St. Pete Win drops in Bourdais’ lap

Sebastien Bourdais repeated as winner of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg today, but only after IndyCar rookie Robert Wickens and Alexander Rossi collided while battling for the lead on the next-to-last of 110 edge-of-your-seat laps. It was the first of 17 Verizon IndyCar Series races this season.

For Bourdais, the spoils of being in the right place at the right time were the 37th victory of his Indy car career, which ranks the four-time season champion sixth on the all-time list. The driver of the No. 18 Team Sealmaster Honda trails Al Unser by two wins for fifth place. It also brings full circle Bourdais’ recovery from a fractured pelvis and hip sustained in a frightening crash during qualifying at last year’s Indianapolis 500, see below:

“This is emotional because I was able from a few broken bones to come back in this victory circle,” said Bourdais, who lives in St. Petersburg near where the 1.8-mile temporary street course is constructed each year.

“We didn’t have the fastest car today but we had consistency and we pulled it together. We were going to get a podium today, which was awesome. I was really happy for Robert (Wickens) and kind of heartbroken for him, but for us it is just such an upset. I can’t quite put it into words.”

Wickens, who started from the pole position in the No. 6 Lucas Oil Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda after winning the Verizon P1 Award in qualifying on Saturday, was vying to become the first driver to win an Indy car race in his debut since Buzz Calkins in 1996 at Walt Disney World Speedway. After leading a race-high 69 laps, Wickens was in front for a Lap 108 restart following a full-course caution for the stalled car of Max Chilton. On the restart, Rossi, in the No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS Honda for Andretti Autosport, attempted an inside pass of Wickens heading into Turn 1 at the end of the Albert Whitted Airport runway straight, but Rossi’s car slid wide and the two made contact. Rossi continued but Wickens’ car was disabled, bringing out the last of eight full-course cautions in the race.

“I didn’t get the best restart in the world, but that didn’t really matter,” said Wickens, who was scored in 16th place. “I (braked) really late into Turn 1. I defended a little bit, but the track was so dirty off line that I told myself that if Alex wants to go there, go for it, but he’s not going to make the corner. He made a mistake on the inside and I guess he just couldn’t keep it, and just slid into me.

“It’s a shame. Everyone on the Lucas Oil team and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports did a fantastic job today. It would’ve been a fairytale to finish that one out, but sometimes it’s not meant to be.”

Bourdais and Graham Rahal, running behind Wickens and Rossi, avoided the incident and slipped past to finish first and second, respectively. Bourdais’ victory is the sixth in the history Dale Coyne Racing and the fifth for Bourdais in cars entered by co-owners Jimmy Vasser and James Sullivan.

Team co-owner Dale Coyne admitted it wasn’t the best car on track, but benefited from having Bourdais in the cockpit and a little good fortune after he had to pit on the opening lap to replace a punctured tire. “We had an eighth-place car today,” Coyne said. “(Bourdais’) consistency makes that a fourth-place car, and luck made it a winning car.”

The triumph also confirmed for Bourdais that he was right in not considering retirement following his Indy crash last May. “When I got the verdict of what was broken and I was going to heal pretty well, it was never a question on whether I should continue or stop,” the 39-year-old Frenchman said. “Guess I’m glad I did continue.”

Rossi, who finished third, said he got the jump on Wickens for the decisive restart by activating earlier his push-to-pass – which provides an engine boost of approximately 60 horsepower. “The run was perfect for me going into Turn 1 and I knew there wasn’t going to be very many other opportunities,” Rossi explained. “Obviously, he had a good car all day and they did a great job. Made the (pass attempt). He 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.

“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. You never want to see that happen. I feel bad because I feel like I could have won and he could have gotten second.”

