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Bourdais collects second straight St. Pete win in wild finish

by Mike Haag | Posted on Sunday, March 11th, 2018

Sebastien Bourdais celebrates on course after winning the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Photo by Chris Owens

 

Courtesy of the Verizon IndyCar Series

ST. PETERSBURG, Florida – If the first race is an indication, the Verizon IndyCar Series is in for a wild, unpredictable and most exciting 2018 season.

Sebastien Bourdais sprays the champagne in Victory Circle after winning the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Photo by Chris Owens

Sebastien Bourdais repeated as winner of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg today, but only after rookie Robert Wickens and Alexander Rossi collided while battling for the lead on the next-to-last of 110 edge-of-your-seat laps. It was the first of 17 Verizon IndyCar Series races this season.

FIRESTONE GRAND PRIX OF ST. PETERSBURG: Official results

For Bourdais, the spoils of being in the right place at the right time were the 37th victory of his Indy car career, which ranks the four-time season champion sixth on the all-time list. The driver of the No. 18 Team Sealmaster Honda for Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser-Sullivan trails Al Unser by two wins for fifth place.

Sebastien Bourdais with some donuts in Turn 1 after winning the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Photo by Chris Owens

It also brings full circle Bourdais’ recovery from a fractured pelvis and hip sustained in a frightening crash during qualifying at last year’s Indianapolis 500.

“This is emotional because I was able from a few broken bones to come back in this victory circle,” said Bourdais, who lives in St. Petersburg near where the 1.8-mile temporary street course is constructed each year.

“We didn’t have the fastest car today but we had consistency and we pulled it together. We were going to get a podium today, which was awesome. I was really happy for Robert (Wickens) and kind of heartbroken for him, but for us it is just such an upset. I can’t quite put it into words.”

Robert Wickens and Alexander Rossi make contact exiting Turn 1 during the final restart of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Photo by Chris Owens

Wickens, who started from the pole position in the No. 6 Lucas Oil Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda after winning the Verizon P1 Award in qualifying on Saturday, was vying to become the first driver to win an Indy car race in his debut since Buzz Calkins in 1996 at Walt Disney World Speedway.

After leading a race-high 69 laps, Wickens was in front for a Lap 108 restart following a full-course caution for the stalled car of Max Chilton. On the restart, Rossi, in the No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS Honda for Andretti Autosport, attempted an inside pass of Wickens heading into Turn 1 at the end of the Albert Whitted Airport runway straight, but Rossi’s car slid wide and the two made contact.

Rossi continued but Wickens’ car was disabled, bringing out the last of eight full-course cautions in the race.

Sebastien Bourdais roars through the backstretch kink during the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Photo by James Black

“I didn’t get the best restart in the world, but that didn’t really matter,” said Wickens, who was scored in 16th place. “I (braked) really late into Turn 1. I defended a little bit, but the track was so dirty off line that I told myself that if Alex wants to go there, go for it, but he’s not going to make the corner. He made a mistake on the inside and I guess he just couldn’t keep it, and just slid into me.

“It’s a shame. Everyone on the Lucas Oil team and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports did a fantastic job today. It would’ve been a fairytale to finish that one out, but sometimes it’s not meant to be.”

Robert Wickens leads the field to the green flag to start the 2018 Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Photo by Chris Jones

Bourdais and Graham Rahal, running behind Wickens and Rossi, avoided the incident and slipped past to finish first and second, respectively. Bourdais’ victory is the sixth in the history Dale Coyne Racing and the fifth for Bourdais in cars entered by co-owners Jimmy Vasser and James Sullivan.

Team co-owner Dale Coyne admitted it wasn’t the best car on track, but benefited from having Bourdais in the cockpit and a little good fortune after he had to pit on the opening lap to replace a punctured tire.

“We had an eighth-place car today,” Coyne said. “(Bourdais’) consistency makes that a fourth-place car, and luck made it a winning car.”

Sebastien Bourdais celebrates in Victory Circle after winning the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Photo by Chris Jones

The triumph also confirmed for Bourdais that he was right in not considering retirement following his Indy crash last May.

