By Gary Becker
It was a classic worst to first story, local boy made to start from the very last position then manages to work his way to the front and win the big race in front the home crowd.
Well, it may not have been that dramatic but nonetheless Sebastien Bourdais started the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg from the dead last grid position and was able to combine an opportunistic strategy with a flawless drive to claim the win in the first IndyCar race of the season.
Bourdais started last due to his finding the tire wall during qualifying the day before. An early yellow flag allowed Bourdais and his No.18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda to pit off sequence from the leaders, a move that would eventually put him among the leaders and into the lead after passing Simon Pagenaud on lap 37 of the 110 lap race.
"A lot of things come back." said Bourdais "I caught myself thinking about 2003, when obviously we started the opposite. We dominated the weekend, were on pole, cleared the field, then all hell broke loose. I found myself tapping the wall in Turn 8, threw it away. It was kind of redemption day here. To come out on top with obviously a lot of friends and family on-site, the whole community supporting the effort, it was just a great feeling. I couldn't really be any happier for Honda and Dale for giving me the opportunity to put the band back together and make it happen. Everybody works really, really hard. We're a small group. There is nobody at the shop that doesn't travel. But it works. It's a great little group. We're sure not going to stop there. We're just going to keep on trying."
Pagenaud in the No.1 PPG Automotive Refinish Team Penske Chevrolet followed the Bourdais across the finish line in second place after starting the race from the 14th grid spot.
"It's definitely a champion team for regrouping like they did, understanding the issue we had in qualifying." said Pagenaud "This morning in the warmup, I was back home in my car. It was great to get that feeling back. The race, the car was fantastic. We got very lucky at the start, I would say. We went through the chaos. I think God had something to play with it actually, because he put the car back where it needed to go. Very lucky. Then after that, we were a bit lucky with strategy. But that was actually the plan. So thanks to (strategist) Kyle Moyer and (engineer) Ben Bretzman for their work on that. They gave me some clean air. We had to save quite a bit of fuel to manage till the end. (Sebastien) Bourdais was untouchable today. It's 1-2 French. Sorry for the French Revolution, guys. I'm very happy for him. It's been his hometown actually. He's been here since he moved to America. With Dale Coyne and Honda, they've shown a lot of strength. Fantastic for them. I wish it was P1 for me, P2 for him. Next time maybe. But very happy for him. Very happy for second. We started second last year as well. Hopefully it's our good luck charm."
Filling the podium was Scott Dixon in the No.9 GE LED Lighting Honda after starting the race in the front row but fell victim to a caution period he questioned.
"It started off a little bit rough." Dixon said "We lost a spot at the start and then there was the mysterious caution. It was a bit strange - I don't know why they were yellow for such a small piece of debris that wasn't even on the racing line. That pretty much put us in the toilet right there. I will go see what the story was there. We had good speed and a good GE LED car to overtake. We passed a lot of cars both on strategy and on-track. It wasn't the day we had hoped for obviously but it was better than a lot of other results we've had here over the years."
The race started with pole sitter Will Power taking the lead on the green flag. That green flag did not last long as Graham Rahal in the No.15 Steak 'n Shake Honda and Charlie Kimball in the Tresiba Honda made contact going into the revised turn three.
"We had a good start, I went around the outside there." said Rahal "I don't even know where (Charlie) Kimball was. Obviously he was on my right rear somewhere. It's just a frustrating way to start the year once again, just like last year. Except this year we struggled a lot more throughout the entirety of the weekend and we just can't do that going forward if we want to be good in this series. Obviously there is some re-thinking to be done as we go forward and figure out a better plan in case of an emergency. Our guys did a great job on the stops all day; they were just put in a bad spot. It was a tough day."
Kimball's side, "I'm really frustrated. I think when you get run into the wall on the start like that, it doesn't help your day. It's just disrespectful, but I'm glad to see the No. 83 crew fight back like they did - they never gave up. We came in and changed a toe rod and only went down about three laps I think and caught back up. We were able to get a couple laps back with all that pit stop changeover. The pace of the No. 83 Tresiba Honda was really good. All weekend the car has been quick. Balance was pretty good in the race - even with all the mayhem and damage we had. It's frustrating to end up where we did - we had a much better car and weekend than that. A lot of what we dealt with thought was out of our control from poor driving to disrespectful driving, but I think it was a learning experience that we can take a lot from. We'll do some testing in the next few weeks and then get ready to head Long Beach in a few weeks."
When racing resumed after several of the teams that had started down in the field, including Bourdais, pitted. James Hinchcliffe grabbed the lead as Power headed to the pits on lap 15 with a tire going down. During that pit stop Power ran over his air hose bring on a drive thru penalty. Later in the race Power would be slowed and parked due to engine issues.
"We locked up the right front there on the start and that caused a big vibration." said Power "We talked about coming in during that first yellow but that would have put us in a bad situation. We were able to make it long enough to a good lap number before we came in, then we got a pit road penalty. We still came out of that ok and it was going to be a P3 or P4 kind of day. Then we just ended up having some engine issues and that took us out OK contention. It was a typical St. Pete race for me for the last few years. That's not the way we wanted to start the season, but that's how it goes."
The leaders than pitted on lap 28 putting Pagenaud and Bourdais atop the field. After the green had flown again on lap 31 Bourdais passed Pagenaud going into turn one on lap 37. Bourdais never looked back.
Bourdais pitted for the last time on lap 83 and from then on manage to keep Pagenaud an arms distance behind taking the checkered flag with a 10.3508-seconds lead.
The next stop on the 17-race Verizon IndyCar Series schedule is the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach the weekend of April 7-9. Live race coverage starts at 4 p.m. ET April 9 on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.
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