Photo: Joe Skibinski/INDYCAR

Bearden Breakdown: Notes from St. Pete

By Aaron Bearden, Contributing Writer

Reversal of Fortune

Last season Sebastien Bourdais could only watch as Josef Newgarden drove off with a championship he appeared poised to contend for before misfortune befell him at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May.

In St. Petersburg he kicked off another championship chase in victory lane after the misfortune of others.

Bourdais completed an emotional comeback with a victory in Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg – the season-opening race for the Verizon IndyCar Series.

“This is emotional because I was able from a few broken bones to come back in this victory circle,” Bourdais said afterward. “We didn’t have the fastest car today but we had consistency and we pulled it together.”

It was the second-straight win for the Frenchman in the event, placing him alongside IndyCar greats Helio Castroneves (2006-07) and Juan Pablo Montoya (2015-16) as the only drivers to accomplish the feat.

If the first triumph was unprecedented, then the second was unexpected.

Make no mistake – Bourdais was expected to be in contention in the 110-lap race. He returned to the same No. 18 Honda that brought him a victory last year, and he did so as part of a strong new affiliation under the Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser-Sullivan name.

But in the waning stages of the event Bourdais seemed poised to finish no better than third.

In place of the veteran Bourdais, it was Robert Wickens and Alexander Rossi that dueled for the win. The two former Formula One prospects battled for St. Petersburg glory in a war that both harkened back to each driver’s European racing past and served as a first look at a pairing that be paramount to IndyCar’s future.

The duo had the top two cars throughout the day in Florida, but on the final restart a late dive from Rossi into Turn 1 left him sliding up into Wickens and taking both drivers out of contention.

Their heartbreak signaled Bourdais’ ascent. The 39-year-old – a former F1 driver himself – rose to the front from third and an unanticipated triumph just 10 months after an Indianapolis 500 qualifying shunt that took him away from the series with broken bones and lost title hopes.

“We were going to get a podium today, which was awesome,” he said. “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.”

The run put Bourdais in an all-too familiar position – atop the standings. The DCR star has four Indy car championships, though they all came under the CART banner. He also has recent experience leading the standings, having paced the field for the opening three races of the season just last year.

Now that he finds himself with a similar early advantage, the veteran will look to continue to build momentum and match the pace he showed in 2017 with a runner-up run in Long Beach.

In fact, Bourdais hopes the entire first stint of the year plays out like last season – at least until the Month of May.

“I hope history is going to repeat itself until Indy, to be honest,” he said.

If that should prove to be the case, Bourdais’ lucky feel-good moment in St. Pete could be the catalyst for a year that leads to something much greater come September.

The Astor Cup.

Heartbreaking Debut

Rookie Robert Wickens led early and often in St. Petersburg. (Photo: Joe Skibinski/INDYCAR)

Robert Wickens may have been a rookie making his first true Verizon IndyCar Series start on Sunday, but he looked to be every bit of a veteran throughout the weekend – both on-track and off of it.

Wickens caught the paddock’s eye quickly when he soared to the pole for Sunday’s event, besting Team Penske ace Will Power with a circuit of 1:01.6643 around the damp, but drying 1.8-mile course. The run helped the Canadian become just the third driver to claim a pole on debut since 1993, joining F1 legend Nigel Mansell and Bourdais.

While Wickens’ qualifying effort was impressive, common sense would have dictated that another, more experienced driver such as Power or Bourdais would take control once the race began. St. Pete is a course traditionally dominated by veterans, and no driver under the age of 30 had triumphed at the facility since a 27-year-old James Hinchcliffe scored his first IndyCar victory at the track in 2013.

But common sense and recent trends didn’t matter on Sunday. Wickens – Hinchcliffe’s teammate, fittingly enough – looked every bit the veteran from the drop of the green flag. The Canadian lost the lead briefly to fellow rookie Jordan King on an early restart, but otherwise didn’t appear to put a wheel wrong through the race’s first 108 laps.

The Schmidt Peterson Motorsports newcomer led early and often, pacing 69 circuits and surrendering the lead only during pit stops as teams tested differing strategies. When a strategy play elevated Bourdais to the mid-race lead, Wickens maneuvered his No. 6 Honda to the Frenchman’s rear wing and ultimately overtook him during the final pit sequence.

Alexander Rossi provided a steep challenge throughout the race, but Wickens withstood the pressure. In the closing laps Rossi found himself within range of Wickens, but it was the “Amazing Race” star that made a mistake, sailing his No. 27 Honda wide on a turn and losing touch of Wickens with the laps winding down.

A late caution for a stalled Max Chilton forced Wickens to defend the lead on a restart with four laps remaining, but he did so with ease. The race appeared all-but over when a second yellow bunched the field up again moments later, but the track crew and stewards worked together rapidly and managed to get the race restarted with just two circuits left to run.

It was there that Wickens’ race finally fell apart. He got the early jump on the restart, but Rossi closed the gap with heavy usage of push-to-pass. The Andretti Autosport driver’s run down St. Pete’s long front straightaway allowed him to close within reach of Wickens heading into Turn 1.

