By Christopher DeHarde, Staff Writer
He almost became a late race hero in a daring overtaking maneuver on a restart, but Alexander Rossi instead became a hot topic of controversy during Sunday’s season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg for the Verizon IndyCar Series.
Rossi, who started 12th after a penalty in the second round of qualifying threw out his two fastest laps, moved up to eighth place after the first lap of 110 around the 1.8 mile street circuit. Rossi would move past Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud and Scott Dixon before a caution for Charlie Kimball’s stalled Carlin Chevrolet.
Rossi moved to third place in the ensuing two laps of green flag racing before another caution was called after Graham Rahal hit Spencer Pigot’s car, sending Pigot’s car into a spin and Pigot stalled the car.
The 2016 Indianapolis 500 winner got to second place on Lap 13 and would stay in the top five for much of the rest of the race, even leading five laps. His time near the front wasn’t due to pit strategy like Barber Motorsports Park in 2017, it was due to genuine pace.
Rossi pitted on Lap 23, 62 and 83, near the end of the pit windows for three stop drivers. Normally many drivers pit as early as they can in road racing because of pit lane procedures under caution, and there were many cautions in the early half of the race.
However, after the caution for Jack Harvey’s damaged car after a tire failed on his car there wasn’t another yellow flag called until Lap 102.
Rossi was able to maintain his position in the top five for the rest of the race, only falling to fifth for four laps during a pit stop sequence. After his final pit stop, the Andretti Autosport driver raced on after leader Robert Wickens. Wickens led 69 laps and Rossi was chasing down his former feeder series rival (Wickens won the 2011 Formula Renault 3.5 title over Rossi) lap after lap.
A late caution occurred after Max Chilton stalled his car. Wickens led the field to the green flag and Rossi stuck his car down the inside but lost control briefly over the painted lines on the front straightaway that normally is an airport runway.
Wickens’s car went sliding toward the barrier and would be credited with an 18th place finish while Sebastien Bourdais and Graham Rahal would sneak past Rossi to capture first and second positions, dropping the No. 27 NAPA Auto Parts Honda to third at the finish.
“[Wickens] 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,” said Rossi. “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.”
The next IndyCar race is the Phoenix Grand Prix on Saturday April 7th at ISM Raceway.