ST. PETERSBURG, Fla — The opening race weekend for not only the Road to Indy program but also the NTT INDYCAR Series from the streets of St. Pete are now in the books. The crowds were large and the action fierce. Here are the top takeaways from the weekend that was.
- Record Pace – Last year’s pole speed was 1:00.3210-seconds. The record was 1:00.0476-seconds set back in 2018. Without much change between last year’s car and this, plus the Aeroscreen still having that added additional weight, no one really expected the record to be seriously threatened this weekend.
But, it was.
In order to get out of the first round of qualifying, you had to eclipse the 1-minute barrier meaning all 12 cars had to best the four year old record.
Colton Herta broke it first going 59.4662-seconds in the first group of the first round. Will Power broke it next at 59.3929-seconds in the second group. Power, then broke it again in Q2 at 59.3466-seconds. That lap held off even during the Firestone Fast Six.
“No, I was surprised actually,” Power said of the record pace this weekend. “I didn’t even know what they did last year, and when they said that was the lap record, I was like, oh, okay. Yeah, I didn’t know that. That shows how far these cars and engines have come. They’re pretty fast.”
- Practice Changes? One problem that’s creeping up lately is that cars slow on track during practice in search for a clean lap. I get it. I truly do too. There’s no real gain by trying to do a qualifying practice and having cars in traffic. It gives us false data.
However, on a track of just 1.8-miles and 26 cars looking for real estate, what you saw between Grosjean and Sato is more common than you think. The only real reason for this incident was a traffic jam in Turn 10. Several cars were slow in that corner, all looking to let the car ahead of them get a clear gap.
But, when other cars at wanting to go at speed, you get contact.
“Well, there was just no flags on the track, and I think we should have flags when these cars are that slow to corner,” Grosjean said. “Yeah, that’s all. I just think if I had known there were like four cars — because you cannot see. I know there was one on the left, one on the right. That’s all I knew. I didn’t know there were some in front.
“If there’s only one, the guy should accelerate. Obviously there were more, but I think just a white flag to tell us that, and I just think you shouldn’t be driving that slow on the racing line, that’s all.”
What can INDYCAR do? Do you cut the session in half between two groups? Do you make everyone go all out any time they’re on track?
“Sorry, but I think that the alternate start-finish line, I probably don’t agree with it,” Scott McLaughlin said. “I think it should just be the start-finish line. I said that before; it happened at Portland a couple times, and I caught Grosjean — Romain in a peculiar spot. I feel like coming around a blind corner, everyone is trying to get a lap started. That’s the only point we can really start our lap to get a good run. It does choke up there and it’s just — you don’t see. Unless we get a flag, you don’t see.
“I’m probably a big fan of probably moving the line depending on what track we go to. That’s just my personal opinion.”
Will Power says though that there’s not much more that needs to be done. It’s up to the drivers and teams to get this sorted out.
“I mean, we’re splitting the field, so everyone should be able to get a clean lap,” he said. “It’s up to the guys to sort it out. You know when you’re leaving the pits in a line of cars that you’re going to have to give the guy a gap. I just think it’s ridiculous when some of these guys go out and try to pass the line of cars that are all trying to get their gap to start the lap.
“Practice you’ve got the whole field, so you’ve got to try to sort it out. Sometimes it’s a bit rough, but that’s just the way it is. We don’t run on the longest tracks here. We have some short street courses, and yeah, it’s a game. Not much you can do about it. The only way you can fix that stuff is have less cars. But I don’t think anyone wants to split practice up.”
- Rivalry Brewing? – Who had Romain Grosjean vs. Takuma Sato as the first rivalry brewing inside of the NTT INDYCAR Series paddock to start the 2022 season. The thing is, here we are. Grosjean, drove Sato’s car last year but had a front row seat at his former ride in Turn 10 for Saturday morning’s practice session.
As a group of cars were slowing into Turn 10 to get a clean lap, Grosjean who was already at speed, slammed into the back of Sato at turn entry creating the second red flag of the session.
“It’s a shame,” Sato told the broadcast on Saturday morning. “Everybody is trying to make a gap. We were just slowing down, and I had to hit the brake coming through 9. Grosjean, I don’t know what he was thinking. He was reckless. I don’t know what he was thinking. He could clearly see the cars in front.”
