IndyCar POWER RANKINGS: St. Petersburg
Throughout the season, POPULAR OPEN WHEEL will rank the drivers and teams in the Verizon IndyCar Series. Feel free to comment on the story at the POPULAR OPEN WHEEL Facebook page.
For the second straight year, Sebastien Bourdais has opened a Verizon IndyCar Series campaign with a trip to victory lane.
Taking advantage of a late-race fender bender between Robert Wickens and Alexander Rossi, the Frenchman, has once again placed himself and Dale Coyne Racing in unfamiliar territory. After acquiring the services of race engineer Craig Hampson, Bourdais entered last year’s month of May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as the championship leader. However, a topping of the charts on the day before qualifying was lost, when the four-time ChampCar title holder suffered a major accident in turn two.
Out of action for several months, the Le Mans, France-native made a successful comeback to participate in the last three rounds. After earning two top-tens to close out 2017, Bourdais acquired additional support from former IndyCar veteran Jimmy Vasser and his business partner James Sullivan, plus financial backing from new sponsor SealMaster. Despite losing a solid teammate in Ed Jones to Chip Ganassi Racing, the driver of the No. 18 Honda overcame a mid-pack grid position early in the 110-lap Firestone Grand Prix and was in the right place to take advantage of two other pilots misfortune.
While Bourdais stole the headlines, it is clear that IndyCar has a future star in ex-German DTM touring car chauffeur Robert Wickens. Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ teammate James Hinchcliffe had been pushing for his Canadian friend’s inclusion, and now it appears that the Indianapolis-based squad made a smart decision to listen to the request. The driver of the No. 6 Lucas Oil Honda proved effective in both the rain and dry conditions at St. Petersburg, and until the eventual contact with Rossi, appeared set to become the first driver to win in his debut appearance since Graham Rahal did so at the same venue in 2008.
Although the results seem to point toward a Honda performance edge over Chevrolet, a few “bow-tie brigade” runners made some noise in qualifying. Team Penske’s Will Power made the front row and may have challenged Wickens if not for an opening lap mistake. A.J. Foyt Racing’s Matheus Leist and Ed Carpenter Racing’s Jordan King each made the Firestone Fast Six, meriting increased attention in the remaining road course rounds.
So with that in play, let’s look at the first set of IndyCar driver and team power rankings for 2018. Keep in mind, the positioning of competitors and their respective entrants may not necessarily reflect championship points placement.
1) Sebastien Bourdais, Dale Coyne Racing: As mentioned above, the Frenchman’s performance at St. Petersburg was almost a carbon copy to his run to the winner’s circle a season ago. Once again, he overcame a poor qualifying effort and was in a position to capitalize on the misfortune of others. Although the remainder of the 2018 slate remains a question mark, the pieces are in place to mount a realistic challenge for the Astor Cup at the end of the 17-race schedule.
2) Robert Wickens, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports: People years from now may forget the effort shown by the Canadian touring car star at St. Petersburg. However, the focus is now on being able to keep the momentum going in the right direction as he enters uncharted territory next month at ISM Raceway in Phoenix.
3) Will Power, Team Penske: If not for his opening lap gaffe, the Australian could have been a more serious threat to reach the head of the field. Keep in mind, St. Petersburg has not been friendly to the No. 12 Verizon Chevrolet recently, so Phoenix and Long Beach may provide a better base in terms of how good 2018 might be for the former champion.
4) Alexander Rossi, Andretti Autosport: The 2016 Indianapolis 500 champion may not be on the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Christmas card list, but prior to his coming together with Wickens, the ex-Formula One tester continued to show progress in his opening act for year number three. Whether 2018 represents a breakthrough to regular victory challenger is still an unknown.
5) James Hinchcliffe, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports: His Canadian compatriot stole the headlines, but the Mayor more than held his own at St. Petersburg and may be gaining steam towards a major victory quest at the 102nd Indy 500. Don’t forget Hinch won the pole for the Greatest Spectacle in Racing two years ago and he has proven capable of a bounce back from a lackluster output as was the case a season ago at 16th and Georgetown.
6) Graham Rahal, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing: Nearly came from worst to first at St. Petersburg, but settled for runner-up honors in the season opener. Driver and organization’s muscle in road racing has been no secret as has the team’s hit-and-miss resume on ovals, particularly at the Brickyard. Whether a three-car lineup this May cures that malady remains to be seen.