“When I got the verdict of what was broken and I was going to heal pretty well, it was never a question on whether I should continue or stop,” the 39-year-old Frenchman said. “Guess I’m glad I did continue.”

Rossi, who finished third, said he got the jump on Wickens for the decisive restart by activating earlier his push-to-pass – which provides an engine boost of approximately 60 horsepower.

“The run was perfect for me going into Turn 1 and I knew there wasn’t going to be very many other opportunities,” Rossi explained. “Obviously, he had a good car all day and they did a great job. Made the (pass attempt). He 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.

The confetti flies in Victory Circle for Sebastien Bourdais, Graham Rahal, and Alexander Rossi following the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Photo by Chris Jones

“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. You never want to see that happen. I feel bad because I feel like I could have won and he could have gotten second.”

Rahal, driver of the No. 15 United Rentals Honda for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, logged his best St. Petersburg finish since becoming the youngest race winner in Indy car history in 2008.

James Hinchcliffe, Wickens’ teammate at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, finished fourth in the No. 5 Arrow Electronics SPM Honda. Ryan Hunter-Reay, Rossi’s teammate at Andretti Autosport, placed fifth in the No. 28 DHL Honda.

Three-time St. Petersburg winner Helio Castroneves, this year’s grand marshal, gave the call for drivers to start their engines in what quickly became an eventful race on the shores of Tampa Bay. There were five caution periods in the first 40 laps of the race as drivers adjusted to the lower downforce levels of the universal aero kit on all cars racing for the first time. Still, the new car produced incredible racing throughout the field, as there were a record 366 on-track passes to break the old race record of 323 set in 2008.

Verizon IndyCar Series competitors and fans have some time to catch their breath before the next race. The Phoenix Grand Prix will be run under the lights at ISM Raceway on Saturday, April 7. The race airs live at 9 p.m. ET on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.

Mazda Road to Indy weekend recap

Santi Urrutia (Belardi Auto Racing) avoided the mishaps that sidelined previous race leaders to win the second Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires race of the St. Petersburg weekend. Pato O’Ward (Andretti Autosport), the winner of Saturday’s first race, was one of three drivers who faltered while leading in Race 2, opening the door for Urrutia. … Rinus VeeKay (Juncos Racing) completed a weekend sweep of wins on the Pro Mazda Championship presented by Cooper Tires. … Alex Baron (Swan-RJB Motorsports) drove to victory in the second race of the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship powered by Mazda weekend, a day after Kyle Kirkwood (Cape Motorsports) won the first race.

‘What They’re Saying’ from the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

JOSEF NEWGARDEN (No. 1 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet): “It was a messy P7, but for us it was a good top 10. It’s a decent start to the year. We had a great Chevy package – it’s just sad we couldn’t take better advantage of it. I felt we had really good power today from Chevrolet. The Hitachi car, overall, was pretty strong. We were just fighting all day to catch back up and we were on the wrong end on the fuel mileage and getting run into and cutting the tire didn’t help us. But I think if a couple of things would’ve gone differently, I really think a podium finish was in the cards for today.”

MATHEUS “MATT” LEIST (No. 4 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “This was a pretty good weekend till now. Pretty happy with the performance we had – we were fast in all of the sessions. Today it was unfortunate. 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. (They went back out on track.) 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. Happy for the performance – we had a fast car. I think it was my fault when I hit the wall that time. The car was good. It happens, so we’ll go to the next one.”

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE (No. 5 Arrow Electronics SPM Honda): “It wasn’t quite the ending we wanted, but it was a good race. I tapped the wall in Turn 8 early in the first stint, and that kind of bent it out of whack a little bit. Man, on our own in clean air, the Arrow Electronics car was a rocket ship, we were setting fast laps at one point on Firestone red (alternate) tires and black (primary) tires, but once we got into traffic, I think we lost the front end too much and couldn’t do anything about it. At the end there, Graham (Rahal) had a lot more push-to-pass than we did, so I was trying to threaten him and make him use up as much as he could, but it is what it is. Gutted for Robbie (Wickens) obviously, it was a storybook race from pole, but a few laps to go going for the win, Alex (Rossi) is a fast, aggressive guy and we knew something was going to be tried at least, and it’s unfortunate he ended up there. Huge congratulations to the team for a solid result.”