Grosjean, wasn’t happy about the incident either. He wasn’t mad at Sato. That’s part of the nature of this business he says. In fact, the two spoke after the crash where Grosjean says that they, “agreed to disagree, so that’s fine,” he said.
- Breakout season for McLaughlin – We knew that 2022 was likely to be improved from 2021 for McLaughlin but did we expect a win so quick? McLaughlin, wanted a second shot to see these NTT INDYCAR Series tracks. See, last year was the first time that he had even seen all but one of these circuits on the calendar. St. Pete was actually the third time. That was his series debut in the 2020 season finale here.
“I think the way that I’ve worked with Ben Bretzman, my new engineer, I think we can really start working on what we need,” he says. “We know what we want from a street circuit car, which we just showed that it’s going to be pretty good, so I’m excited for Long Beach. I’m heading back there for the second time.
“But I’m not kidding myself; I could quite easily be 20th next round. This is what INDYCAR is all about. This is why everyone loves it, why it’s becoming the world’s most competitive motorsport series. Proud to be a part of it, but it’s all about now — I’ll celebrate this, I’ll have a few beers, don’t you worry about that, but I’ll make sure that I get back on the horse, actually back on the simulator on Wednesday and got to get ready for Texas and then get ready for what’s ahead at Long Beach and a few things. It’s going to be hard, but I’m there.”
Before we get to 2023, you have to eye 2022 and he, like Alex Palou, won the first race of their sophomore campaigns. Palou, won last year’s opener at the Barber Motorsports Park and used that to prevail to his first series championship.
“It’s a great monkey off the back and it puts us — a tremendous confidence booster as a team, but like I said, we’re not kidding ourselves,” he says of his outlook. ‘We’ve got to keep working, keep working harder because all the teams are going to come back at us strong. You look at Ganassi, they’re probably not amazing in qualifying but they were very fast in the race today and pushed me to no end and passed a few cars.
“Yeah, I’m not kidding myself. Just keep pushing on and we’ll be okay.”
The last three winners of the season opening race to the INDYCAR season have all gone on to win the title that year.
McLaughlin beat the best qualifier of this generation on Saturday. After Will Power set the track record in each of the first two rounds, McLaughlin bettered Power by just .2-seconds to earn his first career pole in the process.
His teammate, Power, wasn’t shocked at all by that lap. He said he expected this out of McLaughlin this season.
“No, it’s not surprising,” he said. “You saw it in practice last year. He just had a few issues in qualifying getting through the rounds a couple times. But the potential was there.
“He’s been at a very high level in a very competitive series for quite a few years, so he knows the game. He knows the game well. He knows the car now. You really expect him to be there every time.
“I mean, man, the experience he had in the series down there in Australia, he’s had a number of years at a very high level as. He knows how to put it together. It’s just a matter of him getting used to this car which he has now, and yeah, I’m expecting him to be a contender for the season.”
Power, is four poles shy of tying Mario Andretti for most in series history. 9 of his 63 poles have come at this very track. Instead, it was McLaughlin setting the blazing trail in the Fast Six.
On Sunday, he held off a furious charge by the defending series champion in Alex Palou to win his first race.
That’s two great drivers to hold off in a span of 24 hours.
- Big season for the Penske camp coming? –
Last year, it took Team Penske 9 races to finally break the gates down to victory lane. The thing is, out of those 9 races, they finished runner-up in 5 of them including the first four races to the season.
They’re already 1-for-1 in not only poles, but race wins now in 2022. In fact, if you count the NASCAR side where Joey Logano won the Busch Light Clash and Austin Cindric victorious in the Daytona 500, they’re having a perfect start to this new racing season.
They put 2 drivers on the podium at St. Pete on Sunday.
“Yeah, definitely. We had a bad year last year, so certainly came into this season determined but with a lot of work behind that, a lot of work and understanding,” Will Power said. “When you have a struggle, a year of struggle, you always come back and have a pretty close look at what you were missing.
“We had one of our worst seasons last year and a very disappointing Indy 500. There’s been a lot of reflection and development to try and understand what that was and definitely have turned up with better cars. There’s no question. Definitely different philosophy and right in the window, and it’s showing on the track. Like from the moment I was on track on Friday, the car was fast, and really haven’t changed much at all.
