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IndyCar: St. Petersburg Recap

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The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg had storylines aplenty entering the weekend. And exiting the weekend, there is even more to salivate over ahead of next month’s Phoenix Grand Prix at ISM Raceway (April 7, NBCSN).

The streets of St. Petersburg have hosted the season opener for the Verizon IndyCar Series every year since 2011 – the track also hosted the season opener in 2009, and kicked off the 2003 season for the old CART series as well, meaning it has been the season-opening event ten times in total. And there may not have been a more memorable event than the one we saw on Sunday.

An analysis of several big storylines from the weekend is below.

Rossi/Wickens Battle Takes an Ugly Turn

The aftermath of contact between Robert Wickens and Alexander Rossi in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Photo: IndyCar

It is hardly a surprise that the most talked about incident of the day is the one between Robert Wickens and Alexander Rossi, when Rossi tried a dive up the inside, but got loose and collided with Wickens, sending the 28-year-old into a spin and into the wall.

But, like any incident, there are multiple layers to it, and an examination of them makes it difficult to assign blame to only one party.

First: the Wickens angle.

To describe the contact as heartbreaking for the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver is a massive understatement. Put simply, Wickens deserved to win. He sat on the pole, led the most laps – only losing it on pit stop cycles – and was keeping Rossi at bay before the final two cautions came out. It was a stellar effort that deserved a victory.

However, there is at least one, and arguably two areas where Wickens could have been at fault.

First, Wickens’ restart with two laps remaining was not nearly as well-timed as his others. He had been diamonding the final hairpin – Turns 13 and 14 – to launch off the corner exit and get a run down the front straightaway. Such a move gave him a nice jump on a restart two laps prior.

However, he did not diamond it as much on the final restart, allowing Rossi to be much closer to his gearbox when racing resumed.

The second “error” is one that’s difficult to classify as an error, in that it requires hindsight, a luxury not available in the thralls of battle.

Once Rossi was alongside, Wickens’ best chance to defend may have been to brake slightly early, knowing that Rossi was going to enter Turn 1 very deep and could go wide on the exit, allowing Wickens to dip back inside and retake the lead.

Teammate James Hinchcliffe used a similar move against Takuma Sato in a famous finish on the streets of Sao Paulo, Brazil in 2013, so it is a move that most certainly could have worked.

However, Wickens also entered Turn 1 very deep, and the end result was the contact we saw.

Now, the Rossi angle: Indeed, the Andretti Autosport driver made a mistake in outbraking himself, getting loose, and bumping Wickens. But, it was an honest mistake from a driver trying to win. Not an intentional “dump” or anything similar, simply a buy-product of an admittedly aggressive move.

And Rossi was not the only one to get caught out by such a move. Graham Rahal suffered a similar fate when diving inside of Spencer Pigot on Lap 7, with both cars spinning in the aftermath. Scott Dixon was also caught out in similar fashion when he slid into the back of Takuma Sato on Lap 35, with Sato spinning and Dixon stalling.

But, what makes Rossi’s incident more egregious, particularly for those critical of him, is that he didn’t suffer much misfortune. Dixon was stalled behind Sato after their contact, and received a drive-through penalty, while Rahal spun himself after his run-in with Pigot.

Conversely, Rossi ended up finishing third, while Wickens languished back in 18th.

Perhaps the biggest shame is that the controversy masks otherwise great days for both drivers. Rossi was on the charge from the outset, going from 12th to sixth by Lap 3, and then up to fourth by Lap 7. He then stayed in the top five for most of the race, only falling out during pit stop sequences.

And Wickens’ IndyCar debut was historically great. Maybe not since Nigel Mansell, at Surfers Paradise in 1993, has a driver had a more landmark debut. That year, Mansell won both the pole and the race in his first IndyCar start.

Wickens echoed Mansell’s pole accomplishment in qualifying on Saturday, and was set to echo Mansell’s race result prior to the Rossi contact.

