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IndyCar Preview: 2024 season and St. Petersburg

Written by Dan Jones


This sight will return to our screens on Sunday. Credit: Chris Jones

It’s the moment you’ve all been waiting for. After 178 days of no on-track activity, after six months of a grueling off-season since the chequered flag fell at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, we can proudly announce that IndyCar is finally back. After one of the craziest off-seasons in recent memory, all eyes will finally return to the on-track action as IndyCar heads to the Streets of St. Petersburg for Round 1 of 17 in the 2024 NTT IndyCar Series.


But before we do that, let’s recap all that happened in the chaotic six months since Laguna Seca, starting off with the driver market. Chip Ganassi Racing have expanded to five cars, Scott Dixon and defending champion, Alex Palou remain with the team in a re-branded DHL car, as IndyCar’s most famous sponsor switch from Andretti to Ganassi. Marcus Armstrong steps up to a full-time schedule, after he opted against competing on ovals last year. The team have signed Linus Lundqvist, to replace fellow Swede, Marcus Ericsson, after he impressed in his three races for Meyer Shank Racing last year, when he subbed in for Simon Pagenaud. Kyffin Simpson will make the step up from Indy NXT, as he brings back the iconic #4 to the field.


Andretti Global have captured the outgoing Ericsson, as they drop down to three entries for 2024, following the departures of Romain Grosjean and Devlin DeFrancesco from the team, with Ericsson locked in alongside Colton Herta and Kyle Kirkwood until 2026. Grosjean made a surprise move to Juncos Hollinger Racing where he lines-up against one of the surprises of 2023 in Agustin Canapino, after the team parted ways with Callum Ilott after inter-team conflict became a major storyline.


Juncos announced a strategic partnership with Arrow McLaren in the off-season, hence a tinge of papaya on their new livery. McLaren have snapped up David Malukas to replace the outgoing Felix Rosenqvist, after their attempts to snap up Alex Palou were halted after Palou opted against his McLaren deal to stick at Chip Ganassi Racing. We won’t see Malukas at St. Petersburg, but more on that later. They also stick with Alexander Rossi and Pato O’Ward, who signed a new deal last week to take him through until 2027.


Blomqvist and Meyer Shank have a new livery approach in 2024, with a new #66 entry. Credit: Chris Owens

Rosenqvist now heads to Meyer Shank Racing, the only team with a 100% change heading into 2024. He will line-up alongside IMSA Champion, Tom Blomqvist, who did three races for the team in 2023, and heads from the IMSA side of the garage to the IndyCar side. Helio Castroneves has now dropped to an Indy 500 program in the team.


The only other driver who will race for a different team to the one they raced for in 2023 is Sting Ray Robb, who has left Dale Coyne Racing for A.J. Foyt Racing, the team sticking with Santino Ferrucci in their other entry, after an impressive Indianapolis 500 performance last year, with Benjamin Pedersen’s contract ending early for the team.


Dale Coyne Racing only confirmed their line-up on Tuesday, with Jack Harvey doing 14 races in the #18 entry, after he was dropped by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing mid-way through 2023, with Harvey given the nod for St. Petersburg. Nolan Siegel will split his Indy NXT schedule with the other four races in the #18 car, including in the Indianapolis 500.


IMSA Veteran, Colin Braun will make his IndyCar debut in the #51 car on the Streets of St. Petersburg, the Texan signing a short-term deal which will see him compete for the team at both St. Petersburg and The Thermal, however the future of the car remains unclear.


Ed Carpenter Racing will field the 2023 Indy NXT Champion, Christian Rasmussen in a split entry with oval expert, Ed Carpenter, with Rasmussen doing the 17 road and street course races in 2024. The team will also stick with Rinus VeeKay, who moves into a leadership role after Ryan Hunter-Reay left the team.


Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing suffered a turbulent 2023, and will be looking for more consistency in 2024. They’ve kept Graham Rahal and Christian Lundgaard, but after a disappointing 2023 for Jack Harvey in particular, the team have snapped up Haas F1 Reserve, Pietro Fittipaldi in the #30 entry. Team Penske are the only team to keep their 2023 line-up of Josef Newgarden, Scott McLaughlin and Will Power.


