ST. PETERSBURG, Fla — Romain Grosjean has recently taken up a new hobby – aviation. The airport that he’s been flying into while he learns this new trade has been Albert Whitted Airport. The runway of his airfield is the front stretch of the 1.8-mile street circle in St. Pete.
Grosjean pushed his No. 28 Dallara-Honda around this very circuit on Saturday afternoon en route to his second career NTT INDYCAR Series pole. The third-year driver on his final lap went 59.5532-seconds to give Andretti Autosport their 50th career pole.
“We improved a lot from last year as a team. I was impressed when I came to Thermal, all the efforts. It was a good test. Sebring was another good one,” a happy Grosjean said.
“On track, obviously 27 cars, hard to get a lap. You never knew your best performance. Having three of us in the Fast Six, locked in the front row, is pretty impressive to start the season.
“Thankful for the team. We worked really hard from a tough season last year. There were some better days, but today is a good one.”
While Grosjean has yet to win a race in 30 career starts, the last two Firestone Grand Prix of St. Pete (12 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network) winners each started on the pole.
“Yeah, 26 other guys that are trying to do the same thing as I am tomorrow,” he admitted. “INDYCAR is super competitive. We’ve seen the lap times in practice have been very tight. Good thing is that we’ve got three cars up there, so we have good chances as a team to grab the win.
“I’m going to do the best I can. I’m going to work on the car for the FP3 warmup to make sure we have a good race car, then we’re going to do our best. If the car is good enough to win, we win. If not, we finish where it is.”
The Swiss born driver has heard the noise. He knows just how important of a season this is coming into 2023. The former F1 driver who’s career was nearly ended by a fiery crash in the 2020 season finale, came over to the United States in 2021 to race for Dale Coyne Racing on a part-time basis. That’s the year that he scored his last pole.
Grosjean made a great debut in that year with having four top five finishes, six top 10 results and 53 laps led. He was having so much fun, he elected to run full-time in 2022. That led to an opportunity with Andretti Autosport. Unfortunately, even with a bigger organization, his stats weren’t all that much better.
He had less top 5’s (3) and just one more top 10 (7) finish. He led just three laps and didn’t get a pole. A decline in stats despite four more starts in 2022 than he had in 2021.
In a contract year and noise that this could be it if he doesn’t produce, Grosjean is off to a great start to the season. He was also seventh in practice this morning.
Grosjean will have a familiar face upfront in teammate Colton Herta (59.9687-seconds) starting alongside. Herta now has three straight top three starting spots here.
“Yeah, just missed it on that last run,” Herta admitted. “We were looking really good all day. Just a sloppy last lap. But it was still good enough for P2.
“Yeah, that was a bad lap. I probably did just about everything wrong that I could have.
“But I did a 5-5 in the run before. I didn’t think I could really go much faster than that if at all. Even if I did hook up a lap, I think it would be really close with Romain.
“But, yeah, I think in the 5s, that’s pretty much the absolute limit of this place for these conditions. Yeah, that’s a really good lap.
“Two Andretti cars on the front row and two Hondas on the front row. Keeping those Chevys and McLarens back. Good day, happy with it.”
Pato O’Ward (1:00.0163-seconds) starts third while Marcus Ericsson (1:00.4435-seconds) was fourth in his No. 8 Dallara-Honda. Neither of Scott McLaughlin nor Kyle Kirkwood made a timed lap in the Fast Six session with each crashing in the final corners.
Kirkwood got in too hot on his opening lap and smacked the Turn 14 wall. McLaughlin slapped the Turn 12 wall which sent him into a tailspin into Turn 13.
McLaughlin narrowly made the final round as he barely beat Alex Palou for the 6th and final spot into the Fast Six on his final lap of the second round. Palou was relegated to seventh and sharing Row 4 with Felix Rosenqvist.
A pair of veterans will share Row 5 in Scott Dixon and Will Power.
Some heavy hitters missed out on making it out of the first round including two-time St. Pete winner Josef Newgarden who never got a clean lap on the alternate tire and qualified 14th. Rinus VeeKay was in the top six of both practice sessions but qualified only 24th. That’s because he felt like he was being slowed up by cars in front and felt that some should have been penalized for that. VeeKay had the pace but like Newgarden, not the clear track in front.
Among the cars that didn’t advance out of the opening round were 2 of the 3 RLL cars, both Dale Coyne Racing entries, both Ed Carpenter Racing cars, both Meyer Shank Racing entries and both at AJ Foyt Racing.
Unfortunately for them, 16 of the last 18 years has seen the winner came from a top 10 starting position.
Where this is even more important is, out of the last 18 years, the eventual season champion scored a top 10 finish in 17 of those 18 seasons. They’ve accumulated 8 wins and 14 top 5’s in the process including four consecutive podium finishes.
In regard to St. Pete, the eventual champion has 15 top 10’s in the last 18 years there including 12 top 5’s. 3 of the last 4 years has seen the champion podium in St. Pete.
So, in order to get on the St. Pete podium, not just win, you have to qualify well still.
Over the last four years, there’s been 12 combined podium opportunities. 11 of those 12 came from top 10 starters. 8 of the 12 came from the top 2 rows with 5 of those 8 from the front row at that.
Just 4 times since 2011 did someone finish on the podium and not have a top 12 starting spot. Which essentially means, if you’re eliminated in the opening round of qualifying on Saturday, not only are your podium chances slim, your race winning chances are even longer and so are your championship aspirations.
That’s how crucial Saturday was.
Firestone Grand Prix of St. Pete Starting Lineup
Row 1: Romain Grosjean, Colton Herta
Row 2: Pato O’Ward, Marcus Ericsson
Row 3: Kyle Kirkwood, Scott McLaughlin
Row 4: Alex Palou, Felix Rosenqvist
Row 5: Scott Dixon, Will Power
Row 6: Christian Lundgaard, Alexander Rossi
Row 7: Marcus Armstrong R, Josef Newgarden
Row 8: Helio Castroneves, David Malukas
Row 9: Santino Ferrucci, Devlin DeFrancesco
Row 10: Jack Harvey, Graham Rahal
Row 11: Agustin Canapino R, Callum Ilott
Row 12: Sting Ray Robb R, Rinus VeeKay
Row 13: Simon Pagenaud, Conor Daly
Row 14: Benjamin Pedersen R