A remarkable day for rookie Robert Wickens took a turn on the final restart when a controversial incident between himself and Alexander Rossi allowed St. Petersburg resident Sebastien Bourdais to swipe the lead and, ultimately, his second consecutive Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
Bourdais was in the hunt for much of the race thanks to an alternate strategy that developed after he sustained a flat tire and made a pit stop on just the second lap.
A series of cautions — there were eight total — shuffled the four-time Indy car champion to the front and by Lap 30, he had found the lead. As alternate strategies converged, Bourdais was racing with Wickens and Andretti Autosport driver Rossi in the top three for an uninterrupted middle portion of the race after a yellow-ridden start.
For his final stint, which was longer than the standard 30-lap maximum pit window, Bourdais went with sticker black tires and a slight adjustment to the front wing of his No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda. This stop ran a bit long, dropping him behind both Wickens and Rossi who he trailed with with 10 laps to go.
On Lap 107, Carlin’s Max Chilton stopped on course in Turn 8 to bring out the penultimate caution period, giving the top three a chance to race for the win with two laps to go.
On the restart, Rossi made heavy side contact with Wickens as the dueling pair dived into Turn 1, sending the No. 6 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda spinning. The incident allowed both Bourdais and 2008 St. Petersburg winner Graham Rahal to get by.
As the event’s eighth caution period, the contact between Wickens and Rossi broke the record for most cautions in an Indy car race on the tight Floridian street circuit.
Wickens’ stalled car brought out the race’s final caution on Lap 109, enabling Bourdais to cruise to the checkered flag in front of a hometown crowd.
The win marks Bourdais’ 37th Indy car victory, ranking him sixth on the all-time list. He trails Al Unser by two and Scott Dixon by four. The achievement also marks Coyne’s sixth victory as a team, dating back to Justin Wilson at Watkins Glen in 2009.
With his second-place finish, Rahal delivered his best performance in St. Pete since his victory at the 1.8-mile street circuit a decade ago.
A review of Rossi’s contact with Wickens by INDYCAR resulted in no action taken, securing a third-place finish for the 2016 Indianapolis 500 victor. It marks his best result at the Florida track in three appearances. Wickens is listed 18th on the official results.
Despite Wickens’ fate, SPM was still represented in the top five, with James Hinchcliffe leading fellow Honda driver Ryan Hunter-Reay in completing the top five.
Dixon overcame two separate penalties to finish sixth in the first race with PNC Bank aboard as a primary sponsor with Chip Ganassi Racing.
Josef Newgarden, Ed Jones, Marco Andretti and front-row starter Will Power comprised the remainder of the top 10, creating an 8-2 split in Honda’s favor versus Chevrolet in the top 10.
Unlike the launch of manufacturer-specific bodywork at St. Pete in 2015, the debut of the new universal aero kit was free of debris-induced cautions. The kit also delivered on the promise of more passing with 366 on-track passes occurring during the 110-lap race, representing a new record for St. Pete. The previous record was 323, set in 2008.
The sleek new cars will face their first oval race when the series visits ISM Raceway in Avondale, Arizona on April 7 for the Phoenix Grand Prix.