Rahal, driver of the No. 15 United Rentals Honda for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, logged his best St. Petersburg finish since becoming the youngest race winner in Indy car history in 2008. “The United Rentals guys did a great job out there,” said Rahal, who qualified last. Certainly, yesterday wasn’t what we expect of ourselves, isn’t what we hoped for. Last night, what can you do. Put your heads down, you work hard. Even this morning the car wasn’t phenomenal in practice. With Tom (German, engineer) and the boys, they made great changes. Our guys had good pit stops and frankly good strategy. We had the pace when we needed it, we could save a lot of fuel when we needed it, we could make passes if we needed to. It just kind of all played out for us. We will take second (place) any day. It’s the best start to a season I have had since I won here in 2008. Thank you to all the fans, the turnout was great this weekend. I hope you guys enjoyed the new car. We are going to put on some great shows this year as you can see.”

James Hinchcliffe, Wickens’ teammate at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, finished fourth in the No. 5 Arrow Electronics SPM Honda. “It wasn’t quite the ending we wanted, but it was a good race,” said Flat12 Bierwerks’ spokesman Hinchcliffe. “I tapped the wall in Turn 8 early in the first stint, and that kind of bent it out of whack a little bit. Man, on our own in clean air, the Arrow Electronics car was a rocket ship, we were setting fast laps at one point on Firestone red (alternate) tires and black (primary) tires, but once we got into traffic, I think we lost the front end too much and couldn’t do anything about it. At the end there, Graham (Rahal) had a lot more push-to-pass than we did, so I was trying to threaten him and make him use up as much as he could, but it is what it is. Gutted for Robbie (Wickens) obviously, it was a storybook race from pole, but a few laps to go going for the win, Alex (Rossi) is a fast, aggressive guy and we knew something was going to be tried at least, and it’s unfortunate he ended up there. Huge congratulations to the team for a solid result.”

Ryan Hunter-Reay, Rossi’s teammate at Andretti Autosport, placed fifth in the No. 28 DHL Honda. “The bad luck seems to end up happening at just the worst times,” said Hunter-Reay. “The car has been awesome all weekend, so to have an electronic issue happen when we are coming to the green – man, the luck.  We started the race from pit lane and ended up fifth, so a great job by the team. I was hustling my rear end off out there today. That No. 28 DHL Honda sure was quick and deserved a better finish than it had. We just need to have better luck, or no luck, and hopefully we can start finishing these things right up at the front. It was great to have all our friends from DHL and AutoNation here with us today, and a big thanks to the fans for making this such a great event.”

Four Honda drivers led 105 laps of the 110-lap contest Sunday on the 1.8-mile downtown St. Petersburg circuit.

A.J. Foyt’s ABC Supply team started the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg with high hopes and rightly so with rookie Matheus Leist starting third and Tony Kanaan starting 10th in the 24-car Verizon IndyCar Series field.

However, when Kanaan was hit on the opening lap by rookie Zach Veach, and subsequently spun, the exuberance was tamped down. Leist, who started third, got off to a good start, narrowly missing second place starter Will Power who spun going through Turn 2 and brushed the wall, but still was able to continue.

Leist held third position through the first six laps. He ran fourth for the next seven laps but lost speed on lap 14. He radioed in that he couldn’t shift either up or down from third gear, even after an emergency reset while on track, so he made his way to the pits. His mechanics descended on the car and replaced the gear stack as they began to troubleshoot the problem.

Meanwhile Kanaan, who pitted on lap 1 after his incident to change his flat-spotted tires (from the spin), was making his way through the field from 23rd. By the time Leist’s trouble began to appear, Kanaan had slipped into 11th.

The No. 4 crew spent 10 laps getting the issue fixed and sent Leist on his way, however another problem occurred and Leist was asked to return to the pits to serve a drive-through penalty due to “Leaving with equipment attached.” It was on this exit that his day went from bad to worse as he lost traction entering Turn 3 and hit the wall, ending his race after just 16 laps in the books.

“Today was just unfortunate that we ended up like this,” the 19-year-old rookie said. “We had a gear problem when I was running fourth. I couldn’t change gears, not even upshift, not even downshift. We stayed in the pits for like 10 laps trying to solve the problem [which the team had sorted out]. Then we had another problem and I came back to the pits. The third time I went back on the track, I had a mega understeer going into Turn 3 and I missed the turn and hit the wall. Happy for the performance –we had a fast car.

