Sebastien Bourdais took the lead when race-leader Robert Wickens was wrecked by second-place Alexander Rossi just in front of him after a restart with two laps to go and went on to win Sunday's season-opener on the street circuit in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Wickens, 28, made his first start with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports from the pole at the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and led 69 laps, but contact from Alexander Rossi following a restart on Lap 109 cost the Canadian rookie a chance at victory.
It is the 37th career victory for the Frenchman, who ranks sixth on IndyCar's all-time list. This now ranks the four-time champion sixth on the all-time winners list.
When Bourdais was seriously injured in a crash at Indianapolis last May while preparing for the Indy 500, there was initial fear that he would miss the rest of the season, let alone possibly never race again.
"This one is emotional because we had to overcome a few bumps and a ball of fire and a few broken bones to come back to this victory circle", said Bourdais, who completed his rehabilitation months ahead of schedule and returned to the IndyCar at the end of last season although doctors had said he would be out until 2018.
"We got lucky. Even if Sebastien had got a proper qualifying run in, we wouldn't have been at the front. I couldn't really be any happier about that".
The Dale Coyne Racing driver took his 37th win in the U.S. series after inheriting the lead when a clash between leader Robert Wickens and challenger Alex Rosso put both men out of contention on a restart just two laps from the end of the race.
"To be honest, I felt very comfortable with the pace I had", explained Wickens following the race-ending collision. Maybe I should have just taken him out. The Andretti Autosport driver got a better run out of the final corner and was within striking distance of Wickens' Schmidt Peterson Motorsports auto. "It would've been a fairytale to finish that one out, but sometimes it's not meant to be".
Behind, a bewildered Bourdais picked up the leading baton and cruised to the checkered flag under another full course yellow, winning for the second time in succession at St. Pete from Rahal and Rossi who managed to salvage a spot on the podium. Bourdais slid by both cars for the victory.
Coyne said we'll see. "[Bourdais'] consistency makes that a fourth-place vehicle, and luck made it a winning auto".
"I got a big jump on Rob and he got to the push-to-pass pretty late, so the run was flawless for me." said Rossi in a post-race conference, "Heading down into Turn 1, I knew there wasn't going to be many other opportunities for me because he'd had a very good auto all day and they did a great job".
"I guess I'm glad I did continue!" "They told me on that restart that you can use Push-to-Pass immediately, so I was ready". "The run was flawless for me going into turn 1, and I knew there wasn't going to be very many other opportunities. I can't quite put it into words". "For so long, we both dreamed of being professional race vehicle drivers". When you're put in the marbles, it's hairy. You never knew how hard to go or how late to do it. Rossi, who seemed the faster of the two, was trailing the Canadian by seven-tenths of a second with less than 12 laps remaining.
Bourdais crossed the line in his Dale Coyne Racing vehicle ahead of American's Graham Rahal of Rahal Letterman Lanigan and Andretti's Alexander Rossi.
Speaking of veterans, the early laps saw a trio of IndyCar big names sent down the order, with Andretti-Autosport's Ryan Hunter-Reay the victim of ECU issues, while Penske's Will Power and Foyt's Tony Kanaan both dealt with off-track excursions. He restarted the race 21st. There were five caution periods in the first 40 laps of the race as drivers adjusted to the lower downforce levels of the universal aero kit on all cars racing for the first time. We saw a race-record 366 passes through the field.
Putting the incident aside, St Petersburg was a welcome reminder that IndyCar is one of the most unpredictable racing series' out there and the performance of Wickens this weekend showed that no prediction is safe and any of the drivers, rookie or not, have the potential to fight at the sharp end and challenge for the title. He'll be too rattled, too squeamish to ever tackle the dangers of the Verizon IndyCar Series with the reckless abandon required to succeed in the sport. Here's hoping the wild action continues on the oval...