lotus-powered car to-date.

Dreyer & Reinbold Racing signed-on with Lotus in November. The team will run the Lotus engine for the final time in Brazil this weekend. “Our focus is on the Brazil race and we are still a part of the Lotus team,” said Dennis Reinbold, co-owner of DRR. “We are excited to go down there. We wish Lotus all of the best going forward. We are in the midst of finalizing our future plans and are talking to the series to conclude that process. We will be making a public statement in the very near future.”

Co-owner Robbie Buhl added: “We know this will be a tough change mid-season, but we feel it is the best decision for DRR and our partners and we wish Lotus all the best.”

The release will leave DRR’s Oriol Servia and Alex Tagliani of BHA temporarily without engine suppliers. However, IndyStar.com reported the teams are expected to sign deals with Chevrolet and Honda for next month’s Indianapolis 500.

Dragon Racing and HVM Racing (Simona de Silvestro) will remain as Lotus’ fulltime teams, along with Newman/Haas Racing for the Indy 500.

In addition, Bryan Herta Autosport will not compete in the Sal Paulo Indy 300 this weekend, the first overseas trip of the season. Team-owner Herta made the decision after Team Barracuda-BHA failed to finish the last two races and fell out of the top 22 in points. INDYCAR is only covering expenses to Brazil for the top 22 teams in the standings. BHA, which won the 2011 Indy 500 with the late Dan Wheldon at the wheel, plans to concentrate on gearing up for the Month of May at IMS.

Herta and Tagliani reportedly will travel to Brazil to fulfill obligations to sponsor Barracuda Networks.

Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing emerged from the open-wheel shadows last fall, when the team won at Kentucky Speedway with Ed Carpenter at the wheel and Dollar General onboard as a sponsor. SFHR and Dollar General have joined forces again for next month’s Indianapolis 500 in support of the No. 67 Dallara/Honda driven by Josef Newgarden, winner of the Freedom 100 Firestone Indy Lights event at IMS last year.

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, April 25 2012
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