Sebastien Bourdais takes St Petersburg victory as leaders collide
If yesterday’s first race of the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series is an indication of what is to come for the rest of the year, fans and drivers alike are in for a wild, unpredictable roller-coaster of a 2018 season.
When the dust had settled on Sunday afternoon in downtown St Petersburg, it was Sébastien Bourdais who repeated his 2017 performance to win the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. But it was only after rookie Robert Wickens and Alexander Rossi collided while battling for the lead on the next-to-last of 110 edge-of-your-seat laps that the St Petersburg based Frenchman took the lead.
For Bourdais though, the rewards of being in the right place at the right time, gave him his 37th victory of his IndyCar career. This now ranks the four-time champion sixth on the all-time winners list. The #18 Dale Coyne Racing driver now trails Al Unser by just two wins for fifth spot on the list.
It also brings full circle Bourdais' recovery from a fractured pelvis and hip sustained in a frightening crash during qualifying at last year's Indianapolis 500.
"This is emotional because I was able from a few broken bones to come back in this victory circle," said Bourdais, who lives in St. Petersburg near where the 1.8-mile temporary street course is constructed each year. "We didn't have the fastest car today but we had consistency and we pulled it together. We were going to get a podium today, which was awesome. I was really happy for Robert [Wickens] and kind of heartbroken for him, but for us it is just such an upset. I can't quite put it into words."
Wickens, who started from the pole position in the #6 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda after qualifying in pole position on Saturday, was vying to become the first driver to win an Indy car race in his debut since Buzz Calkins in 1996 at Walt Disney World Speedway. And after leading a race-high 69 laps, Wickens was in front for a Lap 108 restart following a full-course caution for the stalled car of Max Chilton.
But on the restart, Rossi attempted to put his #27 Andretti Autosport Honda inside of Wickens heading into Turn 1 at the end of the Albert Whitted Airport runway straight, but Rossi's car slid wide and the two made contact. Rossi continued but Wickens' car was disabled, bringing out the last of eight full-course cautions in the race.
"I didn't get the best restart in the world, but that didn't really matter," said Wickens, who ended being classified 16th. "I [braked] really late into Turn 1. I defended a little bit, but the track was so dirty off line that I told myself that if Alex wants to go there, go for it, but he's not going to make the corner. He made a mistake on the inside and I guess he just couldn't keep it, and just slid into me.
"It's a shame. Everyone on the Lucas Oil team and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports did a fantastic job today. It would've been a fairytale to finish that one out, but sometimes it's not meant to be."
Bourdais and Graham Rahal, running immediately behind Wickens and Rossi, avoided the incident and slipped past to finish first and second, respectively. Bourdais' victory is the sixth in the history Dale Coyne Racing and the fifth for Bourdais in cars entered by the co-owners Jimmy Vasser and James Sullivan.
Team co-owner Dale Coyne admitted that Bourdais’ wasn't the best car on track, but benefited from having the French multi champion in the cockpit and a little good fortune after he had to pit on the opening lap to replace a punctured tire.
"We had an eighth-place car today," Coyne said. "[Bourdais’] consistency makes that a fourth-place car, and luck made it a winning car."
The second win on the trot around the streets of his adopted home town also confirmed for Bourdais that he was right in not retiring after his horrific crash at IMS last May.
"When I got the verdict of what was broken and I was going to heal pretty well, it was never a question on whether I should continue or stop," the 39-year-old Frenchman said. "Guess I'm glad I did continue."
Rossi, who finished third, said he got the jump on Wickens for the decisive restart by activating earlier his push-to-pass - which provides an engine boost of approximately 60 horsepower.
"The run was perfect for me going into Turn 1 and I knew there wasn't going to be very many other opportunities," Rossi explained. "Obviously, he had a good car all day and they did a great job. Made the [pass attempt], he defended the position, which he has the right to do, but in doing so, in moving the reaction, he put me into the marbles pretty late into the corner.
"It's difficult with these cars and with how much we're sliding around in the first place, even on the racing line. When you're put in the marbles, it's hairy. Super unfortunate. You never want to see that happen. I feel bad because I feel like I could have won and he could have gotten second."
Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Graham Rahal took his #15 United Rentals Honda to his best ever St. Petersburg finish since becoming the youngest race winner in Indy car history in 2008.
James Hinchcliffe, Wickens' Schmidt Peterson Motorsports teammate, finished fourth in his #5 SPM Honda while Rossi's Andretti Autosport teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay, took his #28 Andretti Honda to fifth.
Three-time St. Petersburg winner Helio Castroneves, this year's grand marshal, gave the call for drivers to start their engines in what quickly became an eventful race on the shores of Tampa Bay. There were five caution periods in the first 40 laps of the race as drivers adjusted to the lower downforce levels of the universal aero kit on all cars racing for the first time. Still, the new car produced incredible racing throughout the field, as there were a record 366 on-track passes to break the old race record of 323 set in 2008.
The Verizon IndyCar Series drivers and fans will now have some time to catch their breath before the next race. The Phoenix Grand Prix will be run under the lights at ISM Raceway on Saturday, April 7. Here’s hoping the wild action continues on the oval…