By Christopher DeHarde, Staff Writer
Robert Wickens intended to impress on his Verizon IndyCar Series debut and impress the rookie did, scoring pole position and nearly winning Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
The 28-year-old Canadian beat Team Penske’s Will Power to the pole and led the first five laps until another rookie, Jordan King, took over after an early restart. Wickens repaid King’s favor on the next restart and led until the No. 6 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda made its way to pit lane on Lap 25.
The 2011 Formula Renault 3.5 champion retook the lead from Bourdais on Lap 39 and led until his next pit stop on Lap 60, at which point one of the drivers he beat to that championship, Alexander Rossi, took the lead.
After Rossi pitted and St. Petersburg resident Sebastien Bourdais led for another stint, Wickens briefly retook the lead until pitting again on Lap 82. Rossi and Ryan Hunter-Reay briefly led before Wickens retook the lead on Lap 85.
Leading handily, Wickens had no problems remaining up front until Juncos Racing driver Rene Binder missed his braking point heading to Turn 10, stopped and stalled his car, necessitating a full course caution and with it, a late restart.
Before the yellow, Rossi had been closing the gap to Wickens until losing his braking point while overtaking a lapped car. However, Wickens pulled away slightly once the green flag flew.
Until, that is, Max Chilton stalled his car while trying to reverse it after nearly hitting the wall on the back side of the course. Another caution period started and the race restarted with two laps to go instead of one.
Rossi then moved up alongside WIckens after Wickens briefly defended his position. The Californian then briefly slid under braking for the first corner into Wickens’s car. Wickens then spun, hitting the wall and retired from the race, classified 18th on the results as Bourdais would win over Graham Rahal with Rossi rounding out the podium in third.
Understandably, Wickens was less than thrilled with the late race maneuver and explained his side of the incident.
“I defended a little bit, but then I realized if I went any further it would have been blocking,” said Wickens. “So I opened up, let him take the inside and just broke as late as possible and gave him enough space on the inside. And from my point of view, he broke too late. The track was too dirty off line. It’s been terrible there all day. It’s been a battle all weekend. Even in warm-up it was really hard whenever you tried it.
“But my opinion, he just went too deep, locked the rears and slid into me. There’s really no other explanation to it. The only pity is he carried on to a podium, and I ended up in the fence.”
Wickens led five times for a race-high 69 laps in his first open-wheel racing street circuit race since Monaco in Formula Renault 3.5 in 2011, where he finished second to current Red Bull Racing driver Daniel Ricciardo.