ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Sebastien Bourdais wept as he crossed the finish line Sunday for his second consecutive victory at St. Petersburg. The win was a milestone for him in his recovery from serious injuries suffered in a crash at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Across the paddock, Robert Wickens fumed at the disastrous turn of events that had cost him a victory in his IndyCar debut. He dominated the season-opening event and had the win in his grip until contact with Alexander Rossi on a restart took him out of contention.
"It would have been a fairy tale to finish that well, but sometimes it's just not meant to be," Wickens said.
Wickens led a race-high 69 of the 110 laps.
Even Bourdais, overcome with emotion after winning again on his hometown track, understood that the race had been Wickens' to win.
"I was really happy for Robert and I'm heartbroken for him," Bourdais said.
Wickens was a star in touring cars in Germany but defected to IndyCar this year at the coaxing of good friend James Hinchcliffe. Although he was one of seven rookies in the 24-car field Sunday, he is 28 and a proven winner.
He is part of an all-Canadian lineup at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, and he and Hinchcliffe were strong the entire weekend. Wickens was only the third driver since 1993 to win the pole for his IndyCar debut — Nigel Mansell did it in '93 in Surfer's Paradise and Bourdais at St. Pete in 2003 — and the victory would have been a firm announcement of his arrival in the American open-wheel series.
Instead, two late cautions gave Rossi a chance to take it away.
On a restart with two laps remaining, Rossi tried to dive inside of Wickens entering the first turn. The two cars made contact and Wickens spun off course.
"I didn't get the best restart in the world," he said. "I defended it a little bit, I told myself that if Alex wants to go there, go for it, but he's not going to make the corner. I gave him space on the inside and I guess he just couldn't keep it and slid into me. It's a shame."
Rossi was not penalized for the contact and finished third.
"The run was perfect for me, made the pop, he defended the position, in doing so, he put me in the marbles pretty late in the corner," Rossi said. The American said he not spoken to Wickens but imagined that Wickens was upset with him. But Rossi was adamant that he didn't err and was justified in racing for the win.
Wickens said he wanted to speak to series officials because he said the pace car procedure differed on the final restart from the previous one, and he didn't feel he was in control of the field.
Bourdais, meanwhile, slid by both cars from third for the victory.
"We didn't have the fastest car today, but we had consistency to get podium," Bourdais said.
He acknowledged that his tears came at the realization of how far he's come since May, when he suffered several fractures to his pelvis and a fracture to his right hip when he crashed during qualifying for the Indianapolis 500.
"This one is emotional because we had to overcome a few bumps and a ball of fire and a few broken bones to come back to this victory circle," said Bourdais, who completed his rehabilitation months ahead of schedule and was able to return to the IndyCar at the end of last season although doctors had said he'd be out until 2018.
Bourdais said he never considered not returning to racing.
"When I got the verdict of what was broken, it was never a question in my mind if I was going to continue," he said. "I guess I'm glad I did continue."
It was the 37th career victory for the Frenchman, who ranks sixth on IndyCar's all-time list. Bourdais trails Al Unser by two wins for fifth on the list.
It was the sixth victory for Dale Coyne Racing, the first since Bourdais won at St. Petersburg last year. The team this year has been bolstered by the ownership group of Jimmy Vasser and James Sullivan, which reunited Bourdais with his former bosses.
Wickens finished a heartbreaking 18th.
The race debuted IndyCar's sleek new race car that is designed to improve competition, level the playing field and cut costs. Sunday saw a race-record 366 on-track passes, breaking the mark of 323 set in 2008.