It turned out to be a rather good day for F1 alumni in the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on Sunday, with former Jordan, BAR and Super Aguri driver Takuma Sato becoming the first Japanese driver to win in the championship (see full race report
and final results
) while England's Justin Wilson - former Grand Prix driver at Minardi and Jaguar in 2003 - also finished on the podium.
As it turned out, Wilson's was perhaps the unlikelier success of the afternoon, given that the driver had not been able to participate at all in qualifying on Saturday. He'd damaged the rear of the #19 Boy Scouts of America car in an incident during Friday practice, and when the car was re-inspected ahead of qualifying the following day it was found that the new component had been incorrectly fitted according to series rules and was missing a required vinyl wrap.
The Dale Coyne Racing team worked frantically as Round 1 of qualifying got underway, but they were fractionally too late and by the time Wilson got out on track he was unable to take the line before the chequered flag came out to end the session. He ended up being handed 25th place on the 27-car grid, although an engine change penalty for Tristan Vautier gave him a one place boost before the race start as a consolation for his disappointment.
"Rough day yesterday," Wilson tweeted on Sunday morning as he prepared to do what he could in the race itself despite his compromised starting position. "Very disappoint[ed]. Only one way to move today and that's forwards," he added.
And that's just what he did, taking the opportunity of an early full course caution for a spin by Dragon Racing's Sebastian Saavedra on lap 4 to pit from near the back and ditch the harder 'black walled' prime tyres that had left him struggling for grip during the opening minutes.
"We pitted on lap 5 or 6, came in and put the reds on," he said, referring to the softer option tyres with better grip. "We had plenty of reds because we didn't qualify!" he pointed out with a laugh.
"I think that helped having an extra set, being able to pick a few people off," he explained. "It was a little bit of luck, circumstances and the team did a great job on strategy."
Luck it most certainly proved to be, as Wilson's contrary pit stop strategy saw him rise inexorably up the field with decisive passes on the likes of series stars Will Power and Dario Franchitti. Further full course yellows on lap 30, 35 and 50 gave him more overtaking chances at the restarts and helped bring him into sync with the rest of the field having made the most of the overtaking opportunities in the meantime.
"On those restarts, everyone else had blacks on and we were able to drive by people," said Wilson. "We also had five or six more laps with fuel. When they pitted, we could keep going and do some quicker laps."
Finally Wilson took over third place on lap 59 making a gain of 21 places on his grid position, and after that was able to easily hold on to the spot four seconds ahead of Franchitti. There was no prospect of catching race leader Takuma Sato who had dominated the race, and Graham Rahal was three seconds out of Wilson's reach by the time the chequered flag came out.
Even so, third was beyond anything Wilson had been hoping for going into the 80-lap race on the the 1.968-mile, 11-turn temporary street course.
"This field is so tough, I figured that from where we started if we got in the top 12, top ten on the outside chance, that would be a great day," he admitted afterwards. "To be on the podium is fantastic ... It was just good strategy and making the most of the situation we were in after the rest of the weekend."
It's Wilson's third podium finish at Long Beach, having finished here in second place in 2006 and 2010. It's his best IndyCar result since winning at Texas last June, and he gave the credit to his team for pulling off the seemingly impossible over the course of the weekend.
"The team worked hard after the crash on Friday and then we made a lot of changes on Saturday," he said. "Obviously we had the setback on Saturday when we didn't get to qualify, but they gave great pit stops today and great strategy. It was a real team effort.
"It's great to get this result for the Boy Scouts of America and everyone at Dale Coyne Racing," he continued. "It's also good for Honda here at Long Beach to get 1-2-3-4. I think it's fantastic."
It turned out that for Wilson at least, California had been the ideal place to be handed a load of lemons on Saturday, because the lemonade it made on Sunday afternoon proved even finer vintage than the champagne that Wilson, Sato and Rahal got to spray in their exuberant celebrations.