7) Josef Newgarden, Team Penske: Practice day was great; beyond that, there were few fireworks to fall back upon. The stout test numbers at Barber Motorsports Park by the Captain’s men this week, however, merit a second chance to fix the slow start at Phoenix next month.
8) Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing: If Honda had a leg up on Chevrolet, the Iceman should have been front and center in terms of a shot to open the year on the top step of the podium. Instead, a rough weekend marred by a slow qualifying pace and multiple faux-paws on race day kept him out of the picture. Expect a rebound on the road to the Indy 500, if not waiting for the big event on its own. An ability to gel quicker with new teammate Ed Jones could be a key cog toward a positive reversal.
9) Ryan Hunter-Reay, Andretti Autosport: The 2012 champion has lacked the consistency to mount a major surge in terms of championship points table placement in the past few campaigns; however, a fifth-place output at St. Pete is at least a good open to 2018. Maintaining the good vibes beyond the Indy 500 has been an issue though.
10) Takuma Sato, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing: The popular Japanese pilot faded out of the limelight in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, but it appears that relations between himself and new intrasquad rival Graham Rahal are off to a positive beginning. The addition of the aggressive oval track runner to the fold might just be the puzzle piece missing from its first serious victory score at Indy in 14 years.
1) Schmidt Peterson Motorsports: Give team boss Sam Schmidt credit for making an effort to upgrade his organization following a watered-down 2017. The additions of Leena Gade and Piers Phillips to its technical staff have already paid major dividends, while the snap-up of Robert Wickens appears to be the “steal” of this past silly season. A ways to go yet to see if the glue holds strong, but the early returns are stout.
2) Dale Coyne Racing: No question that Sebastien Bourdais is back to his former self, but skepticism remains on the threat of the Windy City-squad’s second team as Zachary Claman DeMelo and Pietro Fittipaldi share the driving duties. The Canadian prospect failed to feature at St. Pete, while the highly-touted Brazilian gets his first crack at IndyCar in Phoenix.
3) Andretti Autosport: Decent opening acts from both Alexander Rossi and Ryan Hunter-Reay in Florida. Marco Andretti had an okay showing to take ninth-place at the checkered flag, while Zach Veach is still learning the game. You should expect an increasingly potent challenge as the Indy 500 draws closer.
4) Team Penske: After dominating the rankings from start to finish in 2017, the lid lifter for this season certainly brought up a few red flags in relation to the performance of Chevrolet’s twin-turbo V-6 engine against Honda’s power plant option. The returns from the Alabama test this week should, however, put to bed any signs of a bad year being the forecast for the Captain’s men.
5) Chip Ganassi Racing: Only running two cars at all events in 2018 will make earning the big results a little tougher for the Pittsburgh-based entrepreneur’s squad; however, one would be foolish to overlook Scott Dixon in the remaining 16 performances. The concern sits squarely on Ed Jones’ shoulders in terms of what he can accomplish in his opening chapter with one of IndyCar’s long-time powerhouses.
6) Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing: No one can question this team’s strength on road and street course layouts, but still have something to prove on the high-speed ovals. Will a three-car assault at the Brickyard change that theory?
7) A.J. Foyt Racing: The pairing of super-veteran Tony Kanaan, with the intriguing newcomer Matheus Leist seemed to provide a solid springboard for the latter’s strong showing in qualifying at St. Pete. The early race exit, however, unearthed the chances for a few growing pains moments along the way for 2018.
8) Ed Carpenter Racing: While Jordan King has a long way to go to become the same threat that former IndyCar road course-ringer Mike Conway was, but the qualifying output was a positive first step. Curious to see if the No. 20 Chevrolet stays in the mix when the team boss takes over the wheel for Phoenix.
9) Harding Racing: A 14th-place is not doomsday for this team’s first stab at a road race, but will they match the 2017 returns they enjoyed with Gabby Chaves in a limited oval track schedule at Phoenix? Probably need more information before considering their merits to be able to feature against the main guard of full-time runners.
10) Carlin Racing: The drivers are experienced; however, even two talented hands like Max Chilton and Charlie Kimball could not hide the rawness of a new club, even with the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires success it has enjoyed over the years. Capable of upping its game in time for the 102nd Indianapolis 500? Maybe.
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