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Column: Rossi spoils Wickens’ near-perfect IndyCar debut

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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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Rahal determined to regain winning touch in 2019 IndyCar season

Photo by Shawn Gritzmacher, INDYCAR
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AUSTIN, Texas – Graham Rahal entered the room with a smile on his face and a chip on his shoulder.

It was IndyCar “Media Day” and Rahal wasn’t happy with the way last season went at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. He was less happy with the fact some aren’t considering him a serious threat in 2019. He playfully chided with one media outlet for failing to mention his team as one to watch in 2019.

“We use that as motivation to show everybody how we are viewed,” Rahal said. “We are here to win.”

Rahal just turned 30 in January but is entering his 13thseason in big-time Indy car racing. He entered the 2007 Champ Car Series season when he was just 17. He missed his high school prom because he was racing at Houston.

“That was the luckiest day of my life,” Rahal said. “I didn’t have to go to the prom. It doesn’t get any better than that.

“Plus, I got my second career podium that weekend.”

Rahal drove to victory in his very first race in the combined IndyCar Series in the 2008 Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. He was hailed as the “Poster Boy of Unification” and a future star. What followed was a seven-year drought before he captured his second-career win in a thrilling race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California.

He won two races in 2015, one in 2016 and two in 2017. He was expected to contend for victories and possibly the championship last year but struggled through a disappointing season and finished eighth in the standings.

“I’m looking forward for chance this year,” Rahal said. “Last year was a tough one for me and for the team. I’m looking forward to what my new engineer, Allen McDonald, has done so far. He is an accomplished engineer and brings a different mindset to our program this year from what we had last year. He and (fellow engineer) Eddie Jones are very close friends and that will help us from the standpoint they are on the same page.

“We needed a bit of life brought back to the team.”

Rahal believes his challenges are to get everything in order before the season starts. The team has defined the areas where it was lacking in 2019. The team needed to improve in research and development after starting behind last season.

“I’m excited for what I see, and I know in the end it will all pay off,” Rahal said. “It’s just a matter of when.

“There is a lot to be excited about for us. We are in a great position as a team. We have great sponsorship and that will allow us to push forward and do the things we need to do.”

Rahal believes at 30, he has a long time ahead of him to win races and championships and maybe even the Indianapolis 500. In order to reach those goals, however, Rahal’s team needs to regain the competitive level he displayed prior to last year.

“We’ve been fortunate to win six times,” Rahal said. “A lot of people come into this sport and never win. I fully recognize there is no reason we can’t win a lot. I don’t care what anybody writes, what anybody thinks – I really feel that when it comes to race day, we perform better than 99 percent of the other people out there.

“As a team and for myself, we have to qualify better. If we can qualify better, we’ll be a thorn in everybody’s side. We know the rear of our cars just aren’t good enough. When we need to find that extra tenth or two, it’s just not there but absolutely, we want to win.

“I don’t come here year after year to just drive around. Our sponsors don’t invest in us year after year to not see us win. We feel that. But our cars aren’t good enough and we know that.”

Rahal believes the team has identified the problems with the setup of its car. It has a deep engineering staff but hasn’t had a chance to develop the damper program and other important areas that provide a competition setup.

Takuma Sato, the winner of the 101stIndianapolis 500 when he was with Andretti Autosport, scored the team’s only victory in 2018 with a win in the Portland Grand Prix. The two are back this year and have built a respect for each other.

“He’s a good guy,” Rahal said of Sato. “Other than Helio Castroneves, Takuma is probably the happiest man on the planet. He’s a great guy and fits in well with our organization. We pride ourselves on being a family and he fits in extremely well to that.

“We need to do a better job for him as a team. He won a race last year, but we can both do better to win with both cars.

“The Andretti cars are the best right now and the Penske cars will be good. We have a lot of space to close up on those two teams but hopefully, we can do it.”