Column By: BRANT JAMES / INDYCAR – ST. PETERSBURG, FL – The crowd of fans parted and began chanting Robert Wickens’ name as his damaged race car was deposited at the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports transporter.
The No. 6 Lucas Oil SPM Honda had helped the 28-year-old Verizon IndyCar Series rookie and European touring car veteran win the pole in his first race and put him within two laps today of winning it in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
But contact from the sliding rear of Alexander Rossi’s No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS Honda on an attempted pass for the lead on a Lap 109 restart sent Wickens into a barrier and an 18th-place finish that wasn’t commiserate with the impressive first weekend of work he’d produced.
“I want to make it very clear, I’m very proud of the job that I did today,” Wickens said. “For sure I’m disappointed, but in your rookie race … also, honestly, that’s why I didn’t really fight him that hard (on the attempted pass). I gave him more than enough space on the inside because, even if I finished P2, I would have been ecstatic.”
Wickens admitted to confusion when the pace car warning lights remained on as the field approached the final restart. The lights are normally turned off on the last caution lap to assist in alerting drivers of a pending restart. As is custom, INDYCAR also radioed teams that the restart was imminent. The pace car also pulled into pit lane well before Wickens reached the restart zone on the front straight, where he could accelerate.
Saddled with what he termed a modest restart, Wickens allowed Rossi an opportunity to spring and the fateful contact ensued. Wickens had defended his perch up front at the beginning of the race, but could not do so again in the final moments.
Team Penske’s Will Power attacked Wickens’ position in Turn 2 of the first lap and was sent spinning. Wickens, Power contended, made an aggressive turn through the section. Rossi’s attempt to pass in Turn 1 did not work out as well for the race leader and he was not pleased. But Wickens also knew there was something to enjoy, even if he’d had his celebration taken away.
“It’s just a shame. The day went so well, the whole weekend went so well, getting a surprise pole, and to be honest, even myself, I’m like, ‘Can I convert this into a full 110-lap race?’ And I think we’ve proved to a lot of people that we could, and the team is capable of it.
“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.”
Had he held on, Wickens would have been the first to win their inaugural Indy car race since Buzz Calkins at Walt Disney World Speedway in 1996. Eventual race runner-up Graham Rahal said he empathized with Wickens’ outcome, but agreed with Rossi that the rookie was the impetus.
“I’ll go see him. He needs to keep his head up,” Rahal said of Wickens. “He did a phenomenal job this weekend. He did a great job up front. Obviously, I didn’t see a lot of it, but he obviously had a fast car.
“He did an excellent job for his first (race), so there’s no doubt that he’s going to find himself in victory lane at some point. You’ve just got to keep your chin up. It adds a little fuel to the fire all the time when that happens.
“But like (Rossi) said, if you watch it, certainly it did look like Robbie pushed him to the inside a bit late in the brake zone. It was kind of a calamity of errors, I think, that kind of caused that whole situation.”
It’s a situation Wickens will likely get into again if he continues to perform so well. Only next time, the outcome may be different.