ST. PETERSBURG, Fla — It’s the dawn of a new NTT INDYCAR Series season. Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Pete (12 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network) kick starts the 2023 opener. For the second consecutive season, the NTT INDYCAR SERIES will appear on NBC network television a record 15 times, including two days of qualifying for the 107th Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge. The first seven races of 2023 will be featured on broadcast TV and six of the final seven leading to the climactic season finale at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.
That comes on the heels of the most on-track passes in seven seasons. The finish at the Big Machine Music City Grand Prix – Scott Dixon edged Scott McLaughlin by .1067 of a second – was the closest on a street circuit in INDYCAR SERIES history. Dixon turned the fastest pole speed in the 106 year Indy 500 history while also witnessing the fastest front row ever as well.
Sunday’s 27-car field is the most in the history of this annual race. Track promoters are expecting a record crowd on Sunday to fit inside the tight confines of the 1.8-mile street circuit that hugs the waters of the Tampa Bay should prove to be a treacherous one.
Turns 3 and 4 have been a tricky spot. That’s due to the tarmac being repaved between last year’s race and this. The third corner is slippery and has a bump that is wrecking havoc. If you make it through that corner, finding the right brake package to get slowed up in enough time to make the fourth corner is a feat in itself. However, how much do you trade off for a better braking package for that set of corners compared to the other 12 turns?
Also, with Turn 4 being a prime braking zone and there being so many incidents in that spot this weekend, what’s going to happen with 27 cars trying to fit through there for 100 laps on Sunday? Escape those corners, you have the backside to approach to where drivers are trying to carry as much speed possible through the quick right hand left hand section between Turns 11 and 12 to which several drivers have skated against the concrete wall at Turn 12 exit. The tricky part of that portion is, if you carry too much speed through there, it’s hard to get slowed up into the long sweeping final corners of Turns 13 and 14.
Good luck doing that for 100 laps.
That’s why track position has been key here. 16 of the last 18 years has the race winner started from the top 5 Rows. 12 of the last 16 years of this race at that, has been won by a top five starter.
Andretti Autosport placed three of their four cars solidly inside the top five of the starting lineup including a front row sweep. However, Andretti hasn’t exactly been on top of their game on race days. Qualifying pace has been one thing, but they seem to have thrown it all away on the most important day of the race weekend.
That’s led to an overhaul of the organization. None of the four drivers that raced for this team in 2018 are even still around. In fact, Colton Herta is the longest tenured driver with them. Sunday will be his 66th career start. His three teammates have a combined 64 at this moment.
Andretti is entering Sunday’s race off of one of their worst seasons in over a decade.
“For me, I feel a lot more optimistic,” Andretti said. “I think we really studied ourselves and got real honest with ourselves where we needed to improve. I think we’ve done it.
“Obviously the race is going to be another thing. Hopefully we can have all four cars go through the race without making a mistake. If that happens, I think we have a great shot at winning.
“I mean we did have many races where we had very fast cars last year, but we tended to do something wrong, shoot ourselves in the foot one way or another. That’s another thing we’ve really studied and worked on. Hopefully our pit stops will be better and strategies will be better.
“We really worked on trying to be a lot more detail-oriented, things like that.
“I hope it pays off.”
Romain Grosjean feels refreshed. The new pilot uses this airport to learn to fly and he’ll lead the field down the runway at the start of Sunday’s race.
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.”
Chip Ganassi Racing put three of their drivers in starting spots 4th-9th. Marcus Ericsson didn’t get a front row starting spot, but coming from fourth in his No. 8 Dallara-Honda is vastly better than where he was qualifying at the end of the 2022 season.
His Achilles heel in 2022 was in that aspect. 9 times did he start 12th or worse including 5 times in the final 7 races. It’s why he went from 6 top 5’s in the first 10 races this season and was leading the points to 4th. He had no top 5 finishes over the final 7 race stretch. While he had 3 top 10’s, it was the lack of top 5’s that allowed everyone else to catch up.
Consistently coming from behind was the culprit.
“I think us as a team, it’s been one of our weaknesses the last couple years in that we’re not qualifying as high as we should,” he said. “Race day I’m not scared of anyone. I think on the 8 car we’re always going forward in the races; we’re always very strong in the races.
“It’s no secret that we need to improve on qualifying day. That is us in the 8 car but also Chip Ganassi Racing as a whole. I think if we can all improve, it’s going to help us. These days as well, INDYCAR is becoming more and more competitive. So many good drivers and teams. If you start mid pack, yeah, it might be long races, but to win a race from mid pack is getting harder and harder.
“It’s been one of the big focus areas in the off-season, to try to find things in the setup, in the way to understand the tires, stuff like that, to mainly improve our qualifying performance. It’s been a big focus for us. It’s going to be interesting this week to see if we have found some things that are going to work, then apply that throughout the season.”
Alex Palou narrowly missed out on the Fast Six, but the Spaniard finished second here a year ago and was in the top five of both practice sessions this weekend. Scott Dixon was quickest on Friday but found the Turn 4 tire barriers on Saturday. Still, he rebounded to qualify ninth in his No. 9 Dallara-Honda. He’s 0-for-18 at St. Pete.
Andretti and Ganassi have four combined St. Pete wins but six of the top nine starting spots. Team Penske has been the kind of the Gulf Coast in scoring 6 wins in the last 9 years here. However, a year after putting all three drivers in the top four of the final standings and taking 2 of the 3 podium spots on this very tracks, they have just two drivers in the top 13 of the starting lineup.
Scott McLaughlin crashed in qualifying and will start sixth. Will Power, the pole king, was only 10th best. He was struggling all weekend. So is two-time St. Pete winner Josef Newgarden who was outside the top 15 in both practice sessions and 14th in qualifying.
The Penske trio can’t be too pleased at this moment. McLaughlin feels like he threw away a pole winning chance from his incident, Newgarden feels like he could be throwing away an early championship and Power puzzled at the lack of consistency in his No. 12 Dallara-Chevrolet.
That opens the door to Andretti and Ganassi, but can they take it? Arrow McLaren looks next best in taking third, eighth and 12th respectively at the start.
Combined, this grouping has won each of the last 16 street course races in INDYCAR. Penske won 3 of the 5 last year with Ganassi and Scott Dixon taking the other two.
However, O’Ward won in 2021 at Belle Isle and Ericsson took two more wins that season on street circuits himself. They share Row 2 and can capitalize if Andretti returns to their 2022 form on Sunday.
Then you have the strategy plays. The last two years this race has been an easy two stopper. With the Firestone alternates being the preferred tire over those seasons, this wasn’t a straightforward event. Now, with the primary tire being the top choice and the alternate having an extreme fall off rate again, a three stop strategy is back in play and could be a possibility to flip the field.
That’s why Sunday’s season opener, could be a thrilling start to what should be a thrilling season…