Here in the UK, watching the Phoenix race has never been easy.
There are two reasons for this. Firstly, in the UK the race starts at the very unsociable time of 2.30am. Secondly and more importantly, ever since the race came back in 2016 it’s been a snoozefest; the downforce-laden aerokits making it impossible to pass. This year however, with the new universal aerokit that has less downforce, things were different. It wasn’t a seat-of-your pants thriller, but it certainly was good enough to quell questions about Phoenix staying on the schedule.
In qualifying on Friday it seemed the Penskes were the ones to beat. Indeed they ended up with all three cars qualiying in the top ten, with defending champ Josef Newgarden 7th and former champs Will Power and Simon Pagenaud 3rd and 2nd. But Schmidt were also surprisingly strong, with the Maple Leaf of James Hinchcliffe and St. Pete hero Rob Wickens locking out the third row. The guy who landed pole however, was the winner of the last race in St. Pete, Sebastien Bourdais. It was his first pole on an oval for over ten years and broke a tie with Dario Franchitti for the seventh most poles of all time.
Race day in the desert was hot, with temperatures above 30 degrees as the drivers set off out the pits onto the warm-up laps. They didn’t all get away however. Polesitter Bourdais went into anti-stall and only just made it out before completion of the warm-up laps to regain his position after being started by Wickens’ mechanics. Once the green flag did drop Ryan Hunter-Reay and Marco Andretti immediately took the high line and gained places.
Ten laps in, the top three of Bourdais, Pagenaud and Alex Rossi started to break away and just five laps later they came up to the first backmarkers. This showed the difference between the aerokits as last year there was almost no traffic to deal with due to everyone running the same pace. This year however, the Carlin cars were almost two seconds off the pace as the new team continued their IndyCar education. The leaders found it tricky to make their way through the traffic though and with Charlie Kimball holding them up, Rossi was able to challenge Pagenaud for second.
On lap 40, debutant Pietro Fittipaldi went high into the grey and hit the turn 4 wall, which was unfortunate as his qualifying had been impressive. This brought out the first caution and what followed was bizarre. Coming into their pit stalls, both Bourdais and Rossi locked their front tyres and slid into their crew members! Fortunately, nobody was hurt but the slow stop dropped Seabass back to 13th and Rossi all the way to 19th. They would both also have to serve drive through penalties for their errors, losing them a lap. Pagenaud also had a slow stop and dropped back to 12th. As a result of all this Power ended up the leader with teammate Newgarden behind. The Schmidt cars were 3rd and 4th with Ed Jones up to 5th.
After the restart on lap 50 Power started to pull out a gap and in the second stint the race seemed to be going the way of previous Phoenix races. Little happened and it was a relief to get to the second round of stops, which began with Hunter-Reay pitting on lap 113. Hinch and Wickens followed. Newgarden and Power waited until laps 120 and 124 to make their stops, which would prove costly as that allowed the Schmidt boys and RHR to pump some fast laps in. Hinch took the lead followed by buddy Wickens and RHR, with Power dropping from the lead to 6th. During this melee of activity another catastrophe in the pit occured. 19-year-old Mat Leist left his Foyt pit crew before they’d fitted his left-rear tyre, resulting in the ignominy of spinning in the pitlane when the wheel decided it wanted some freedom.
Wickens kept up with Hinch and astonishingly took the lead on lap 149 after the Mayor was held up by Gabby Chaves and ran wide. Meanwhile Rossi was now the fastest car on track and was trying to get his lap back. As he went up the inside of Power on lap 153, the 2014 champ ran wide and hit the wall, taking him out.
In his first race, Indy Lights champ Kyle Kaiser was doing an admirable job but on lap 175 he did exactly the same thing as Power and Fittipaldi, catching the wall. Just after that the Schmidt cars again pitted early, but this time Newgarden followed them in and it was RHR who stayed out. Again, staying out was the wrong thing to do and the 2012 champ found himself back in 7th. Ahead of him were Scott Dixon, who’d worked his way up from 17th on the grid, the Maple Leaf crew, Ed Jones who’d also pitted early, Newgarden and Bourdais who hadn’t pitted at all.
Seabass would need to pit though and he did on lap 207 after staying out in hope of a yellow. By this time Rossi was back in the top ten and was going through the field like a hot knife through butter. Annoyingly for Bourdais, the caution did come out on lap 230 when Jones, after driving such a controlled race got way too high and smashed into the wall trying to lap Spencer Pigot.
At this point the drivers had a decision to make. Twenty laps left. Stay out for track position? Or take fresh tyres and have a rocket ship? Hinch and Wickens chose the former, with Wicko heading his teammate. Behind them in 3rd unbelievably was Rossi. The reason he was third was because Newgarden, Dixon and RHR pitted for fresh boots. They rejoined right behind the top three as seven lap shootout approached.
The green dropped and Newgarden showed off his shiny new tyres by sweeping right around the outside of Rossi and Hinch before climbing all over the back of Wickens. Hinch went backwards as Rossi, Dixon and RHR all passed him and he only just held onto 6th ahead of Ed Carpenter at the finish. With three to go Wicko had been driving like a consumate veteran, using his instincts and protecting the inside all the time, despite it being his oval debut. But he couldn’t sustain the challenge from Newgarden, who repeated his restart move and went right around the outside. After 250 laps he won from Wickens, Rossi, Dixon after a great recovery and RHR rounding out the top five.
Wickens and Rossi appeared to have buried the hatchet, congratulating each other in the pits. Rossi had been a rocket all night and Wickens had shown that St. Pete was no fluke. But it was all about Newgarden, who now leads the points table with 77. He has a five-point lead over Rossi, with Bourdais despite his poor race just two points further back. Graham Rahal, RHR, Hinch and Dixon are next up, separated by four points. Wickens’ second place means he jumps from 18th to 8th in the standings.
Next week we make the trip to one of the most prestigious street races in the world, Long Beach, for the 44th Toyota Grand Prix.