Robert Wickens has zero IndyCar experience and has never raced through St. Petersburg. To figure out what he needed to do, the Canadian turned to YouTube and binge-watched over two days every previous event around the temporary street course.
By the time Wickens went out in Saturday's qualifying session, he felt pretty comfortable on the track.
So comfortable that the rookie knocked Will Power off the pole and will lead the field to green in his first career IndyCar race Sunday. Wickens is the third rookie since 1993 to win the pole in his IndyCar debut, joining Nigel Mansell at Surfer's Paradise in 1993 and Sebastien Bourdais at St. Pete in 2003.
"I need to polish up on the rules and figure out how to start an IndyCar race, first of all," Wickens said. "I had planned on going with the flow, and now I'm controlling the race."
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Wickens turned a lap at 1 minute, 01.66 in a Honda for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports to win the pole at the buzzer for the Fast Six qualifying session. Power, winner of seven of the last eight poles at St. Pete, was bumped to second.
It was a stunning result on a surprising day for IndyCar.
The Fast Six consisted of three rookies, two former series champions and last year's Indianapolis 500 winner. The drivers represented six race teams, three apiece from Chevrolet and Honda, and rookie Jordan King broke Power's track record in the first qualifying group.
Matheus Leist, a rookie for A.J. Foyt Racing, qualified third and King, a rookie for Ed Carpenter Racing, was fourth. Takuma Sato, last year's Indy 500 winner, was fifth and 2012 champion Ryan Hunter-Reay was sixth. The rookies likely benefited from both a slick surface — it drizzled on and off during qualifying — and IndyCar's new universal Dallara.
While the veterans are trying to forget everything they know about the old car, the rookies have no point of reference and simply attacked St. Pete the best they could. The rookies — there are seven in this field of 24 — also have insisted they've gone into their first IndyCar weekend with no expectations.
"I was just going to go into this weekend and try to enjoy it and maximize it," Wickens said.
He also dismissed the notion that many of the rookies are actually inexperienced drivers. Wickens was a star in DTM driving for Mercedes-AMG Motorsport, but he made the move to IndyCar this year because Mercedes said it was pulling out of the series. Wickens had spent one day as an IndyCar driver last year when Russian driver Mikhail Aleshin had brief troubles returning to the U.S. after the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Wickens grew up with Schmidt driver James Hinchcliffe and the two were karting teammates as teens in Canada, and Hinchcliffe recommended Wickens fill in for Aleshin. Wickens drove two practices at Road America before Aleshin made it to Wisconsin, and enjoyed it enough to make the full-time move when Mercedes said it was leaving DTM.
"I find it a little bit weird to call myself a rookie at 28 years old," Wickens said.
And he doesn't rank himself in the rookie class, either.
"I always kind of like to consider myself to the normal guys, not the rookies," he said. "I am striving to be better than that. I am not here to win a rookie championship, I am here to challenge for wins and the overall championship."
Other activity at St. Pete:
The buzzword during IndyCar's season-opening weekend is "bumping" as teams are becoming almost giddy at the prospect of more than 33 cars showing up for the Indianapolis 500.
There are already 32 announced entries, with a handful more to come. Honda said Friday it has 17 committed entries but expected more announcements.
On Saturday, Chevrolet revealed that it also can handle more race teams.
"If there's more cars that want to try to qualify, we're definitely in a position to support some more cars," said Mark Kent, director of GM Racing.
IndyCar has not had bumping since 2011.
The first surprise in qualifying came right at the start when reigning series champion Josef Newgarden did not advance into the second round.
The Team Penske driver was forced to watch from pit lane as the rest of the session continued without him.
"It just wasn't enough," Newgarden said. "I thought I did an OK lap, it just wasn't enough."
Newgarden will start 13th.
"I think we have what it takes and to race our way out and maybe even win this thing," he said.
Race control was busy Saturday reviewing several on-track incidents and Andretti Autosport twice came out on the losing end.
Marco Andretti was disqualified from advancing out of the first session for interfering with another driver's lap. It allowed Sato to advance, and Sato wound up in the Fast Six and will start fifth. Andretti will start 18th.
In the second qualifying session, Alexander Rossi was disqualified from advancing to the Fast Six and his spot went to teammate Hunter-Reay. Rossi will start 12th.
Scott Dixon qualified ninth and failed to advance into the Fast Six for the first time since the 2016 season finale at Sonoma.
The Chip Ganassi Racing team thought the track would dry during the second qualifying session, and when it didn't, Dixon was on the wrong set of tires.
THEY SAID IT
Roger Penske, the 81-year-old titan of motorsports, was asked Saturday about retiring. "That word is not in my vocabulary," Penske said in his at-track office. "I might keel over right here one day." Penske, by the way, said he won a bet in January by staying awake and on the pit stand for the entire Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona.