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IndyCar Drivers’ View: Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

Written by Archie O’Reilly

“I don’t want to say it felt easy... it felt comfortable today - really, really comfortable,” Josef Newgarden said in the post-race press conference after winning the opening race of the 2024 NTT IndyCar Series season on the streets of St. Petersburg. “I had a lot of fun.”

The two-time IndyCar champion and reigning Indianapolis 500 winner finished over eight seconds clear of second-place Pato O’Ward, leading 92 of 100 laps. He has undergone an off-season of refocusing and recentring his enjoyment, letting go of some perfectionism and getting back to a happy place rather than seeing IndyCar racing as a chore.

Here is a round-up of how the podium-sitters, plus a selection of other drivers through the field, reflected on the opening race weekend of the 2024 season…

Improvements from Team Chevy

After securing his first NTT P1 Award since June 2022 on Saturday, Newgarden described Team Chevy as a “huge difference-maker” after they “absolutely crushed it” following an off-season of meetings, during which feedback was given from drivers. He reiterated on Sunday that they had done a “tremendous job” during the off-season.

“You rarely ask for the menu and get the whole menu,” Newgarden added on Sunday. “And they somehow, I feel, gave us the whole menu.”

Honda-powered cars won all five street course races in 2023. But, come the end of the opening race of the 2024 season, Chevrolet drivers made up the entirety of the top four. Second-place finisher O’Ward, plus third-place Scott McLaughlin, both went out of their way to credit Team Chevy for their off-season improvements in the post-race press conference. 

“We all met at the MTC in London,” O’Ward said, speaking from an Arrow McLaren standpoint. “It was like 25, 20 of us at a massive table, and we just hammered down on everything that we wanted to see improvements on, everything that we thought that we did well, and just having an honest, open conversation of what’s going on.

“Whenever you’re at the end of basically life of an engine like this, a lot of the massive gains have been gained. When you gain little bits and pieces here and there, they’re usually pretty substantial. I was super, super happy to see just how receptive they were to it and how they were going to get to work. And they brought us a very strong package.”

When pressed on whether gains have come anywhere specific, O’Ward simply said: “All of it. Give me all of it.”

McLaughlin offered a little more detail while agreeing that “all of it” has been improved this year, saying: “It’s been a big chance for us to rethink the process and how everything goes about, and it was going to take time. Unfortunately we couldn’t do it last year, but from this time last year to the end of the season we made a gain. 

“It still wasn’t enough. They went to work over the off-season. Like Pato, they had a similar meeting with us, and we’ve got to appreciate that. They’ve come back with a whole range of things that have helped us today and certainly helped us today in the type of race that we ran.”

Team Penske dominance 

“I think the Penskes were just too strong for us today,” O’Ward said. Over the course of the race, despite Newgarden being pegged back by cautions, the Mexican driver could not get close to the dominant race leader. 

O’Ward also had to spend the latter parts of the race defending intensely to keep McLaughlin and Will Power behind as all three Penske cars finished inside the top four. And if it was not for O’Ward’s staunch defensive driving, there is every chance that it could have been an all-Penske podium. 

And maybe it speaks to the strong place in which Penske feel that McLaughlin admitted he did not risk a move on O’Ward given the bigger picture of a championship battle. It is an impressive turnaround after only one win away from ovals as a team in 2023.

“I just think we’ve put a lot of work hard this season,” McLaughlin said. “Me, Will and Josef… it’s just a good team. We get along really well. It’s just a great business relationship, and I feel like it just really pushes the team forward in all facets. I’m really enjoying that. We’ve just got to keep winning. The Captain loves winning. He’s not going to get over it, so we’ll just keep doing it.”

Penske had a tough time on road and street courses in 2023, particularly the latter. But, speaking after qualifying, Newgarden said he believed Penske had “made the necessary steps” to improve, which could be an ominous prospect for the field if they maintain their nigh-on imperious oval form. It helps that the drivers are all on the same page.

“We just gel,” McLaughlin said. “There’s no angst, there’s no nothing. It’s just pure business.”

Newgarden later added: “We obviously have strong cars across the board. We’re all capable of producing. That’s how I would want it. I would want the best teammates that I can possibly have. I don’t want people that are running a B-team and a C-team next to me. I want three A-teams so that you can lean on the best.”

Newgarden also had high praise for the improvement in Penske’s package.

“What was really obvious to me was that we had a strong car,” he said. “Just all day, it made my job so much easier. It was really easy to drive today as far as the pace of the car and getting consistency. I felt comfortable all day long, and it makes a big difference when you have a car like that.”

He continued: “My car seemed simple today, to drive it fast… Sometimes you can be really fast but you’re working overtime to produce the speed. I wasn’t working overtime today. I was working hard but just kind of standard hard. It was just really enjoyable to be able to feel that way. I just felt in control of things in a lot of respects.”

Forward steps at Foyt 

AJ Foyt Racing had a challenging 2023 season, particularly on street courses. But Santino Ferrucci narrowly missing out on the Fast 12 in qualifying - described as “solid” after missing second practice with an issue - and rounding out the race in 11th-place is progress for the Foyt team, who are now part of a technical alliance with Penske.

“Solid day today,” Ferrucci, who was aiming for a top-10 finish, said post-race. “Obviously missed out [on the top 10] by one spot. Overall, it was a good race. Made up some spots at the start, just stayed clean, we had some clean pit stops. It’s a tough race, tough place to pass. We gave it everything we had and I’m happy with the result.”

