IndyCar is back, oh boy is it back. The new universal bodykit was designed to look good and make the racing better. It did just that. More than 300 overtakes were made on the track on raceday at St. Petersburg, and not one was made where the driver did not have a tool to defend. This is what racing should be about, but it was a shame that the conclusion of the race did not have the result many felt it should have had.
While Dale Coyne Racing’s Sebastien Bourdais’ first win since his horrifying Indianapolis 500 crash, as well as his first win in a year, should be celebrated, there is certainly a feeling that after just one race into the new season that a new hero and a new villain have surfaced. Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi, who finished third after nudging leader – Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ Robert Wickens on the final restart, will now be perceived by many as the villain in 2018. Wickens, who has made his impact on IndyCar instantly, is very much the hero of the weekend.
These new cars are lively. If there is an opportunity to watch one of IndyCar’s visor cams, or the new nose cam, then do so. These cars now have the feel of a lower formulae car, with all the horsepower required to still blast down Indy’s straightaways at 240mph. The St. Petersburg weekend was the weekend of the rookie – with Wickens, A. J. Foyt Racing’s Matheus Leist and Ed Carpenter Racing’s road and street course specialist Jordan King all having massively impressive performances to shout about.
Qualifying was damp, and Wickens was incredible, duly becoming the first polesitter for his first race since Bourdais did it at the same track 15 years ago in the Champ Car era. At no point during the weekend did he look like somebody who had not raced a single seater since 2011. Leist and King lined up on row two, and neither of their performances should be discredited at all.
In the race, while some of IndyCar’s rookies (including Leist and King), and some of IndyCar’s finest (Team Penske’s Will Power and Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon) would lose their heads, Wickens and Rossi were on another planet. Both looked calm through the chaos of five cautions in 40 laps. The race calmed down a bit, some strategy played out (bringing Bourdais and Rahal Letterman Lanigan’s Graham Rahal into the fore), and then it ramped up right at the end.
Lap 109 incident
At the final restart, confusion occurred over whether the pace car was pitting or not caught Wickens unaware, and he was not sufficiently prepared to go again. When the green flag waved, Rossi dived down the inside, as he was entitled to do, and hit the rookie, who was left by the side of the track to collect his thoughts while Bourdais won and Rossi made the podium.
— IndyCar Series (@IndyCar) March 11, 2018
Rossi had lost control of his car when he hit Wickens, after getting onto the marbles which had accumulated on the side of the track. Wickens had defended the outside line, which was the right call. Many of the passes during the race at Turn 1 had been made around the outside, where the grip was. Rossi was therefore left with the inside, and on the restart was by far his best opportunity. This is not a time of the year where drivers really think about ‘picking up points for the championship’ – they want to win.
Throughout the race, the 2016 Indy 500 winner was not the only driver to make this mistake. RLL’s Takuma Sato ruined ECR’s Spencer Pigot’s race with a similar move, while even Dixon was not immune to this misjudgement when he ‘Satoed’ Sato. It was nothing more than that, and even the best were being caught unaware.
Rossi was not penalised for causing the contact, and I believe that this was the right call on a weekend where INDYCAR made numerous errors regarding blocking in qualifying. Rossi himself was not pleased with a penalty for a qualifying infringement which was certainly one which baffled me. Ultimately, this was a racing incident, and just unfortunate for both drivers. Had I had my Formula 1 hat on, I would probably take a different view (and I almost certainly think Rossi would have had the rulebook hurled at him), but Indycar racing is a completely different kettle of fish, especially with rules on defending.
On the flipside, this season is already shaping up to be immense, and we’re only one round in. The pecking order is completely unknown, given how disastrous (by their astronomically high standards) Penske and Ganassi performed as just one representative of the five between the two made it into the top six in qualifying and ‘anonymous’ is the best term to describe any of their drivers on raceday. Heroes and villains, as well as fresh-faced rookie talent was the theme and the story of St. Petersburg for many. For me, it was just a bloody good race.