IndyCar returned in the most IndyCar way possible on the streets of St Petersburg, with eight cautions, multiple lead changes and a lot of crashes! Robert Wickens so nearly took what would’ve been a remarkable win on his debut but a tangle with Alexander Rossi left Sebastien Bourdais to come through and take his first victory since this time last year.
Up until the race, it had been the weekend for the rookies; Wickens, Jordan King and Matheus Leist all made it into the Firestone Fast Six, with Wickens snatching pole from Will Power in the dying moments of qualifying.
As series veteran Helio Castroneves gave the drivers the command to start their engines, the tension was tangible, could a rookie win in their first race or would the old guard put him in his place? After 110 laps, we would have an answer…
Wickens, despite all the pressure, kept his head at the race start and led; Power had started second but he spun in the opening corners – giving Wickens a decent lead by virtue of everyone having to avoid his Penske. The Canadian also survived his first restart, courtesy of Charlie Kimball spinning and stalling, and successfully negotiated his first IndyCar pit stop.
While Wickens seemed to have it all his own way at the front, Bourdais had already been in the wars. The Frenchman had picked up a puncture on the first lap and had to pit, dropping him down the order and putting him off-strategy.
When caution number two, brought out by Spencer Pigot, came to an end, it was Bourdais who was in the lead, albeit on much older tyres than the chasing pack. Bourdais continued to lead through the next two cautions and restarts, brought out by Leist and Sato respectively, but soon the older tyres came back to bite him. Wickens dived down the inside at Turn 1 to reclaim a lead which he held through the next caution and restart, this time caused by Jack Harvey.
Once the pit stops had cycled out, a new contender emerged in the shape of Andretti’s Rossi who’d been quietly going about his business up until then. Wickens led with Rossi in hot pursuit while Bourdais was all but out of it, now eight seconds back on the leading pair.
Wickens and Rossi traded fastest laps but it was clear that Rossi was catching the Canadian rookie – it was game on for the 2016 Indy 500 winner. However, when the pair caught traffic, Rossi ran too hot into Turn 4 and went wide; this mistake dropped the American nearly three seconds back from Wickens who now looked comfortable in the lead.
There was to be another twist to the tail though; Rene Binder was struggling with endurance because of the length of the race and subsequently hit the barriers, bringing out caution number six. This was a godsend for both Rossi and Bourdais who’d since lost touch with Wickens – the race was back on.
Wickens led off the restart with Rossi too busy sliding on his worn tyres to even think of a challenge. Just as Wickens looked to have it in the bag, Max Chilton put his Carlin in the wall to bring out the seventh caution of the race. On the restart, Wickens was slower than Rossi and the latter looked to take advantage of that into Turn 1 however, Rossi was struggling on his tyres, the overtake attempt soon turned into a crash. Wickens was spun around and put in the wall while Rossi was able to continue but it had done its damage to both their races because now, out of the blue, Bourdais was leading.
Wickens’ spin had brought out the eighth and final caution of the race which meant that it ended under yellows so it was a very emotional Bourdais who took an unchallenged victory from Graham Rahal and Rossi.
After the hectic nature of this weekend, all bets are off for the championship as the series heads to Phoenix in just under a month’s time.