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Winners and losers: IndyCar Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

Written by Archie O’Reilly and Dan Jones

The first weekend of the NTT IndyCar Series season, on the streets of St. Petersburg in Florida, has been and gone. But which drivers come out of the race as winners and who will be looking for improvement next time out?

Winner: Josef Newgarden (and Penske)

By winning his first street course race since the third round of the 2022 season in Long Beach, Josef Newgarden has reached 10 successive seasons with race victories. And it was achieved in dominant fashion, with the Team Penske driver ousting Arrow McLaren’s Pato O’Ward by over eight seconds as Team Chevy completed the race’s top four finishers.

After taking only one road or street course victory in 2023 - Scott McLaughlin at Barber Motorsports Park - Penske were desperate for improvement away from ovals. And off-season improvements have proved an emphatic success at the first hurdle, with Newgarden sweeping the weekend by taking pole and leading 92 of 100 laps.

For the brief moment that he was not in the net lead of the race, Newgarden seized the initiative and forced his way straight back to the front of the field. And when at the head of the pack, the American driver was the class of the field. Couple this ominous start to the season with his imperious oval form in 2023 and Newgarden could be hard to stop.

After finishing fifth in the championship last year, Newgarden has gone through an off-season of refocusing and looks extremely motivated. He is evidently in a very strong headspace, not placing immense pressure on himself and enjoying plying his trade once again, rather than seeing it almost as a chore.

The level of control Newgarden had in St. Pete was reminiscent of the dominance displayed by eventual champion Alex Palou in a number of races in 2023. And with Penske also seeing McLaughlin finish third, after an excellent drive from ninth, and Will Power fourth, they look like a well-rounded and revitalised force to be reckoned with in 2023.


Winner: Felix Rosenqvist

A step away from Arrow McLaren seemed like the breath of fresh air that Felix Rosenqvist needed at this point in his IndyCar career, moving into a leadership role at Meyer Shank Racing, in operation that can mould themselves around him, rather than being the follower he was alongside Pato O’Ward and Alexander Rossi.

St. Petersburg showed that effect immediately, Rosenqvist topping the times in the first practice sessions, with that form continuing into qualifying, the Swede taking the lap record on the Florida Streets in the Fast 12 with a 59.2706-second lap, before he placed his Meyer Shank machine on the front row, just 0.006s off Newgarden’s pole.

And he seemed the only man who was able to challenge Newgarden on any occasion, as they did battle after Rosenqvist jumped the eventual race winner in the pits. The pace wouldn’t be able to be fully sustained, coming home in seventh place, in what was Meyer Shank’s best finish since Simon Pagenaud took home seventh on the Streets of Toronto in 2022.

Of the ‘new faces in new places’, Rosenqvist was the one that stood clear of the rest, an impressive debut outing, on a circuit that he himself hasn’t stood out at in recent years. Rosenqvist’s new environment and role gives him the opportunity to thrive, which he certainly did in St. Petersburg and built the foundations for a strong year ahead.


Winner: Kyffin Simpson

Many wrote Kyffin Simpson off before he even got in an Indy car. He admittedly did not have the greatest success in Indy NXT, making the jump to IndyCar without a race win and having only achieved two podium finishes. But, at only 19 years old, he has already won a sportscar championship in the European Le Mans Series. He is not without pedigree.

Still, expectations were not particularly high heading into his IndyCar race debut and making the step straight up to Chip Ganassi Racing is a big leap. Simpson justifiably sees it as a learning year despite having competitive machinery at his disposal. But, at the same time, he will want to prove he is not just in IndyCar because of the funding behind him.

He finished ninth-place in the combined two-day results at the recent full-field test on the Sebring International Raceway short course, notching a faster time than teammates Marcus Armstrong and Linus Lundqvist during his running on the second day. This was initial proof that he would not be off the pace, as some seemed to expect.

Simpson’s start at St. Pete was somewhat slow as he got up to speed on a street course through practice. He started 23rd but, from there, really delivered an impressive race of constant progress.