The Drive for Five continues for Helio Castroneves. Credit: Chris Owens

And as is always the case, the Indy 500-only entries are coming to fruition. Marco Andretti will unsurprisingly race in the #98 Andretti Global entry for an 18th consecutive entry. The drive for five continues for Helio Castroneves as he remains in the #06 Meyer Shank entry, in addition to his new owner role within the team. Takuma Sato will return to the Speedway, with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, the team he won the 2020 edition of the event with in the #75 Car. Christian Rasmussen’s only oval race of 2024 will be the Indianapolis 500 as Ed Carpenter Racing field a third entry for the ‘Greatest Spectacle in Racing.’ Ryan Hunter-Reay will return to Dreyer and Reinbold who have an extended partnership with Cusick Motorsports. Conor Daly will race in the other entry fielded by the team, after Hunter-Reay took his seat at Ed Carpenter Racing last year. R.C. Enerson hasn’t been officially confirmed but is expected to return with Abel Motorsports. The most anticipated Indy 500 entry will be 2021 NASCAR Cup Series Champion, Kyle Larson, who will perform ‘The Double,’ as he races in the Indianapolis 500 in the morning and NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600 in the evening.


But let’s cast our eyes towards the likely championship contenders in what looks like one of IndyCar’s most unpredictable seasons in years. Alex Palou is the obvious choice, after he dominated the 2023 season, taking home five victories, 10 podiums and becoming the first man since Dan Wheldon in 2005 to wrap up the title before the final race. Palou looked imperious at times, including a run of four victories in five races, and was once again strong at the Indianapolis 500, taking pole position and being in the mix for victory until he was hit by Rinus VeeKay in the pitlane. Palou was unstoppable for points in the season, and after such a performance it’s hard to overlook the Spaniard.


However, we can never count out Scott Dixon, who finished runner-up in 2023, taking home three of the last four wins of the season, including some miraculous recovery drives at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and World Wide Technology Raceway. Dixon may turn 44 this year, but he's still one of IndyCar's greatest ever, and a driver still at the very top of his game. He aims to emulate A.J. Foyt on seven IndyCar championships, and although the previous three seasons have been frustrating for Dixon, if anyone can recover, he can.


Newgarden may have suffered a difficult 2023, but this moment will live with him forever. Credit: Joe Skibinski

Josef Newgarden ended his slump of finishing second in the standings in 2023, unfortunately dropping to fifth. However, Newgarden was imperious on ovals, winning four of the five oval events, including the Indianapolis 500. The addition of Milwaukee to the schedule, as well as Nashville Superspeedway will play into Newgarden’s hands, with six ovals in the last eight races of the year, as he looks to claim his first title since 2019. Road Courses, with qualifying in particular, was a weak point for Newgarden in 2023, however the team have worked hard to fix that issue in the off-season.


Scott McLaughlin was one of the standout performers in the second half of 2023, and the only Chevrolet driver to win on a road or street course in the entirety of the season. McLaughlin was an anomaly for Penske in qualifying, finding himself on the front row in seven of the last eight events of the year, finishing a personal best third in the standings. Year-on-year, McLaughlin has steadily improved his performance, and championship position, and would like that trend to continue in 2024.


It was a frustrating 2023 for Will Power, who’s off-track issues caused a drop-off in performance on-track, with Power suffering a winless year for the first time since 2006. The 2022 Champion surprised many that year, and with all focus back on track, could he cause a surprise by claiming a third title?


Andretti Global’s drivers have seen an advantage by slimming down to three cars, believing their resources can be focused on developing consistency within the team. Colton Herta suffered a disappointing 2023 with no race victories, and will be looking to come strong in 2024. Kyle Kirkwood was the standout Andretti performer, taking home victories in Long Beach and Nashville. Expect all three Andretti drivers to be close to the front, but see them as outsiders for the championship.


A winless year was a huge disappointment for Pato O’Ward in 2023, but still saw the positives in ‘loads of small wins.’ It was O’Ward’s most consistent year in IndyCar to date, as he picked up seven podiums, and took a less aggressive approach in his racing which lead to more consistent results, the Mexican unfortunate to not find himself third in the standings. O’Ward has recently had his long-term future secured at Arrow McLaren and will see 2024 as a real opportunity, particularly when you take his oval record into account.


Lundqvist will sport the American Legion livery that took Palou to the title in 2023. Credit: Joe Skibinski

The Rookie of the Year battle will be a story that will be followed throughout the entire year. Lundqvist, Blomqvist, Simpson, Rasmussen, Siegel, Braun and Larson are the official rookie class of 2024, however only Lundqvist, Blomqvist and Simpson are expected to be realistic contenders for the award, as they run all 17 championship rounds. Lundqvist comes in as the favourite with his Indy NXT experience, as well as run-out last year, however nothing can be ruled out in IndyCar.