”When asked about the contact, he attributed it to his frustration, explaining, “I think it was just my fault when I hit the wall. The car was probably good, also because I had a gear problem and some other problems, it happens, so let’s go to the next one.”

The team veteran kept plugging away and as the different fuel strategies played out, he climbed as high as sixth at one point. The team’s own fuel strategy saw them hoping the race would stay green from the time of their final stop on lap 83 to the conclusion of the 110-lap race as several cars would have had to stop for a splash of fuel.

However, the yellow came out with eight laps to go for rookie Rene Binder, who hit the tire barrier lightly and then stalled as he tried to get back underway. With that caution period, and the next two cautions triggered on restarts, everyone had enough fuel to finish.

“Eventful day,” summed up Kanaan, who didn’t look any worse for the wear. “I got hit in the beginning—that wasn’t good, but we came from the back and passed a lot of cars. We had a clean day in the pits, which I asked the guys for that. The goal was a top-10 and we finished 11th, so came up a little bit short but we’ll take it. We’ll go from there.”

Third-running Sebastien Bourdais took advantage of contact between pole sitter Robert Wickens, who led most of the race, and Alexander Rossi in Turn 1 on the lap 109 restart. Bourdais took the lead and the victory as the race finished under yellow. It was the second straight victory for the Frenchman, who now lives in St. Petersburg. His father Patrick, who lives in Le Mans, France, was present to see his son win in the Dale Coyne Racing machine.

Graham Rahal was second, Rossi survived to take third, Wickens’ teammate James Hinchcliffe finished fourth, and Ryan Hunter-Reay claimed fifth. Wickens was credited with 18th place.

Team President Larry Foyt summed up the weekend, saying, “Excluding the obvious disappointment from the final race results, there are many positives to take from the weekend. I’m happy with the overall competitiveness of the team, and that credit belongs to the engineers and mechanics who have been super busy all winter. It’s a shame that a small blockage in a cooling line ended up being so costly for Matheus. He had a stellar weekend going, and we will all learn from the issue that cost us.

“I’m glad Tony was able to bounce back from the first lap,” Foyt continued. “The car actually had some minor damage from the incident, so I know he had his hands full the rest of the race, and he did a great job to improve positions. We know how well he tested at Phoenix, so we will shake this one off, learn from it, and get ready for the next one.”

The team has a busy couple of weeks ahead of them with several tests planned at road courses, including the Open Test at Barber Motorsports Park on March 20, and at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The next race on the schedule is a Saturday night race (April 7th) at ISM Raceway, the one mile oval outside of Phoenix, Ariz.

Results Sunday of the Firestone Grand Prix of St Petersburg Verizon IndyCar Series event on the 1.8 mile Streets of St. Petersburg circuit, with order of finish, starting position in parentheses, driver, engine, laps completed and reason out (if any):

1. (14) Sebastien Bourdais, Honda, 110, Running
2. (24) Graham Rahal, Honda, 110, Running
3. (12) Alexander Rossi, Honda, 110, Running
4. (7) James Hinchcliffe, Honda, 110, Running
5. (6) Ryan Hunter-Reay, Honda, 110, Running
6. (9) Scott Dixon, Honda, 110, Running
7. (13) Josef Newgarden, Chevrolet, 110, Running
8. (17) Ed Jones, Honda, 110, Running
9. (18) Marco Andretti, Honda, 110, Running
10. (2) Will Power, Chevrolet, 110, Running
11. (10) Tony Kanaan, Chevrolet, 110, Running
12. (5) Takuma Sato, Honda, 110, Running
13. (11) Simon Pagenaud, Chevrolet, 110, Running
14. (8) Gabby Chaves, Chevrolet, 110, Running
15. (16) Spencer Pigot, Chevrolet, 109, Running
16. (15) Zach Veach, Honda, 109, Running
17. (22) Zachary Claman De Melo, Honda, 109, Running
18. (1) Robert Wickens, Honda, 108, Contact
19. (20) Max Chilton, Chevrolet, 108, Running
20. (21) Charlie Kimball, Chevrolet, 107, Running
21. (4) Jordan King, Chevrolet, 107, Running
22. (23) Rene Binder, Chevrolet, 100, Contact
23. (19) Jack Harvey, Honda, 38, Off Course
24. (3) Matheus Leist, Chevrolet, 16, Contact