“That’s kind of what we turned up with here.”
- Another season opening podium for Power, can he turn this into a better start to 2022?
Will Power has always said that if he can start the seasons off better, then watch out. He’s consistently ended the years strong, it’s just the beginning of them that have been his Achilles heel.
Well, Power got the finish that he needed. While it wasn’t a win, a third place result was just what the doctor ordered. Well, a runner-up last year in Barber to kick off 2021 was too but bad luck got in the way again.
Power’s podium that day in Barber as his only top five in the first eight races. Furthermore, half of those eight saw him finish 13th or worse. He’d then score three podiums in a five race span after before cooling off in the final three races of that season.
Heading into this season, if you combine the first two races over the last six years (12 starts), he’s had just three top fives and five top 10’s.
To get a podium this early is saying something.
“I’m really, really happy to start out this way,” Power said. “When I think about the day, just a really, really solid day for us. Got that yellow and then made the reds last in that middle stint. To finish on the podium, I was really, really happy with that. I didn’t expect — I expected us to be maybe in the top 10 after all of that. Great result. Happy with my performance.
“I couldn’t have done any more, and also with the team, we did everything that we could in the situation that we had. Really nice day and a great start to the season.
“I think we had a really fast car. The yellow was unfortunate, but still to get back to third, I was really happy with it. I think anytime you’re on the podium, anytime you have a top 5 that’s not the day you’re going to look back and go, oh, that cost me the championship. If you can keep rattling off those top 5s you’re going to be in the game. Definitely happy with the result.”
In saying this, the first race he’s getting down. This was the 3rd podium in the last 4 years of the season opener, it’s the second race that he’s had the problem. The finishes of the second race in the past three years?
24th, 20th and 8th respectively. He was 13th and 22nd respectively in the two years prior to that.
We go to Texas next. He was 18th in 2018, 9th in 2019, 13th in 2020 and 14th and 13th respectively in the doubleheader weekend last year. That race is circled for him now in order to be a championship contender.
As to what he needs to do for this season now to turn this into a potential championship one?
“Finish really well in the double points race at Indy like we didn’t last year, and have my car start when I’m leading in Detroit,” he jokes. “That group of points right there probably would have put me in the game. So there’s a big chunk right there.
“But honestly, it’s those days that really got us. Like we were in — we were going to be a top 5 at Indy and then the brakes went to the floor and I had no brakes and then couldn’t pit really, and then in Detroit obviously the thing didn’t start.
“But those little gremlins, those little things are the things we look back as things that really cost us, kind of things out of my control, but I also reflect and look at where I can be better, as well. If that all comes together, I really believe we can win the championship and be right there, at least a contender right until the end.”
- Palou improving on street courses, has a great title defense Sunday in St. Pete –
We wondered how’d Alex Palou would bounceback from a championship season of a year ago. He said all the right things. He quickly put the Astor Cup championship away in a display case and turned his focus last Fall to a wedding of his longtime girlfriend and a title defense in 2022.
So far, that determination of greatness has led to a solid start to his third season in the sport. Palou, rebounded from being 17th in practice on Friday, to a crash on Saturday morning to 10th in qualifying a day ago.
That didn’t stop him from gaining nine spots to finish runner-up in the 2022 season opener on the streets of St. Pete for his 11th career top five finish and 13th top 10 in 31 starts. It was also his first top 10 of his career in St. Pete as his previous two finishes were 13th and 17th respectively.
“I think today was a really good day for the No. 10 car,” said the Spaniard. “Since I started I was able to get some guys at the start and then on Turn 3 or Turn 4, as well. I was pretty happy. The crew did an amazing job during the pit stops, so that’s luck, as well. I’m not doing anything there. The boys did a really good job during the preseason to try and be good as they were and ready today.
“Yeah, the rest of the race, yeah, it was a good race. It was a great day. We didn’t have anything — well, yeah, we didn’t have any data, so I don’t think that the team was able to see the fuel we had. I was not able to see the fuel I was hitting, so that makes it a bit hard, but anyway, I think we have enough.”
Palou, would admit, that street courses were his Achilles Heel in this series. To come away with a podium on one already this season makes him thrilled at the future.
