The Verizon IndyCar Series got off to a very dramatic and chaotic start of the season in St. Petersburg, Florida.
The qualifying yesterday already delivered a lot of surprises. A light drizzle made the conditions very hard, resulting in several of the favourites having to start the race far back in the field.
The biggest surprise was the defending Champion Josef Newgarden, only qualified 13th – one spot ahead of last years St. Petersburg winner, Sebastien Bourdais. 2016 Champion Simon Pagenaud was all the way back in 11th, while 2015 Champion Scott Dixon started 9th.
Instead it was Robert Wickers who took Pole Position ahead of Will Power, Matheus Leist and Jordan King. That was three rookies in top four! Several of the established drivers were concerned before the start of the race, since new blood at the front normally gives a lot of troubles at the start.
And troubles there was, but not from the young guns. Instead it was Will Power spinning out on his own hand, trying to overtake Robert Wickens. Power fell all the way back to 11th, but he managed to get the car going again.
Later on the opening lap, Tony Kanaan was spinning, when he tried to close the door for Zach Veach. Kanaan fell all the way back to the second to last position – only ahead of Ryan Hunter-Reay, who had problems accelerating the car, and had to pit before the green flag.
The first Safety Car came on the track on Lap 3, when Charlie Kimball stopped on the circuit. He had done a trip over the grass, but stalled the car in an attempt not to hit the wall.
Power used that caution to pit for four new tires and a new rear wing, which had been damaged at his lap-1 spin.
The race was quickly restarted, but there were troubles in Turn 1 again. Graham Rahal and Spencer Pigot made contact, where the latter stalled. That brought the Safety Car back out again, so they could get Pigot restarted.
Jordan King had managed to overtake Robert Wickens right before the yellow came out, so one rookie was taking the lead from another.
Alexander Rossi had made a bit gain, settling into third – after starting 12th!
Wickens took the lead back on the restart. Jordan King and Alexander Rossi were very close at hitting the wall in Turn 4, when they both tried to outbrake each other, in the fight for second. Rossi went back to fourth, but was up to second position only a few laps later.
Matheus Leist suddenly slowed down on Lap 15. He pitted instantly, and it took the mechanics a long time to fix the car, before he returned to the race.
Scott Dixon made full use of the cold tires, when the first pitstops started to happen, and dived past James Hinchcliffe instantly in Turn 4. The mechanics on Simon Pagenaud’s car had problems getting his left rear tire on, so he lost a bunch of seconds.
The third yellow of the day was for Matheus Leist, when he hit the wall in Turn 3. He was able to get out of the car by himself, but the race was over with a broken front and rear suspension.
Sebastien Bourdais had managed to sneak into the lead with an alternate strategy, after getting a slow puncture earlier in the race. Spencer Pigot was second ahead of Robert Wickens.
Just one lap after the restart, we saw a contact between Scott Dixon and Takuma Sato. Dixon misjudged his braking, and slammed into the rear of Sato, who didn’t have any chance. Dixon had to get a new front wing, while Sato needed a new set of tires, because his rear tire was ruptured after the contact.
Marco Andretti made a phenomenal overtake, once the race went green again. He overtook two cars before going into Turn One.
Robert Wickens made a nice overtaking on Sebastien Bourdais, and thereby retook the lead – just before Jack Harvey put his car in the wall, and another Safety Car had to be deployed. The Harvey’s defence, his rear tire was already flat before he hit the was, and therefore was the cause of the crash.
After a chaotic first half of the race, we got a long stretch of green flag running. Even though Bourdais was leading, it was down to the alternate pit strategy, and with Robert Wickens right behind him, the two drivers offered good racing, with different fuel levels and big difference in the tire conditions.
Scott Dixon had a really bad day at the office, when he received a Drive-Through for speeding in the pitlane. So he once again fell out of top-10.
Wickens managed to go in to the lead again, after making his final pitstop of the race, while Sebastien Bourdais fell back to third, a few seconds behind Alexander Rossi. Bourdais would, however, need a few caution laps to actually make it to the finish with his fuel.
With 20 laps to go, Robert Wickens was only a few seconds ahead of Alexander Rossi. The gap was alternating between the two cars, but nobody could really make any differences.
Rossi made a mistake with 12 laps to go, when he tried to lap Zachary Claman De Melo, and almost hit the wall. That gave a nice gap of 3 seconds for Wickens down to Rossi.
That quickly disappeared, when Rene Binder hit a tire barrier, and brought out the Safety Car, to get the Austrian running again.
The race was restarted with 4 laps to two, and everybody got away cleanly – until Max Chilton stalled, after brushing the tire barrier.
That made the whole field having to do a new restart with two laps to go.
When the green flag was shown, we saw Alexander Rossi instantly attacking Robert Wickens. The American wanted to get past the Canadian at all costs, but couldn’t keep the car on the road and slammed into Wickens, sending the latter hard into the wall. And by doing the, the driver in third position, Sebastien Bourdais, could only laugh and drive the car back to the chequered flag, being gifted the victory. That was his second win in two years.
Graham Rahal finished second, while Alexander Rossi made it home in third. The teammate of Wickens, James Hinchcliffe finished fourth.
Scott Dixon for Chip Ganassi Racing finished the race in sixth, while the best Team Penske car was Josef Newgarden in seventh.
The next Verizon IndyCar Series round will be run on 7 April in Phoenix, Arizona, with the first oval race of the year.