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Grand Prix of St Pete: Lessons from IndyCar’s Season Opener

Written by Archie O’Reilly, Edited by Vyas Ponnuri

Credit: Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The 2023 IndyCar season got underway on the streets of St Petersburg, Florida on Sunday as the series returned from a hiatus of over five months. It was a breathless race that will either have left you needing the four weeks until the next race at Texas Motor Speedway to recover, or will have left you impatiently checking off the days until cars hit the track again. It will go down as a race defined by its relentless action, eventually won by Marcus Ericsson.

There were plenty of talking points, so here are some of the main takeaways from the season opener…

Streets of St Pete cause chaos

The precedent for the entire weekend on the Florida coast was set in the early stages of the first practice session of the season, as rookie Benjamin Pedersen hit the wall, and damaged the front wing of his AJ Foyt Racing car, causing the red flag to fly mere minutes after the green flag flew for the first time. Both practice sessions quickly became stories of drivers fighting not to lock up, spin and hit the walls, as they got back up to speed with street racing.

Among others making contact with the walls, the championship-contending Penske cars of Josef Newgarden and Scott McLaughlin each bent two toe links across both practice sessions. Another rookie, Sting Ray Robb, as well as six-time champion Scott Dixon caused more significant damage with heavier crashes. The theme of this incident-induced chaos only continued into qualifying, and even into the Fast Six, during which Kyle Kirkwood locked up and wrecked his Andretti Autosport car, and McLaughlin was sent into a spin after contact with the wall.

Lap one of the race further reflected this disorder. Dixon initially made contact with Felix Rosenqvist, nudging the Swede into the wall, albeit that was only minor compared to the melee that ensued further back. Santino Ferucci initially made contact with Helio Castroneves, which led to a mass pile-up; Devlin DeFrancesco was sideways in the middle of the track, and Pedersen could do nothing to avoid hitting the stricken car, sending the Andretti airborne, akin to that of a video game. Five cars were out of the race in that scary first-lap incident, from which all drivers thankfully walked away, with only Robb continuing in any capacity. Rosenqvist also logged 51 laps after his collision with Dixon, further towards the front, before pulling in to retire from the race.

The lap one occurrences certainly foreshadowed further chaos that was to come, with only 12 drivers ending up finishing on the lead lap after a string of cautions…

Taken from IndyCar YouTube

“Cautions breed cautions”

The first lap melee only marked the beginning of the action in terms of crashes. Further cautions as the race progressed meant the pack was continually condensed, leading to more incidents as the jeopardy of IndyCar, on this occasion street racing, was emphasised.

One sequence of cautions started as Conor Daly found himself sent into a spin by Kirkwood, causing minor front wing damage for the Ed Carpenter Racing car, and bringing out the caution. On the restart, a second Andretti car was sent airborne in equally bizarre fashion, with Kirkwood’s car essentially having used Jack Harvey’s car as a ramp after the Rahal Letterman Lanigan driver ran into the back of Rinus VeeKay, who hit the tyre barrier at turn four.

Harvey was taken to hospital as a precaution, but in his words on Instagram, it was “nothing a little ice and a cold beer won’t fix”. The safety of IndyCar certainly came to the fore and deserves lots of credit for preventing much worse than the odd bruise on Sunday afternoon.

Following on from this incident, there was even more drama on the latest restart. Graham Rahal was fortunate to avoid contact with the same, perilous tyre barrier at turn four, but Colton Herta didn’t find himself so lucky further in the lap. Alongside Will Power, Herta was made contact with by the reigning champion twice, the second hit being more forceful, and sending the Andretti driver out of the race.

Essentially, Kirkwood sending Daly into a spin on lap 37 led to a spiral of events due to the pack being drawn together by cautions.

