ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The IndyCar season kicked off with some late-race drama, a heartbroken rookie driver and an emotional winner.
The racing was pretty good, too.
The opener through the city streets of St. Petersburg could not have gone any better for IndyCar, which has built enough momentum the last two years to create a palpable sense of excitement for the new season. The new car debuted at St. Pete and it didn't just look good, once it hit the track Sunday, the 24 drivers in the field put on a show. IndyCar officials touted the new Dallara as safer, cheaper and potentially racier, and St. Pete had a race-record 366 on-track passes.
The race was decided on two late restarts, the latter with two laps remaining and Canadian rookie Robert Wickens desperately trying to eke out a win. Wickens had done everything right — he won the pole, led a race-high 69 laps and had the event in control until the cautions. If he could hold off Indianapolis 500 winner and "The Amazing Race" star Alexander Rossi, Wickens was about to make a very strong introduction to IndyCar.
But Rossi tried to pass him in the first turn on the last restart, Wickens wouldn't give an inch, and the two cars touched. Wickens slid off course and finished a devastating 18th. Rossi went on to finish third.
Sebastien Bourdais drove by both Wickens and Rossi as they collided to collect his second consecutive victory at St. Pete and complete a comeback from a broken pelvis and hip suffered in crash last May at Indianapolis.
Bourdais was overcome with emotion after his 10-month journey. Wickens, just the third rookie since 1993 to start his debut from the pole, seethed.
"He just went too deep, locked the rears and slid into me," Wickens said. "The only pity is he carried on to a podium, and I ended up in the fence."
Rossi was firm in that he did nothing wrong, but understood Wickens would be upset.
"I feel bad because I feel like I could have won and he could have gotten second," Rossi said.
Instead the win went to Bourdais, who led 30 laps, second only to Wickens, and was in position to pounce when the opportunity developed.
"We had an eighth-place car," said team owner Dale Coyne. "His consistency makes that a fourth-place car, and luck made it a winning car."
The youth movement that hit NASCAR has been well documented, but IndyCar is on a very similar path. Of the 24 entries in Sunday's race, seven are considered rookies. Three advanced into the Fast Six of qualifying, with Wickens winning the pole and Jordan King breaking Will Power's track record.
All seven finished 16th or lower and four rookies brought up the rear of the field, but the results aren't a fair indicator of the talent in this class. They have made their way into IndyCar, and it's come at the expense of veterans.
Conor Daly has so far lined up only an Indy 500 ride even though he's got 39 career starts in the series. Three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves was bounced to sports cars as Roger Penske made his lineup younger, and even though Castroneves will race at Indy in May, he wants back in the series and wasn't pleased to be a spectator Sunday.
There will be bumps with this driver class simply based on lack of experience in an Indy car. But the rookies have proven themselves in various series and they expect to be competitive.
"Yes, we're rookies in IndyCar but (I've) also been racing for 12 years," King said. "We have got a lot of experience in driving cars, new tires, changing conditions and that sort of thing."
When IndyCar debuted aero kits in 2015, the debut race at St. Pete was a shocking mess of broken parts and pieces that flew off cars at any contact. The series began work in 2016 on a universal kit that began with aesthetics and built performance elements around the look of the car. By designing a sleek vehicle, less wake is created on the track and can lead to increased natural passing. The trailing distance has been reduced and the downforce is generated from bottom of the car. It's supposed to be difficult to drive, but also is supposed to balance the field.
At St. Pete, the winning driver came from Dale Coyne Racing. Graham Rahal was second. James Hinchcliffe, teammate to Wickens at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, was fourth. Honda drivers swept the first six spots and placed eight in the top 10.
Rossi, for Andretti Autosport, was third and the highest-finishing driver from one of IndyCar's "top teams." Not only did drivers from Team Penske or Chip Ganassi Racing fail to podium, they didn't even lead a single lap.
Ryan Hunter-Reay was forced to pit at the start of the race when his car didn't accelerate, but he rallied for a fifth-place finish for Andretti. Scott Dixon was penalized twice and came back to finish sixth for Ganassi.
The cream will still rise to the top, but the gap throughout the field should be much tighter with this car.