Race Statistics
Winner’s average speed: 86.207 mph
Time of Race: 02:17:48.4954
Margin of victory: Under caution
Cautions: 8 for 24 laps
Lead changes: 11 among 5 drivers

Lap Leaders:
Wickens, Robert 1 – 5
King, Jordan 6 – 10
Wickens, Robert 11 – 24
Bourdais, Sebastien 25 – 38
Wickens, Robert 39 – 59
Rossi, Alexander 60 – 62
Bourdais, Sebastien 63 – 76
Wickens, Robert 77 – 81
Rossi, Alexander 82 – 83
Hunter-Reay, Ryan 84
Wickens, Robert 85 – 108
Bourdais, Sebastien 109 – 110

Three-time St. Petersburg winner Helio Castroneves, this year’s grand marshal, gave the call for drivers to start their engines in what quickly became an eventful race on the shores of Tampa Bay. There were five caution periods in the first 40 laps of the race as drivers adjusted to the lower downforce levels of the universal aero kit on all cars racing for the first time. Still, the new car produced incredible racing throughout the field, as there were a record 366 on-track passes to break the old race record of 323 set in 2008.

Verizon IndyCar Series competitors and fans have some time to catch their breath before the next race. The Phoenix Grand Prix will be run under the lights at ISM Raceway on Saturday, April 7. The race airs live at 9 p.m. ET on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.

Saturday: Shock IndyCar Pole for Wicked Wickens

Unpredictability reached a new level in Verizon P1 Award qualifying for the IndyCar Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, with rookie Robert Wickens taking pole position in his debut event. Wickens, a veteran race winner in the highly competitive DTM Championship in Germany but a rookie in IndyCar, prevailed in tricky, damp conditions Saturday to claim the pole for Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

Light rain made portions of the 1.8-mile temporary circuit, a combination of city streets and a runway from the downtown Albert Whitted Airport, very slick, including the painted curbing and runway markers. The tricky conditions caught out several competitors, but Wickens advanced through each stage of “knockout” qualifying to take the pole in his IndyCar Series debut. Wickens slipped in a lap at the end of the Firestone Fast Six – the last of three knockout qualifying rounds – to claim the pole for Sunday’s 110-lap race that kicks off the 2018 season. Wickens’ circuit of 1 minute, 1.6643 seconds (105.085 mph) in the No. 6 Lucas Oil Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda bested seven-time St. Petersburg pole winner Will Power by less than a tenth of a second for top honors. Wickens became the first driver to win the pole position in his maiden Indy car race since Sebastien Bourdais in 2003 – also at St. Petersburg.

“It was just chaos – half wet, half dry,” said Wickens, 28. “I like those conditions a lot. As a kid my whole career, I’ve seemed to excel in that type of session, and thankfully the team and everyone on the Lucas Oil car did a great job getting us on track at the right time with the right tire, with the whole procedure.

“Thankfully, I’m starting from pole position. Way better than I ever expected my first INDYCAR race to be, but I’m definitely not complaining with it.”

With all Verizon IndyCar Series entries running the new-look car with its universal aero kit for the first time in competition this weekend, the leaderboard throughout practice has been in a constant state of flux. The trend continued in qualifying, as three drivers making their series debuts – Wickens, Jordan King and Matheus “Matt” Leist – advanced to the Firestone Fast Six.

King, in fact, set the new lap record for the 1.8-mile, 14-turn temporary street course in the first round of qualifying with a lap of 1:00.0476 (107.914 mph), eclipsing Power’s old standard from 2016 by nearly two-hundredths of a second.

