Rookies’ strong weekends unravel on race day in St. Petersburg

Photo: IndyCar
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Rookies rose to the occasion on Friday and Saturday at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, with three qualifying in the six – Robert Wickens, who started on the pole, Matheus Leist, who started third, and Jordan King, who started fourth.

However, all three came crashing back down to Earth on race day, suffering big problems that knocked them out of contention, or out of the race entirely.

Things got off to a promising start, as Wickens, King, and Leist ran 1-2-3 in the early laps, with King even briefly leading after passing Wickens on a Lap 6 restart.

However, before too long, things started to fall apart. Leist was the first victim, with a gearbox issue causing the A.J. Foyt Racing driver to get stuck in third gear. While he eventually rejoined, Leist’s day went from bad to worse, as he drifted wide in Turn 3 on Lap 28 and smacked the outside wall, ending his race on the spot. He finished 24th.

“Today it was unfortunate,” Leist lamented before subsequently going into more detail about his day.

“We had a shifting problem when I was running fourth, so I couldn’t change gears up or down. I stayed in pit lane for like 10 laps trying to solve the problem. Then we had another problem and came back to the pits. The third time I went back on the track, I had a mega understeer going into Turn 3 and I missed the corner and hit the wall.”

King was the next victim, as the Ed Carpenter Racing driver suffered a cut tire and then suspension damage that forced him to pit for repairs. He did rejoin the race, but was three laps down and languished in 21st at the end.

“After the first stop, we picked up a puncture and slid against the wall and had some damage. It was frustrating more than anything to be hindered by that,” King revealed.

King did express confidence after showing impressive form, but couldn’t help but be disappointed that circumstances didn’t let him and ECR cash in.

“Overall, I am happy from the sense that the speed is there, but disappointed to throw away a result,” King finished. “I know not every weekend is going to be like this, but it was great to be fast and challenging for the race win. It just hurts a bit when you throw away a good result like that.”

And, finally, Wickens’ day came undone in the final laps after dominating most of the race from the pole. The 28-year-old Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver needed to fend off Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi on a pair of late-race restarts as he looked to secure a win on his Verizon IndyCar Series debut.

The first restart, with four laps to go, went well for Wickens. The second restart, with two laps remaining, did not, as Rossi got loose under braking while trying to pass Wickens. The two made contact, sending Wickens into a spin and into the Turn 1 wall. Wickens, after leading the most laps, had to settle for 18th.

Robert Wickens had victory snatched away following contact with Alexander Rossi with two laps remaining in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Photo: IndyCar

“I gave him space around the outside. I broke late. I made the corner and then we had some contact, and obviously it put me into a spin into the wall. I ended my day with one lap left in the race. Not the way I imagined the day going for the No. 6 Lucas Oil SPM Honda,” explained a gutted Wickens afterward.

Wickens added that confusion over the final restart – the pace car was not called in until a few corners before the green flag flew – made matters worse for him, and may have set up the chaos on the ensuing restart.

“It was all a little bit confusing because I was told on the radio we were going green, but they didn’t turn the lights off the pace car, so I didn’t get the best restart I could have done. Probably the worst one of the whole day,” he explained. “I want to kind of speak to the officials to see why they didn’t turn the lights off the pace car before we went green but I don’t know.”

Of note: Juncos Racing’s Rene Binder endured a tough day as well, nosing into the Turn 1o tire barriers with eight laps remaining, essentially setting the late-race chaos into motion in the process. He finished 22nd.

Of the other two rookies, Andretti Autosport’s Zach Veach Dale Coyne Racing’s Zachary Claman De Melo, finished 16th and 17th after relatively quiet days, while Michael Shank Racing and SPM driver Jack Harvey crashed out due to a cut tire on Lap 39.

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IndyCar drivers say Thermal Club could host race after successful opening day to test

IndyCar Thermal race
Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY Sports Images
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THERMAL, Calif. – The “motorsports country club” passed the first test (figuratively and literally) with NTT IndyCar Series drivers pleased enough to proclaim The Thermal Club as race-eligible after its debut.

Though there were a few minor incidents on the 17-turn, 3.067-mile permanent road course east of Palm Springs in Southern California’s Coachella Valley, there was no significant damage for the 27 full-time cars that turned 1,119 laps Thursday.

