Rookie Robert Wickens defies conditions to take Grand Prix of St. Petersburg pole

by Jordan Groves

Robert Wickens will start on pole position for the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season-opening Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. The Canadian rookie will lead the field to green for his first ever IndyCar race after setting a sensational lap-time to grab pole position at the last moment; despite being faced with treacherous wet conditions.

Rain interrupted much of qualifying right from the get-go. Drivers up and down the pit-lane were struggling to deal with the wet track, with many spinning or running wide throughout all the qualifying sessions. By the time the final round, the Firestone Fast Six, came around, the rain was beginning to stop.

The track got quicker in the last minutes of the session, allowing Robert Wickens to capitalize with a fantastic lap in his #5 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda to steal pole position from series veteran and six-time St Petersburg pole-sitter Will Power. The Team Penske #12 driver will have to settle for second this time around.

Throughout the lead-up to qualifying, rookie drivers such as Wickens have been turning heads. Of the fast six in qualifying, three were rookies, with Brazilian driver Matheus Leist putting his #4 A.J. Foyt Enterprises Chevrolet third on the grid for Sunday’s race. He was closely matched by fellow newcomer Jordan King, who set the fastest time in the first session of qualifying before following that up with a superb fourth place in the final session.

Takuma Sato and Ryan Hunter-Reay were the final two drivers to make it through to the final round of qualifying. Hunter-Reay had been set for elimination after round two, but a penalty for his Andretti Autosport team-mate Alexander Rossi gave him a last-minute lifeline to qualify for the fast six.

James Hinchcliffe was just shy of the time he needed to get into the fast six. Judging by his Schmidt Peterson team-mate’s pace, he could’ve been a force to be reckoned with had he been able to make it. Lining up just behind Hinch will be Gabby Chaves, who put in a stunning performance to put Harding Racing eighth on the grid for their first street race; an outstanding effort by the new team.

Scott DixonTony Kanaan and Simon Pagenaud were all caught out by the heaviest of the wet conditions in round two of qualifying. All three struggled and made mistakes at points and were unable to put in a quick lap before the heavier rain arrived, which would deny the trio of a chance to improve their grid positions. They will line up in ninth, tenth and eleventh respectively.

Credit: Chris Jones / Courtesy of IndyCar

The final driver who made it to the second round was Alexander Rossi, who will line up in twelfth after having his previous time, which was good enough for the fast six, deleted by the stewards as a punishment for blocking. A similar penalty befell Rossi’s team-mate Marco Andretti who failed to advance out of round one after also being penalized for blocking. He will start back in eighteenth.

Reigning series champion Josef Newgarden was just outside of the top twelve in thirteenth place for Team Penske. He will line-up just ahead of last year’s Grand Prix of St. Petersburg winner, Sébastien Bourdais, who blamed traffic on his out-lap for his poor lap-time in the first session.

Further back, British driver Jack Harvey will line-up nineteenth for the first of his six races this season. He just out-qualified the two Carlin drivers, with Max Chilton and Charlie Kimball taking twentieth and twenty-first for the British team’s first race in the series.

One driver will be hoping that history repeats itself tomorrow. Graham Rahal spun in round one of qualifying and caused a red flag. As a result of this, his previous lap-time was deleted and he then didn’t have enough time to set another lap. He will, therefore, start last in his #15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda and will be hoping that he can emulate Bourdais’ run from last to first from a year ago.

The 2018 Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is set to be action-packed when the green flag falls tomorrow afternoon. Rookie Robert Wickens will lead the field to green, with all twenty-four cars shortly blasting down into turn one; the source of many race defining moments over the years. Be sure to tune in tomorrow to see who will take the first race win of the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series.

2018 Verizon IndyCar Series – Grand Prix of St. Petersburg – Qualifying results:

6Robert Wickens (R)CANSchmidt Peterson Motorsports1:01.6643
212Will PowerAUSTeam Penske1:01.7346
34Matheus Leist (R)BRAA.J. Foyt Enterprises1:01.7346
420Jordan KingGBREd Carpenter Racing1:01.7633
530Takuma SatoJAPRahal Letterman Lanigan Racing1:01.8821
628Ryan Hunter-ReayUSAAndretti Autosport1:02.0385
75James HinchcliffeCANSchmidt Peterson Motorsports1:00.9986
888Gabby ChavesCOLHarding Racing1:01.1191
99Scott DixonNZLChip Ganassi Racing1:01.6527
1014Tony KanaanBRAA.J. Foyt Enterprises1:01.7213
1122Simon PagenaudFRATeam Penske1:04.6739
1227Alexander RossiUSAAndretti Autosport01:07.0377
131Josef NewgardenUSATeam Penske01:00.4320
1418Sébastien BourdaisFRADale Coyne Racing with Vasser-Sullivan01:00.9587
1526Zach Veach (R)USAAndretti Autosport01:00.4585
1621Spencer PigotUSAEd Carpenter Racing01:00.9668
1710Ed JonesUAEChip Ganassi Racing01:00.5009
1898Marco AndrettiUSAAndretti Autosport01:01.3013
1960Jack Harvey (R)GBRMichael Shank Racing01:01.0270
2059Max ChiltonGBRCarlin01:01.3360
2123Charlie KimballUSACarlin01:01.1868
2219Zachary Claman De Melo (R)CANDale Coyne Racing01:01.8567
2332René Binder (R)AUTJuncos Racing01:01.7003
2415Graham RahalUSARahal Letterman Lanigan Racing01:04.0990

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