He was in the thick of some mid-pack battles but kept it measured and clean where others were making errors. He picked up the pieces of others’ mess and raced his way to a laudable 14th-place debut finish. Many thought he would be the worst-performing rookie initially but he wound up best-placed in the season-opening race instead.

Not only was Simpson competitive, but he delivered a strong result to boot.


Winner: The new breed of fans

There’s no hiding away from the fact that IndyCar’s season opener wasn’t exactly a classic. A fuel-saving race is never going to provide flat-out action, but in a weekend where Penske Entertainment Corporation (PEC) came under fire from numerous team bosses, one sign, noted by many, will come as an encouragement to the series.

In his post-race press conference, when asked about PEC’s tough weekend, Newgarden said: “The crowd was amazing. I’ve seen more people here that I’ve never seen at an IndyCar race. I saw more specific current IndyCar team jerseys. I saw more kids. I saw people referencing TV shows. I saw people that were just fans of all sorts of drivers or all sorts of manufacturers.”

And that’s exactly the news the series needs. For a demographic where just nine percent of viewers are 34 or under, and 70 percent are over 55, the increasing age split is something that the series must address. But Newgarden’s comments are something that PEC and IndyCar can take for granted. 

It was noted there was Formula One merchandise seen regularly, and in a series which is struggling for unpredictability and entertainment, even in one of IndyCar’s more dull races, it still provides a spectacle superior to the one that Formula One can offer. It’s exactly the sort of marketing the series need to deploy for their own personal growth.

The series needs younger fans longer-term, they need to take risks, but the vibrant atmosphere and diverse crowd in St. Petersburg is a vital stepping stone. With attendance high, something many races have been struggling with, it’s vital numbers for the series, which hopefully will be here to stay in 2024.


Winner: Rinus VeeKay

Ed Carpenter Racing (ECR) had a very rocky 2023 season - such that, seven races in, Conor Daly was replaced by veteran Ryan Hunter-Reay in the No.20 car. And Rinus VeeKay was not having the best time of things in the sister No.21 car, aside from his now-trademark impressive Indianapolis 500 level and a late-season upturn of sorts.

Teaming up with a former champion in Hunter-Reay was beneficial to VeeKay, allowing him to gain a greater gauge of things such as how he should be preparing for races and his analysis too. The young Dutchman salvaged 14th in the championship - not a bad return in a year that was, by their own admission, so rocky on the team’s side.

It was important, after an off-season of searching for improvement, that ECR came out of the blocks quickly in 2024. Across the year, the onus is also on VeeKay to lead the team forward alongside rookie teammate, reigning Indy NXT champion Christian Rasmussen. Now in his fifth year despite only being 23 years old, he is targeting a podium return after his first year without one in 2023.

And, as soon as the track was hit on Friday for the opening track action of the IndyCar season, VeeKay was on the pace. He finished fifth and sixth in practice, qualifying one place back in a still-impressive seventh-place. All race long, he ran inside the top 10 - a marked improvement on often being somewhat anonymous in the mid-pack in 2023.

He showed intent with a decisive move on Scott Dixon and a further duel with Will Power. And while he lost out a little late on, a 10th-place finish was a much stronger start than 21st last year. He looks out to prove why he has previously been sought after by some of IndyCar’s best.


Loser: Andretti Global

You can only feel that Andretti Global might be slightly disappointed after the conclusion of St. Petersburg, one car within the top ten, one unable to make the flag, and the other one suffering a frustratingly underwhelming weekend, in an event that could have really shown a lot more promise.

The much-spoken about downsize for 2024 was first in effect in St. Petersburg, with all the team’s resources focused on three cars as opposed to the four they ran in 2023. And the weekend had started off encouragingly, with Herta topping the charts in Practice Two, with Ericsson and Kirkwood also on the pace.