“I’m really, really happy about that,” he said of his recent street course results. “Street courses, I think when I first joined INDYCAR, I just did like three races on street courses before joining INDYCAR, so I think it’s just experience and confidence. Yeah, getting more confidence every time, and hopefully we can keep on scoring good results on street courses.”
In six prior starts on them, his finishes were 13th, 17th, 15th, 3rd, 7th and 4th respectively. Now, he’s second and as you can see, he’s improving greatly in going from no top 10’s in his first three to three top four’s in his next four.
“I think everybody saw how we started the weekend,” Palou said of Ganassi’s street course program. “We started struggling, but I think everybody saw, as well, how we were able to come back and just improve our car and our performance overall.
“I still think that our qualifying pace is not there yet, like suddenly today in the warmup we were up there where we thought we would have been on qualifying. But yeah, we struggled to get one lap, especially on street courses, but we’re getting there. I think last year we got 17th here as a result and had no real pace, so today we had pace and also scored a podium.
“Pretty happy. We’re making steps in the right direction, but obviously we cannot make a huge change from one day to the other that’s going to completely change their performance. But yeah, we’re moving forward, and we’re proving that it’s working.”
Now, with a podium behind him, his sights are set on a repeat. He notes that a good strat to the year is imperative for a strong points finish later.
“I think it’s always good to start with a great result,” he said. “If it doesn’t come, it’s okay. There’s a lot of races. But obviously it helps if you can get a good result and a podium is an awesome result to start the season.
“Yeah, we have three weeks now to prepare and get ready for Texas, so yeah, should be a good season now.”
- Ganassi vastly improves over course of weekend – Friday’s practice session was a concern out of the Ganassi camp. They only went 15-17-19-24 in the opening practice session to the season. On Saturday morning, they’d surely be back to their rightful spot on top of the speed charts right?
Palou crashed but he was seventh. Johnson had several problems and was 25th out of 26 cars. Marcus Ericsson was 15th yesterday and 13th today. Dixon, was 19th and now 20th.
By no surprise, none of their four cars made the Fast Six in qualifying. However, they still showed improvement. Johnson, started last (26th) but the other three at least made it out of the first round.
Dixon and Ericsson shared Row 4. Palou rolled off 10th.
In the race, they had 3 of the 4 finishing in the top 10 with Palou and Dixon on opposite strategies and Ericsson overcoming a penalty for an unsafe release on his 1st stop to come away ninth.
Dixon, is 0-for-18 in St. Pete but does have four runner-ups including three podiums in the last six years.
Ericsson, was seventh in each of the last two years prior and now ninth last weekend. To make up that much ground without a caution is eye opening especially for a driver who won twice on street courses a year ago. Palou, was only 13th and 17th in his last two years but now gets a podium.
To go from Friday to what they did on Sunday was a large improvement.
- Youth Here To Stay – The long awaited youth movement has come and by the looks of things, I think it’s here to stay. We had a 21 year old and 24 year old going for this last year’s title. We also had a 30 year old in that mix too. That doesn’t even count the likes of Colton Herta, Rinus VeeKay and others.
It’s safe to say, the future is still very bright for this series and it showed on Sunday with 4 of the top 5 starters all have less than 50 series starts under their belts for their entire career thus far. It went 18, 31, 252, 49, 17, 30 for the top six.
- Strategy Played A Large Part, costs AMSP/MSR top 10’s – Some of the reason for the inexperience up front was due to the veteran presence outside of the top five.
The top four of the final 2021 NTT INDYCAR Series standings read – Alex Palou, Josef Newgarden, Pato O’Ward and Scott Dixon. Well, after the opening race of the 2022 season on the streets of St. Pete, only one of them landed a top five in Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Pete.
That’s all due to strategy and qualifying on Saturday.
The 2021 race was a two-stop strategy event. This year’s winning strategy was another two stopper as the top seven cars went with that strategy on Sunday afternoon. In fact, the 10 drivers who elected to go with a two stopper all finished in the top 11. The lone exception?