2024 will also see a host of calendar changes. To the disappointment of many, Texas Motor Speedway has dropped off the schedule, due to a scheduling clash with the NASCAR Cup Series. The autumn race on the Indianapolis Road Course has also been removed from the schedule. In its place the Milwaukee Mile returns to the schedule for the first time since 2015, with the short oval hosting Rounds 15 and 16 of the season, when the championship battle is at its absolute climax. The Series will also see a return to the Nashville Superspeedway, after the Street Course - that had been used from 2021 to 2023 - was not seen as a feasible option due to the ongoing work at the NFL stadium where the paddock is located, ending IndyCar’s initial plans to race down Broadway.


An exhibition event at The Thermal Club in California will be the first non-points paying race since Surfers Paradise in 2008. Instead, drivers will compete for a $1,000,000 dollar prize, in between St. Petersburg and Long Beach. The Thermal hosted the pre-season test last year, being popular amongst drivers, with drivers being split into two races before an ‘all-star’ event, in the goal of bringing in viewership on primetime TV. An exhibition race in Argentina was rumoured for 2024, however Penske Entertainment CEO, Mark Miles, confirmed to DIVEBOMB that it was not on the cards.


That’s enough about the season, let’s look forward to this weekend's action at St. Petersburg, a 1.8 mile (2.9km) street circuit on Florida’s east coast, known for its extreme humidity, short lap times, and proximity to the unforgiving barriers.


The run down the runway is always one of the most spectacular sights of the season. Credit: Joe Skibinski

The 27 drivers will begin the 2024 season down the main runway at the Albert Whitted Airport, before a medium speed right-hander which dramatically narrows, but also provides the best overtaking opportunity on the circuit. The drivers then go through the left and right hand kinks at Turns 2 and 3 before a quick run to Turn 4. The next section is single-file only, as cars go right and then left before another kink right at Turn 6, all taken in a quick session. Turns 6 and 7 are low-speed right-handers before a long run down Bay Shore Drive. The drivers will then heavily brake as they enter Dan Wheldon Way before high speed kinks at Turns 11 and 12, the final corner at Turn 13 and 14 being a wide, 180 degree loop, with drivers etching to get back on the power to complete their laps.


Last year’s race saw a multitude of crashes, including a five car pile-up on Lap One which saw Devlin DeFrancesco fly into the air. Kyle Kirkwood also suffered an airborne experience when he collided with Rinus VeeKay later on. The race was most remembered though for a collision between the two race leaders, Scott McLaughlin and Romain Grosjean, when McLaughlin left the pitlane, with McLaughlin’s cold tires sending both out the race. Pato O’Ward inherited the race lead, but suffered a plenum fire with three laps to go, handing the race victory to Marcus Ericsson.


The Streets of St. Petersburg have been particularly successful for Team Penske’s drivers, Josef Newgarden went back-to-back at the circuit in 2019 and 2020, before Scott McLaughlin won the event in 2022, and came perilously close in 2023. Power has taken an unbelievable eight poles at the track, but has only converted one - in 2010, but also won the event in 2014. Graham Rahal, Colton Herta and Marcus Ericsson are the other winners in the field, winning in 2008, 2021 and 2023 respectively.


Ericsson made the most of other's misfortune last year. Credit: Joe Skibinski

The series will see a few changes for this weekend, a lighter car package is being introduced, in preparation for the new hybrid engine to be implemented mid-season, likely to be around Mid-Ohio, which gives the opportunity for record breaking speeds and lap times in the early phasings of 2024. The Series will also trial a ‘split practice’ in the first practice session, to encourage more on-track action. The field will be divided into two groups, much like qualifying, with both receiving 20 minutes at the start of the session, before they switch, and then alternate in 10 minute time slots until the end of the session. IndyCar have stated this is only a trial for St. Petersburg but could be a permanent feature for the season.


The biggest change for the weekend will be in the driver line-ups, as a pre-season injury for David Malukas whilst mountain biking has forced him to sit out the opening round of the season as he recovers. Malukas will unfortunately miss his McLaren debut, but that opens up an opportunity for Callum Ilott, who will return to the field much quicker than expected, as he takes control of the #6 car to open the 2024 season.


St. Petersburg is a particularly tough challenge on all the 27 drivers who will compete at the event. Up to 40 degrees in the cockpit over 100 laps of racing - which regularly reaches two hours is a challenge for anyone - Romain Grosjean noted it was tougher than the Singapore Grand Prix. With it being the start of the season there is plenty to look out for - how will Alex Palou begin his campaign as defending champion? How will Callum Ilott perform in his stand-in for McLaren. Can the likes of Colin Braun and Jack Harvey impress despite their last-minute call up?


There’s plenty to look forward to as IndyCar returns to action for the first time in six months. With last year’s carnage and IndyCar’s unpredictability, St. Petersburg will be a must-watch as IndyCar returns to racing on March 10.


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