Written by Dan Jones, Edited by Vyas Ponnuri
Credit: Michael Levitt / LAT Images
After a wait of six months, the NTT IndyCar Series is back! 27 cars will hit the Streets of St Petersburg on March 5th, to kick off the 2023 NTT IndyCar Series, in what looks to be one of the most exciting seasons in years.
As expected, the off-season saw some big changes in the driver market. Heading into the 2023 season, the biggest mover of all being Alexander Rossi. Arrow-McLaren, who dropped their Schmidt-Pedersen name in the off-season, expanded their operations to three cars, and have signed 2016 Indianapolis 500 winner Rossi to fill that gap.
McLaren had initially signed Alex Palou from Chip Ganassi Racing, until the courts decided he would stay at the Honda outfit. However, Rossi looks to be a promising signing for McLaren, who look to climb up the grid further, with the eventual goal of challenging Ganassi and Penske. Rossi had previously struggled in the past few years with Andretti Autosport, but the move to McLaren looks exciting to both parties, and McLaren will only further grow, having retained Pato O’Ward and Felix Rosenqvist.
Rossi’s replacement was naturally Kyle Kirkwood, who had been linked with a move to Andretti Autosport for several years. Kirkwood was the highest rated American youngster for years, winning the USF2000, Indy Pro 2000, and Indy Lights championships in succession, dominating all three. Kirkwood had a frustrating rookie year, sentenced to the back with A.J. Foyt Racing, however Kirkwood will finally have the chance to unleash his potential with the Andretti Autosport outfit, who are expected to be challenging toward the front, with the possibility of Kirkwood picking up podiums and even victories in 2023.
Kirkwood’s departure, as well as the removal of Canadian, Dalton Kellett, opened up two spaces at A.J. Foyt Racing. The very controversial Santino Ferrucci has been brought in to replace Kirkwood, and despite Ferrucci’s sketchy history, there are no doubts he is an excellent IndyCar driver, as proved by his one-off performances in the previous two seasons. Although Ferrucci will not be challenging at the front in an A.J. Foyt, it does mean he has a full-time ride for the first time in three seasons. Alongside Ferrucci is a rookie, Benjamin Pedersen, who finished 5th in Indy Lights last season. Pedersen is fairly unknown, and with a quiet motorsport history, Pedersen is unlikely to have a stellar 2023.
Another fairly unknown rookie arriving on the IndyCar scene in 2023 is Agustín Canapino, who joins Juncos Hollinger Racing, who are expanding their operations to two cars in 2023, as Canapino will line-up alongside Callum Ilott. The Argentine is a household name, winning all three major touring car championships in his home country, but has never driven a single-seater competitively. Canapino is a relatively unknown figure in America, and little is expected of the Argentine. However, Canapino impressed in the recent test at The Thermal Club, and you only have to look back two seasons to Scott McLaughlin, who made the move over from touring cars, and is now a championship contender. Although Canapino is not of the same pedigree as McLaughlin, the potential is there for Canapino to succeed, particularly when he has the support of teammate Callum Ilott, who starred last year as a rookie.
Ilott is not the only breakout star of 2022 who receives a rookie teammate, as David Malukas lines up alongside Sting Ray Robb at Dale Coyne Racing. Robb, like Malukas, finished 2nd in Indy Lights in 2022, and although his seat came at the expense of 2022 Indy Lights Champion, Linus Lundqvist, Robb has shown what he can do on the American scene. Again, as in the case of Malukas, Robb is fairly unknown amongst fans, but Malukas absolutely starred last season in the same setup, and there is every chance that Robb can do so, as he replaces the outgoing Takuma Sato.
Talking of Takuma Sato, he will be moving to Chip Ganassi Racing to compete in all the oval races in 2023, including the Indianapolis 500, as he steps back from a full-time IndyCar seat. Sato will be sharing the #11, alongside the final rookie of 2023, Marcus Armstrong, who makes the move over from Formula 2, following the path of Christian Lundgaard and Callum Ilott. Armstrong hasn’t done too much testing, and has no experience in the American racing scene, however, being a part of the famous Chip Ganassi Racing outfit, there is no doubt Armstrong will get up to speed quickly.
And of course, the Indianapolis 500 entries are also sorting themselves out. Unsurprisingly, Marco Andretti will be competing for Andretti Autosport. Tony Kanaan will be taking part in his final Indianapolis 500 in 2023, racing for Arrow McLaren, alongside O’Ward, Rosenqvist and Rossi, the drivers having finished 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th in last year’s running of the event. Stefan Wilson is replacing Sage Karam in the Dreyer & Reinbold Racing/Cusick Motorsports #24 Entry, much to the surprise of Karam, whilst Ed Carpenter will be competing for his own team. Rahal Letterman Lanigan also surprisingly announced Katherine Legge as their 4th entry for the event, as the Briton will be competing in IndyCar for the first time in 10 years. Although the line-ups are not yet completed, it is understood that bumping will return to the event.
