By Aaron Bearden, Contributing Writer
The Verizon IndyCar Series is a tour lauded for the challenge of its schedule. From street circuits and road courses to high speed ovals both big and small, the drivers that contest the championship are tasked with finding consistency in a field and schedule rife with parity and variables.
IndyCar’s depth and difficulty have been proven with the tour’s early 2018 results. There have been three different winners – all from different organizations – and only one driver has managed a podium in each of the open three races.
That one driver is Alexander Rossi.
What started with controversy has quickly developed into a promising opening to the year for Rossi.
The “Amazing Race” participant was met with criticism following the season-opening race on the streets of St. Petersburg, after a late-race hail mary for the lead ended with breakout rookie Robert Wickens crashed out after a dominant day. But in the two races since that controversy Rossi’s been the biggest positive story around.
His rise to the top of the paddock began with an impressive recovery at ISM Raceway, when Rossi overcame an early pit road penalty to gain a lap back on pace and rise back up to the podium.
One week later he found himself celebrating a victory in his home state’s own Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.
“It’s unbelievable to win at Long Beach,” Rossi said. “I can’t really put into words how good the car was all weekend. I think we proved that and I’m just so glad we were able to capitalize and nothing crazy happened.
“It’s been a great weekend all around, we announced Crown Royal as a partner, and then we put the NAPA AUTO PARTS Honda in victory lane, getting the win that I think the Military To Motorsports car should have had last weekend in Phoenix. On top of it all, I got to win in my home state of California in front of all my family and friends. It’s a good feeling right now.”
The run was a feel-good moment for Rossi, making up for his near-miss in last season’s race at Long Beach.
More importantly, it was also a statement performance.
There were no frills or crazy strategies. Rossi didn’t have to cause any controversy or run through the field. Rossi and Andretti Autosport simply dominated the weekend, leading 71 of the race’s 85 laps and showing the rest of the field how dangerous they can be when they don’t make mistakes.
That run, paired with the strong performances in the opening two races, confirmed one undeniable truth – Rossi has been a step above the rest of the IndyCar field in the early stretch of the season.
Rossi holds a 22-point advantage over second-place Josef Newgarden in the standings. Even with the controversies he faced early on, the 26-year-old’s 2.3 average finish is a full 2.7 positions per race ahead of Newgarden’s 5.0. Rossi is the only driver with multiple podiums, and he’s led at least a lap in all three races thus far.
In his 2016 debut Rossi was a relative unknown.
Even as he won the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 there were worries about his future. No one was sure if the rookie would truly take to IndyCar instead of trying to find a route back to Formula One, and even when he finally announced his return there were many that feared he wouldn’t find the success he wanted.
Rossi’s second season saw him gain increased fanfare and improve his performance on-track. By the time his breakout win at Watkins Glen International arrived, the sophomore’s potential was clear and apparent.
Now in his third-year with Andretti Autosport, and his first without an affiliation with Bryan Herta Autosport, Rossi has finally ascended to the top tier of the IndyCar tour. Two years of growth and a wealth of talent have molded Rossi into the early championship favorite heading into the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park.
After that comes the Month of May. If Rossi manages to win the ‘Greatest Spectacle in Racing’ a second time, he’ll have done so not as an underdog, but as a favorite.
Bourdais’ Topsy-Turvy Day
Let’s talk about that pass.
You know what one I’m talking about. The pass.
The highlight montage worthy, “SportsCenter” Top 10 quality, jump-out-of-your-chair-level insane move that open wheel ace Sebastien Bourdais dropped on three of his competitors in California.
The Frenchman’s triple-overtake – yes, triple – going into Turn 1 on Lap 46 sits among the ballsiest moves ever seen in an indy car on a street course like Long Beach. Scott Dixon, Spencer Pigot and Matheus Leist could only watch as they were each passed with relative ease.
At the time the effort elevated Bourdais up to second, seemingly lifting his No. 18 Honda into the conversation for the win.
But in the end the move proved to be the high point of Bourdais’ afternoon, signaling a downward slide that would end with the four-time CART champion boiling over after the race.
Bourdais’ frustration began moments after the pass, when he was issued a penalty from the stewards for utilizing the pit exit to complete the move. He would have to surrender a position back to Scott Dixon, or risk more severe penalties moving forward.
