The smart money was always on Newman/Haas/Lanigan being the quickest of the ex-Champ Car teams to adapt to life in IndyCar – but even the most optimistic fan might have been stretched to predict a victory in only their second race.
After the optimism of qualifying, where Justin Wilson grabbed third position, came the delirium of winning as Graham Rahal recovered from the qualifying crash that kept him out of the season opener at Homestead to triumph on his IRL debut.
The theory was that running in the Grand Prix of St Petersburg on a street course instead of an oval would give the Champ Car refugees an advantage to offset their inexperience with their still-unfamiliar Dallara-Honda machines.
It won’t last, of course – after a week in which the IndyCar regulars go to Japan and the Champ Car teams split off to hold the last-ever race of the old series, it’s likely to be a long, demoralising season on ovals.
But after St Petersburg, no-one is going to question the right of the Champ Car exiles to line up on the same grid as Andretti Green Racing, Team Penske and Ganassi.
On Saturday, IndyCar veteran Tony Kanaan took pole – but Will Power of KV and Justin Wilson were right behind him and half the top 10 had made the move across. In the race itself, ex-Champ Car drivers took five of the top eight places, including first and fourth.
Rahal, 19 and the son of former Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal, became the youngest-ever race winner by recovering from a spin and holding off Helio Castroneves when the Brazilian attempted to pass on a re-start five minutes from the end of the two-hour timed race.
Rain just before the race meant that the first ten laps were run under caution, and once the racing began on lap 11 several leading drivers – including Ryan Hunter-Reay, Ed Carpenter, Danica Patrick and Marco Andretti – all span in the wet.
Justin Wilson inherited the lead as teams decided on a variety of different pit strategies, and held it until lap 32 when debris led to another full-course caution. The race featured a number of such cautions, including one on lap 65 when Wilson and Ed Carpenter made contact.
Wilson eventually took ninth, making him the top-finishing British driver. Behind Rahal and Castroneves – who now leads the championship – were Kanaan, HVM’s Ernesto Viso and Conquest’s ex-F1 driver Enrique Bernoldi.
Of the other Brits, Dan Wheldon and Darren Manning, in 12th and 13th, were the last two drivers on the leading lap, while Roth Racing’s Jay Howard was one place back as the first of the lapped runners.
Celebrating his victory, Rahal said: “It doesn’t get any sweeter than this; to expect a win in our first race. We had the pace and we pulled away from them, so it wasn’t like we lucked into it. This is just awesome.”
His proud father Bobby, the 1986 Indianapolis 500 winner, said: “Do you think he’ll ever listen to any advice from me again? He really thinks he knows everything now. He drove a phenomenal race and the crew did a great job. I’d hire him, but I can’t afford him.”
Wilson congratulated his team-mate: “I’m a little disappointed with the result but very pleased with the way that everyone has worked. I felt that the McDonald’s car was very quick and we are capable of winning.
“But circumstances didn’t work out so if I didn’t win I was very pleased that Graham did. It is obviously a great car and he’s great teammate to have. I am very happy that he was able to win in his first IndyCar Series start. I think we will see a lot more of Graham.”
Wheldon and team-mate Scott Dixon, the pre-race series leader, qualified 8th and 13th but soon picked up places, running in tandem as high as fifth and sixth. But mechanical problems stopped the New Zealander, while Wheldon lost places in a spin.
He said: “Obviously we would have liked to maintain our position there at the end of the race, but we had a mechanical problem and I had guys going around me left and right on the restart. I was just along for the ride at that point and got spun around.
“It’s unfortunate because although we weren’t great, we could have finished much higher than we did. We left a few points on the table.”
Manning was competitive through much of the race, running as high as fourth as the different pit strategies mixed up the field. His race came unstuck late on – unlike his gearbox: “It was a good race for us until it got stuck in fourth gear at the end. The car was quite fast there at the end. I really think we could have given Kanaan a run for third.”
He said: “Early in the race I went too hard on the rain tires and lost overall grip. When we changed to slicks, the car was much better. We had a slow stop with the wing adjustment and lost two or three spots, which hurt us during that stint because I was faster than those cars and that carried over a bit to the next stop as far as track position. But it was all for naught as it turned out. Disappointing for everyone.”
For Jay Howard, just finishing was pleasing after the two Roth cars made early exits from the previous race and Marty Roth failed to even start this one. Howard said: “I thought it was a lot of fun. It was a little frustrating I didn’t come out in a higher position, but with all the different distractions going on it wasn’t meant to be today.”
His boss added: “The Roth Racing team is very proud of the effort by Jay Howard in the #24 Cirrus/All Sport car. Jay ran as high as fifth and it was an exceptional overall effort.”