ST. PETERSBURG, Florida – The pressure of an Verizon Indy Car Series debut is supposed be tough on rookies, but someone apparently forgot to tell the 2018 crop of first-year drivers.
The season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg didn't follow that script, with three rookies making waves in their first weekend, after they started Sunday’s race in the top four and acquitted themselves well in their first taste of INDYCAR action. Meanwhile, a few of the savvy veteran drivers made unexpected mistakes in their angst to get to the front.
The top newcomer was easily Robert Wickens in the No. 6 Lucas Oil Honda for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, who started on pole and came an agonizing two laps from victory before contact in Turn 1 with Alexander Rossi ruined what was a stellar debut for the Canadian.
Up to that point, Wickens led 69 laps and calmly matched the times of his pursuers as he managed the race from the front.
“To be honest, I felt very comfortable with the pace I had and could control everything. Alex could get within a second of me, but he was never going to pass me,” said Wickens, who arrived in the Verizon IndyCar Series after six seasons in the top-level German touring car series commonly called DTM.
“I just hate how the day ended. I expected more from Alex and I thought we would just would have had a good fight. They are probably going to call it a racing incident, but in my opinion, when a race is decided like that, some action should be taken.”
Many believed pressure would be on Wickens from the start, as he lined up next to 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series champion and two-time St. Pete race winner Will Power. It didn't work out that way with the pair going side-by-side into Turn 1 and Wickens outdueling the Team Penske veteran, who ended up spinning.
The No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet driver wasn't impressed by the rookie's determination and said he would have backed out had he realized how aggressively Wickens would defend.
“At the start, Wickens squeezed me very tight and spun me out,” Power said. “I tried my best not to hit him, but maybe I should have just taken him out. Now I know, what goes around comes around in this business. It's not DTM – you see how those guys race over there – this is open-wheel.”
As for the other rookies in the field, Matheus Leist (No. 4 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet) and Jordan King (No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Fuzzy's Vodka Chevrolet) raced in the top five early. King led five laps before a tire puncture dropped him from contention and he finished 21st. Leist's car spent a lengthy time in the pits to fix a gearbox issue and he later crashed in his hurry to make up lost time when he did return to the track.
Zachary Claman De Melo (No. 19 The Paysafe Car Honda) also ran in the top five briefly, but ended the day 17th, one spot behind Zach Veach in the No. 26 Group One Thousand One Honda. Veach (shown above), driving for Andretti Autosport, wound up the top-finishing rookie.
While some first-year drives fared well, those who ran into trouble weren't alone. Many veterans found themselves in dire straits after incidents or over-ambitious moves.
Seven laps into the race, Graham Rahal (No. 15 United Rentals Honda) ran into the back of Spencer Pigot (No. 21 Autogeek Chevrolet) in Turn 1 and took full responsibility for his error, tweeting to his victim: “drinks on me tonight.”
After some caution flags fell his way, Rahal found himself in fourth place near the end, and he moved into second behind race winner Sebastien Bourdais after the Wickens-Rossi incident.
Another veteran who had an unusual day was Scott Dixon in the No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda. First, the four-time Verizon IndyCar series champion ran into the back of Takuma Sato, Rahal’s teammate at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. It earned Dixon a pit-lane drive-through penalty for avoidable contact. Dixon added insult to injury with another drive-through later in the race for a pit-speed violation, yet somehow recovered from both to finish sixth.
“We had a fast car this weekend, led practice Saturday but qualifying didn’t go our way and we started mid-pack,” said Dixon, who is fourth all time in Indy car wins with 41 but has yet to find victory at St. Pete in 13 attempts. “I got loose in turn one and made contact (with Sato) and we went to the back. After that we just focused on clawing our way back up and getting as many points as we could.
“I thought we could work on strategy and get a solid finish, but then we served a drive-through penalty for pit-lane speeding which took us out of it. We never give up and we just kept fighting to the end.”
The next Verizon IndyCar Series race is the Phoenix Grand Prix on the ISM Raceway 1.022-mile oval. Live coverage of the night race begins at 9 p.m. ET Saturday, April 7 on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.