Race Report: 2018 St. Petersburg
We were promised the first race with new cars. We had a threat of rain on Race Day. On Sunday in St. Petersburg: we had sun, fast cars, and an emotional ending that no one expected.
What analogy do you use for a car that no one can control? A bronco. The 2018 IndyCar and the new aero kit, is a bronco. We have all talked about how it was going to be interesting to see, and every driver seemed to get out of the car and talk about how ‘alive’ the car felt. Alive is a nice word, feisty is a better word, and an animal that has to be broken to your will is the best description. You could tell the drivers were not yet comfortable in the car, and a lot of drivers in those first practice sessions weren’t able to try different tires or drafting as they were still trying to tame that car. Graham Rahal, during Practice Session 3, indicated that the car didn’t feel connected. The front end was set, but then the back end was loose; the back end was set, and the front end got away from you. The incident on the last lap received the most reaction from everyone watching, but that car was the storyline.
The car was rumored to be very hard on turns, of course, it would be, they lost a lot of downforce. The car was not going to stick to the track, and heading down a smooth runway straight away into a strong series of turns, things would get wild! (Anyone else see the irony of having those sleek IndyCars fly down a runway?) And the first three turns on the Streets of St. Petersburg proved that. From the first practice session, through qualification, and onto the race: Turn 1 proved to be the first test for all drivers this season. Sitting in the bleachers during the first practice session you could see the cars skidding sideways on their breaks, and drivers fighting the car. The cars seemed to skip down the apron of the turn or head into the runoff or spin completely around. Not just rookies, but even veterans struggle. In the second session, we saw the Iceman himself fight the car and spin out. Even scarier was the incident between Sato and Dixon when Dixon got slightly airborne on Turn 1 and turned right around in the middle of traffic. Of course, he quietly climbed back to end the race in the sixth position. Even veterans are struggling with that car.
You know who didn’t seem to struggle with the car – Robert effin’ Wickens. In fact, this race was dominated by rookie storylines. Three out of the top four drivers were rookies (Wickens, Leist, and King). It was a rookie who came out and set a new track record (congrats Jordan King). It was a rookie who was P1 after the first practice session (Leist). It was a rookie who led over half of the race and who dominated qualifications to take the pole. Maybe Wickens felt the need to show everyone that he’s not just “Hinch’s best friend” and that he’s a hell of a driver: and he completely showed it during the weekend. The Rookies came to drive this weekend, and they did. It will be a good year for Rookie competition, and the Rookies will give the veterans a good fight.
Another type of rookie would be the teams: Carlin, Juncos, and Harding. The new teams didn’t have the best weekend. The highest finisher was Gabby Chaves in fourteenth place for Harding Racing. I did find it interesting to listen to was the radio communication between Juncos racing personnel. They would talk with Rene Binder and have him make certain changes and report back, then adjust something else and report back. It was very methodical; I could almost see a decision tree being written somewhere and the team moving through each branch of the tree. They’re very young, and I did see them somehow wheel the car dolly to get stuck in a grate, but after hearing that communication – keep your eyes on Harding racing.
Have to address the incident. The contact between Wickens and Rossi on the final lap. I’ve watched and rewatched the incident, I’ve read everyone’s take on it, and here’s what I think. It was similar to the Pagenaud/Newgarden pass in Gateway. I think Wickens left the door open just enough and Rossi decided to take it. This was the last lap, and at that point, you have to go for it. It was Turn 1 where everyone was getting loose, and Rossi’s back end seemed to get out from under him and he spun Wickens. Something similar happened between Wickens and Power back on the starting lap, from the IndyCar.com article Power indicates that Wickens was so aggressively driving that there wasn’t any space between and they got caught up with each other. Now that was lap 1, and this incident was on the last lap so the difference being it did cost Wickens the win. Race Control took no action and I agree with that call. There is also some discussion on whether or not the restart policy was proper, but IndyCar has indicated that while the Pace Car’s lights did not go out, teams were told they’d be restarting on that lap. It’s racing. Pure and simple, that was a move made when you’re racing. Rossi had to try. Wickens had to defend. Someone had to lose that battle.
Race 1 of the 2018 season is in the books. It was simply amazing. It was a record-setting race with 336 passes happening, crushing the 2008 record of 323. Plus this was the first race with the new cars, once the drivers start getting comfortable in those cars; I think that record is going to get beat again. And congratulations to Sebastian Bourdais for snagging the first win of the season, and on his home track. I know it must have felt good to get that win after last year's season.
It’s only going to get better this season. The stands were packed with people Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Let’s go ahead and call it – IndyCar is back. The 2018 season is going to be one full of storylines and emotion and of course: hot nasty speed!