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Race Report: Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.—A.J. Foyt’s ABC Supply team started the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg with high hopes and rightly so with rookie Matheus Leist starting third and Tony Kanaan starting 10th in the 24-car Verizon IndyCar Series field.

However, when Kanaan was hit on the opening lap by rookie Zach Veach, and subsequently spun, the exuberance was tamped down. Leist, who started third, got off to a good start, narrowly missing second place starter Will Power who spun going through Turn 2 and brushed the wall, but still was able to continue. Leist held third position through the first six laps. He ran fourth for the next seven laps but lost speed on lap 14.

He radioed in that he couldn’t shift either up or down from third gear, even after an emergency reset while on track, so he made his way to the pits. His mechanics descended on the car and replaced the gear stack as they began to troubleshoot the problem.

Meanwhile Kanaan, who pitted on lap 1 after his incident to change his flat-spotted tires (from the spin), was making his way through the field from 23rd. By the time Leist’s trouble began to appear, Kanaan had slipped into 11th.

The No. 4 crew spent 10 laps getting the issue fixed and sent Leist on his way, however another problem occurred and Leist was asked to return to the pits to serve a drive-through penalty due to “Leaving with equipment attached.” It was on this exit that his day went from bad to worse as he lost traction entering Turn 3 and hit the wall, ending his race after just 16 laps in the books.

“Today was just unfortunate that we ended up like this,” the 19-year-old rookie said.

“We had a gear problem when I was running fourth. I couldn’t change gears, not even upshift, not even downshift. We stayed in the pits for like 10 laps trying to solve the problem [which the team had sorted out]. Then we had another problem and I came back to the pits. The third time I went back on the track, I had a mega understeer going into Turn 3 and I missed the turn and hit the wall. Happy for the performance –we had a fast car.”

When asked about the contact, he attributed it to his frustration, explaining, “I think it was just my fault when I hit the wall. The car was probably good, also because I had a gear problem and some other problems, it happens, so let’s go to the next one.”

The team veteran kept plugging away and as the different fuel strategies played out, he climbed as high as sixth at one point. The team’s own fuel strategy saw them hoping the race would stay green from the time of their final stop on lap 83 to the conclusion of the 110-lap race as several cars would have had to stop for a splash of fuel.

However, the yellow came out with eight laps to go for rookie Rene Binder, who hit the tire barrier lightly and then stalled as he tried to get back underway. With that caution period, and the next two cautions triggered on restarts, everyone had enough fuel to finish.

“Eventful day,” summed up Kanaan, who didn’t look any worse for the wear. “I got hit in the beginning—that wasn’t good, but we came from the back and passed a lot of cars. We had a clean day in the pits, which I asked the guys for that. The goal was a top-10 and we finished 11th, so came up a little bit short but we’ll take it. We’ll go from there. ”

Third-running Sebastien Bourdais took advantage of contact between pole sitter Robert Wickens, who led most of the race, and Alexander Rossi in Turn 1 on the lap 109 restart. Bourdais took the lead and the victory as the race finished under yellow. It was the second straight victory for the Frenchman, who now lives in St. Petersburg. His father Patrick, who lives in Le Mans, France, was present to see his son win in the Dale Coyne Racing machine.

Graham Rahal was second, Rossi survived to take third, Wickens’ teammate James Hinchcliffe finished fourth, and Ryan Hunter-Reay claimed fifth. Wickens was credited with 18th place.

Team President Larry Foyt summed up the weekend, saying, “Excluding the obvious disappointment from the final race results, there are many positives to take from the weekend. I’m happy with the overall competitiveness of the team, and that credit belongs to the engineers and mechanics who have been super busy all winter. It’s a shame that a small blockage in a cooling line ended up being so costly for Matheus. He had a stellar weekend going, and we will all learn from the issue that cost us.

“I’m glad Tony was able to bounce back from the first lap,” Foyt continued. “The car actually had some minor damage from the incident, so I know he had his hands full the rest of the race, and he did a great job to improve positions. We know how well he tested at Phoenix, so we will shake this one off, learn from it, and get ready for the next one.”

The team has a busy couple of weeks ahead of them with several tests planned at road courses, including the Open Test at Barber Motorsports Park on March 20, and at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The next race on the schedule is a Saturday night race (April 7th) at ISM Raceway, the one mile oval outside of Phoenix, Ariz.

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