Bourdais: Managing tire life is crucial to Portland success

This weekend’s Grand Prix of Portland has been extended to 110 laps, shifting the emphasis of the race strategy from fuel saving to tires, according to AJ Foyt Racing-Chevrolet’s Sebastien Bourdais.

When IndyCar last raced at Portland in 2019, the leaders were able to run the 105 lap race distance on just two stops due to 17 laps run under caution. But this year the race has been extended to 110 laps of the pretty 1.964-mile course, pretty much enforcing a three-stopper while opening up the fuel windows as yellow flags can be expected. In fact, there has been a Lap 1 caution period in all but two Indy car races there since 1998.

Bourdais believes that’s just as well because despite the long front straight at Portland, trying to save fuel by tucking into the slipstream of the car in front is not an option, because it would entail tire “torture” in dirty air through the rest of the lap

“I don't remember any instances at Portland where clean air is not key,” he said. “It's just awfully difficult to follow through the complex at the back. Obviously [Turns] 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 is just torture, and as you start to get on a sunny day a slightly higher track temps and less dense air with warmer conditions, you're just starving for downforce.

“Yeah, following has always been a very tricky thing. It's a very narrow track. There's really mostly only one line, so getting any kind of air behind someone is a huge challenge, and tire deg comes into play very quickly after that.

“I like the idea [of getting towed to save fuel], but unfortunately with the nature of the track it's almost impossible to get dragged along.”

Interestingly, one of the keys to Bourdais’ success at Portland in his Newman/Haas Racing Champ Car days (two wins, a second and a third) was how closely he could track other cars – rivals or backmarkers – through the two long-duration corners at either end of the track. Bourdais suggested that wouldn’t be possible now.

“I think there's no denying that the way you used to be able to drive the Champ Cars is very, very different from where we're at… probably mostly the way you have to treat the Firestone tires. The construction has changed a lot. The compound tends to be quite a bit softer, and the weight of the car is obviously a big factor in it.

“So yeah, I think there are a lot of variations from my early career in the U.S. to where we're at right now.”

The new race length, on the other hand, now offers greater opportunity to vary fuel strategy.

“Fuel can often at times come into play,” said Bourdais. “The nature of the track being a very short track, there are a lot of laps, and to save a lap, two laps, three laps is not out of the question.

“Yeah, it's definitely one of those races that's been played out in fuel saving mode, sometimes pretty aggressively. Surely '18 was. In '19 there was some drama, as well. Yeah, I think it's never really a boring race, and with the number of cars you increase the chances of these things happening.”

Asked if the length of the front straight might favor the Chevrolet-powered cars, Bourdais replied: “I think it's probably one of those tracks that really doesn't put a big gap between the two. Not that there is a big one anyways, but I think it kind of levels things out between the torquey side of the competition and our more crisp top end.

“I would say it's probably a bit of an equalizer.”

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