“Coming into qualifying, I knew we were quick enough to get through,” said King, the 23-year-old Englishman who joined the Verizon IndyCar Series after three seasons in FIA Formula 2 and two as a Formula 1 reserve driver. “But still, I had to perform, and it being my first time, I was obviously putting more pressure on myself than anybody else. But then I just had to keep reminding myself that if I just do what I know I can, the rest of it will be fine.”

Power’s best lap today in the Firestone Fast Six, 1:01.7346 (104.965 mph) in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet, locked the two-time St. Pete race winner into the outside of Row 1 on the starting grid.

“I had a big mis-shift during my (best) lap where I just got stuck in gear for quite a while,” Power said. “Then when I saw how tight it was, it was like, ‘Yeah, probably lost a tenth or so there.’ But fantastic job by Wickens, first time out, to get pole.

“Just shows kind of the parity within the series, now that everyone has got the same body kit,” Power added. “They’re all good guys. They’re all guys capable of winning races. Yeah, pretty impressive, though, all those guys up in front there, first time out. … Three (rookies) in the Fast Six is very impressive.”

Qualifying Saturday for the Firestone Grand Prix of St Petersburg Verizon IndyCar Series event on the 1.8 mile Streets of St. Petersburg circuit, with qualifying position, car number in parentheses, driver, engine, time and speed in parentheses:

1. (6) Robert Wickens, Honda, 01:01.6643 (105.085)
2. (12) Will Power, Chevrolet, 01:01.7346 (104.965)
3. (4) Matheus Leist, Chevrolet, 01:01.7631 (104.917)
4. (20) Jordan King, Chevrolet, 01:01.7633 (104.917)
5. (30) Takuma Sato, Honda, 01:01.8821 (104.715)
6. (28) Ryan Hunter-Reay, Honda, 01:02.0385 (104.451)
7. (5) James Hinchcliffe, Honda, 01:00.9986 (106.232)
8. (88) Gabby Chaves, Chevrolet, 01:01.1191 (106.023)
9. (9) Scott Dixon, Honda, 01:01.6527 (105.105)
10. (14) Tony Kanaan, Chevrolet, 01:01.7213 (104.988)
11. (22) Simon Pagenaud, Chevrolet, 01:04.6739 (100.195)
12. (27) Alexander Rossi, Honda, 01:07.0377 (96.662)
13. (1) Josef Newgarden, Chevrolet, 01:00.4320 (107.228)
14. (18) Sebastien Bourdais, Honda, 01:00.9587 (106.301)
15. (26) Zach Veach, Honda, 01:00.4585 (107.181)
16. (21) Spencer Pigot, Chevrolet, 01:00.9668 (106.287)
17. (10) Ed Jones, Honda, 01:00.5009 (107.106)
18. (98) Marco Andretti, Honda, 01:01.3013 (105.707)
19. (60) Jack Harvey, Honda, 01:01.0270 (106.183)
20. (59) Max Chilton, Chevrolet, 01:01.3360 (105.648)
21. (23) Charlie Kimball, Chevrolet, 01:01.1868 (105.905)
22. (19) Zachary Claman De Melo, Honda, 01:01.8567 (104.758)
23. (32) Rene Binder, Chevrolet, 01:01.7003 (105.024)
24. (15) Graham Rahal, Honda, 01:04.0990 (101.094)

Matt Leist

Leist qualified third in the No. 4 AJ Foyt Racing ABC Supply Chevrolet (1:01.7631, 104.917 mph), beating King, in the No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet (1:01.7633, 104.917 mph), by an eyelash.

“I think I was expecting to be like top 10,” said Leist, the 19-year-old Brazilian teaming with veteran Tony Kanaan for AJ Foyt Racing, “but definitely not top five, top six. The team just did an amazing job, and very happy for the performance throughout the whole weekend already, and looking forward to the race. It will be my first time doing pit stops, saving fuel and saving tires, so I have a lot of things to learn yet.

