ABOVE: Rossi leads Daly.
Andretti Herta Autosport’s Alexander Rossi (LEFT) was first home among the four Verizon IndyCar Series rookies at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. The California-born, European-trained driver made his first start after completing the 2015 GP2 season and five Formula 1 races with Manor by turning an 18th-place qualifying position into 12th at the finish of 110 laps.
Rossi held off numerous veterans late in the race and was chased home by fellow rookies Conor Daly (P13) and Spencer Pigot (P14) in the contact-laden season opener. Daly managed to lead 15 laps thanks to pit strategy by his Dale Coyne Racing Honda team, and reigning Indy Lights champion Spencer Pigot held on through bumping and banging on the 1.8-mile street circuit with his Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda to gather valuable experience. Chip Ganassi Racing’s Max Chilton capped a frustrating IndyCar debut in 17th after debris caused his Chevy engine to overheat.
“That was probably one of the more challenging days I’ve had in a race car in quite some time,” Rossi said of the No. 98 Castrol Edge Honda. “We just didn’t have the car underneath us today for whatever reason.
“It was quite tricky out there. I think we made the most of what we could – we stayed out of trouble and obviously the finishing position doesn’t look that bad but, considering we were a lap down, it’s a bit of an issue. We need to really look at things in the next couple weeks. It’s another set of circumstances coming up in Phoenix, but we really need to understand this for Long Beach going forward.”
Despite the fall from P1 to P13, Daly says he learned a ton during the 2hr13min contest.
“We came out of the pits right in the middle of a scuffle and, obviously, we’re on cold tires but the tires come in pretty quick,” he said of the No. 18 Jonathan Byrd’s Hospitality Honda. “I thought [James Hinchcliffe] was a couple of laps down so I didn’t know he was going to go heavy to the inside. But then [Carlos] Munoz tried to go on the outside of both of us and we’re both already trying to do something, there was no room there. You can’t go three wide there. I don’t know what he was doing exactly and I ended up on the curb and the wheel actually flew out of my hands. I had no idea if the suspension was broken or if anything was broken.
“I kept going and it felt fine and we would have been fine, but there was debris from the nose that lodged in one of the sidepods so that caused us an extra stop and that killed our race. Other than that, it was fun. It was nice to be out there. We had a bit of luck to get out to P1 but, man, I thought we really nailed it on that set of Firestone reds when we got there.
“The Jonathan Byrd’s Hospitality car was really good on the reds and I was able to kind of just establish a pace, but I got caught in traffic a little bit. I need to work on where I apply the overtake and our traction. We’re not good on traction and a lot of people were getting us and it made it hard for overtaking. I mean, there’s a lot to learn, but overall it was nice to fight up front with the Penskes. That’s the key thing is that we were fighting up front and they weren’t pulling away.”
Like many drivers at St. Pete, Pigot’s day was filled with more drama than necessary.
“It was an eventful race. I had a little bit of everything. There were some good passes, we had a good pace, which is exciting,” he said of the afternoon spent in the No. 16 Andersen Interior Contracting Honda. “We’ve been working on the car and some things that I needed to work on over the weekend and I think they all came together in the race and I’m proud of that. There were a couple of rookie mistakes as well that hurt us and also getting caught up in a few other incidents. I’m happy to get the first one out of the way and happy with our pace. I definitely learned a lot and can’t wait to get another shot.”
The mid-race crash-fest in Turn 4 made sure Pigot would proceed no farther than P14.
“I was looking inside of Filippi and I wasn’t really going to pass him because I wasn’t quite far enough alongside him, but then Kanaan came flying down the inside and clobbered me and clobbered Filippi,” he continued. “Unfortunately that broke our front wing again, which kind of screwed us up for the second half of the race.”
Chilton and the CGR team struggled with overheating in the warm, humid Florida air, and after fruitless searches to find the right chassis balance for most of the event, finish P17 was less than rewarding for the former F1 driver.
“It looked like a very promising day from the start for the Gallagher team as we were doing the same lap times as the majority of the cars around us,” he said of the No. 8 entry. “We were working our way forward and up to around P10 when we had an overheating problem. We had to make a long stop to clean out the radiator and get the temps back down, and then another final stop to address the same issue.”
Pigot is not expected to race at Round 2 in Phoenix, leaving Rossi, Daly, and Chilton to resume IndyCar’s Rookie of the Year battle under the lights on April 2.