He quickly overtook Dixon once more with another daring move – likely cursing under his breath as he did so – but his signature moment was still lost. One of the best overtakes in Long Beach’s storied history was surrendered because of what appeared to be a quick swerve to the right in reaction to what appeared to be a defensive move from Dixon.
Was it a fair penalty?
According to the rulebook, yes. But that didn’t stop Bourdais from voicing his frustration with what he believed to be a blown call.
“I got Dixon on the restart and Race Control deemed that a violation,” Bourdais said. “I thought that was interesting because I am not quite sure what I was supposed to do. I was committed.
“There was room and he didn’t see me, so he came down on me and pushed me into the pit lane. If you get forced into the pit lane, I am not sure it is your responsibility.”
Things only got worse from there. Bourdais was trapped back in the field just a few circuits later when an untimely caution – for teammate Zachary Claman de Melo, no less – flew just as he was coming to pit road, forcing him to crawl through the pit area and lose track position before pitting under the yellow.
“Unfortunately, as a group, we took a chance to stay out too long and then it went yellow” Bourdais said. “Race Control could have waited a couple seconds before closing the pits, but they didn’t and we went to the back where we had to race idiots.”
From there on Bourdais found himself mired in the pack, bouncing off of his competitors like a pinball as he limped home with a frustrated 13th-place finish.
“I was racing (Charlie) Kimball side-by-side and he gives me no room, and he bent both of my toe links on the right side,” he said. “It was pretty much game over from there. I made a mistake because of it trying to pass him again later into Turn 9. The car wouldn’t turn anymore.
“Then, in the next corner, Jordan King felt like a hero and took us out. After that, I had to deal with another idiot, Matheus Leist, who tried to crash both of us a couple of times. There really wasn’t much to salvage after that. It’s really disappointing.
Bourdais is one of the best open wheel drivers of the last 20 years. His many successes over the duration of his career and the move he managed early on at Long Beach are proof of that.
But the veteran’s struggles on Sunday showed just how small the margin for error can be in IndyCar. One minor mistake or unfortunate caution can take a strong day and turn it to rubbish.
Long Beach did it again.
The Grand Prix of Long Beach was held for the 44th time on Sunday, and as usual a host of racing enthusiasts and curious spectators flocked to California to check out the racing and scenes. An estimated 185,000 fans flocked to the street circuit over the event’s three days, a slight uptick from 2017’s 183,000 mark.
Make no mistake, the racing isn’t always the greatest at Long Beach. But the location has become a marquee stop on the IndyCar tour. Through a combination of marketing, location, additional events and history, the spring trip to Long Beach has become one of IndyCar’s most iconic race weekends, rivaling any race other than the Indy 500 in prestige and spectacle.
The logistics of such an effort would be a challenge, but it would be interesting to see another notable tour like NASCAR try to build up a similar weekend on a street course. There would be issues surrounding safety and planning, but IndyCar’s annual trip to Long Beach proved once again that sometimes those extra hurdles can lead to greater rewards.
Chip Ganassi Racing earned their first podium of 2018 in Long Beach, and the run didn’t come from Scott Dixon. Instead it was sophomore Ed Jones that delivered his team a third-place result, rising up from 13th to earn his first podium with the organization.
The run elevated Jones from a dreadful start to ninth in the championship standings. Jones’ result also gave him podiums in IndyCar’s two biggest races – he finished third in the Indy 500 for Dale Coyne Racing last year – and gave the young star a shot of momentum heading into the third-consecutive weekend of racing in Alabama.
“It’s just my third race with the team and I was able to equal my best result in the Verizon IndyCar Series,” Jones said. “I think this gives me and the team a lot of confidence heading into Barber next week and I can’t wait to get started there and see what the weekend holds.”
After a miserable start to his first full season, Zach Veach finally delivered a promising performance in California. The Ohioan rose through the field to slot in fourth at race’s end, earning what was easily the best performance of his young IndyCar career for Andretti Autosport.
The run was crucial for Veach, elevating him to 13th in the standings after two disappointing 16th-place finishes in the first two races of the year. The result even led team owner Michael Andretti to sing Veach’s praises on social media.
— Michael Andretti (@michaelandretti) April 16, 2018
“(Fourth) feels like a win, to be honest,” Veach said. “The crew was pushing me pretty hard at the end to try to get on the podium but… after St. Pete, after Phoenix, we’ve just been chipping away on it and we took a big swing at it today.”