Dutch rookie Junior Strous became the seventh driver to win on his first Firestone Indy Lights debut, taking the chequered flag in the first leg of the Grand Prix of St Petersburg double-header weekend.
Starting from second on the grid - decided for the first time in Indy Lights history by two parallel qualifying groups - Strous overcame polewinner JR Hildebrand to win by 0.7205secs from fellow rookie Jonathan Summerton after 40 laps of the sinuous 1.8-mile St Petersburg street circuit.
The aptly-mounted Winners Circle Group driver had to bide his time in second for the first 22 laps, but passed Hildebrand on a lap 23 restart and led the final 18 tours to take the win.
“This victory means so much, especially since we are a new team," Strous admitted, "We only had one day of testing, and the guys worked so hard to get this together. It was a tough race, and we had a not so good start. The tyres weren't warmed up, so I lost two positions off the start and then managed to gain another three. I also think I had a legendary take-over manoeuvre in turn one, which kudos to JR Hildebrand, who did some great driving to give the space and not crash.”
Summerton, too, accounted for Hildebrand, having tagged on to the rear of Strous' orange-and-white machine, but admitted that his day could have been tougher had others kept their heads.
“I stayed clean on the start and just paid attention to where everyone was going - it was chaos and you could see it coming," the RLR/Andersen pilot admitted, "Then I basically kept following Junior. Each pass he made, I just kept following him - it was really good. I think we had a quicker car but, in the end, following him was a little rough, as I lost some of the downforce on the car.”
Hildebrand also lost a position to the charging Ana Beatriz, but recovered to finish on the podium in his first race for the AFS/Andretti Green squad.
“We got out to a good lead at the beginning but a couple of yellows came out and,after the second yellow, the car wasn't pulling off the top end down the straight," Hildebrand revealed, "I had a tough time getting into sixth gear, and it turns out that we had a battery going dead. That just held me up down the straights. I was kind of a sitting duck.”
"Unfortunately, at the end, I lost the rear in corner one and Hildebrand passed me again," Beatriz confirmed, "I couldn't see anything. My tear-offs were so dirty with oil and dirt and I missed a brake. I think the team deserved a podium today, but we have another race tomorrow, so we'll see. I think we have a pretty good car.”
Jay Howard, back in Indy Lights after a frustrating year chasing a permanent seat in the full IndyCar Series, completed the top five on his first outing with Team PBIR, while James Hinchcliffe, Daniel Herrington, James Davison, Mario Romancini and Charlie Kimball wrapped up the ten leading runners.