Giving credit to his teammate Tony Kanaan (qualified 10th), Leist continued, “Tony is a very special guy, he’s been helping me a lot, not just inside the track but outside the track as well. And not just him, but A.J., Larry, and everyone on the team is helping me a lot because I’m a rookie. Tony is a very special guy and I’m super grateful to have him as a teammate. I grew up watching him and Helio [Castroneves], so having him as a teammate is a dream come true for me.”

En route to his impressive run in the final round, the rookie had less than two minutes in the first round to lay down just one quick lap after the session was red-flagged for an accident. He came through to advance to Round 2 where he went up against 11 other drivers, including his teammate. It had been two years (St. Petersburg in 2016) since both team cars had advanced out of the first round of qualifying.

Leist advanced out of Round 2 and despite tricky conditions in the final round when rain began to fall on the circuit, he displayed the coolness and smoothness of a veteran. He was in second until the final seconds of the session when fellow rookie Robert Wickens set his quick lap to win the pole.

Kanaan maintained his top-10 qualifying prowess at St. Petersburg—in 14 races, he has qualified 12 times in the Top-10, and six of those were in the Top-3, including the pole in 2008. His efforts were stymied today when he was blocked on his hot lap by Alexander Rossi who was penalized for the infraction. Rossi had made it to the Fast Six but he was dropped back to 12th in Round 2.

“I am extremely happy with the team effort so far this weekend,” said Kanaan, who was there to congratulate Leist when he climbed out of the cockpit. “We came here with the intention to put two ABC Supply Racing cars in the Top-10 and we actually did one better, putting one in the Top-10 and another in the Top-3. I am looking forward to the race tomorrow.”

Takuma Sato, the 2014 St. Pete pole sitter, was fifth in the No. 30 Mi-Jack/Panasonic Honda for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (1:01.8821), with Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay sixth in the No. 28 DHL Honda (1:02.0385).

“I enjoyed qualifying,” said Sato. “Obviously it was tricky conditions and I wish I could have been little higher but I’m not complaining. The Firestone Fast Six is just the best place to be for the race. The guys did a tremendous job in very tricky conditions. They sent me out in the perfect time. It’s a little bit of a shame because being on the front row would have been nice but the important thing is to have a strong car in the race which I believe we have.”

“We just got a little bit too aggressive with the car today,” said Hunter-Reay, who led Friday practice. “There at the end, I think it was just down to the drivers figuring out, and I was quick around the rest of the track, but I just didn’t get it together in Turn 1 and 2, and that’s down to me. Every time I passed start finish, they kept telling me P1, P1, P1, and then it fell from there the last two laps. But good job for these guys, and obviously to (Robert) Wickens. He certainly sorted out Turn 1 and 2 out there. It was like running on ice. Somehow those runway strips – we’re sitting so low in the car. You can’t really place your car and try to get around them because they’re so wide you have to get over them, and you can’t see them until you’re on them. It was definitely tricky out there. I’m surprised we didn’t end up with any cars in the wall. Fun session, though. That’ll definitely keep you on your toes.”

Two of Hunter-Reay’s teammates failed to advance from earlier qualifying rounds when they were penalized for qualifying interference. Marco Andretti (No. 98 Ruoff Home Mortgage/Curb Honda) would have advanced from the first round and Alexander Rossi (No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS Honda) would have moved on from Round 2, but both had their fastest two laps negated by penalty and could not advance by rule.

Four-time Verizon IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon saw his string of qualifying for the Firestone Fast Six in nine straight events come to an end. Dixon will start ninth in the No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda. “We thought it would get drier as the qualifying session went on, so we elected to go with the black (Firestone primary) tires,” said Dixon. “The track felt good the first few laps, but then when the rain came it was all too late. Turn 1 was especially bad with the painted runway there. There were several cars that went off there, including myself in the PNC Bank car. So I think we just misread it there. The car is still really fast, though, and we’ll have some work to do to get to the front tomorrow. But we’re here to win and that’s the goal.”

