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VICS 2018 At St. Pete - Funny Thing Happened On The Way To A Champion’s Coronation

The nose graphic that appears on the wasp-like livery on the Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser-Sullivan -No. 18 Team Sealmaster Honda Dallara of the first winner of the first race of the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series today at Saint Petersburg - Sebastien Bourdais. Image Credit Edmund Jenks (2018)

VICS 2018 At St. Pete - Funny Thing Happened On The Way To A Champion's Coronation

The tenth edition of the best carry-over (non IMS) race from the original schedule of the Indianapolis Racing League (IRL), the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, featured twenty-four very capable cars and drivers filling the field packed with seven past Indy Car champions representing thirteen season championships riding along side seven rookies where three of them made it into the 3rd Round Firestone Fast Six in Knock-Out qualifications is a really, really big deal. Last year's winner of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg (replay) was 4-Time IndyCar season champion, Frenchman Sebastien Bourdais.

The Verizon IndyCar Series, in order to make racing more competitive and in control of the driver in this top level of American motorsport, tightened up the body skin specification on the Dallara DW12 chassis by introducing the two year project now known as the Universal Aero Kit (UAK).Welcome the age of the UAK on the DW12 Dallara.

2017 Verizon IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden describes the 2018 Universal Aero Kit on stage during the 2018 INDYCAR unveil at the North America International Auto Show in Detroit. Image Credit: Joe Skibinski

The past Verizon IndyCar Series season champions include Andretti Autosport driver Ryan Hunter-Reay (2012), AJ Foyt Racing driver Tony Kanaan (2004), Chip Gannasi Racing driver Scott Dixon (2003, 2008, 2013, 2015), Team Penske drivers Will Power (2014), Simon Pagenaud (2016), Josef Newgarden (2017), and the aforementioned Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser-Sullivan driver Sebastien Bourdais (2004, 2005, 2006, 2007) - 7 series champions covering 13 season titles.

The rookies entering into the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season's first race are Firestone Grand Prix P1 Verizon Pole Award winner, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Canadian driver, 29 year old Robert Wickens, Firestone Fast Six P3 Qualifier AJ Foyt Racing Brazilian driver, 19 year old Matheus Leist, Firestone Fast Six P4 Qualifier Ed Carpenter Racing British driver, 24 year old Jordan King, Andertti Autospot American driver, 23 year old Zach Veach, Michael Shank Racing/Schmidt Peterson Motorsports British driver, 24 year old Jack Harvey, Dale Coyne Racing Canadian driver, 19 year old Zachary Claman DeMelo, and Juncos Racing Austrian driver, 26 year old René Binder.

The traditional first race of the season, for nine years now (since 2009, the race has served as the season opener, with the exception of 2010, when it was the second race of the season), held around the airport, streets and harbor of Saint Petersburg, Florida proved to all what everyone had suspected. A different kettle of fish from most of the Dallara DW12 era racing - less downforce, great body strength, very fast in a straight line. The UAK is very pleasing to drive - from the opinion of most all of the drivers.

Most observers assumed that experience held within championship winning teams, the teams with the greatest financial backing, history, testing, and experienced drivers would hit this opening opportunity with suffocating domination.

To nearly everyone's surprise this was not the case when the rookies, took the Verizon P1 Pole Award (Wickens became the third rookie in 25 years to win the pole for his IndyCar debut), and two additional positions in the Round 3 Firestone Fast Six in road/street format Knock-Out qualifications. Left out to watch from the sidelines were such impressive champion drivers as Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Simon Pagenaud, and last year's champion Josef Newgarden.


Robert Wickens affixes the Verizon P1 Award emblem on his car after winning the pole position for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Image Credit: Chris Jones

The cars slip and slide ... the in-car camera shots show that the steering wheel gets as much a workout as peddles in a spinning class. More driving is required from all of the drivers in this series making the product on the track more entertaining than it has been in recent history. And, to be honest, the racing has been very good since the introduction of the first Dallara DW12 platform.

EXAMPLE - Opening Laps:

On the first lap of the race, Will Power attempted a Turn 1 pass and through Turn 2 became lose and spun without contact, Tony Kanaan gets lose in Turn 5 and as he straightens out, taps Zach Veach with wing parts flying. Lap 2 has RHR coming out of the pits ahead of traffic after a quick controller change because the one installed did not allow for accelleration and Charlie Kimball becomes unsettled after bouncing on the curb entering Turn 13 and comes to a stop off of the track at Turn 14 - Full Course Yellow.

Restart on Lap 6 has three rookies leading in P1, P2, and P3 - King, Wickens, & Leist - Beginning Lap 7 Spencer Pigot spins going into Turn 1 bringing out a Full Course Yellow.

Restart Lap 11 has Jordan King leading the field to the third start of racing at St. Pete, followed by Wickens, Rossi, Leist, and Hinchcliffe ... not a champion in the bunch - and only one fully established driver of over three seasons in the series.

