O’Ward looking to get sour taste from last year’s St. Pete race out of his mouth this weekend

We’re at the dawn of a new season in the NTT IndyCar Series. This weekend boasts the annual Firestone Grand Prix of St. Pete (12 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network) as the first time since 2003 that the North American open wheel series begins their upcoming year in February.

That’s good for one driver as he’s been waiting long enough to get a sour taste out of his mouth from last year’s race.

See, Pato O’Ward was a disappointing 19th in last year’s race. That event was moved from March to the end of April due to COVID precaution measures. In that event, Colton Herta led 97 of 100 laps to earn his first career victory on the streets of St. Pete. Josef Newgarden was second.

Now, with a new season on the horizon, O’Ward is hoping for a better start.

“It’s been a long offseason but the entire Arrow McLaren SP team has put in so much work to be ready for the first race of the season,” he said. “I left St. Petersburg last year with a bit of a sour taste in my mouth, but I’ve always really enjoyed racing there so I’m looking forward to turning it around. I’m excited to see where we are and make the first race one to remember.”

O’Ward also left the 2021 season with a bad taste in his mouth too. He had a mathematical shot at a title but was wiped out early in the finale at Long Beach by being punted by Ed Jones. Now, after entering the final stretch with a shot at a championship for two straight years, he’s ready to be the one everyone is chasing.

It starts with a good result on Sunday.

See, you need consistency in the podiums to win a championship in this series. You have to turn top 10’s into top fives and when you can, turn top fives into podiums. How do you do that in a day and age of parity being so high?

No one won more than three races all last season. O’Ward and Newgarden each won twice. Scott Dixon won once. The wins are fairly even. It’s the stats behind to where championships are now won.

In terms of top fives, champion Alex Palou had 10, O’Ward and Dixon each had nine. Newgarden eight For top 10’s, it was 13 for Newgarden, 12 for the Ganassi trio and 11 for O’Ward.

All pretty even.

But, look at the podiums.

Newgarden had six. Dixon and O’Ward each had five. Ericsson had three. Palou had eight.

See the difference? That’s what separated these five.

Can they close the gap is what they’re after. That’s why they’ve spent so much time this offseason in trying to find their shortfalls and not only finding them, it’s improving on them too.

“I am looking forward to getting back to racing after a long off-season. We’ve had a very aggressive R&D, development, and offseason program,” said team president, Taylor Kiel.” I’m excited to move past that and get to the racetrack and actually see the results of all the hard work that everyone has put in this year. It’s a culmination of all the efforts and everything that’s gone into the off-season. St. Pete is here and it gives us another opportunity to compete for race wins and championships, so I am excited to get going.”

Felix Rosenqvist hopes that helps too. He had an abysmal, 21st place finish in points a year ago. In fact, his season started off terrible with a best finish of 12th in his opening eight starts to the year. In fact, he even missed two races due to an injury suffered in the opening Belle Isle race.

But, once we got to the summer break and he and O’Ward were able to test some, they figured out where they were missing in some areas. Rosenqvist came out of it with a vastly better final six races.

Now, with an entire offseason to regroup and revamp some things, he hopes it pays off with a better start to 2022.

“The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is the first race of the year and one of my absolute favorite tracks and cities that we go to,” he said. “It is a really special event every year. St. Petersburg has everything that you want and it’s a perfect way to start off the year. I’ve had very good races here but last year wasn’t the strongest result for us. I think we’re really motivated to come back stronger this year and start off the season in a good way. That way, we can travel to the next race with some points in the bag.”

Rosenqvist, was strong in St. Pete in his rookie year. He qualified fourth and finished third in his debut as well as leading 31 laps too. Now, can he start off 2022 with how the end of 2021 went?

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