On the topic of the Indianapolis 500, one of the major stories from the off-season was the removal of double points from the event, which had previously had huge championship implications in recent years, such as last year, when Marcus Ericsson was elevated into championship contention through his victory, while misfortune for Scott Dixon, as well as bad events for all three Penske’s, dented their championship hopes.
However, this rule change may bring several more drivers into play for the championship. Will Power, the defending champion, who opted to stick with his #12, will once again be a favourite for the title in 2023, as he proved why consistency matters so much in IndyCar. Power only found himself on the top step of the podium on a singular occasion in 2023, but his nine podium finishes gave him all he needed to become champion for the first time in 8 years.
Without doubt, Penske teammate Josef Newgarden will also be in contention in 2023. Newgarden won five races last year, two more than anyone else, and has finished runner-up for three seasons in a row. He is the best short-track oval driver on the grid, by far, and was also formidable on road courses last season. Newgarden won the $1,000,000 People Ready Force for Good challenge last season, winning on an oval, street and road course, something you wouldn’t bet against him doing again in 2023, knowing the might that is Josef Newgarden. Consistency really let Newgarden down last year, particularly in the opening rounds, and he will be aiming to work on that to be crowned Champion for a third time.
And Penske will have a trio of contenders for the championship, as the breakout star of 2022, Scott McLaughlin, will no doubt be challenging at the front again. McLaughlin won the event in St. Petersburg last season, much to the surprise of the paddock, and backed it up with further victories in Mid-Ohio and Portland, in addition to three more podiums. McLaughlin stunned everyone with how competitive he was in 2022, and was a championship contender, right until the very last round. McLaughlin’s consistency let him down, particularly his crash in the Indianapolis 500, but he will be contending once again in 2023.
You can never discount his fellow Kiwi either, Scott Dixon, who is looking to become the most successful IndyCar driver of all-time, by winning a seventh title. Dixon found himself consistently in the top 10 last season, picking up victories in Toronto and Nashville, and would have likely seen himself champion had he not sped by 1mph in the Indianapolis pitlane. Dixon is always formidable, and it will be a shock not to see him at the front of the field again, and although age is against the Kiwi, Power proved last year that age is just a number, as he looks to break even more IndyCar records.
His teammate at Chip Ganassi Racing, Alex Palou, looks set to have a last hurrah with the team in 2023, as a move to Arrow McLaren looks poised for 2024. Palou was particularly consistent last year, however could not pick up big results as regularly as hoped, with a sole win at Laguna Seca last season. However, Palou’s consistency is his big player, particularly for a driver of his age, as he looks to round off his Chip Ganassi Racing career in style, to try and add to his 2021 crown.
The Youth Movement, including Palou, were one of the disappointments of the season, but Palou, alongside the likes of Pato O'Ward, will be looking to bring the youth back to the forefront of IndyCar. O’Ward suffered bouts of bad luck last season, including disappointments at Indianapolis (thrice), Road America and Mid-Ohio. However, he certainly has the pace, and continues to improve at his key weaknesses in tyre management. O’Ward has never been particularly strong on street courses, something he will be attempting to resolve in 2023, but with the backing of the experienced Alexander Rossi, as well as a quickly expanding Arrow McLaren team, O’Ward has more resources at his disposal to fight for a championship again, like he did in 2021.
Another driver who had a disappointing 2022, and will be looking to bounce back, is Colton Herta, who slumped to a lowly tenth in the standings. Herta has always been IndyCar’s young prodigy, as well as Andretti Autosport’s Golden Boy. Herta was very close to a Formula One drive with AlphaTauri in the off-season, only prevented by FIA Super License eligibility. With the departure of Rossi at Andretti, Herta will now have to play the team leader role, guiding drivers like Kirkwood and Devlin deFrancesco. Although Herta struggled last season, he showed flashes of pace, as shown by his epic victory in Indianapolis, and was leading on the road course again in Autumn, until car issues put that charge to a halt. Herta finished 3rd in 2020 and 5th in 2021, so there certainly is evidence of him being able to string a season together. If Herta can develop consistency, something that has always lacked him, there is no doubt he will be at the forefront of IndyCar.
Being IndyCar, you can never discount some drivers from the mix. Marcus Ericsson was a championship contender last year, and will be looking to replicate that form, however you could throw other names into the mix such as Romain Grosjean, Alexander Rossi, Felix Rosenqvist, and Rinus VeeKay to be fighting at the front in the 2023 season.
Although the title battle will be the one that attracts the most attention, the Rookie of the Year battle will also be one of interest. Although this year is not as strong as the rookie class of 2022 (David Malukas, Kyle Kirkwood, Callum Ilott, and Christian Lundgaard), there may still be an excellent battle for that crown, between two drivers, Sting Ray Robb and Marcus Armstrong. Although Canapino and Pedersen are in the fight, factors surrounding them can discount them from the crown. Pedersen’s machinery, as well as uninteresting motorsport history means that he will unlikely be challenging on that aspect, with Canapino’s inexperience of the American stage and lack of single-seater racing likely to put him out of the equation.
