After securing the pole on Saturday for the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Verizon IndyCar Series newcomer Robert Wickens admitted he’d have to study the rule book to learn how to lead the field to the green. The anxiety and worry Wickens could justifiably have felt in facing so many unknowns, however, was absent.
The Schmidt Peterson Motorsports newcomer proved his comfort in the Dallara IR-12 as he led 69 of 110 laps on Sunday — an astounding 62.7 percent of the race — and maintained a steady pace up front, one-upping his surprise pole.
Wickens, of Canada, was able to settle in and execute mistake-free laps, with his flow interrupted only by a record eight full-course caution periods.
“The restarts are always nerve-racking, but as soon as we got through a restart and I was able to build up a healthy gap, I was kind of back into my groove,” Wickens explained during the post-race press conference.
“I just felt like I was in a good zone today. We controlled the pace. I could build a gap when I needed to build a gap. I was hitting the fuel targets we had set — and still building gaps. It was just a good day until the 109th lap.”
Just seconds after a caution period ended and Lap 109 began with a restart, Alexander Rossi boldly dived to the inside of Turn 1. The two-time IndyCar race victor and Andretti Autosport driver failed to slow down in time to make the corner and avoid striking Wickens, who was encroaching from the outside in an effort to retain his lead.
The No. 27 NAPA Honda under Rossi escaped race-terminating damage, ensuring the 2016 Indianapolis 500 winner lost only one position. The race went immediately back under yellow-flag conditions, locking in Rossi’s third-place result.
Wickens, meanwhile, is scored in 18th on the official results, having been stripped of a truly noteworthy achievement — winning on debut — at nearly the last possible moment.
“I defended a little bit, but then I realized if I went any further it would have been a blocking, so I opened up, let him take the inside and just broke as late as possible and gave him enough space on the inside,” Wickens explained. “And from my point of view, he broke too late … He just went too deep, locked the rears and slid into me. There’s really no other explanation to it.
“The only pity is he carried on to a podium, and I ended up in the fence.”
On April 7, Wickens will contest his first oval race in the series at ISM Raceway in Phoenix. Perhaps it’ll be the following weekend in Long Beach when Wickens wholeheartedly aims to capture the street-circuit win that got away.