Sting Ray Robb, making his debut for the team, had a “frustrating” day after a brake issue saw him retire after 33 laps. He had been as happy with the car as he had been with any he had driven in IndyCar and felt there was more in an “okay” qualifying on Saturday, which saw him start in 24th-place. 

“Today did not go as planned,” Robb said post-race. “We had a lot of pace in the car today - that was really good to see. We were going forward through the pit stops as well. And then after the [caution] restart, we were fighting forward, made up a spot, getting ready for another… then a brake failure going into one. Thankfully I was able to keep it out the wall.”

Grosjean positive and accountable

Romain Grosjean had a solid first weekend with Juncos Hollinger Racing, albeit with a late retirement due to a car issue meaning there was no result to show for it. An “awesome” fifth-place qualifying finish still offers foundations to build on. 

“I think there are a lot of positives from the weekend,” he said. “Our race pace looked really strong, so I’m excited about that. Sadly we had to retire the car with a mechanical issue, but a pretty good job from all of the team.”

Grosjean was running inside the top 10 for most of the race, until going for a late move into turn 10 and spinning Linus Lundqvist. He incurred a drive-through penalty for the incident and, after initially blaming the rookie Swede, he took responsibility.

Teammate Agustin Canapino also saw a top 15 result go begging after going deep into turn one when trying to pass former teammate Callum Ilott. He ultimately finished 18th-place - two places higher than his qualifying position.

“I made a little mistake,” he said. “I lost four or five positions, but it is part of racing. The good thing is we were competitive, we always had good pace. We need to continue our improvement in pit stops, the fuel numbers, everything with the team. We are still new, still growing. I am happy with our pace this weekend. It’s a good place to start.”

A weekend of progress for Coyne

Dale Coyne Racing only announced their driver line-up for St. Pete three days prior to the start of track action. But their drivers are content with the progress made over the weekend.

Jack Harvey is driving 14 races in the No.18 car, with Indy NXT St. Pete winner Nolan Siegel completing the remaining four races. And the Briton showed some promise through practice, albeit he had to settle for starting at the back of the field for the race.

“It was a little underwhelming and I thought we were going to have a little bit more speed than that,” Harvey said after qualifying. But he admitted that it was “great” to be back after losing his seat at Rahal Letterman Lanigan late in the 2023 season. He was confident that the race car would be better too.

And, post-race, Harvey has said he feels like the team “finally started to get a little momentum” en-route to finishing 19th-place - creditable for a team left massively underprepared at the start of the season.

“We can work with this entire platform, this programme,” he continued. “It’s going to take work - we knew that. We went into the season and into the weekend with our eyes fully open, probably aware of what the expectations were. And at the end of the day, we gained eight positions today.

“Pit stops were clean, everything on the driving side looked pretty good. So what do we need to do now? We need to work really hard to find some more pace. We know that - we are going to go and push ourselves the best we can to do it.”

In the No.51 car was sportscar veteran Colin Braun, who only drove an Indy car for the first time at the recent group test on the Sebring International Raceway short course. It was a baptism of fire for the 35-year-old debutant, who finished the race a lap down in 22nd-place. It was a weekend of a “huge learning curve” as things got “better and better” with more seat time.

“My goal was to run all the laps,” he said. “I made a little mistake in turn 10, got a brake lock-up, decided to go straight, took a minute to get in reverse. So we lost one lap. But, overall, a really good day. Stayed out of trouble, did the pit stops, learned a tonne, saw the track progression, saw what the marbles did off-line.”

Braun said it was “a lot to take in” but learning was always going to be important as he looks to prove he can stay beyond an initial two-race deal.

Siegel wins ahead of Thermal

Siegel was dominant victor after a controlled Indy NXT race on Sunday, managing a number of caution restarts to stay out front. And among his four-race deal, which also includes the Indianapolis 500 in May, is the Million Dollar Challenge at the Thermal Club in two weeks - the next time IndyCar is on track.

“It’s exciting,” Siegel said in the post-race press conference. “It’s going to be a challenge, for sure. I have one day in the car going to Thermal for the first race weekend. It’s not going to be easy. IndyCar is one of the most competitive race series in the world. 

“I think I'm ready for it. I think Indy NXT prepares you really, really well for IndyCar. I’m more excited than nervous, for sure. I think it will prepare me well for hopefully 2025 and also for the rest of 2024 in Indy NXT. I think it will be a great experience. I’m going to learn a lot and grow as a driver.”

Jacob Abel, who drives for family team Abel Motorsports, owned by his father, Bill Abel, finished second-place in the Indy NXT race. He is another young driver targeting an IndyCar opportunity in 2025. But could that be with his family team?

“It’s hard to say,” Abel said. “Obviously right now Abel Motorsports is an Indy 500-only IndyCar team. My goal is to race in IndyCar full-time, contend for championships. I think all options are open. Obviously I have the same name as the team, so that does change the dynamic just a little bit. 

“But it’s something that I think I’m still going to have to earn regardless. IndyCar racing isn’t necessarily cheap, so it takes sponsors, partners, all of that. That’s all going to have to come together regardless of what team I’m driving for. Hopefully, but nothing’s for sure.”


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