Drivers will not yield with the lead on the line

Amid the spectacular crashes sending some cars airborne, the biggest flashpoint was no doubt between race leaders McLaughlin and Romain Grosjean on the 72nd lap. Grosjean came into the pits a lap before McLaughlin, who encountered some lapped traffic on his final circuit of the track before coming in for fresh rubber. And it could barely have been closer as McLaughlin exited the pits a hair’s breadth ahead of Grosjean.

The pair were lucky not to collide at speed at the pit exit, and then a race down to turn four ensued. On cold tyres, McLaughlin was always going to have to work hard to defend against Grosjean. The Kiwi broke too late considering his tyres weren’t up to temperature, with his rear tyres locking, and sending him into the tyre barrier. McLaughlin clearly did all he could to make the corner and leave Grosjean space, but his miscalculations took Grosjean, who had nowhere to go, with him into the tyre barrier.

McLaughlin isn’t the sort of driver to intentionally crash into a competitor, and despite Grosjean initially punching the tyre barrier in understandable fury, the pair were gracious when meeting post-race, with McLaughlin sincerely apologetic in his typical sportsmanlike fashion. It was a case of two drivers vying for the race win, and neither wanting to back off: McLaughlin was ambitious in trying to protect his position, while Grosjean admittedly tried a very low probability, audacious move around the outside.

It would have been better for both to have been patient, but that isn’t in a racing drivers’ resume. Grosjean was taken out completely, while McLaughlin did continue to finish 13th, but still missed out on a big early points haul with a number of other championship contenders having had issues. Such missed opportunities were rife throughout the field.

Credit: James Black via IndyCar

Keeping your nose clean is key

In IndyCar, given a vast number of drivers can win a race on any given day, consistency is absolutely crucial. Power won the 2022 championship having taken only a single win due to his consistency throughout the season, while Newgarden fell short despite having won five races. In St. Pete, those drivers who were measured and stayed out of trouble gained reward given only 12 finished on the lead lap.

Even after crashing, McLaughlin finished 13th - an indication of how valuable keeping out of trouble was. Rookies Marcus Armstrong and Agustin Canapino managed to finish 11th and 12th respectively - ahead of many big-hitters who were unable to stay out of trouble on the day. Three of last year’s rookies, Callum Ilott, Christian Lundgaard and David Malukas, were also able to pick up big points hauls amid the misfortunes of others.

Some of those caught up in incidents will be ruing the fact that they missed a big opportunity to make some early gains. Keeping it clean is invaluable, especially for those tipped to contend for the championship - and some possible championship picks failed to keep out of trouble, or simply faltered somewhat. Penske had an off-weekend, for instance, as McLaughlin crashed, Newgarden suffered a fire a few laps from the end, and Power was sent to the back of the pack at one stage after being deemed at fault for his collision with Herta.

Finishing on the podium, the likes of Pato O’Ward and Dixon were able to stake early championship claims ahead of other likely protagonists. Ericsson’s race victory was the epitome of being in the right place to take advantage of others’ misfortunes, inheriting the lead from O’Ward with four laps remaining, after a brief power loss for the Mexican.

Credit: Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Pato O’Ward is very unfortunate

Arrow McLaren, on the whole, had a relatively smooth first weekend of the season - the first race in which they had been running a third car after the addition of Alexander Rossi ahead of 2023. Each of their drivers finished second practice inside the top 10, and qualifying saw all three progress into the Fast 12. Rossi and Rosenqvist, who topped group one, failed to make it to the Fast Six, but O’Ward did progress to qualify third.

After the collision between McLaughlin and Grosjean, O’Ward inherited the lead of the race, and looked set to start his season on the front foot, with his management of the race laudable. So, when it came to the crunch final few laps and a misfire in his engine as he made his way onto the pit straight saw him temporarily lose power, it was a gut-wrenching moment for a driver that looked set to pounce on other championship contenders suffering issues and underperforming comparatively. He looked set to hold off Ericsson without this problem, which came through no fault of his own.

