Monday Crew Chief: Grand Prix of St. Petersburg
The expectation of a Will Power-domination before the start of Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg was quickly put to rest.
While his first lap slip up was overcome to a late surge to tenth-place at the finish, it paled in comparison to the Verizon IndyCar Series debut of former factory Mercedes DTM touring car pilot Robert Wickens.
After dusting off the Australian on Lap 1 looked like a seasoned veteran. Fast times on the 1.8-mile street circuit seemed effortless, and pit stops, a common hiccup for a newcomer were flawless, especially a 7.3-second final foray that netted him a clear advantage on Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi.
Unfortunately, most may forget what Wickens accomplished after his dream performance ended in contact with Rossi two laps from the finish. However, despite taking 18th-place at the climax, he has put the IndyCar paddock on notice for the remainder of the current campaign.
The same holds true for the entire Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team in general; teammate James Hinchcliffe did survive the 110-lap distance and came home in fourth. During silly season, SPM literally did a teardown and rebuild of the squad from the ground up. Allen
McDonald was replaced in the head engineering role by former Audi Sport Team Joest sports car team leader Leena Gade, while Piers Phillips was also brought into the fold.
The moves have through one of seventeen events, already upped the level of outputs from SPM, similar to what Dale Coyne Racing has enjoyed since Craig Hampson joined the Windy City runners in 2017.
Speaking of DCR, Sebastien Bourdais took advantage of others misfortune to successfully defend his victory at St. Petersburg, completing a comeback from an awful crash last May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Minus that setback, the frenchman would probably have challenged for the 2017 series title. Assuming that disaster is avoided, the No. 18 SealMaster Honda should play a key role at most road or street circuit stops in 2018, and if practice at the Brickyard last year was a sign, that threatening presence could likewise extend to the high-speed, left-handed layouts.
With Wickens and Bourdais stealing the headlines, the key players from Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing were mostly absent at the head of the pack. Following Power’s incident, neither Josef Newgarden nor Simon Pagenaud featured, with the reigning IndyCar champ settling for seventh-place at the checkered flag. CGR, in turn, was its own worst enemy as four-time title winner Scott Dixon ran afoul of the officials twice at St. Pete, posting a sixth-place effort in the first race with PNC Bank sponsorship. New sidekick Ed Jones, plagued by a bad grid position, managed to claw his way to eighth at the climax, but seemed to give up ground precious ground late in fuel runs for most of the afternoon.
Also, missing from the final picture were Wickens’ two freshman classmates from the Firestone Fast Six. A crash in turn three relegated A.J. Foyt Racing’s star prospect Matheus Leist to a last-place result, while Ed Carpenter Racing’s Jordan King struggled home to take 21st.
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