Bourdais, the 2017 St. Petersburg race winner, will roll off 14th in the No. 18 SealMaster Honda for Dale Coyne Racing. Graham Rahal, in the No. 15 United Rentals Honda for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, will start last in the 24-car field after being penalized his two best laps for causing a Round 1 red flag when his car spun in Turn 10. “I’m obviously disappointed,” said Rahal. “I got good signs out of the car in the back section, and I knew that the first lap on the reds (Firestone alternate tires) was supposed to be the really good one. Yesterday we didn’t get a good feel for that, but obviously I wanted to go out there and push hard, and I just came out of Turn 10 and stood on it. It seemed OK and the next thing I knew, it just went around. I’m disappointed clearly for everybody. I don’t know what the pace would have been, but it was giving me positive vibes. I thought that on the used blacks (Firestone primary tires), when others were on new blacks, we were pretty competitive, so I felt like going forward we should be half decent. I’m disappointed for the first race to start off this way but we can’t get too down on ourselves. We’ve just got to stay focused. Tomorrow is a new day and we are going to work hard to get the United Rentals car to the front. (Sebastien) Bourdais started last here last year and won. With the pit windows and the fuel strategy and everything else now, there are big opportunities, so we’ve just got to think through it.”

A final 30-minute warmup practice is scheduled for 8:45 a.m. ET Sunday and streams live on Live race coverage begins at noon on the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network and 12:30 p.m. on ABC.

The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is the first of 17 races on the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series schedule.

FRIDAY: Hunter-Reay leads IndyCar’s opening day

Ryan Hunter-Reay leads day 1 of IndyCar practice at St. Pete

At the end of a pair of 45-minute sessions, Ryan Hunter-Reay of Andretti Autosport sat atop the leaderboard with a lap of 1 minute, 0.8295 seconds (106.527 mph) in the No. 28 DHL Honda on the 1.8-mile, 14-turn temporary course encompassing downtown St. Petersburg, Florida streets and a runway of Albert Whitted Airport . This was the first official day of practice at the first race using IndyCar’s new, less bulbous bodywork—Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

“In the past with more downforce, we actually had to go a little bit beyond our comfort level to get the lap time out of the car because there was so much downforce on it,” explained Hunter-Reay, who has twice finished second in the event. “That was the most awkward thing about today, trying to rein that back a little bit, try not to ask so much of the thing.

“That’s where it’s difficult,” he added. “It’s just sliding around. It’s overall lack of grip. … It’s good, though. It’s a new challenge. Got everybody on their toes. We’ll see who makes the most of it in the shortest amount of time.”

The universal kit was introduced this year following three years of aero kit competition between manufacturers Chevrolet and Honda. The universal kit is designed with a significant reduction in the downforce level that helps cars adhere to the track and corner better. Now, drivers are required to brake earlier and work harder to carry speed through the corners.

James Hinchcliffe, in the No. 5 Arrow Electronics Honda for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, was second fastest for the day with a lap of 1:00.8724 (106.452 mph). The 2013 St. Petersburg race winner echoed Hunter-Reay’s thoughts on the difficulty and challenge of the new car.

“It’s a very different beast,” Hinchcliffe said. “Having to reprogram your brain as to what normal is with this car has been a huge challenge everywhere we’ve gone (in preseason testing). Doing it for a street circuit for the first time has been a bit of an eye opener.”

Will Power, a two-time race winner and seven-time pole winner at St. Petersburg, was third on the overall practice chart with a lap of 1:00.9933 (106.241 mph) in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet. Scott Dixon, who ranks fourth all time in Indy cars with 41 wins but has zero St. Pete victories, was fourth in the No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda (1:01.1004, 106.055 mph).

Josef Newgarden, in his first race weekend as the defending Verizon IndyCar Series champion, was fifth on the combined timesheet at 1:01.1012 (106.054 mph) in the No. 1 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet. The top 17 drivers were separated by less than a second. “We had a smooth enough first practice session today, and we were really just trying to figure out the new car and how it handled here on the streets of St. Pete,” said Newgarden. “We started to work some things out in Session 2 and we’re starting to feel really good about the Hitachi Chevrolet. We still have some work to do, but I know the Hitachi Team Penske guys are the best in the business. Team Chevy is doing a great job giving us all we need, so we’ll be back it for practice and qualifying on Saturday.”