ROBERT WICKENS (No. 6 Lucas Oil SPM Honda): “I need to see it before I think I comment on anything, but I didn’t really want to defend too hard because there was so many marbles off line, so I figured if Alex (Rossi) wants to go there, go for it. 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. 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. 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. I just need to see everything before I comment.”

SCOTT DIXON (No. 9 PNC Bank Honda): “Obviously not the way we wanted to start the season here in St. Pete with the PNC Bank car today. We had a fast car this weekend, led practice Saturday, but qualifying didn’t go our way and we started mid-pack. I got loose in turn one and made contact and we went to the back. After that we just focused on clawing our way back up and getting as many points as we could. I thought we could work on strategy and get a solid finish but then we served a drive-through penalty for pit lane speeding which took us out of it. We never give up and we just kept fighting to the end.”

ED JONES (No. 10 NTT DATA Honda): “We had a great start and made up a lot of ground, which I was happy about. I think we were smart all day and had a solid race. Everything considered, I think the first race went well. You always go back and look at some things you may have been able to do better. I’m excited about the start to the season and can’t wait for Phoenix.”

WILL POWER (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “It was pretty wild at times.  It was actually good racing at times, and you can get close to people. It is a good car to race. I was on the back foot from the very beginning. (Robert) Wickens and I touched in Turn 1 and I spun around. There wasn’t a lot of room. That set us back and we fought the rest of the day. The field is just very, very competitive. There are good cars all through the field with many teams. But you can race close to people. You don’t get a draft, but you can almost get right behind them. They did a good job of making the kit with almost zero tow, so it makes the racing better I think. Not a perfect day, but we have a good Verizon Chevrolet team, and we will come back ready to race at Phoenix.”

TONY KANAAN (No. 14 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “Eventful day. I got hit in the beginning – that wasn’t good, but we came from the back and passed a lot of cars. We had a clean day in the pits, which I asked the guys for that. The goal was a top 10 and we finished 11th, so came up a little bit short, but we’ll take it. We’ll go from there.”

GRAHAM RAHAL (No. 15 United Rentals Honda): “The United Rentals guys did a great job out there. Certainly, yesterday wasn’t what we expect of ourselves, isn’t what we hoped for. Last night, what can you do. Put your heads down, you work hard. Even this morning the car wasn’t phenomenal in practice. With Tom (German, engineer) and the boys, they made great changes. Our guys had good pit stops and frankly good strategy. We had the pace when we needed it, we could save a lot of fuel when we needed it, we could make passes if we needed to. It just kind of all played out for us. We will take second (place) any day. It’s the best start to a season I have had since I won here in 2008. Thank you to all the fans, the turnout was great this weekend. I hope you guys enjoyed the new car. We are going to put on some great shows this year as you can see.”

SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS (No. 18 Team Sealmaster Honda): 
“I hope history is going to repeat itself until Indy, to be honest, but yeah, it’s kind of interesting. We ended up qualifying poorly. We didn’t get a good lap. I didn’t get a good lap yesterday with one or another circumstance. With the one lap after the red flag we were comfortably in, in Group 2 prior to the red flag, and it felt like we just missed a good opportunity to start at the front. It definitely seems like this race is disjointed enough that it doesn’t really seem to matter where you start, you’re still going to have opportunities to make it happen, and we sure did today.”

ZACHARY CLAMAN DE MELO (No. 19 The Paysafe Car Honda): “It was a good race. At the beginning we were running fourth for quite a while. The cautions didn’t fall our way at the beginning, but we had a good pace. We were probably missing a little bit to the guys in front of us. Although, I did have a good battle with Dixon and kept him behind me for a while. I’m happy we held on. It’s unfortunate that a small fuel issue at the end cost us couple of positions, but it’s part of the game. It was all a learning experience today.”

