By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
Defending Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg winner Sébastien Bourdais restarted in third with two laps remaining. One corner later, Alexander Rossi tangled with race leader and INDYCAR series debutant driver Robert Wickens, propelling Bourdais’ No. 18 SealMaster Honda on top of the leaderboard and captured a feelgood second straight win at the Florida street circuit, leading 30 of 110 laps.
The victory was Bourdais’ 37th career INDYCAR victory and perhaps his most triumphant after surviving a horrific Turn 2 qualifying crash during Pole Day at Indianapolis Motor Speedway last May, sidelining him for nine races.
An exhausted Bourdais said this victory was as emotional than last seasaon and had to rely on being consistent.
“This is emotional because I was able from a few broken bones to come back in this victory circle,” Bourdais said.
“I couldn’t be any happier for Dale Coyne Racing, Vasser-Sullivan, SealMaster and everybody on board, all the boys. They worked so hard. It’s a tiny group but they work their tails off. 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 and kind of heartbroken for him, but for us it is just such an upset. I can’t quite put it into words.”
Bourdais’ day started with a hurdle after starting 14th on the grid, looking to avoid the opening lap carnage, but he wasn’t able to do so after his right rear tire went down.
“I tried to avoid the punches and to make sure I wasn’t going to hit anyone, and it worked out, until I felt a little tap in the back and then, sure enough, I got an alarm on the dash and I got a right rear tire going down on the opening lap, like here we go again,” Bourdais said during the post-race press conference.
“And so you come in the pits, change tires, it was a brand new set of red tires, as well. I’m like, this is awesome. So now you are at the back, and obviously the back isn’t really — it’s not the back so much anymore because by the time I came back around there are four or five other cars that were stuffed in the wall sideways, backwards, in tires, tangled, whatever.
“So it was a bit of a crazy start, and then it just kept getting crazier and crazier, restart after restart, couldn’t settle into any kind of rhythm, and with all those yellows, I knew this was going to turn into a two-stopper from there.”
The different pit strategy proved beneficial as he took the lead for the first time on Lap 25 and held it for 14 laps. During his Lap 39 pit stop, the No. 18 team switched from the red alternative Firestone tires to primary which he stuck with for the remainder of the race, citing running on reds was a bit tough and the car ran good on blacks.
As the race winded down, Bourdais regained the lead on Lap 63, but a quicker Wickens tried to hunt him down and was unsuccessful. Bourdais inherited the lead to Wickens on Lap 77 to make his final stop.
Once the cycle of stops was completed, Bourdais was running in third with podium on his sight. That all changed with 10 laps to go after rookie Rene Binder hit the Turn 10 tire barriers, bringing out a full course caution.
The race restarted, but the action was quickly halted after Carlin driver Max Chilton stalled his car in Turn 8. A lap later, the race restarted once again where the plot thickened as Rossi went high for the race lead, but his car twitched in the first braking corner and collided into Wickens, sending him into the Turn 1 wall.
Rossi settled for third without punishment while Wickens’ stellar debut ends in heartbreak. Only bringing home a destroyed car and an 18th place finish on his small, but already impressive INDYCAR resumé.
In the midst of all the drama that unfolded, Bourdais made the most of it and on the sight of his last win, Bourdais took the checkered flag under caution and digested the moment after coming back from injuries last season.
“I just saw a drift contest and they both went for the win,” said Bourdais.
“You can’t blame Alex for trying, but it was so slippery on those restarts and so hard to clean the tires. I kind of hung back and was happy for my third place and I didn’t feel like I could try to make a move and not screw it up, and then just go for it.
“That was my way at it to make sure not to do anything stupid. I passed a few guys, but the last thing I wanted to do is DNF. I kept it on black stuffed and tried to keep my nose clean. I did keep my nose clean.”
Before the two-car crash on the final restart, Bourdais added he was focusing on retaining his podium instead of battling for the win.
“Honestly, I was just focusing on myself,” said Bourdais. I was hanging back a tiny little bit just to try and get a clean run on my own out of the hairpin. That’s all I cared about. I just didn’t want to lose that podium.
“It was to great a story and it turned into gold.”
After the circumstances that unfolded since his last win, Bourdais said the thought of ending his decorated career was never in his thinking process.
“No, not really,” Bourdais added. “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. Guess I’m glad I did continue.”
Bourdais’ win marked Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser-Sullivan’s sixth career INDYCAR Series win. For Bourdais, it’s the fifth time he’s won in a Jimmy Vasser and James “Sully” Sullivan owned car, and the second with Coyne.
Car owner Dale Coyne described Sunday’s victory as strange and compared it to Bourdais’ last win at the same circuit.
“Today’s race was strange,” said Coyne. “We cut a tire early, and the race started fresh after that, the two pit stops early and the first two yellows there, but then he was in the back of the pack, but then it became a strategy race, and then same as last year, we helped him with the strategy to get to the front, but then he takes care of it from there.
“We were lucky this year. Last year I think we had a better car than we did this year. (Simon) Pagenaud last year was pretty special. This year we had some luck, obviously, at the end, otherwise we would have been third. But that’s the way it works in racing.
“No, very happy with his abilities and the way everybody works together, Craig and the team and him and having Vasser and Sullivan back this year has been really nice. Good they bring something to the team that I don’t do, so that’s very helpful.”
Bourdais added having Sullivan and Vasser to the team has strengthened the team after working with them in the past for the defunct KVSH Racing.
“Well, obviously to get Sully and Jimmy over with us and Dale and making them a part of this was a big commitment from Dale,” Bourdais added.
“It’s been his baby for many, many years, and for him to trust these guys in the way he did and to bring them on board and bring the commercial and the marketing side, which we’re probably not as a group the way we — because it’s just us and it’s Dale, and that’s the way we function. And now they’re definitely bringing something else to the table, and when you combine forces, you’re only stronger.”
The team has now won a race in five out of the last seven seasons and will try to help Bourdais capture a rare oval win at ISM Raceway in Avondale, Arizona April 7.