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Rookie racer is living up to the pre-series hype

Sebastien Bourdais, new to CART team, ranks fourth in points

Looks can be deceiving, as is the case with Sebastien Bourdais. With his wire-rimmed glasses, he looks like somebody more likely to wear a pocket protector than a racing helmet, or someone who would tip a beaker before steering a 200 mph race car.

Bourdais studied engineering in his native France but left the field early to concentrate on racing. A few years later, he has reached the major leagues.

The 24-year-old rookie for Newman/Haas Racing ranks fourth in CART Champ Car World Series points heading into this weekend's race at Laguna Seca Raceway in Monterey, Calif.

Next week, he and the other CART stars will race in the G.I. Joe's 200 at Portland International Raceway.

In six CART races this season, Bourdais has three pole positions and two wins, and he's lived up to the hype that followed him into the series.

Bourdais won the Formula 3000 series last season, then was hired by Newman/Haas to replace Christian Fittipaldi. The team also hired Bruno Junqueira to replace Cristiano da Matta.

It isn't unrealistic to think that Bourdais could win the Champ Car title. The next 10 races are on road or street courses, which, like all Europeans and foreign drivers, Bourdais thrives on.

'I knew I'd be quick everywhere,' he says. 'I have the confidence in myself and the team. I know we can do well, but I'm not putting pressure on myself to perform.'

Bourdais already has matched the two CART wins last season of Fittipaldi, who now races in NASCAR. Junqueira took over da Matta's crew, which won the 2002 CART series title, but has not won yet. Coincidence?

'The engines are working, the mechanics are strong,' Bourdais says. 'Maybe Christian was there for too long Ñ seven years is a long time, and they didn't have the success they were looking for.

'At the end, maybe the crew wasn't involved enough in the system and didn't have chances to win. A new driver arrives and we're doing well right away. Maybe they say, 'We can do well right now.' '

Bourdais earned the first two poles of the year, but he started with consecutive finishes of 11th, 17th and 16th. He started second and finished first at Brands Hatch, England, and then won the Germany 500 Ñ his first oval race Ñ from the pole.

Growing up, Bourdais lived in Le Mans, France, site of the famous 24 Hours of Le Mans. He attended the event several times, especially to watch his father race in it.

He nearly stayed in Europe to race, but his Formula One team, Arrows, disbanded.

'If I have a chance to go to Formula One and be on a team to challenge for the championship, I'd consider it,' he says. 'Right now, it's not possible.'