Seeing the opportunity as his only time to strike, Rossi attempted a bold move to the inside as the duo maneuvered their machines into the turn. Wickens briefly blocked, but ultimately conceded the lane.

Moments later Rossi wheel-hopped. The Californian’s No. 27 careened into Wickens’ No. 6, with the rookie getting the worst of the ordeal. The 28-year-old Wickens spun moment later, smashing the outside barrier and ending his race.

Bourdais slipped by the two for the win. Rossi held on to his machine to finish third.

Wickens, on the other hand, ended the day a disappointing 18th.

“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,” he said of the shunt. “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.”

As racers often do, Rossi saw the incident in a different light.

Alexander Rossi put together another strong run in St. Petersburg, though it ended in controversy. The Californian could be a title contender in his third year. (Photo: James Black/INDYCAR)

“Obviously (Wickens) had a good car all day, and they did a great job,” he said. “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.”

The incident was ultimately unfortunate for both sides. The blame can be debated, but in the end the net result was a loss in position for each driver.

It came with a certain sense of unavoidability. Rossi knew that he had to make the move because it might be his only legitimate chance at the win. Wickens knew that he had to defend if he had any hope of holding the lead through the tight Turn 2. Neither driver was willing to lift or surrender, and in the end it led them both into a crash.

Neither prospect were credited with the finish they believed they each deserved, but in the end the statement that both drivers made was clear.

Wickens isn’t a run-of-the-mill rookie. The former DTM ace is here to contend. And Rossi just continues to get better.

Should both drivers stick around in IndyCar, it could be the first of many battles they’ll share.

Quick Shots

While he didn’t get the win he desired, Rossi’s salvaged podium could still be enough to put the IndyCar field on notice. The 2016 Indianapolis 500 winner now has four podiums and six finishes of sixth or better in his last seven starts dating back to last year.

It’s taken some time for him to adjust, but the former F1 star has looked every bit the championship contender as of late. If he can match the speed he showed before his motor gave out last year in his Long Beach return, expect Rossi to begin to enter the title conversation outright.

Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg ran without a familiar name up front – Team Penske.

With three-time St. Pete winner Helio Castroneves watching on as the race’s grand marshal, Penske’s current trio of Will Power, Josef Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud struggled on the Florida track. Newgarden led the way for Penske and Chevrolet with a seventh-place finish. Power followed in 10th after spinning from second on the opening lap, and a disappointing day for Pagenaud ended in a 13th-place result that actually could have been worse.

The run was the first for Penske without a driver among the top three in St. Pete since the first Verizon IndyCar Series race at the circuit back in 2005, when Andretti Green Racing completed a clean sweep of the podium.

Power, Pagenaud and Newgarden have combined to claim three of the past four IndyCar titles. But they’ll need to perform better than they did on Sunday if they have any hope of claiming another this year.

For all of the hype that the rookie contingent received entering the weekend, it was ultimately the veterans that reigned supreme at race’s end.

The race win went to one of the tour’s most experienced drivers in Bourdais. The least-experienced driver in the top five was Rossi, who is in his third season, and only Ed Jones (eighth) managed to score a top 10 with less than two years of full-time IndyCar competition to his name.

The rookies qualified well, with Wickens, King and Matheus Leist all snagging starting positions in the first two rows. But in the end Wickens was the only one that managed to keep himself in contention to the race’s closing stages.

Leist crashed out after 16 laps. Fellow younglings Jack Harvey and Rene Binder also suffered DNFs. King ended the race three laps down, while Zach Veach, Wickens and Zachary Claman de Melo all finished outside of the top 15.

There’s a lot of talent and potential in IndyCar’s young new group. But it’s going to take them at least one more race to show it.

Round one for the new universal 2018 aero kits went to Honda.

The manufacturer claimed the top six finishers in Saturday’s 110-lap feature, and eight of the top 10 spots. Only Newgarden and Power were able to break into the top 10 for Chevrolet, and Power owed his 10th-place run to Wickens’ late crash out for Honda.

Many of Chevrolet’s teams struggled on the Florida circuit. The Carlin duo of Max Chilton and Charlie Kimball were quiet in their debut with the new team, with Chilton’s late-race crash serving as the only notable moment for the team.

Harding Racing’s Gabby Chaves finished a respectable 14th, but never managed to rise into contention as he tried to keep his No. 88 machine clean. King and Spencer Pigot struggled for Ed Carpenter Racing, as did Tony Kanaan and Leist for AJ Foyt Racing. In the end only Newgarden really contended for the Bowtie Brigade, and even he was forced to settle for seventh at day’s end.

One race isn’t enough of a sample size to make any significant observations about any team’s strength. But if Honda can match their St. Pete results in Long Beach, the oft-beleaguered manufacturer might be in for a special year.

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Aaron Bearden is a Contributing Writer for Motorsports Tribune, handling coverage of both the Verizon IndyCar Series and ABB FIA Formula E Championship. A native Hoosier, Bearden has attended races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway since he was three years old. He can be found on social media at @AaronBearden93.