Written by Dan Jones, Edited by Vyas Ponnuri
An arduous four weeks since the chaotic season opener on the Streets of St. Petersburg, IndyCar is back, this time for the first oval event of the year at Texas Motor Speedway, for the first of three events in April. This month is set to feature races on three different circuit types, as the show hits Long Beach and Alabama later. Many drivers will be looking to get back to the front in Texas, having suffered a disappointing St. Petersburg, while some will be looking to build on the start they have made to the season.
It has to be said, St. Petersburg did provide quite the season opener, with only 15 finding the flag, two multi-car pile-ups, disaster for two sets of leaders, and much more. The madness would begin on Lap 1, when Felix Rosenqvist had a wobble with Scott Dixon, which triggered chaos behind. Helio Castroneves, Simon Pagenaud, Benjamin Pedersen, Santino Ferrucci and Devlin DeFrancesco all found the barrier, with the latter flying several metres into the air and coming back down in dramatic fashion. It also caused lucky escapes for Conor Daly and Sting Ray Robb, whilst also effectively eliminating Rosenqvist.
And on Lap 42, airborne crash number two would occur, this time Kyle Kirkwood being launched into the air on colliding with Rinus VeeKay and Jack Harvey. Harvey was taken to hospital for check-ups. Remarkably, despite Kirkwood being launched several feet into the air, he managed to continue, although this put him out of contention.
And Herta would be the next to find the barrier, colliding with Will Power at Turn eight, with the Kiwi largely at fault. However, the next incident would be the moment of the race. Pole sitter, Romain Grosjean as well as 2022 St. Petersburg Winner, Scott McLaughlin, had been dueling all race, the two coming very close after the first round of stops. It would be round two that was significant though, with McLaughlin coming out inches ahead of Grosjean after Andretti Autosport had performed the undercut. However, McLaughlin was always going to struggle on cold tyres, and found himself side-by-side with Grosjean into Turn 4, both knowing it would be the race-winning moment. McLaughlin went in too late, colliding with Grosjean who was on the outside, eliminating both leaders from contention.
This looked to be a gift to Pato O’Ward, who had picked up the pieces and looked set to take victory, until with just two laps to go, the Chevrolet engine in his Arrow McLaren suffered a plenum fire, stalling his progress down the main straight. Marcus Ericsson swept through and claimed victory in the season opener, ahead of O’Ward, Dixon, Rossi and Callum Ilott, who had a very impressive day from 22nd. Power and Palou suffered disappointing days in 7th and 8th, while Marcus Armstrong finished 11th on debut. A special mention goes to Agustin Canapino, who kept his nose clean to finish a very unlikely 12th. Josef Newgarden suffered an engine fire with three laps to go, meaning yet another championship favourite would struggle.
Being the first race of the season, the results of St. Petersburg match up with the championship standings, with Ericsson leading ahead of O’Ward, Dixon, Rossi and Ilott, with championship favourites Power, Palou, McLaughlin, Newgarden and Herta in 7th, 8th, 11th, 18th and 20th respectively.
But let’s look forward to Texas, and cast our minds back to last year’s race which saw one of the most dramatic moments in IndyCar history. Scott McLaughlin looked to take a second consecutive victory, leading on the final lap ahead of Penske teammate Josef Newgarden. However on Lap 248 of 248, McLaughlin would run into traffic, and was too far behind to make a move. The opportunistic Newgarden took the high line to pip McLaughlin to the line by 0.06 seconds. Let’s hope we get more action like that this year.
Looking at the circuit itself, Texas Motor Speedway is a 1.5 mile oval, with banking of 20 degrees at Turn 1, and 24 degrees at Turn 3. Texas has become infamous for its unpopular PJ1 tarmac surface, which was implemented in use for NASCARs. However, the dark-grey asphalt gives little grip to IndyCars, and any driver finding themselves on the PJ1 would be staring straight at the barrier. However, in recent years this has been improved to open up a second line for overtaking, with drivers working tirelessly in extra sessions last year to add grip to the line. Texas has chosen not to resurface, but has also stated the PJ1 will not be resurfaced at the track either, with IndyCar desiring to further increase the grip to improve overtaking opportunities.
There will be several drivers to look out for in Texas, with many having success in the past. As many as seven on the field have found themselves in victory lane. Scott Dixon is unsurprisingly the most successful, picking up victories in 2008, 2015, 2018 as well as consecutive wins in 2020 and 2021. As mentioned, Josef Newgarden won here last year, adding to his 2019 success. Helio Castroneves has also previously run well at Texas, taking victories in 2006, 2009 and 2013. Will Power, unsurprisingly given the longevity of his career, has also secured victories in 2011 and 2017. Ed Carpenter, Graham Rahal and Pato O’Ward have also picked up victories at the event in 2014, 2016 and 2021 respectively.
But who to look out for? Although he has no victories to his name, Texas has been a very happy hunting ground for Scott McLaughlin, who in just three races in Texas, has already picked up two runners-up spots and an eighth place. He was only denied victory on the last lap at last year’s event, and surprised everyone with his 2021 performance in just his 3rd IndyCar event.
Josef Newgarden took the victory from McLaughlin, and is probably the best oval racer in IndyCar at the moment. He will be looking to add to his two Texas victories, and with his impending form on ovals, we can almost certainly expect to see him at the front of the field, as he looks to bounce back from a disappointing St. Petersburg.
Arrow McLaren have gone well on ovals in recent years, including Texas. Felix Rosenqvist claimed a surprise pole position at this event last year. Pato O’Ward has claimed the most points on ovals for the last two seasons running, bolstered in 2021 by the third and first that he claimed in Texas, the site where he claimed his first IndyCar victory. Texas is effectively a hometown race for O’Ward, being the state that he grew up as a child after moving from Monterrey, Mexico. He will be looking to recover from a very frustrating result in St. Petersburg, and with his oval form, there is no doubt that O’Ward has a strong chance to do so.
And you can never count out figures such as Will Power from the mix, as well as Rinus VeeKay, who has also run well here in previous years. Could we finally see either Marcus Ericsson, Colton Herta, or Alex Palou win on an oval, and how will the Andretti boys fare at the speedway?
Being an oval, Texas sees some driver changes. As usual, Ed Carpenter is doing an oval-only schedule in the #33 car, and with Marcus Armstrong opting only to take on road and street courses, Takuma Sato will be piloting the #11 Chip Ganassi Racing Car, in his first start for the team. Benjamin Pedersen and Sting Ray Robb will be making their IndyCar oval debuts at Texas, whilst Agustin Canapino will be competing in his first oval race altogether! Quite the step up from Argentine touring cars, it must be said!
Devlin DeFrancesco caused quite the controversy last year at the event, causing three crashes in just his second IndyCar race, and will be looking to make amends for that day, apart from the disappointment he suffered in St. Petersburg. Andretti Autosport will be looking to build from what looked like an encouraging St. Petersburg. Even though all four cars found themselves in the barriers, the pace had certainly improved. However, with the departure of Alexander Rossi, they have no driver who has won on an oval in their line-up. Will Texas be where that finally changes?
However, there are many drivers whose oval form may be scrutinised, including Alex Palou, Callum Ilott, Christian Lundgaard, Marcus Ericsson (who did claim P3 last year at Texas in fairness) as well as Felix Rosenqvist.
With St. Petersburg being full of carnage and chaos, let’s hope Texas ends up being a slightly cleaner event, and with many eyes on the Penske’s and the McLaren’s , let’s hope we have an ending as thrilling as we did last year, when IndyCar hosts its first oval event of the year at Texas Motor Speedway on April 2nd. See you there!