Wickens passes in Turn 1 as King goes wide ... Rossi loses a place back to P4. The first Champion is settled in at P7 with Scott Dixon  ... now at Lap 13.

So the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season begins on the temporary street circuit at St. Petersburg.

To give one additional insight on just how busy, or as Eddie Cheever on the broadcast put it ... CHAOS filled, the events of the Firestone Grand Prix of Saint Petersburg race were, just take a look at the video shot list released as a usable media asset by the Verizon IndyCar Series after the race.

Shot List:

Aerial of St. Petersburg
Grand marshal Helio Castroneves gives the start command
Green flag
No. 12 Will Power spins
Power replay
No. 14 Tony Kanaan spins
No. 15 Graham Rahal and No. 21 Spencer Pigot incident
Replay of Rahal and Pigot incident
No. 23 Charlie Kimball goes off track
No. 6 Robert Wickens leading
No. 4 Matheus Leist incident
Team owner A.J. Foyt reaction
No. 18 Sebastien Bourdais leading
No. 9 Scott Dixon and Sato incident
Replay of Dixon and Sato incident
Wickens passes Bourdais for the lead
No. 28 Ryan Hunter-Reay on-board view of No. 60 Jack Harvey going off track
Harvey parked in the last turn
Wickens leading with No. 27 Alexander Rossi in pursuit
Wickens passes Rahal
Rossi gets wide in Turn 4
Slow-motion replay of Rossi wide
No. 32 Rene Binder incident
No. 59 Max Chilton incident
Final restart, Rossi and Wickens incident, Bourdais takes the lead
Replay of Rossi and Wickens incident
Checkered flag, Bourdais wins, crew reaction, Bourdais does donuts

Sebastien gives race winning TV interview before he exits the car in the Victory Circle. Image: INDYCAR (2018)

Bourdais pulls into pit lane and gets congratulated
Bourdais sound

Almost covers it except the race was really even more eventful than the shot list would indicate.

Image 1) Alexander Rossi cooks it in Turn 4 and hurts his attack - Robert Wickens in the foreground. Image 2) Rossi rejoins the hunt and passes Charlie Kimball in Turn 5. Images: INDYCAR (2018)

With the laps winding down, and Canadian driver Robert Wickens in the lead, being chased down by third year American driver and 2016 Indy500 winner Alexander Rossi, it looked as though the race was comfortably in hand, especially when Rossi, who was reducing the distance between Wickens and himself, slid and overshot the apex point at Turn 4, losing and attacking advantage (depicted above). 

"It was going to be pretty hard to reel him back in there," Alexander Rossi said - except the chaos wasn't over.

That is, until Rookie Rene Binder with 10 laps to go brought out a FULL COURSE Yellow (FCY) after his car went into the tires to set up one uneventful restart.

Max Chilton stalled moments later to set up a second FCY with two laps to go. Bourdais, sitting comfortably in third and happy to start the year on the podium, wasn't that happy; he thought someone would make a risky maneuver and wreck the field.

"Normally they don't allow push-to-pass on restarts," added Alexander Rossi at the post race media conference. "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 Turn 13 and 14. So I had a big jump on Rob (Wickens), 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 many other opportunities. Obviously (Wickens) had a good car all day, and they did a great job. I made the pop. 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." Image: INDYCAR (2018)

Sure enough, Rossi contested the lead, hit Wickens going into Turn 1, and ended both of their victory hopes. Rossi recovered to finish third, while Rookie Wickens got stuck and finished 18th in the 24-car field.

Lost in all of this was the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver and past winner of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg (2008) Graham Rahal, who had one of the worst performances in Knock-Out Qualifications for a road/street race. Graham Rahal ended up starting the race dead last in the No. 15 United Rentals Honda, had a strong race with good strategy with clean pit stops and ended up on the podium in P2!

"The United Rentals guys did a great job out there," said Graham Rahal in a post race interview. "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."

For a coronation to happen, one needed aggressive racing, sliding cars, just a bit of side-to-side bumping along the way - the crown is then served to a four-time series season champion and, to add insult to injury, repeat Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg winner, Sebastien Bourdais.

The Verizon IndyCar Series is beginning its Southwest United States spring swing with back-to-back races at ISM Raceway with the Desert Diamond West Valley Casino Phoenix Grand Prix (Friday April 6 - Qualifications 5:00 PM - 6:00 PM PT / Saturday April 7 - Race 6:30 PM - 8:30 PM PT) and then the rites-of-spring 44th Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach (Thursday April 12 - Long Beach Motorsports Walk Of Fame honoring Juan Pablo Montoya and Helio Castroneves - 11:00 AM PT / Sunday April 15 - Race 1:00 PM PT).

... notes from The EDJE

TAGS: Alexander Rossi, Sebastien Bourdais, Graham Rahal, #INDYCAR, Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, @StPeteFL, @IndyCar, #FirestoneGP, #VICS, Verizon IndyCar Series, The EDJE


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