ST. PETERSBURG, Fla — Practice is in the books. So is qualifying to set the field for the 2023 Firestone Grand Prix of St. Pete (12 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network). Now, it’s time to officially start the upcoming NTT INDYCAR Series season.
Here are five things I’m watching in the season opener.
Between both Indy NXT and NTT INDYCAR Series practice sessions this weekend, 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 on Friday 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 that.
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.
On Saturday morning, Kyffin Simpson found the Turn 4 wall at 9:29 a.m. ET. In NTT INDYCAR Series practice, Devlin DeFrancesco scrapped the wall in Turn 3 while Sting Ray Robb and Scott Dixon each crashed. Robb hit the Turn 3 wall hard and Dixon into the Turn 4 tire barriers.
“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.”
Turn 4 is having issues under braking and causing some drivers to even have to use the run off area. With a race tomorrow being to where getting off Turn 3 and using Turn 4 as a passing zone under heavy braking, these could be some wildly treacherous areas to watch.
Which Tire (Primary or Alternate) Is Better?
Normally, with a street race, grip levels are few and far between. That makes the Firestone primary tire the best option. However, the last two years though, the reds (alternate tire) actually were the best, as the always faster tire, didn’t have the drop off like it typically does, making the faster tire the preferred one.
Firestone always tries to adapt and make ways better. This weekend, we’ll see the guayule tire (green side wall) instead of the red.
Guayule is part of Bridgestone’s plan to achieve carbon neutrality and make tires from 100% sustainable materials by 2050. The company is targeting commercial production of guayule-derived natural rubber by the end of the decade.
Do the green “guayule” tire react the same way as its predecessor, the red tire, did? So far, it seems like it has way more fall off which could open up a three stop strategy play on Sunday. From what it sounds like, the primary tire is the way to go again.
As a result of the tire differential the last two years favoring the alternates, which is the preferred tire this time around and how does that affect strategy?
With the race being shortened to 100 laps a few years ago, this race has been an easy 2 stopper.
The 2021 race was a two-stop strategy event. Last year’s winning strategy was another two stopper as the top seven cars went with that strategy. 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 last year 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.
Last year’s 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.
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 McLaren 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.
The past was clear, the reds at the start and going two stops is the winning move. Does that change now? So far, it seems like it might. The new green tires have more fall off which could in turn create a three stop strategy play.
Can Anyone Top Team Penske?
Team Penske has won 6 of the last 9 years here but has just 1 car coming from a top 9 starting spot. Andretti has just three total wins in St. Pete (2005, 2013, 2021) but three cars coming from the top 5 of the starting lineup. Chip Ganassi Racing (2011) has one win but three bullets in the top 9 starters. They combined to place Does the race winner come from this grouping?
Team Penske comes into the 2023 season on the heels of placing all three drivers in the top four of the final standings a year ago. Now, they come to St. Pete which has been Penske’s playground on the shores of the Tampa Bay.
Penske has 3 of the last 4 here in general, 2 of those 3 from Josef Newgarden at that. Newgarden was also runner-up in 2021. Scott McLaughlin scored his first career win here a year ago. Will Power had a podium a year ago and coming off of a title.
If you go back to the start of the 2019 season, we’ve had 16 races on these types tracks with 9 different winners. Josef Newgarden (4 wins), Scott Dixon (3 wins), Marcus Ericsson (2 wins) and Colton Herta (2 wins) are the only multi-time winners with 2 of Newgarden’s 4 wins coming here in St. Pete.
The big teams are strong on them with Penske winning 7 of those last 16 races, Ganassi with 4 and Andretti with 3. Arrow McLaren SP is the only other team to have won. Between these teams, they have 13 of the top 14 starters.
Penske won 3 of the 5 last year with Ganassi and Scott Dixon taking the other two. Can anyone top them this year? Are these the ones to beat on Sunday?
So far, no.
Newgarden starts 14th after only being 22nd and 16th respectively in practice. He found the wall both days and didn’t get a clean qualifying lap either. Power has been chasing his car all weekend and rolls off just 10th. Scott McLaughlin is their best play with being 10th and 2nd respectively in practice and qualifying in the Fast Six.
Can they avenge this weekend and turn it into a possible win on Sunday?
Andretti has to be Penske’s chief rival in taking half of the Fast Six spots.
Herta just won here in 2021 and was second and first respectively in practice. He starts.
Romain Grosjean had a pair of top five finishes on these tracks in 2022 and will roll off. Kyle Kirkwood looks like a championship contender in preseason testing and has a pair of Road to Indy wins on this very track. He was 4th in both practice sessions and starts sixth after a crash in the opening minutes of the Firestone Fast Six session.
But, with Herta having more starts (65) than the other three teammates combined (64), do they have enough experience to beat Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing?
Ganassi would be the next Penske rival on Sunday. While they started out the gates slow here last year, they’ve been much better this time around.
A year ago during Friday’s opening practice session, the Ganassi foursome only went 15-17-19-24. 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. Jimmie Johnson had several problems and was 25th out of 26 cars. Marcus Ericsson was 15th and 13th. Scott 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 still 0-for-18 in St. Pete but does have four runner-up finishes including three podiums in the last six years. He won the final two street course races last year. He starts ninth after being quickest in practice on Friday and finding the tire barriers on Saturday morning.
Ericsson was seventh in each of the last two years prior and now ninth last year. To make up that much ground without a caution is eye opening especially for a driver who won twice on street courses in 2021. Palou was only 13th and 17th in his last two years but now got a podium last year and starts seventh this time around. He was 3rd and 5th respectively in practice.
To go from Friday to what they did on Sunday was a large improvement.
This year, they were more in the wheelhouse early. They went 1-3-9-13 on Friday and 5-6-13-20 on Saturday. They qualified 7-9-13.
Palou is likely my favorite out of this grouping though. He’s drastically improved on street courses and was fifth and third in practice and qualified his No. 10 Dallara-Honda seventh.
His first three street course finishes in INDYCAR were 13th, 17th and 15th respectively. Since?
3rd, 7th, 4th, 2nd, 3rd, 6th, 6th and 3rd respectively. That’s 9 straight top seven results including three podiums in five tries just last season.
He by far is the leading candidate for most improved driver. Rightfully so too. Going from AJ Foyt Racing to Andretti Autosport would alone do that. However, Kirkwood is living up to his billing by being quick in Thermal, fast in Sebring and now near the top of every session in St. Pete.
The sophomore driver was fourth in both practice sessions in his No. 27 Dallara-Honda and even qualified sixth.
“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 feels like this early pace is important for him personally to show that he can still do it.
“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.”
Kirkwood notes that being with Foyt last year and where their placement was on the grid actually helped him improve drastically as a driver. In the Road to Indy ranks coming up, he was always found upfront. No one has as many wins (31) as Kirkwood did coming through the ladder system. He won the championship in all three years of racing in there.
Last year though, well it was different. He wasn’t used to being towards the back which forced him to learn a new wrinkle in his race craft. Now that he once again has a car capable of running up front, it can only help that he’s been groomed on actually “racing” other cars instead of driving well ahead of them.
“I think the expectation will continue to be that from the outside, and people will remember what I was in the junior formulas,” he noted.
“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.”