(Photo Credit: @INDYCAR)
After what always feels like an eternity that is the time between the final lap at Laguna Seca to the time teams set up the paddock for the first weekend, another amazing season of the NTT INDYCAR Series is upon us as we get ready for another season opening weekend at St. Petersburg, Florida. Coming off what seemed to be a very tame off season, the series has a lot of new faces in new places. Two drivers that are primed for there very first championship at season's end. Sunday begins the seven month long journey before we will see who holds the Astor Cup in 2023. Below is everything you need to know for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg
- Sting Ray Robb replaces Takuma Sato in the No. 51 Honda at Dale Conye Racing in 2023. Last year, Robb finished second in the INDYCAR NXT championship standings and won the final race of the year at Laguna Seca. For DCR, the team now has the youngest stable of drivers in the INDYCAR paddock.
- Marcus Armstrong replaces Seven-Time NASCAR Cup Series Champion Jimmie Johnson in the revamped No. 11 Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing. Although Armstrong is not a full-time driver in the No. 11. Armstrong is another touted rookie in the NTT INDYCAR Series as one of the best rookie drivers the series has seen in a long time. Armstrong finished 13th in the 2022 Formula 2 standings but picked up three wins in 2022.
- Over the offseason, Juncos Hollinger Racing expanded to a two-car team in 2023 bringing in Agustin Canapino for a full time ride. A touring car champion in Argentina, Canapino has a venerated road racing career but it will be his first time in an open-wheel car.
- Benjamin Peterson finished fifth in the 2022 INDYCAR NXT standings. Driving for A.J. Foyt Racing, he will replace the departing Dalton Kellett.
- 2021 INDYCAR NXT Champion Kyle Kirkwood replaces the seat left by Alexander Rossi leaving Andretti Autosport.
- 2016 Indianapolis 500 winner Alexander Rossi has moved to Arrow McLaren SP to run a third full-time team.
- Santino Ferrucci will replace the departing Kyle Kirkwood in the No. 14 Chevrolet for A.J. Foyt Racing.
While there has been racing in St. Petersburg, Florida since 1985, the series had been racing on the current layout of the Grand Prix course since 2003, back before the CART/IndyCar merger in 2008. The first win was taken by Forsythe Racing and Paul Tracy. After a hiatus in 2004, the series returned in 2005, and the event was won by Dan Wheldon. Scott McLaughlin won in 2022. There are four other active drivers who have won in South Florida, joining the Kiwi are Josef Newgarden, Colton Herta, Will Power, and Helio Castroneves,
The Streets of St. Petersburg is a 1.8 mile, 14 turn street course that has 5 right turns and 9 left-hand turns that incorporates some downtown roads of St. Petersburg and a runway of the nearby Albert Whitted Airfield. That section of the runway is the widest part of the racetrack that also holds the pits and paddock area for teams to use. This track has three main passing opportunities. A heavy braking zone into turn one, where a driver can start a pass and complete it as they exit the turns one and two right-left switchbacks. Coming out of two, there is a kink that is listed as turn three, but the next main opportunity to pass is the heavy braking zone of turn four, a sharp 90-degree right-hand corner which leads into the more technical and tight turns five through nine. Coming out of turn nine leads you on to the longest section of the course, which leads to the third hard-braking zone of turn ten. After that, the course leads on to Dan Wheldon Way (Turns 11,12, and 13), which leads into a carousel of turns thirteen and fourteen, which completes a lap at St. Petersburg.
Scott McLaughlin led the field to green for the 2022 Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Under the initial start, Will Power fell beck to third before turn one as Colton Herta took the outside through turn one, although McLaughlin was able to clear him exiting turn two and was able to take a commanding lead. Although, McLaughlin lost the lead due to pit cycles, he was able to hold off the defending series champion of Alex Palou in order to pick up his first win in his young INDYCAR career.
Every time the series has an opening race the past few years, it always seems like the championship can be decided even though there is such a long season ahead of us. You can point back to last year as Josef Newgarden had finished second in championship standings in 2022 but you can look back for the past two years as poor results in the opening rounds were certainly a factor in Newgarden coming up short in the championship hunt. I can predict that this trend is going to continue in this year's race as well as one of the championship favorites will struggle and be unable to rebound by the end of the year. It is also a race that produces a head turning performance for one driver. In the past two years, this race has elevated Colton Herta and Scott McLaughlin into favorites every single week since those races. With a rookie like Marcus Armstrong and second-year drivers like David Malukas and Kyle Kirkwood poised for breakout performances, it could be a very exciting weekend. For the winner of the 2023 Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, I am choosing Scott McLaughlin to go back-to-back.
You can watch the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on Sunday, March 5th at Noon EST on your local NBC station.