JORDAN KING (No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet): “On the positive, I led my first INDYCAR race. It is nice to be able to say that. I am reserved, so I didn’t actually do it, but I did have a little bit of a mental fist pump in my mind when we took the lead. The speed was really good during the race, we genuinely had the pace to challenge for the race win. 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. Overall, I am happy from the sense that the speed is there, but disappointed to throw away a result. 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.”

SPENCER PIGOT (No. 21 Autogeek Chevrolet): “It was a pretty wild race out there. It was very tricky at the beginning going into Turn 1, trying to pass people on the paint. Early on, we were hit from behind and stalled. From there, we just had to try and battle back. We had a really good restart in the middle of the race and passed a lot of cars, then unfortunately we had another issue in the pits and couldn’t get any fuel into the car. We had to make a few unscheduled pit stops to make up for that and went a lap down, putting an end to our competitiveness. We had good pace and a good chance of finishing up towards the front. It was great to have the support of Autogeek this weekend and I appreciate the all of the hard work put in by my guys.”

SIMON PAGENAUD (No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet): “It was a hard-fought day. We had a tire gun problem on the first stop and I feel bad for the Menards crew. That’s a tough thing to happen and they did such a good job on the next two stops. Unfortunately, that put us back in the pack and we just couldn’t make up ground from there. I expected more tire degradation and that might have created some opportunities, but that never happened. It’s definitely not the start to the season that we wanted but we know the Menards Chevrolet is good and we know we will bounce back strong.”

CHARLIE KIMBALL (No. 23 Tresiba Chevrolet): “Honestly it was a disappointing day results-wise. At Carlin, you don’t come to the track to finish 19th and 20th, our goal really is to be fighting for race wins and podiums. We came into this weekend with limited knowledge and experience in the series, but I’d say we probably doubled or even tripled our knowledge on the Indy cars here in St. Pete. I’m looking forward to going back and getting with the engineers, learning, digesting, and figuring out what we need to do in the future. We’ve got a couple of tests before the Phoenix race and we tested there a few weeks back, so I know that we’ll be more competitive at the next race and continue to work our way forward.” 
    
ZACH VEACH (No. 26 Group One Thousand One Honda): “Today was just too messy, honestly. The biggest thing that hurt me was taking that year off of racing (due to injury in 2016). Once you’re in these situations over and over again, you’re honed and jump into it – it’s easy to minimize the mistakes. There were just too many of them today from me to be proud of. I want to apologize to (Tony) Kanaan. He kind of left the doorway open, and I felt, invited me in and it didn’t work out for either of us. All in all, had to walk away P16… but a lot learned, a lot gained. I know we weren’t the fastest rookie, but with circumstances, finishing the highest rookie – that’s what this year’s going to be about. You’re going to have good days and bad days. It’s just all about consistency. The speed is there, it’s just all of the details I have to clean up. Most of all, I can take away patience. Just understanding how the races are going to fold out. And just how long the races actually are. The two races I did last year really don’t quantify how long these races are. The more I get under my belt, the easier it will get.”

ALEXANDER ROSSI (No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS Honda): “Normally they don’t allow push-to-pass on restarts. You’d normally have to do a timed lap before you did it, but because of the late call to go green that lap, they allowed it, and I actually got the call when I was in the middle of Turn 13 and 14. So I had a big jump on Rob (Wickens), and he got to the push-to-pass pretty late. The run was perfect for me going into Turn 1, and I knew there wasn’t going to be many other opportunities. Obviously (Wickens) had a good car all day, and they did a great job. I made the pop. He 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. 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. I think that we showed that we had a car definitely to qualify up front yesterday, and we redeemed ourselves a little bit today. So, a great work by the whole Andretti Autosport NAPA AUTO PARTS Honda team.”

RYAN HUNTER-REAY (No. 28 DHL Honda): 
“The bad luck seems to end up happening at just the worst times. The car has been awesome all weekend, so to have an electronic issue happen when we are coming to the green – man, the luck.  We started the race from pit lane and ended up fifth, so a great job by the team. I was hustling my rear end off out there today. That No. 28 DHL Honda sure was quick and deserved a better finish than it had. We just need to have better luck, or no luck, and hopefully we can start finishing these things right up at the front. It was great to have all our friends from DHL and AutoNation here with us today, and a big thanks to the fans for making this such a great event.”

