French rookie JK Vernay mastered the rain in St Petersburg, Florida, to win the opening Indy Lights race of the season, ahead of Belgian journeyman Jan Heylen and Britain’s Stefan Wilson.
The Sam Schmidt Motorsport driver started second and took over the lead after a chaotic series of early laps in the rain that saw polesitter James Hinchcliffe punted out of the race.
He fell victim to fellow Canadian Philip Major, who tried to overtake almost the entire field in one lunge up the inside at the first corner but failed to take into account the need to brake for the turn.
Further back, Adrian Campos Jr also made a meal of the first corner and slid sideways into Pippa Mann, sending her into a spin. Soon after, Campos lost his car again thanks to damage from the contact, slamming into a wall and bringing out the safety car.
Sebastian Saavedra took the lead after Hinchcliffe’s retirement but couldn’t hold it at the restart as Vernay passed him. Soon after, he spun in the wet on lap five, collecting Charlie Kimball and obstructing Martin Plowman. After that, Vernay never looked back.
With the wet conditions causing ever-increasing problems, the race was red-flagged at the end of lap six so cars could pit and fit rain tyres. This also brought Mann’s race to an end as she discovered the incident with Campos had damaged her engine, coating her rear tyres with oil.
She said: “Pretty rough end to a rough weekend. Had to retire on lap six – got collected by Campos on lap one turn one and my oil rad sprung a leak. It was all over my tyres so I spun. Had to retire or engine would have blown.”
It was a miserable finish to the season opener for the Englishwoman, who fell ill during the run-up to the weekend and spent much of it in the course medical centre being fed fluids via intravenous drip.
By contrast, Bryan Herta Autosport’s Stefan Wilson recovered from his qualifying crash, which had forced him to start 14th, and worked his way up to the podium by staying out of trouble as others spun and sputtered.
Vernay sloshed off into the distance after the restart, building a lead of 20 seconds, while Plowman struggled as his team was unable to fully change his car to a wet-weather set-up during the stop.
He said: “I had four wet tyres on, but in the mad rush we only had time to change the front of the car to full wet. The rear of my car still had a full dry setup. I was hanging on to the rear once the tyres lost their edge. I needed flotation devices at the end.
“I have never seen rain like that in my life – I’m very glad to just finish that crazy race. I had so many lucky escapes. Sixth place is not a good finish but, in these circumstances, I’m very happy.
“Four wheels still on the car, good points in the bag, when some of my title rivals dropped points.”
Among those rivals was Saavedra, who had battled back from his spin to challenge Heylen and Wilson for second and third until he hit the wall, bringing out another safety car that wiped out Vernay’s lead. Unruffled, the Frenchman controlled the restart and built another gap – this time a winning one.
By then Junior Strous – a double winner in St Pete last year – had lost two laps the the rest of the field after spinning off while in hot pursuit of Vernay in second place.
Among the other drivers to lose control of their cars were Jonathan Summerton, who dropped from fourth to eighth with a spin approaching the final corner of the race, and Briton James Winslow. He span twice, once on the warm-up lap and once during the race, each time making his way back up through the field to eventually finish seventh.
By the end, spectators at the race were being evacuated because of a severe weather warning – and when the rain hit with a vengeance the IndyCar Series race scheduled to follow the Indy Lights contest was postponed until Monday morning.
Earlier, Conor Daly had won the Star Mazda Championship race on the same course, with Britain’s Richard Kent finishing eighth.
- JK Vernay, Sam Schmidt Motorsports
- Jan Heylen, Team E
- Stefan Wilson, Bryan Herta Autosport
- Charlie Kimball, AFS Racing/Andretti Autosport
- Gustavo Yacaman, Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing
- Martin Plowman, AFS Racing/Andretti Autosport
- James Winslow, Sam Schmidt Motorsports
- Jonathan Summerton, Walker Racing
- Rodrigo Barbosa, PDM Racing
- Junior Strous, HVM Racing
- Carmen Jorda, Andersen Racing
- Sebastian Saavedra, Bryan Herta Autosport
- Pippa Mann, Sam Schmidt Motorsports
- Philip Major, Sam Schmidt Motorsports
- James Hinchcliffe,Team Moore Racing
- Adrian Campos Jr,Team Moore Racing