Column: Rossi spoils Wickens’ near-perfect IndyCar debut

Photos: IndyCar
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Canadian driver Robert Wickens started from the pole, led the most laps (71), overcame two late cautions/restarts and then wrapped things up by winning Sunday’s IndyCar season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

That’s how the story SHOULD have ended.

Unfortunately for Wickens, making his first career start in an IndyCar race – and what a start it was – his dream weekend ended in a nightmare.

With two laps remaining, Alexander Rossi slid into Wickens in Turn 1, sent the race leader hard into the wall and out of the race – while Rossi continued along to a third-place finish.

The aftermath of contact between Alexander Rossi and Robert Wickens in Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. (Photo: IndyCar)

Surprisingly, IndyCar officials ruled no harm, no foul on Rossi’s part, allowing him to end up with a podium finish behind race winner Sebastien Bourdais and runner-up Graham Rahal.

Wickens, meanwhile, after driving nothing short of an exceptional race – and who deserved a win for that effort – was left to go home to Canada with an extremely disappointing 18th-place finish.

And to add insult to injury, Wickens was scored two laps down to the winner, Bourdais.

Wickens did everything right in his IndyCar debut. He picked his spots, made clean passes, let others go by (primarily when he was on pit road), and raced like an IndyCar veteran rather than a series rookie.

It’s a very clear observation from just one race that Wickens is a very cerebral driver, he keeps his emotions in check and will make an excellent teammate to James Hinchcliffe and an equally excellent fit with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports going forward.

But Rossi’s move — whether it was a mistake or not — prevented Wickens from finishing his Cinderella story with what he deserved: a win.

I can understand Rossi was fighting for the spot and contact was incidental to the battle between him and Wickens.

But at the same time, some might disagree with IndyCar officials on the Rossi verdict.

Here’s part of what Rossi had to say in his defense afterwards:

“(Wickens) 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,” Rossi said. “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. Like you never want to see that happen. I feel bad because I feel like I could have won and he could have gotten second. You never want to see that happen, but nevertheless, it was a great job by the whole team all weekend.”

So, was Rossi’s action right? That’s debatable.

Watch the replay of the incident and after Wickens briefly tried to block before deciding otherwise, it appears Rossi came into the turn too hot, hit the rumble strip, slipped off it and slid right into the right side pod of Wickens’ car, sending him spinning.

When you make an aggressive move – in this case over-aggressive at that point in the race and at that part of the racetrack – that takes out another driver, especially the race leader, it just doesn’t seem right.

Rossi fans will counter that he was trying to win the race and with two laps left, HAD to be over-aggressive. And also that particular place on the track was arguably one of the few (and best) places to pass Wickens.

If the contact had not occurred, we likely would have had one of the best race finishes that the Verizon IndyCar Series has seen in a long time.

Rossi knows Wickens is ticked at him. It should be interesting how the conversation goes when the two finally discuss what happened Sunday – even though it could take nearly four weeks until the next IndyCar race (at Phoenix) for that to happen.

“I will (talk to Wickens) at some point, and obviously express my feelings,” Rossi said. “I’m sure he’s upset, and he has a right to be.

“If you were in the lead of the race with two to go and you didn’t finish, you’d be upset, yeah.”

At the same time, that’s not to discount Bourdais waiting for the right opportunity, seizing upon it, passing Wickens and Rossi and motored on to his second consecutive win at St. Petersburg, his adopted hometown.

Bravo to Bourdais. He let the race come to him. Also bravo to Wickens. What he showed us Sunday could be the sign of a new star in the making for the IndyCar Series.

As for Rossi, here’s how Wickens so astutely put it after the race, “(Rossi) just went too deep, locked the rears and slid into me. There’s really no other explanation to it. The only pity is he carried on to a podium, and I ended up in the fence.”

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Cadillac, Acura battle for top speed as cars back on track for Rolex 24 at Daytona practice

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The new hybrid prototypes of Cadillac and Acura battled atop the speed chart as practice resumed Thursday for the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Chip Ganassi Racing driver Richard Westbrook was fastest Thursday afternoon in the No. 02 Cadillac V-LMDh with a 1-minute, 35.185-second lap around the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course at Daytona International Speedway.

That pace topped Ricky Taylor’s 1:35.366 lap that topped the Thursday morning session that marked the first time the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship was back on track since qualifying Sunday afternoon that concluded the four-day Roar Before The Rolex 24 test.

In a final session Thursday night, Matt Campbell was fastest (1:35.802) in the No. 7 Porsche Penske Motorsports Porsche 963 but still was off the times set by Westbrook and Taylor.

Punctuated by Tom Blomqvist’s pole position for defending race winner Meyer Shank Racing, the Acura ARX-06s had been fastest for much of the Roar and led four consecutive practice sessions.

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But the times have been extremely tight in the new Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) category that has brought hybrid engines to IMSA’s premier class. Only 0.9 seconds separated the nine LMDh cars in GTP in qualifying, and though the spread slightly widened to 1.378 seconds in Thursday’s practices with teams on varying strategies and preparation, Westbrook still pooh-poohed the importance of speeds.

“It’s always nice to be at the top, but I don’t think it means too much or read too much into it” Westbrook said. “Big fuel tanks in the GTP class this year, so you have no idea what fuel levels people are running. We had a good run, and the car is really enjoyable to drive now. I definitely wasn’t saying that a month ago.

“It really does feel good now. We are working on performance and definitely unlocking some potential, and it just gives us more confidence going into the race. It’s going to be super tight. Everyone’s got the same power, everyone has the same downforce, everyone has the same drag levels and let’s just go race.”

Because teams have put such a premium on reliability, handling mostly has suffered in the GTPs, but Westbrook said the tide had turned Thursday.

“These cars are so competitive, and you were just running it for the sake of running it in the beginning, and there’s so much going on, you don’t really have time to work on performance,” he said. “A lot of emphasis was on durability in the beginning, and rightly so, but now finally we can work on performance, and that’s the same for other manufacturers as well. But we’re worrying about ourselves and improving every run, and I think everybody’s pretty happy with their Cadillac right now.”

Mike Shank, co-owner of Blomqvist’s No. 60 on the pole, said his team still was facing reliability problems despite its speed.

“We address them literally every hour,” Shank said. “We’re addressing some little thing we’re doing better to try to make it last. And also we’re talking about how we race the race, which will be different from years past.

“Just think about every system in the car, I’m not going to say which ones we’re working on, but there are systems in the car that ORECA and HPD are continually trying to improve. By the way, sometimes we put them on the car and take them off before it even goes out on the track because something didn’t work with electronics. There’s so much programming. So many departments have to talk to each other. That bridge gets broken from a code not being totally correct, and the car won’t run. Or the power steering turns off.”

Former Rolex 24 winner Renger van der Zande of Ganassi said it still is a waiting game until the 24-hour race begins Saturday shortly after 1:30 p.m.

“I think the performance of the car is good,” van der Zande said. “No drama. We’re chipping away on setup step by step and the team is in control. It’s crazy out there what people do on the track at the moment. It’s about staying cool and peak at the right moment, and it’s not the right moment yet for that. We’ll keep digging.”


PRACTICE RESULTS:

Click here for Session I (by class)

Click here for Session II (by class)

Click here for Session III (by class)

Combined speeds