See, with this being a 100 lap race, as long as cautions stay out of the way, this is pretty much a straight forward two stopper. The last two years, yellows were a non factor. We had 1 for 8 laps on Sunday and it came after the commitments were already made for a 2 vs. 3 stopper. No one had to adjust their strategy due to David Malukas’ crash coming on Lap 24.
The winning move in 2021 was Colton Herta doing Firestone reds at the start, scuffed blacks and then fresh blacks for his two stops.
So, the ones in the top couple of rows could go with the winning strategy and everyone else behind having to try something different to leap frog them.
Pole sitter Scott McLaughlin went similar as Herta with reds, then stopping under caution for blacks on Lap 27 and doing the same under green flag conditions on Lap 64. Second place finisher Palou, started 10th but went reds until Lap 27, blacks until Lap 65 and blacks gain to the checkered.
Second place starter and third place finisher, Will Power, did the opposite at the beginning with the blacks until Lap 27, the reds until Lap 66 and blacks again until the end.
Dixon’s three stop strategy saw him pit on Lap 11 from his seventh place starting spot. He went from reds to blacks. He’d pit again on Lap 48 for blacks. But, he had to stop one more time on Lap 79 for blacks to the finish and would come home seventh after leading 26 times.
He’s still 0-for-18 at St. Pete.
Newgarden, started ninth, pit on Lap 9, Lap 31 and Lap 68. He’d finish 16th.
O’Ward started 16th on reds and charged up to eighth before pitting on Lap 12. He’d pit again on Lap 47 then Lap 73 but could only mange being 12th as a result of strategy.
“We had a great start, going from 16th to ninth on the first lap,” he said. “From there, I was like ‘Oh yes, let’s get a great race in,’ but we didn’t really nail the strategy. We weren’t on the right strategy with the three-stop and got stuck back in 12th. We will give it hell in Texas.”
His AMSP teammate of Felix Rosenqvist was in the same boat. He started 21st and came home 17th.
“We ended 17th and really couldn’t move up in the field,” said the Swedish driver. “The way our strategy turned out is pretty much where we started the race. That’s what happens when you start in the back, you don’t really go anywhere unless you luck out with the strategy; which we didn’t have today. I thought the pace was pretty good, the best it was all weekend; but we couldn’t take advantage of it. Now, we will reload for Texas.”
Meyer Shank Racing once again had the wrong strategy too. Simon Pagenaud started sixth and had the same pattern as Dixon. He pit on Lap 11, Lap 42 and Lap 68. Unfortunately, by pitting early with Dixon and doing so six laps sooner than Dixon on the second stint cost him a top 10. He’d fall to 15th, or fifth on the three stop strategy.
Helio Castroneves stopped three times too but did so differently. He started 17th and pit on Lap 8, Lap 27 and Lap 66. He came home 14th.
It’s clear, the reds at the start and going two stops is the winning move. It cost the heavyweights in the championship points.
- Not a great start for Rossi/Andretti relationship – Neither side is saying much of anything other than Andretti Autosport and Alexander Rossi don’t have a contract together past this season. While AA wants to keep him, it seems like Rossi is wanting to test the free agent market.
He’s not necessarily shutting the door on Andretti, but rather seeing what he could be worth on the open market as well as seeing if Andretti can improve their performance in order to make him a championship contender.
After how the past 24 hours have went, it’s not off to a great start.
Rossi, was sixth and fourth respectively in practice this weekend but only qualified 13th. The team elected to not pit with everyone else that hadn’t already done so on Lap 27. They were desperate to stay in the front. So, he’d lead 10 laps but have to pit on Lap 37. Without a yellow the rest of the way, that move pushed him further down.
Rossi, had to settle for 20th and put himself in another hole to start the 2022 season off with. He’s 43 points out of the lead now. Every other car on the 2 stop strategy finished in the top 10 with the exception of one, so I have to think that if Rossi pit with the others on Lap 27, he’d cut his finish in at least half.
See, Rossi is frustrated. He was frustrated entering 2022 and has to be even more now. The prime of his INDYCAR career is being wasted and he’s not anywhere near to where he expected to be in his career path in terms of success yet.
The Andretti Autosport driver seemed to be on a quick path to a championship once he won his second career NTT IndyCar Series race in Watkins Glen during that 2017 season. From the Toronto race that season through the one at Road America in 2019, Rossi had six wins, 16 podiums and 22 top five finishes in a span of 33 races. But, over the last 3 races, he’s yet to win, has just 8 podiums and only 11 top fives.