A.J. Foyt’s ABC Supply Racing team was in the top 10 when the checkered fell, and in fact, Matheus ‘Matt’ Leist surprised everyone (including himself) when he emerged as quickest of the 24 starters in practice 1. His teammate Tony Kanaan set the pace early and then elected not to put on new tires towards the end of the season.

Rookie Leist was in the top 10 from the beginning of the session and then popped up to the top of the speed chart in the final minutes after putting on fresh tires, as did many of those behind him. In the second session, Kanaan showed the consistency expected of a veteran with another ninth place performance while Leist dipped to 12th in that session.

Tony Kanaan

Kanaan summarized his day, saying, “It was a decent first day. The biggest accomplishment we wanted to do was have the ABC Supply team running all day. We did that and everybody stayed calm. We had a very good first session and I knew people were going to step it up [in the second session] so now we just need to keep our heads together. It was a decent second session, we’re there. The goal obviously is to win races but we came here to be realistic and I think if we are in the top 10 for this first race and what we’re building, it would be really good. We’re there right now [inside top 10] so we’ll see what happens tomorrow.”

Leist, whose first session in an IndyCar resulted in P1, was pleased with his team’s efforts and is confident about their chances this weekend. “The whole day was pretty good I think. The first practice we were P1 so I was impressed with myself [laughs] and probably the team was as well. It was a good start to the weekend and I think the second session went good as well. We probably had a car to finish in the top-five but I just had too much traffic when I was on reds. P12 is still good I think. I’m looking forward to the weekend and the season. Probably tomorrow is going to be a better day than today and we’re going to be up there with the top guys.”

A third practice is set for Saturday morning, ahead of three rounds of Verizon P1 Award knockout qualifying starting at 2:20 p.m. ET (streaming live on The streets of St. Petersburg will be the site of the Verizon IndyCar Series opener for the eighth straight year on Sunday, with live coverage starting at 12:30 p.m. on ABC and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.

Scuderia Corsa, Rahal Letterman Lanigan partner to enter Servia for Indy 500

Scuderia Corsa, owner of victories at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and 12 Hours of Sebring as well as three consecutive championships in IMSA’s GT Daytona class, announced today it is partnering with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing to enter veteran driver Oriol Servia in the 102nd Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil this May.

Servia, with 201 career Indy car starts including nine in the Indianapolis 500, will drive the No. 64 Honda as a teammate to RLL’s full-season drivers, Graham Rahal and reigning Indy 500 champion Takuma Sato.

“It is an honor to compete at ‘The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,'” Giacomo Mattioli, owner of Scuderia Corsa, said in a released statement. “To be a part of this great racing heritage and tradition is something I always envisioned for Scuderia Corsa and running across the yard of the bricks this year is a thrill.”

Servia’s best Indy 500 finish to date was fourth place for Panther/Dreyer & Reinbold Racing in 2012. He finished 21st in last year’s race, his fourth with RLL. He is confident the pairing of successful teams will bode well for him this year.

“Obviously both teams are very successful, winning teams,” Servia said. “I couldn’t be happier that they agreed. When you put two teams together, you never know how it’s going to come out. They both saw the advantage of taking this shot together, with our friends at Honda supporting, too. I couldn’t be happier.”

Bobby Rahal, the 1986 Indy 500 winner and co-owner of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, sees the partnership as a win-win-win situation – that hopefully results in a win on May 27.

“I think it’s really kind of a great coming together of three very powerful forces,” Rahal said. “I look at Oriol being a part of the team as his really being able to contribute to refining the car, really creating a great setup.

“Now this year with Takuma and Graham, we have three very, very strong entries in the 500, three strong chances to win. That certainly is exciting.”

story and photos courtesy of IndyCar and team reports with additional commentary by Tim Hailey

Leave a Reply