Simon Pagenaud won Sunday’s Honda Indy Toronto in dominating fashion, but Robert Wickens clearly dominated everything else.
Eleven months after a massive crash at Pocono left him beaten and broken, Wickens, strapped back into the driver’s seat for the first time since his accident and drove two laps around the 11-turn, 1.7-mile race course. Piloting an Acura NSX that had been fitted with special hand controls, and accompanied by fiance Karli Woods, the Toronto native drove what would be best called a celebratory lap where he had the track to himself, then led the field around on the parade lap.
Wickens, who said finally being back behind the wheel was liberating, said the 11 months he’s gone without driving a car was the longest stretch he’d gone since he was seven years old. He looked smooth behind the wheel of the NSX, and was very happy to be back in the driver’s seat again. He also had the honor of giving the command to start the engines.
“He led every lap he was a part of,” James Hinchcliffe, Wickens’ best friend, joked. “That was obviously really cool. I was already strapped in the car. We didn’t get to see the TV, I was just kind of watching everybody’s reaction. You could hear the cheers every corner of the racetrack, even from inside the car.”
When the race got started, it was all about Pagenaud, just as it had been all weekend. After leading every practice session and qualifying on the pole, Pagenaud beat Scott Dixon to the first corner and eventually led 80 laps to win his third race of the season.
I spoke to Pagenaud after qualifying, and what he pulled off this weekend was all part of the plan. You can listen to that interview here.
He echoed those sentiments again after Sunday’s race.
“I’m determined,” he said. “I told (team owner) Roger (Penske) before the weekend, I said, I’m 100 percent in and I’m going to give you everything I have. That’s what you want to hear. That’s what you want to do, go out and win a championship.”
“I think if you look at my Indy car career, I’ve been fighting for championships almost every year. Never count me out, that’s all I can say. That’s my determination that’s talking, it’s not pretentious, it’s just that I have a great team behind me. We won the biggest race in the world. We just won an awesome race.
“To be at a track where you need to have a really good car, chassis and engine, we showed that today. We’ve got all the equipment, all the tools to do so well. Now it’s just a matter of knowing when to push it. It’s a long championship. You’ve got to build it. I’m here and I think Newgarden, Rossi and Dixon know it, like I know they’re here, too. It’s going to be a great fight in the end.”
With six races to go, and the championship contenders are now pretty much whittled down to four, it’s time for drivers to stake their claim, and the big boy racing portion of the season has begun. Those four drivers: Josef Newgarden, Alexander Rossi, Pagenaud and Dixon, in that order in the standings, occupied the top four positions at the finish, with Rossi completing the podium and Newgarden limping home fourth after damaging his car with two laps to go.
Dixon, who seems to race his best when things count the most, was Pagenaud’s only threat on the day. Driving with an elbow injury and a crooked steering wheel as the result of bending the right rear wheel toe link after making contact with the Turn 6 barrier on Lap 12, Dixon whittled an almost 10-second deficit mid-race down to less than a second with 20 laps to go.
As if they were connected by a rubber band, Pagenaud’s lead stretched out on the two long straightaways, and Dixon was able to pull him back in on the tighter areas of the course. Lapped traffic became an issue down the stretch as the two had to navigate around several lapped cars, but in the end Dixon felt Pagenaud’s straight-line speed kept him from mounting a passing threat.
“Once we just got to Simon, we couldn’t do anything,” Dixon said. “His straight-line speed was ridiculous today, to be honest. I don’t know if they were trim. Honestly, on overtake I was barely closing on them. Something we definitely need to work on for the latter part of the season.”
Newgarden finishing fourth meant the rest of the contenders were able to gain valuable ground on him heading to Iowa, with Pagenaud being the biggest benefactor, gaining 22 points to cut his deficit to 39 points.
Here’s how the Top 5 in points look now:
Driver Points Difference
Newgarden 434 –
Rossi 430 -4
Pagenaud 395 -39
Dixon 348 -86
Power 306 -128
Power’s championship hopes were probably dashed this weekend, as he failed to move through the first round in qualifying for the first time in four years on Saturday and started the race 15th. On the opening lap Power made dive-bomb move into Turn 8, made contact with Graham Rahal and damaged his front wing, which sent him to the back of the field.
While he was able to recover, racing his way to the Top 10 in the closing laps, he saw his disastrous weekend come to an end when he hit the tire barriers in Turn 10 on the final lap of the race to end up in 18th place. Of course, you can never count out a talent like Power, the fact is that he has only won once since winning the Indy 500 last year, and his season has had more lows than highs.
Then again, he once had a six-race run like this in 2016, so what’s to say he can’t do it again?
The series now moves from the streets of Toronto to the corn fields of Iowa, where 300 laps of racing awaits them on what looks to be a hot Saturday evening.
Photo credit: Shawn Gritzmacher/IndyCar Media