Perhaps more importantly, drivers seemed to enjoy the ride around the track, which is unlike anything on the current circuit.

“I would love to race here,” said Chip Ganassi Racing rookie Marcus Armstrong, who posted the 10th-quickest time (1 minute, 39.9077 seconds) in the No. 11 Dallara-Honda that he will race on street and road courses after coming from the F2 Series. “I think it’s awesome. Would have to do a lot of neck training prior to the race because it’s much like a European circuit, quite demanding on the neck, towards the end of the lap anyway.

PRACTICE SPEEDS: First session l Second session l Combined

‘AN AMAZING PLACE’: IndyCar and its big plans for Thermal

“I think it’s cool. Very flowing, banked corners, banked high-speed corners. In terms of racing, it could be potentially not a lot of overtaking. You’d have to commit hard (in) maybe Turn 1. It wouldn’t be the easiest place to overtake. As a whole facility and circuit, it’s very enjoyable.”

Juncos Hollinger Racing No. 77 Chevrolet driver Callum Ilott, another F2 veteran who is entering his second year in IndyCar, was seventh fastest. Ilott said Thermal would “set a standard really of what we want to be doing with this series.

“It’s really, really high level, high tech,” said Ilott, whose rookie teammate Agustin Canapino went off course twice but incurred no major trouble. “As a circuit, yeah, it’s got a little bit different corners. I think the overtaking — we’ll find a way, we’re IndyCar — someone always sends it down the inside. I think if we can extend the straight and get some overtaking between Turn 6 and 7. It’s definitely a great circuit to drive and good fun and a bit different to the normal winter training we get in Florida. So I like the circuit.

“I think if we could, it would be good to race here once.”

Andretti Autosport’s Colton Herta, who turned the fastest lap (1:39.3721) in his No. 26, also was optimistic despite the passing challenges.

“I think it really comes down to tire deg, what people are showing with that,” Herta said. “It will be tough to pass, right? A lot of the good braking zones, you’re coming off of high-speed corners, so it will be hard to follow.

“But you never know. I would say some of the tracks we go to would be terrible for racing, and IndyCar still puts on a great show. You never know until it’s tested and proven right or wrong.”

The possibility of adding an IndyCar race at The Thermal Club has been floated, but there would be some challenges. It likely would be a made-for-TV event given it’s a private club (and filled with multimillion-dollar homes filled with vintage cars). The test is closed to the public and open only to members and VIPs.

There also are some areas that would need to be improved, namely the galvanized steel Armco barriers that ring the track and generally are considered antiquated in motorsports.

“I think the Armco might propose a little bit of an issue,” Ilott said. “Again, it depends on what angle you’re hitting them obviously. It’s a pretty straightforward process to make it a bit safer and a bit more cushiony. I’m not in charge of that stuff. I just drive and try not to hit those things.

“I think it’s a straightforward process. To be fair, everyone has had a little moment today, spun and carried on. That’s a good start. Obviously there are anomalies, these things happen. So far, so good.”

Said Herta: For sure. It probably needs a little bit of work. They’ve already done a lot for us to come here already. It seems like if they do want to have a race here, they’re willing to put the work in and money in to upgrade the facility to make it a little bit safer for us.”

Christian Lundgaard of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing was second fastest (1:39.3767), followed by Alex Palou (1:39.3970) and Romain Grosjean (1:39.4826). Will Power was the top Chevrolet driver in fifth (1:39.5690).

Though Andretti had two of the top four times, Herta downplayed the significance other than getting reacclimated to his team.

“Just a lot of knocking the rust off,” he said. “It’s quite a long offseason without being in the car. I don’t know how much we’re really going to learn from running here. It’s really good to get the team back into it, get all the boys working again. Yeah, just get everybody back into the flow of it.

“It could be a huge shake-up when we go to St. Pete and who’s up front and who’s at the back. It is too early to tell. It’s nice just to be back in the car and get lap times down, get everybody working again.

“The track surface is very strange, very different to anything I’ve really felt in IndyCar. It’s seven first-gear corners. We don’t really have that many anywhere we go on a street course. It is quite a bit slower than our natural terrain courses. But I don’t want to be in here and dig it the whole time. It’s a fun track to drive, especially the back section. It keeps you on your toes. It doesn’t really replicate anything else that we go (race).”

The test will continue with another six-hour session Friday.