He was second in the championship in 2018 and third in 2019. But, this dip started during the middle of that ’19 season which is why he didn’t hoist the Astor Cup championship trophy that season and why he’s hasn’t yet overall. He was 10th in the final standings last year.
That’s why with him being in the final year of his contract, he’s not just running to the negotiating table with Andretti Autosport to reup. He feels like the results could be better for both sides.
- Herta’s Goal To Get More Podiums Doesn’t Come Through – One of Colton Herta’s goals was to turn top fives into podiums. That was the difference in being a championship contender or not.
He had 10 top fives in his first 32 starts to his career. The problem was, he only had four podiums out of those 10.
Last season, Herta had seven top fives in his No. 26 Honda in 16 races run. Out of those seven, five of which were on the podium giving him more podiums in 16 races last season than in 32 starts prior.
Still, he needs to do so on a more consistent basis. Alex Palou had eight podiums. Josef Newgarden had six. They were 1-2 in the championship. Sine 2016, all but one champion had a podium finish in 50% or more of their starts throughout a season. Josef Newgarden had a 41% podium rate in 2019. Other than that, everyone else has been around the 50% mark.
That’s what Herta is missing is turning those solid days into podiums.
On Sunday, Herta had a car for a podium. He was second in both practice sessions and qualified in third. He led 97 of 100 laps in a win in this very race last year. Unfortunately, not having his car fueled all the way during his first stop cost him dearly. He had to pit a little earlier in the final window which forced him to have to fuel save. That dropped him from a podium to fourth. That’s exactly what he was talking about the last two years. Days like Sunday cost him championships.
- Pressure Higher Now For Johnson? This was one of my 5 burning questions entering the season. The yellow rookie stickers are off Romain Grosjean, Jimmie Johnson and Scott McLaughlin’s cars. Now, who has the most pressure going into the 2022 season?
They each had a built in excuse last year. They’ve never seen most of these tracks before. Now, they have. Plus, all three are with the top teams.
Grosjean is with Andretti. Johnson is back with Ganassi and McLaughlin Penske. While Johnson has a little more of a leash since this is really only his second season in these types of cars, McLaughlin and Grosjean need to perform.
So, who had the most pressure among them?
Well, Grosjean was quickest on Friday. McLaughlin was fastest on Saturday and took the pole later. He’d wind up winning with Grosjean in fifth. Johnson, struggled mightily in qualifying last, spinning several times and finishing in 23rd.
That adds to the pressure for the 7-time Cup Series champion I think when the other two got top fives.
- Rahal picks up where he left off in 2021 – One thing Graham Rahal has done well is take a qualifying spot outside the top 10 and charge well inside of it by time the race ends. He started 11th and finished 7th on Sunday. Rahal, now has 52 top 10’s in his last 74 starts. All during his winless streak. The problem is, what’s keeping him from being a true championship contender is he’s not turning those top 10’s into podiums. Just 7 of those 52 top 10’s have been on the podium in that span including 1 during the second half of 2017, 1 in 2018, 1 in 2019 and 1 in 2021. 2020 he had 3. Top 10’s are hard in this sport, but turning them into top fives and then taking top fives and making them podiums is the difference. Out of those 52 top 10’s, 23 are top fives and 7 are podiums. Alex Palou as an example had 10 top 5s in his championship winning season last year and eight of those 10 were podiums. The main reason Rahal isn’t finishing there? Qualifying.
- Is February the now right spot for this race? – For the first time since 2003, this race was run in February, not the spring or even the Fall for that matter in 2020. In fact, that 2003 race was sanctioned by Champ Car as the last time an open wheel race was run prior to March. But, is this the right call? This weekend proved it was. It was a risk that paid off.
The March date was always coexistent with spring breaks around this country. It allowed families to make the trek to the Florida Gulf Coast and make the INDYCAR race part of their spring plans. Now that it’s in February, we wondered if it would be affected. Not only was it not, the crowd was larger now than ever before. INDYCAR and track officials noted that the crowd this weekend was up 49% over 2019 and that an estimate crowd of 200k was here this weekend.