The unpredictability of the Verizon IndyCar Series reached a new and exciting level in Verizon P1 Award qualifying for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, with rookie Robert Wickens taking pole position in his debut event.
On a track slick from light rain, 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 kicked 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 Saturday 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."
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."
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).
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 started ninth in the No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda.
Graham Rahal, in the No. 15 United Rentals Honda for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, started 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.
Sebastien Bourdais repeated as winner of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg after rolling off 14th in the No. 18 SealMaster Honda for Dale Coyne Racing, but only after 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 for Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser-Sullivan 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.
"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.
James Hinchcliffe, Wickens' teammate at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, finished fourth in the No. 5 Arrow Electronics SPM Honda. Ryan Hunter-Reay, Rossi's teammate at Andretti Autosport, placed fifth in the No. 28 DHL Honda.
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.
FIRESTONE GRAND PRIX OF ST. PETERSBURG: Official results