By Christopher DeHarde, Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG, Florida — Canada’s new hero came calling on his final timed lap as Verizon IndyCar Series rookie Robert Wickens secured pole position in his No. 6 Lucas Oil Honda for the 2018 Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
One of his biggest assists in preparation? YouTube.
“I was working hard over the winter, Monday to Friday, watching IndyCar races online on YouTube, anywhere I could find them, just trying to learn,” said Wickens. “Like I think I watched like eight years of St. Pete in like two days, just trying to figure out anything, see if I could find trends or lines or tricks or whatever the case is.”
It helped since he’s the third rookie to win pole position in his debut race in the last 25 years. The others? Nigel Mansell in 1993 at Surfers Paradise and 2003 with Sebastien Bourdais at St. Petersburg.
In the first group in round one, the rookies were mixing it up with the veterans as Jordan King and Robert Wickens were respectively first and third while Alexander Rossi was second quickest. Tony Kanaan, Simon Pagenaud and Ryan Hunter-Reay also advanced to round two.
The biggest surprise was defending series champion Josef Newgarden ending the session in seventh, missing out on advancing.
Group two was highlighted by Will Power leading the group and rookie standout Matheus Leist in second ahead of Scott Dixon, James Hinchcliffe, Gabby Chaves and Takuma Sato.
Sato advanced to the Firestone Fast Six after Marco Andretti lost his fastest two laps after he was judged to have impeded a competitor.
Round two started dry but ended slightly damp as Wickens led the 12 competitors ahead of Power, King, Leist, Sato and Hunter-Reay. The session was red flagged because Pagenaud spun his car heading to Turn 1 in damp conditions and stalled his car with 30 seconds left and the checkered flag was thrown.
Following the session, Rossi’s two fastest laps were disallowed for interference. He had placed third before being penalized.
In the Firestone Fast Six, times started dropping after the pavement started drying. Power held the pole position until Wickens came through on his final lap to snatch the pole position from the 2014 series champion.
Power’s biggest detriment was a small technical glitch on his last qualifying lap.
“I had a big mis-shift during my lap where I just got stuck in gear for quite a while,” said Power. “And then when I saw how tight it was, it was like, yeah, probably lost a tenth or so there. But yeah, fantastic job by Wickens, first time out, to get pole.”
Sato qualified fifth and was the fastest Rahal Letterman Lanigan Honda in the field.
“I think it was a spectacular qualifying in terms of the fans, and I thought, too, it was really tricky conditions,” said Sato. “I think it’s tricky enough to drive these cars, but having had it drizzling, especially towards the end of qualifying, it was challenging. But I think my thought was that the team did a tremendous job in the preparation for this race.”
For Wickens, the first thing he might need to is read the rulebook.
“I need to polish up on the rules and see how to start an IndyCar race, first off,” said Wickens. “You know, I kind of was expecting just to go with the flow and accelerate when everyone else did, and now I’m controlling the pace of the race so I’ve got to make sure I know where the restart line is and get polished up on that.
“Obviously starting from pole you’re in the best situation you can be in, and I’m just going to go out and enjoy it like I have every single session this weekend. I have had no expectations going into this. I’m just trying to enjoy myself and enjoy kind of my first IndyCar experience, and a happy driver is normally a fast driver, so I’m always just trying to take everything on the chin, learn from mistakes, learn from how a session goes. ”
The race goes green at 12:40 p.m. ET.