Sebastien Bourdais Repeat Winner at Chaotic Verizon IndyCar Series’ Season Opener
ST. PETERSBURG, FL - RIS – Sebastien Bourdais overcame a flat tire and used fuel and pit stop strategy to be in the right place at the right time to win the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Bourdais inherited the lead on the re-start of a two-lap shoot-out that turned into chaos when Alexander Rossi slid into race leader Robert Wickens in Turn 1. Wickens, a rookie who won the pole and led the most laps, was forced into the outside concrete wall damaging his car. This brought out the race-ending caution and Bourdais’ victory. Graham Rahal, James Hinchcliffe, Alexander Rossi, and Ryan Hunter-Reay rounded out the unofficial top five.
Bourdais, from France, now living in St. Petersburg Florida, was severely injured last year during qualifying for the Indy 500. His season was cut short after a near-career-ending crash. Bourdais broke his hip during a violent fiery crash that flipped his Dale Coyne Racing Honda upside down after striking the SAFER Barrier at 227 mph. He sat out nine races, facing the prospect of never racing again. Amazingly he returned to compete in the final three races of the season – Gateway, Watkins Glen and Sonoma. Bourdais pilots the No. 18 Team Sealmaster Honda for Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser-Sullivan.
Helio Castroneves gave the command to star engines under sunny skies. He is driving in the sports car series for Roger Penske and preparing for a bid to win a fourth Indianapolis 500.
Rookie Robert Wickens, a Canadian with lengthy experience in the European DTM touring car series, led the field to start the race. He went side-by-side with Will Power into Turn 1. Power spun and ended up finishing 10th.
Seven rookies took the green flag for their first Verizon IndyCar series race.
The first few laps were full of spins and contact – most from veteran drivers struggling with the new car. It took drivers nearly half the race to sort out the reduced grip from less downforce that came from the new universal aero kits.
With 20 laps left 2016 Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi, a few tenths of a second behind the leader, dogged Wickens, who had to drive with both eyes on the rearview mirrors. As the final laps unwound Rossi in his Andretti Autosport No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS Honda chased Wickens, waiting for the right moment to pass. When two slower cars forced Wickens to ease up, Rossi drove too deep into Turn 4. He was not able to slow his speed enough to make a fast, clean turn. He was forced to go wide and lost his position to the leader.
But then Rene Binder caused a full course caution after his car overshot Turn 10. This setup a four-lap race to the finish – Wickens led Rossi and Bourdais. Then, on the re-start lap, Max Chilton spun his car forcing the final shootout with two laps to go.
When the field again took the green flag, Rossi slid into Wickens in Turn 1. The leader hit the wall causing a full course caution. Bourdais, who started 14th, drove past the mayhem to capture the lead and win the race under caution.
Defending series champion Josef Newgarden finished 7th. He was forced to pit after his tire was punctured by debris on the track.
Four- time IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon finished 6th. Dixon was penalized twice. He was sent to the rear of the field for avoidable contact with Takuma Sato. Dixon made a pass attempt in Turn 1, but his No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda lost grip and slid into the back of Sato. His car slid on the large white painted rectangles on the circuit entering Turn 1. That section of the circuit uses part of the Albert Whitted airport runway. Sato, winner of the 2017 Indy 500 finished 12th. Dixon also received a pass-thru penalty for speeding on pit road.
Wickens won his first Verizon P1 pole award in his first ever attempt at qualifying for an IndyCar Series race. He drives the No. 6 Lucas Oil SPM Honda for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.
This was Sebastien Bourdais’ 37th Indy car win. His last at this circuit in 2017. He is a four-time Indy car champion.
The race was slowed 11 times for a total of 25 of the 110-laps.
The next event on the IndyCar schedule is the oval track at ISM Raceway in Phoenix, AZ on April 7.
Dave Chess has been writing for RIS since the late 1980s during the CompuServe days. His work has also appeared in Auto Week magazine, Chicago Gearhead News newspaper, ATA airlines in-flight magazine, National Speed Sport News and on many websites.