Regardless, the incident clouds outstanding days for both drivers, and it’s a genuine shame that things played out the way they did.

Honda Dominates Chevrolet

It was an all Honda podium at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Photo: IndyCar

For the previous three seasons, informally recognized as the “Aero Kit Era,” Chevrolet had a big advantage over Honda. And even though Honda teams closed the gap last year – they won seven races in 2017 – Chevrolet still seemed to have the upperhand.

But, Sunday’s race, the first for the universal aero kit, flipped the script, and Hondas dominated. Honda teams led all but five of the 110 laps – with Ed Carpenter Racing’s Jordan King the only Chevrolet driver to lead – and claimed eight of the top 10 finishers, including a sweep of the first six positions.

“That was a great way to start the season!” quipped Art St. Cyr, president of Honda Performance Development, afterward. “It’s always nice to see all the hard work put in by the HPD associates rewarded after a very busy off-season. Congratulations to Sebastien Bourdais for his repeat victory at his hometown event; to the Dale Coyne organization, and to new Honda team co-owners Jimmy Vasser and James Sullivan. Also congratulations to Graham (Rahal) for his run from last at the start to second at the checkers.”

Chevrolet was not helped by the struggles of Team Penske, which saw Josef Newgarden, Will Power, and Simon Pagenaud all hit significant problems – Power spun on the first lap, Newgarden suffered a cut tire, and Pagenaud just didn’t catch the strategy breaks.

With King suffering a cut tire himself and suspension damage after wall contact, and A.J. Foyt Racing’s Matheus Leist having gearbox issues before crashing out on Lap 28, there was little Chevrolet could do to stop the Honda freight train.

It will be intriguing to see how the engine battle will shake out over the next 16 races, but Honda has come out of the gates fast in 2018.

Perseverance Is the Word of the Day

If viewers needed proof that you should never give up in a race, Sunday’s affair in St. Petersburg was it. Several top 10 finishers overcame major problems to finish well at the end of the day.

  • Race winner Sebastien Bourdais suffered a cut tire in the opening laps and dropped to the back, but regained his track position by going off strategy and not pitting during a Lap 28 caution for Leist.
  • Rahal’s aforementioned spin with Pigot dropped him deep in the field, and he too went off strategy, going the same route as Bourdais, to get up front, where he stayed the rest of the way and finished second.
  • Ryan Hunter-Reay was in the pits as the race started with an electrical problem, an identical fate to one he suffered last year, but regrouped to finish a strong fifth.
  • Sixth-place finisher Scott Dixon overcame contact with Sato and a penalty to end up back in the top 10 at the end.
  • Seventh-place Josef Newgarden rebounded from a cut tire following a Lap 39 restart.
  • Will Power came back from a Lap 1 spin and wall contact to finish 10th.

Sunday’s roller coaster of a race was more proof that perseverance can take you a long way, even if you encounter a major hiccup.

Misc.

  • Ed Jones, on debut with Chip Ganassi Racing, was classic Ed Jones. Starting 17th, Jones simply kept his nose clean and nary a peep was heard from him until he emerged in sixth place in the final stint. Ganassi teammate Dixon did get by, along with Team Penske’s Newgarden, but eighth place is a solid debut effort for Ganassi’s newest driver.
  • Harding Racing finished the best out of the new IndyCar teams on Sunday, with Gabby Chaves bringing the No. 88 Chevrolet home in 14th. It was a quiet day, but one that did see them run inside the top 10 at times. With Larry Curry as the team’s manager and Brian Barnhart as the team’s president, this group has a lot of talent behind the scenes and will be one to watch going forward.
  • Conversely, Carlin Racing had a debut to forget. Charlie Kimball’s day never got going, as he slid off entering Turn 13 on Lap 3 and was never a factor on his way to 20th, while Max Chilton only finished one spot better in 19th. But, given the team’s pedigree, better days should be ahead.

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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.”