ST. PETERSBURG, Fla — The break is over. The NTT INDYCAR Series hit the track for the first official time of the 2023 season on a windy, yet sun filled Friday afternoon from the streets of St. Pete. While the first session doesn’t necessarily matter in terms of what the rest of the weekend will look like, it does in terms of finding a race winner for Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Pete.
9 of the last 10 years here, the eventual race winner was in the top 10 at the checkered flag of the opening practice session of the St. Pete race weekend. That’s great news for Scott Dixon, Colton Herta, Alex Palou, Kyle Kirkwood, Simon Pagenaud, Rinus VeeKay, David Malukas, Will Power, Marcus Armstrong and Scott McLaughlin.
Dixon topped the speed charts late with a flier at 1:01.6145-seconds in his No. 9 Dallara-Honda. That was good enough to knock teammate, Alex Palou (1:01.6790-seconds) off the top spot who also set a late lap in the opening session. On his second to last lap, 2021 St. Pete winner, Colton Herta, split them at 1:01.6475-seconds to wind up second in his No. 26 Dallara-Honda.
Kyle Kirkwood (1:01.6851-seconds), Simon Pagenaud (1:01.6963-seconds) and Rinus VeeKay (1:01.8514-seconds) rounded out the Fast Six.
“Yeah, it was solid,” said second year driver, Kyle Kirkwood. “I mean, we just rolled off of two amazing tests at Thermal and Sebring. All of the speed that we’ve had in pre-season testing has translated to now.
“Its definitely really nice to roll into a weekend with some pace, right? I mean, as everyone knows, INDYCAR is so close, if you’re behind by a couple 10ths, you’re usually fighting to get that all weekend.
“No, it’s a good feeling, especially since Colton is up there, too.”
Kirkwood says that he felt like the Ganassi groups late runs were a byproduct of fresh tires and that he feels really good going into Saturday’s action.
“I think it’s definitely important,” Kirkwood said. “From the outside looking in, it’s not as important for me or the team, but I guess for the persona around the team and myself based on my last year of performance being so up and down, to start up the year on a high and kind of continue that trait.
“I think the expectation will continue to be that from the outside, and people will remember what I was in the junior formulas.
“Being in the middle of the pack, having to race for things and drive to your absolute limit always is going to make you a better driver, I find.
“If I look back to my junior year in formulas, like F4, USF2000, not Indy Lights, Indy pro 2000, a lot of races I was just sitting there leading. I felt like I didn’t learn much.
“Being in the middle of the pack, having to race guys, push my all, which is something I didn’t have to do a ton in my junior formulas, definitely honed me in to be a better driver I find.
“Yeah, days like today where you have a season like that, you come into a year with how fast you’ve all been through testing, now is a really good feeling. It definitely gives me more confidence than I feel like I’ve ever had.”
Maybe Testing Was Something To Look At
Andretti Autosport has came out of the gates swinging early. They were quick in the preseason test last month in Thermal as well as in the brief opportunities at Sebring. While most didn’t consider that to be a great indicator for how the rest of the season would go, maybe we need to start considering it after all.
Andretti enters the 2023 season coming off of a rough 2022. Does Friday give them the momentum that they need to challenge Penske and Ganassi’s stranglehold on the Astor Cup?
They went 2-4-14-19 on Friday.
“I feel like Andretti has made definitely steps in the right direction,” said Kirkwood. “But everyone makes steps in the right direction I feel like all season, but maybe us more than others.
“I also feel like Andretti’s performance last year didn’t show what their actual capability has been. I feel like we’re showing it now. I feel like the team has melded very well. All the drivers work together well, all the engineers work together well.
“We all have the same goal, and that’s winning. All of us now are in a place that we want to help each other win and all succeed together. That’s the ultimate mindset.”
The thing is, it’s not like Andretti was that far off here last year. They went 1-2-6 (Grosjean, Herta, Rossi) in this very session last February. They’d even qualify 3rd (Herta) and 5th (Grosjean). However, neither came away with the win. Can they keep the pace throughout the rest of the weekend and turn that into a season opening victory on Sunday afternoon?
Better Start For Ganassi Camp
This session was also a much better start to the weekend for the Ganassi camp than the one of last year. A year ago during Friday’s opening practice session, the Ganassi foursome only went 15-17-19-24. This time around, they were 1-3-9-13.
