IndyCar 2018: Grand Prix of St Petersburg talking points

Andrew Kitchener Roar Guru

By Andrew Kitchener, Andrew Kitchener is a Roar Guru & Live Blogger

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    A new season, a new car, new teams and plenty of new drivers: it’s a new beginning for the IndyCar Series in 2018.

    The season kicked off on the streets of St Petersburg in Florida, the now customary season opener, with all the drama and excitement that IndyCar racing is known for. Here are my talking points from IndyCar’s 2018 debut

    Late-race contact between the frontrunners
    We’ve seen turn-one drama many times before at St Pete – more times than I can count. The cars roar down the front straight seven to nine miles and hour quicker than last year and brake hard for the first turn. With just two laps left to run, Alexander Rossi, second in his Andretti Honda, tried what can only be described as an audacious manoeuvre to get around Robert Wickens, the Canadian rookie who’d been the class of the field all day.

    Like so many attempts at turn one before it, Rossi’s didn’t quite come off. He made contact with Wickens, and as the Canadian spun into the outside tyre barriers, Rossi was swamped by Sebastien Bourdais and Graham Rahal. Seconds later the yellow flag was out, and Bourdais, a Frenchman driving for the perennially underfunded Dale Coyne Racing, coasted behind the pace car for his second win in as many years at the season opener with Rahal coming home second after starting dead last.

    The more I look at replays, the more I’m convinced that it was simply a racing incident, the unfortunate product of two guys going for the win late. Rossi was just far enough up alongside Wickens for it to be labelled as such. Unfortunately he locked his brakes and initiated contact.

    Wickens wasn’t happy, obviously and understandably. He saw a maiden victory in a race that he thoroughly dominated go up in smoke while the guy who had a hand in it went on to score a podium finish. This wasn’t Austin Dillon punting Aric Almirola out of the way to win the Daytona 500 a few weeks back. The fact that Rossi wasn’t penalised by IndyCar officials post-race speaks volumes.

    Sunday’s win was huge for Bourdais
    Ten months ago Bourdais, who now calls St Petersburg home (and who won there, going from last to first, a year ago), was involved in a horrible crash in Indianapolis 500 qualifying. It was the kind of accident that might’ve claimed his life five or ten years ago. Instead Bourdais sustained only minor injuries and rehabbed them across the summer, climbing back into an IndyCar for the series finale at Sonoma last October.

    On Sunday, after leading for a chunk in the middle stanza of the 110-lap event, Bourdais used a mixture of smarts and speed to put himself in contention. Sure, there was an element of luck in how he inherited the win, but what counts is that Bourdais was at the pointy end when it counted.

    His emotional post-race interview showed just how much the win meant to him. With apologies to Robert Wickens, you really couldn’t have asked for a better story to start the season, and I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that we haven’t seen the last of Bourdais in victory circle.

    Sebastien Bourdais driving for Dayle Coyne Raacing in St Petersburg

    (Brian Cleary/Getty Images)

    Wickens serves notice
    Anyone who figured that the Canadian, who amassed six wins and 15 poles in 84 starts over six years in the German DTM Series, would take some time getting up to speed was made to look pretty foolish across the weekend.

    A day after clinching pole in his first attempt at IndyCar qualifying, Wickens led a race-high 69 laps in five stints at the front and looked set to capture his first chequered flag in his first attempt before the late-race contact with Rossi relegated him to a disappointing 18th-place finish.

    Make no mistake: the savvy Canadian, a rookie in name only, is here to stay. He was the class of the field both days – no mean feat when you think about who he was racing against – and deserved more than what he ended with.

    Wickens will win multiple races this season and, along with teammate James Hinchcliffe, will ensure that Schmidt Peterson Motorsports will be a serious championship force.

    The new car looks great and races well
    Less downforce, more speed on the straights, tougher to handle through the corners, streamlined and sleek. The 2018 IndyCar is everything fans and drivers have wanted: a throwback to the sport’s glory days in the late 1990s. Seeing drivers fight the car all over the St Petersburg track will warm the hearts of IndyCar fans everywhere. When guys like Tony Kanaan and Scott Dixon are struggling for control, you know it’s a handful – and that’s great!

    I didn’t hate the old car as much as some did, but it’s hard not to be impressed by what we saw. Not that the on-track product was bad before – the racing is the least of IndyCar’s problems – but we could be set for a season of epic proportions if Sunday’s opener was anything to go by. We saw a race-record 366 passes through the field. There was plenty of action as drivers came to terms with these new cars.

    A rough Sunday for the rookies
    After a banner day for IndyCar rookies during Saturday qualifying, they came to earth with a thud on Sunday. Aside from Robert Wickens dominating, the rest of the class of first-year IndyCar drivers who had impressed us greatly on Saturday had rough days. Jordan King, Jack Harvey, Matheus Leist and Rene Binder all endured days they’d rather forget.

    The highest-finishing rookie was Andretti Autosport’s Zach Veach, who came home in 16th. There were definitely glimpses of the talent that Wickens, King and others have, and the crop of rookies will certainly be better having the race under their belts.

    Next stop: Phoenix
    IndyCar is dormant for nearly a month before reconvening under lights at the lightning-fast desert oval. The racing hasn’t been great at Phoenix since it returned to the schedule, but there’s optimism that the new car will make passing far easier.

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