TAKUMA SATO (No. 30 Mi-Jack / Panasonic Honda): “It was a wild race. The start was actually pretty sketchy. Will (Power) spun in front of us and did a great job to not hit anything. We gained a position there then we lost it again. After the restart it looked like our pace was OK. It was a fun battle through the field, but then we got hit by (Scott) Dixon and got a right rear puncture and it also damaged the diffuser. It was a shame after qualifying in the Firestone Fast Six. Then we were running in the middle of the pack and tried to recover by doing a different pit strategy, but nothing worked and we finished 12th. Big congrats to Graham (Rahal). He was having a difficult weekend and brought the team a fantastic result. I think we learned a lot. There are a lot of positives. We will keep on pushing.”

RENE BINDER (No. 32 Binderholz tiptop timber Chevrolet): “It was my first Verizon IndyCar Series race and I found it quite tough, but I am pleased with the progress we have made. In the beginning of the race there were several safety cars and dust, which made it more difficult. Unfortunately, I did not finish the race, but came close. We are still analyzing our data to improve. Overall, I learned a lot and I want to thank Binderholz, Chevrolet, Ricardo Juncos, and the entire Juncos Team.”

MAX CHILTON (No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet): “We just finished our first race ever for the Carlin INDYCAR team. The No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet started 20th, but we finished 19th so we moved forward one position. It was a long hard race. I think it was around two hours and 20 minutes and there were probably six or seven yellow sessions, so it was really hard to keep our tires up to temperature which was something we were struggling with all day. When the tires were in, we had good performance so we made gains throughout the weekend. Considering this was Carlin’s first INDYCAR race, I’d say it wasn’t a bad showing at all. We definitely have work to do and we aren’t where we want to be yet. I think all-around we did a good job and we’ll make sure we’re ready for Phoenix.”

JACK HARVEY (No. 60 AutoNation/Sirius XM MSR w/SPM Honda): “We had a good start and gained a few positions on the actual start. We aren’t exactly sure what happened just yet. I was in the middle of Turns 11 and 12, and I just lost the car big time and it got away from me. I think overall we had a pretty good weekend, obviously not the best weekend that we were hoping for. It was right where we expected to be and we found areas where we need to do some more work. We didn’t achieve the objective this weekend because we didn’t see the checkered flag, which was frustrating. But the guys have done a really great job and we will just keep moving forward. The fact that we are here and giving it our best shot is where we all want to be. I have a great team of people behind me and we will come back strong at Long Beach.”

GABBY CHAVES (No. 88 Harding Group Chevrolet): “Long day at the race track. It was a long hard race, but I’m really happy and proud of the Harding Racing guys. We had very good progression throughout the weekend and ended up very competitive from where we started. I thought we had a car to run in the top six or eight all day. Unfortunately, we had an issue with our fuel hose in the first pit stop that set us back. After that we just settled in and tried to have our own race, I thought we had decent pace and I’m very happy with finishing 14th. I’m very much looking forward to the next race.”

MARCO ANDRETTI (No. 98 Ruoff Home Mortgage / Curb Honda): 
“In the beginning, we seemed to have pace on (Firestone alternate) reds. Then, sort of got caught on blacks (Firestone primary tires) in the middle and it gave up a bit of time. On the last third of the early-on stint, we started to lose pace on reds so we wanted to come in and cover. We sort of split the baby on that one. We came out of the pits in traffic, which was unfortunate, but we drove the Ruoff Home Mortgage car to third from 18th. We had to have been the ones to pass the most cars today. Overall, we’re still top 10 and we had pace, and that’s better than lucking into a top-10 finish. Good things are ahead from the No. 98.”

About the Author

Mike Haag has covered motorsports in San Antonio and South Texas for more than 30 years. In addition to working for the San Antonio Express-News for nearly 28 years, Mike also has co-hosted TrackSmack with Dawn Murphy for 15 race seasons. In addition to being a writer, Mike also teaches English at Floresville High School.