Both Herta and Ericsson would make it into the Fast Six, Kirkwood disappointingly not advancing from his group, having to start 18th. Herta looked stronger in the race, momentarily taking the lead in the pits, before having to hand his place back to Felix Rosenqvist, but didn’t have the pace that was required, finishing fifth, with Kirkwood recovering to 12th, while Ericsson had to retire midway through with a mechanical issue.

After the strength shown on street courses last year, including Kirkwood’s two wins, you can only feel a bit disappointed and Andretti’s initial showings, particularly after you consider how strong they were at this event last season, before they all found numerous ways to crash themselves out.

Many have been optimistic about the downsize, and it’s too early to make an informed judgement on its success. But on a weekend where much initial promise was shown, and their previous track record at street circuits, you can only feel that there was more from Andretti to take from the weekend.


Loser: Marcus Armstrong

Marcus Armstrong could easily have come away from this weekend as one of our winners. But given how a race weekend of so much potential came to a crushing end to bring out the race’s first caution - unclear whether completely his mistake or with some sort of contributing brake issue - he comes away from the weekend feeling a little bruised instead.

Chip Ganassi Racing had a slow start to the weekend, struggling through practice and failing to match their 2023 qualifying form. But throughout the opening weekend of 2024, heading into the race, Armstrong was the leader of the Ganassi cars. He is still yet to make a Fast Six appearance, but qualifying by 10th, he was one place ahead of Scott Dixon and the lead Ganassi car.

Armstrong had a measured rookie year, impressively taking Rookie of the Year despite a road and street course-only programme. St. Pete marked only the second time Armstrong has returned to a track after the second Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course race last year. And, on both occasions, Armstrong has beaten all of his teammates.

Until his incident on Lap 25, Armstrong maintained his position as the lead Ganassi in the race too. But his day ended prematurely when he went deep into the tricky Turn 10, despite not really pushing at that point. A number of cars, including Dixon, had issues on the brakes into Turn 10. But Armstrong could not save himself from swiping the tyre barrier and hitting the wall.

It was ultimately a ‘what could have been’ weekend for Armstrong. He described the incident as a “costly mistake” but, given he was fuel saving at the time, some sort of brake issue cannot necessarily be ruled out. 

Converting one of his team-topping qualifying results into a strong race result has to be the next step for Armstrong. If the signs shown early in the weekend persist, he won’t be a ‘loser’ for long.


Loser: New faces in new places

The multitude of driver transfers in the off-season saw a whole host of ‘new faces in new places’, but bar the aforementioned Rosenqvist, it wasn’t a great start to life at new teams for those who changed during the off-season.

And maybe Romain Grosjean is the most frustrating of those, who looked comfortable straight away in his new Juncos Hollinger Racing machinery, qualifying a mighty fifth - the team’s best qualifying performance since Laguna Seca in 2022. But a clumsy move on Linus Lundqvist midway through was frustrating and unnecessary, giving the ex-F1 driver a drive-through and derailing his race from there. 

Marcus Ericsson similarly had an encouraging start, qualifying in the Fast Six, before similarly to Grosjean, who previously occupied the seat that Ericsson now finds himself in, he parked it during the race with mechanical difficulties. Ericsson wasn’t quite as emphatic in the race as he was in qualifying anyway, but would be disappointed with how St. Petersburg unfolded.

David Malukas remains injured after a mountain biking accident, with the only other ‘new face in a new [lace’ being Sting Ray Robb, Malukas’ ex-teammate, who also suffered an early finish to his Sunday with a brake failure after third distance. It’s an unfortunate end to Robb’s weekend, who stated his AJ Foyt machine was the ‘best Indy car he had ever driven’. Similar to Grosjean and Ericsson, it’s encouraging early signs, but Robb would have wanted more.

In all cases, early promise has been shown but the substance is not there. They will be thankful that it’s only Round One of 17, and they have the remaining rounds to show their value to their new teams and try and emulate the performance shown from the likes of Rosenqvist for the ‘new faces in new places’.



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