(Photo Credit: @TB_Times)
In an event where survival meant more then on-track speed, your 2022 Indianapolis 500 winner Marcus Ericsson held on to win the season opening event; the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. For all the hype, and all the excitement that this weekend provides from the hopes of every driver to start out the year strong and to get a jump on favorites from around the INDYCAR fan base, this race certainly looked at the beginning to be a demolition derby in South Florida to probably an all-time classic when we look back in twenty-five years if the event is still around.
Starting first with that lap one incident coming out of turn three. For the entire weekend, turn three was one of the big issues of the weekend. In the past, a driver could run full throttle through three on there way down to turn four. This year, it seamed like a driver had to lift off the throttle just a little bit as the area was obviously repaved and there was a serious transition for the old unpaved asphalt to the new asphalt that made up 1st St South (Turn Three). The accident was triggered by Felix Rosenqvist being caught in the bottleneck that is turn two. Rosenqvist slowed and eventually made the field check up coming out of three at that time Santino Ferriccui made contact with Heilo Castroneves and blocked the track for incoming cars which sent Delvin Defrancheso flying from contact from Benjamin Peterson. All drivers thankfully walked away.
After a near twenty minute red flag delay, the race restarted again and your P1 Pole Award winner Romain Grosjean took a commanding 7.2 second lead by lap twenty-five over his Andretti teammate, Colton Herta. Further back, young Callum Ilott was up from 22nd to 14th as he was the biggest mover of the race so far. Coming to close lap 25, Pato O'Ward caught and passed Herta as the Andretti driver was struggling with failing tires towards the end of the first stint. He unfortunately fell all the way to 6th by lap 28 as he made his way in for his first pit stop of the day. For Grosjean, who took primaries to start the event held on to the end of lap 31 without issue. Pitting at lap 31 gave the lead to Scott McLaughlin who then pitted on lap 36 for fresh Firestone alternates. McLaughlin pitted out in front of Grosjean who held off a passing attempt heading into turn four which saw some contact but McLaughlin was able to hold the lead. On the same lap, Kyle Kirkwood got into Conor Daly in turn nine and brought out the second caution of the day.
The race restarted on lap 41 but the field didn't even make it to turn nine as Daly went wide in turn four and into the tire barrier. Jack Harvey made contact from behind which sent the INDYCAR rookie Kirkwood into Harvey and was launched over his car. All drivers walked away but Harvey was sent to a local hospital for further evaluation and as of writing, he has been checked and released.
The lap 50 restart saw Scott Dixon dive to the inside of Ericsson, but when Power tried to make that pass, Ericsson closed the door quickly and bumped him wider than he wanted to be. It allowed Hetra to get close and Dixon and him made contact and sent Herta into the Turn 8 wall which brought out the fifth caution of the day.
Lap 55 saw another restart as McLaughlin was your leader followed by Grosjean and O'Ward. Even though Grosjean had the disadvantage to McLaughlin by being on primary tires, he was able to keep up with McLaughlin and the pair pulled away to a three second lead over O'Ward.
As O'Ward made his final stop of the day on lap 69, the battle was up front between McLaughlin and Grosjean as the latter pulled down for a fresh new set of primary tires to go to the end of the race. McLaughlin was held up by a lap car and made his last stop of the day. On the next lap, McLaughin was able to beat Grosjean and the pair went side-by-side down into turn four. The pair made contact and both drivers fighting all day for the win went into the wall. For Grosjean, the incident ended his day and McLaughin went on to finish 13th, one lap down.
With twenty-two laps to go, the race restarted for the final time as the battle for the win was now down to Pato O'Ward and Marcus Ericcson. For O'Ward, he the pulled out to a 2.7 second lead over Ericsson, by lap 88 the lead shrunk to 1.1 seconds off. For Josef Newgarden, who was running inside the top ten all day had a fire coming from the left-rear of his car, but still all eyes were at the front as O'Ward seemed off the pace and coming off the final turn on lap 96, Ericcson was able to make the pass for the lead and went on to a 2.4 second lead as he took his fourth win of his career and third on a road/street course. For O'Ward, the issue he had was with his Chevrolet power unit which cause the engine to "burp" which is why O'Ward was not able to hold on.
Well another fantastic race at St. Petersburg is in the books and in recent years this race has not disappointed me or anyone else in the fanbase. For Marcus Ericsson, I am now officially on the bandwagon. Not to under estimate the type of driver he is, I know he has talent. But to some people who had him as the championship favorite going into 2023, I can certainly buy into that idea somewhat. I believe he would just need to stay consistent for that to happen.
As it was a good day for Chip Ganassi Racing, it was a devastating day for Andretti Autosport as only Kyle Kirkwood finished the event while everyone else did not make it past lap 71. For all the noise they were making in practice and qualifying to see the bad luck that every driver had to deal with for 180 miles was probably the most demoralizing thing I have seen in INDYCAR in quite a while. Hurts even more when we have to wait almost a month to see cars back on track again.
In my race preview, I did say that there is always a driver that seems to surprise us in the opening race of the year. In my opinion, I though it was going to be Kyle Kirkwood. It turned out to be Callum Ilott for Juncos Hollinger Racing. No longer are the days of that team being a back marker in any INDYCAR field. The amount of engineers and technicians they brought in during the off season certainly puts them in the midfield contention. I would not be surprised if we see more top five runs or fighting for wins by seasons end.
Also mentioned in the race preview was how that this event seems to be the catalyst for a championship winning season to come up short. Last year it turned out to be Josef Newgarden. This year you can point to him again. Along with Colton Herta. To be honest, I was not surprised that Herta is in this position as his driving style has put him into either a boom or bust outcome each race has has competed in.
For the NTT INDYCAR Series, the next race will be the first oval race of the season as we head to Texas Motor Speedway for the PPG 375. The race will be on April 1st at Noon EST on your local NBC station, Peacock, and INDYCAR Radio.