By Christopher DeHarde, Staff Writer
Controversial? Yes. Risky? Yes. Intentional? No.
Robert Wickens and Alexander Rossi reminded all of us what Verizon IndyCar Series drivers are made of on Sunday at the end of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
A late race caution came out when Max Chilton stalled his car after reversing it, prompting the field to bunch up behind the pace car. The field were given word that the green flag was coming out with two laps to go and Rossi got a good start.
Wickens defended slightly ahead of the first turn but Rossi kept going up the inside, eventually losing control briefly under braking.
The front straightaway is an airport runway and Rossi’s traction decreased as he went over the painted lines heading for the first turn.
Rossi’s loss of control meant that he slid into the No. 6 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda and Wickens went spinning and hit the outside retaining wall.
Let’s look back at the start of this situation.
The Series announced that the race would go green on the way to Turn 10 but the lights were not turned out on the pace car. Teams were informed of the decision to go green as the pace car sped away after Turn 10, as INDYCAR confirmed in a statement:
“INDYCAR acknowledged that the pace car lights remained on for the race’s final restart, but the radio call for an impending restart was communicated by race control and the pace car pulled off the track as it had in previous situations.”
Wickens then would have control of the field briefly before the green flag came out on Lap 109.
“I felt like I wasn’t able to get the jump that I needed to get a gap,” said Wickens. “We both were on the Push-to-Pass. [Rossi] obviously got a slipstream.”
Normally the Push-to-Pass boost is disabled until one timed lap has been completed, but on cases when restarts are with two laps to go, the power is enabled.
“The team kept me in the loop,” said Wickens. “They told me on that restart that you can use Push-to-Pass immediately, so I was ready.”
As was Rossi.
“Normally they don’t allow Push-to-Pass on restarts,” said the No. 27 Andretti Autosport pilot. “You’d normally have to do a timed lap before you did it, but because of the late call to go green that lap they allowed it and I actually got the call when I was in the middle of Turns 13 and 14.
“So I had a big jump on Rob, and he got to the Push-to-Pass pretty late. The run was perfect for me going into Turn 1, and I knew there wasn’t going to be very many other opportunities.”
Coming down the main straight, Wickens defended slightly to drivers’ right.
“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.”
Rossi saw Wickens defend but still carried on attempting the pass.
“He defended the position which he has the right to do,” said Rossi. “But in doing so, in moving the reaction, he put me into the marbles pretty late into the corner. 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.”
The two collided, sending Wickens into a spin that resulted in wall contact. The Canadian finished 18th while Rossi fell to third behind Sebastien Bourdias and Graham Rahal.
Some called for a penalty for Rossi. Some called it a racing incident. What was it?
A racing incident. Rossi went for a gap that Wickens left, but ultimately Rossi was the one who lost control of his car. If Wickens stayed far to drivers’ left and made a wider arc to the corner, who knows how much further Rossi would have slid. However, if Wickens would’ve stayed far to drivers’ right before Rossi could make a move, would he have slid on the paint and given Rossi an easy way to first place?
Either way, what happened Sunday was the rekindling of a rivalry between two drivers that have raced each other for years that was on ice after their respective career paths diverged.
And it’ll only help the storylines going forward, because even though both drivers respect each other off track, things change when the visors go down.