Last year, the NTT INDYCAR Series extended the opening practice session of the weekend from 45 minutes to 75 minutes. Also, teams were allowed to use an extra set of Firestone alternate tires in that session as well. This year, that extended opening practice session returned. However, some adapting has been done to decrease the amount of lulls early on in those sessions.
See, even with extending the amount of on track time, the teams elected to still not use all of it. That’s because the extra set had to be returned after the opening session and with the alternate tires not being allowed for use in the Saturday morning practice, teams elected to still have to save a set for qualifying.
Starting this weekend, teams received a second set of Firestone alternate tires for use and also, have opened the door for them to use the alternates in any session that they want to.
Skip running them on Friday but want to backload them for Saturday?
Go for it.
Do the opposite by using them on Friday and going to the primary tires on Saturday?
Go for it.
The only caveat to all of this is that INDYCAR has required all teams to also return a set of primary tires and one set of alternates before qualifying too.
So, I was curious on what strategy teams would use on Friday. After 75-minutes of running, none of the 27 cars here elected to use the green alternate tire which was telling. It gives them two sets for use in practice on Saturday morning.
Honda’s Paced Field
Honda put 6 cars in the top 7 on Friday including a clean sweep of the top five. That comes after having 6 in the top 7 last year. However, on qualifying day, Chevy swept the front row and had 2 of the podium finishers in the race. What happens on Saturday?
Rough Start For RLL
RLL revamped a lot this offseason and unfortunately got off to a rough start on Friday. Jack Harvey was tops among the team in 17th. Christian Lundgaard and Graham Rahal were only 25th and 26th respectively.
Turns 3-4 Troublesome
Between both Indy NXT and NTT INDYCAR Series practice sessions, a troublesome sequence of corners reared it’s ugly head. See, street courses can tend to be tricky year over year. Some seasons it’s a specific corner. The next it’s another.
Last year, Turn 5 was the issue in St. Pete. Some drivers said the corner wasn’t as wide as it was in years past and it caught some drivers out.
This time around, it’s the two corners prior that’s been the troublesome point.
Christian Rasmussen hit the wall in Turn 4 in Indy NXT practice at 2:12 p.m. ET. Nine minutes later, Hunter McElrea nailed the Turn 3 wall.
Multiple NTT INDYCAR Series drivers did the same in their 75-minute long session after.
Benjamin Pedersen spun. Simon Pagenaud and Will Power had to use the escape road. Team Penske teammates Josef Newgarden and Scott McLaughlin found the wall. So did RLL teammates of Graham Rahal and Christian Lundgaard.
“For me even last year it’s flat out of the pits. This year I didn’t take it flat once,” said Kyle Kirkwood. “There’s quite a big bump at the apex of it. We actually got word from the Andretti Indy Lights guys that Hunter (McElrea) went long. It’s something we’re going to have to work around no doubt. Considering it’s new pavement, you’d expect it to be stellar, but it’s actually not.
“I feel like there’s multiple contributing factors to probably what you saw out there. Not turn three, but turn four. First of all, there’s new pavement. I’m not sure if the bump has gotten worse or better there. Right at the initial brake pressure.”
Drivers also noted that last year Turn 5 was repaved and added more grip. This year, these corners are slippery despite having the same new asphalt. That plus a massive tailwind contributed to a messy day.
“Tailwind and then it’s new pavement as well. Ultimately it had less grip,” Kirkwood continued. “We expected it to have more grip because that’s what happened last year in turn five. They put new pavement, and there was actually more grip, but now there’s definitely less from turn three to turn four. That may change with evolution.”
The opening session was delayed 15 minutes and extended 6-minutes and 12-seconds due to a manhole cover issue in Turn 3. The red flag was displayed at 3:36 p.m. ET to service that area. The green flag came back out at 3:42 p.m. ET.
That was the meat of the red flag sandwich on Friday. The first one came out for rookie Benjamin Pedersen going off course in Turn 4 at 3:25 p.m. ET. The last one came at 3:52 p.m. ET for Simon Pagenaud in the same corner.
Just prior to that caution, defending pole and race winner, Scott McLaughlin, had an issue on his own on the final few corners of the 1.8-mile track.
The series is back in action on Saturday morning at 10 a.m. ET for the second practice session of the weekend. Qualifying commences afterwards (2:15 p.m. ET, Peacock, INDYCAR Radio Network).