Armstrong will be backed by many naturally, racing for Chip Ganassi Racing, who will towards the front of the field in 2023. However, Armstrong has no previous racing experience in America, which will hamper him, particularly in the opening few rounds. Additionally, Armstrong will not be racing on ovals, meaning he loses out on the opportunity to score in 5 races. Although he will have the machinery to make up that deficit on road and street courses, Armstrong will have a tough job to gain the Rookie of the Year award.
The other likely protagonist in that battle will be Dale Coyne Racing’s Sting Ray Robb. Unlike Armstrong, Robb has much more experience in America, having raced in the States his entire career, and racing on the IndyCar schedule throughout his career on the Road to Indy System. Robb will be competing in all 17 races, and simply has to be within the top 20 on all oval races, which will give him an automatic 50 point advantage over Armstrong, a points deficit which is by no means easy to make up.
Calendar wise, there are very few changes heading into the 2023 season. As previously known, the Detroit Belle Isle Street Circuit will be replaced by a new downtown Street Circuit, which will be Round seven on June 4th. However, the rest of the calendar will be familiar, with five Ovals, five street courses, and seven road courses making up the schedule.
Now, let us shift our attention to the first race of the season, in St. Petersburg, which will, as tradition, kick off the season. Of the 27 drivers in the 2022 grid, 6 of them have won an IndyCar race at St. Petersburg. Graham Rahal, Colton Herta, and last year’s winner, Scott McLaughlin have all won an event each, in 2008, 2021 and 2022 respectively. Team Penske’s Will Power and Josef Newgarden have two victories each with Power claiming victories in 2010 and 2014, while Newgarden claimed his in 2019 and 2020.
St. Petersburg is a notoriously slow race, with all previous races averaging less than 97mph. However, the circuit is one of the trickiest, but coolest of the season. Drivers will begin their lap on the Albert Whitted Airport runway, before taking the right-hander at Turn 1, a corner which is extremely wide on entry, allowing drivers to go side-by-side, before narrowing into the left at Turn 2. Turn 3 is a quick right hander, which can easily cause errors, just ask David Malukas, before the run down 1st Street into Turn 4.
The next section of the lap gets tight and twisty, with the narrowing right-hander at 4, further narrowing into the entry at 5, and the quick chicane at turns 6 and 7, before 2 consecutive 90 degree corners at 8 and 9. The run to turn 11 features a quick left kink, turn 10, down Bay Shore Drive, before the Left hand turn at 11 brings drivers into Dan Wheldon drive, followed by a flat chicane at 12 and 13, before the long right-hander at 14 brings them back onto the runway.
St. Petersburg takes place in the Florida heat, and is particularly tough on the drivers, being the opening race of the season. Romain Grosjean described the event as tougher than Singapore, the toughest race F1 drivers face yearly. Temperatures can reach up to 40 Degrees Celsius, which is only made harder in the cockpit, as drivers have to endure 100 laps around the narrow street circuit, which generally tends to induce mistakes, especially toward the end of the race. This makes off-season preparation even harder, as drivers need to prepare themselves for the ultimate challenge that is St. Petersburg.
Watch out for Will Power on the Saturday, as the Australian has picked up an incredible eight pole positions on the St Pete’s Streets, and the fastest man in IndyCar history will be looking to add to that list on Saturday. However, the last two seasons have seen the pole man emerge victorious on Sunday, and with St. Petersburg not being the easiest overtake, the driver on pole could be in good stead, and potentially extend that streak.
But whom to watch out for in St. Petersburg? Will Power, as mentioned, has dominated qualifying at the event, and with how consistent Power was last year, as well as the might of Penske, he will certainly be challenging for victory. His teammate McLaughlin stunned everyone by his performance at St. Petersburg last year, and with his excellent form at the tail-end of last season at the forefront, there is absolutely no reason McLaughlin can’t replicate that again. As always, the other Penske driver, Josef Newgarden is one you need to keep an eye on. Newgarden has won on the streets twice, and although it’s not considered one of his stronger tracks, being Josef Newgarden, he will be within contention. Colton Herta has always starred on street courses, and he dominated here in 2021, leading almost the entire race, and although he struggled last season, let’s see if he can start 2022 on the right step.
There are other key drivers to keep an eye on in St. Petersburg. Will Pato O’Ward’s street course form finally pick up at an event he has struggled with in the past? Will Scott Dixon finally win in St. Petersburg? How will Kyle Kirkwood and Alexander Rossi get on in their first races in their new teams? How will the rookies perform, in particular, Canapino, in their first IndyCar race? These are some of the key questions heading into the event.
With so much to talk about and so many questions as we head into 2023, the Streets of St. Petersburg is possibly the best place to kick off what looks to be a thrilling season of IndyCar racing ahead.