Still, it was a strong day for McLaren, with O’Ward and Rossi both keeping out of trouble - the latter ending up two places back from his team-mate in his debut race for the team. But, justifiably, McLaren and O’Ward will believe they should have come away from St. Pete having been in victory lane.

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Andretti were strong… until they weren’t

Andretti were a team in a slight state of limbo in 2022, with a year of performances and results from their drivers that didn’t live up to the prestige of the team. However, they looked the strongest team with some certainty for most of the weekend in St Pete - a positive sign heading into the rest of the season.

They kicked off the weekend with Herta and Kirkwood finishing inside the top five in both practice sessions - Herta topping second practice and Kirkwood showing masses of promise on his first weekend with the team, replacing Rossi. This form translated to qualifying for the Andretti squad, with three of their drivers making it into the Fast Six.

Grosjean took a mightily impressive second career IndyCar pole, ousting Herta, who secured second, to make a statement ahead of the remainder of this season. Kirkwood did crash in the final round of qualifying, but he still finished fifth ahead of McLaughlin after the latter’s crash - symbolic of the edge Andretti seemed to have on Penske.

It all looked so good for Michael Andretti and co. until Sunday, when the race frankly transpired to be a disaster (largely out of the team and its drivers’ control). DeFrancesco was sent airborne after being caught up in the first-lap chaos, setting the race off on a bad note. Kirkwood then caused a caution by spinning Daly round, and from that he became the second Andretti driver to suffer from an airborne crash after running into Harvey with no time to avoid two stricken cars.

If that wasn’t enough, Herta was sent out of the race by contact with Power on the restart from that caution, before Grosjean found himself put into the turn four tyre barrier by Power’s team-mate McLaughlin when fighting for the race lead, and his first ever IndyCar win. With that, no Andretti driver managed to convert a strong weekend into even a lead-lap finish; three cars ended up out of the race, with Kirkwood miraculously continuing to finish 15th.

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The rookies…

It was a mixed weekend for this season’s rookies in St Pete. The pair promoted from IndyLights, Pedersen and Robb, each suffered crashes in practice before being caught up in the first-lap skirmish having qualified second-bottom and bottom of their qualifying groups respectively. Robb continued to a 16th-place finish, four laps down, while Pedersen’s car was written off after running into DeFrancesco.

Armstrong was the highest-finishing of the rookies for Chip Ganassi Racing, narrowly missing out on the Fast 12, before keeping out of the worst of the trouble to record a creditable 11th-place finish in the race. If it wasn’t for a puncture caused by a minor misjudgement by Malukas, who only finished a matter of tenths ahead of Armstrong in the end, the Kiwi could have been even higher up the order on debut.

Arguably, most impressive of the trio was Canapino, who had never before competed in an open-wheel car, and had joined a Juncos Hollinger team only just adding a second car to their ranks. He was measured in his driving all weekend, with excellent control shown at times to correct occasional errant moments in practice. He quickly got up to speed with IndyCar, and he was by no means uncompetitive - as some expected. Courtesy of staying out of trouble, he finished on the lead lap in 12th-place. At 33 years old, he is proving it is never too late to make a major jump in motorsport.

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Callum Ilott is one to watch

To close off this piece, there must be some plaudits given to Ilott. His qualifying was admittedly suboptimal and saw him start 22nd, but he was incredibly consistent throughout the race to earn the Juncos team a fifth-place finish on Sunday.

The Brit’s rookie season in 2022 was better than many expected, coming away from the season with a pair of top 10 finishes, and a number of other results just on the edge of the top 10. And in the first race of his second full season, he has already improved on his previous best finish - eighth-place on the Indianapolis road course.

Ilott is certainly a driver to keep a keen eye on this season, with some of the more prestigious teams likely to be doing just that, especially if he maintains this level of performance and continues this upward trajectory. And that is only one of many storylines that will no doubt ensue, after a thrilling opening race on the streets of St Pete.


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