O’Ward “frazzled” while Ericsson notes that he feels bad for O’Ward but also “deserved to win,” an inside look at the final battle and why each are legitimate championship contenders

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla — Marcus Ericsson said that he was a deserving winner. Pato O’Ward may disagree. Following a race full of carnage which saw just 17 of the record setting 27 starters see the checkered flag of Sunday’s NTT INDYCAR SERIES season opener on the streets of St. Pete, O’Ward inherited the lead on Lap 74 when the top two drivers, Scott McLaughlin and Romain Grosjean, took each other out while battling for the lead on Lap 72.

“What happened was really obvious on TV, so I’m not going to elaborate too much on that,” Grosjean told NBC Sports. “I’m very, very disappointed, and I hope there’s going to be rules put in place. What an amazing weekend. We had a super fast car, and the team did a really good job, but I’m really annoyed to be talking to you with the race going on. That’s not racing.”

McLaughlin took full responsibility for the crash and said that he’d apologize to Grosjean immediately.

“First and foremost, I’m very sorry to Romain, he’s a friend of mine, and I know we were both going for the win there,” McLaughlin told NBC Sports. “I just made a big mistake.

“I tried to push on cold tires, I just didn’t have the grip there like I did on the greens and locked the rears, and unfortunately we made wheel contact this time that took us both out.

“Look, I don’t race like that. I apologize, I feel that I’ve had many good battles with many good drivers, just gutted for my crew. The fuel mileage was great and I just made a stuff-up, man.

“You have those: you have your good days and your bad and I really do have to apologize to Romain. I’ll go and see him soon.

“I concentrate on my own mistakes, I need to be better than that and make better decisions. Ultimately, I think I was just racing for the win, I knew we coulda had a chance if we’d got out in front of him at Turn 4.

“Big apologies. I was just racing hard, man, I promise I don’t race like that, so I’m very gutted. We finished the race, but I’ll go man-up and see Romain now.”

O’Ward, who was running up front all afternoon, took advantage. By being third place among those that had already pit for the final time, once the pits opened again for Will Power, Marcus Armstrong and David Malukas to pit themselves, his No. 5 Dallara-Chevrolet would be shown in the lead.

“Yeah, I had a feeling they were going to get tangled up, because after the first pit stop sequence they did the exact same thing where — well, yeah, McLaughlin was inside in Turn 4 with colder tires, Grosjean on the outside and Grosjean almost got the bad end of it, but he saved it. But this last pit stop, it was his chance to get by him, and I knew he was going to go for it,” O’Ward said of the incident.

“I wasn’t very surprised when I saw it, to be honest with you. There’s space for one car there, and when you really, really charge it, it’s a coin toss. Is the car going to give it to you or not. And if you touch, then both of you are going to get received by the wall quite nicely.

“Yeah, lead got handed over to me and then I handed it over to Marcus.”

O’Ward initially took off on the final restart. He had to. He had less push to passes left and one lap older tires than that of the chasing Marcus Ericsson.

Ericsson was hunting O’Ward down over the course of the final stint to which he went from 2.2539-seconds behind on Lap 81 to .6453-seconds on Lap 90. By Lap 93, it was down to .5529-seconds. Three laps later, O’Ward was maintaining at .5238-seconds ahead.

Then came a bit of bad luck on Lap 97 to which O’Ward says that they gave it away off the final turn that lap. An engine fire caused the engine to sputter which slowed his No. 5 Dallara-Chevrolet and allowed Ericsson by.

“Frazzled,” said O’Ward of his emotions.

A plenum event is the official diagnoses of what transpired to which kept O’Ward out of victory lane in the season opener.

“Well, at that point you can’t really do much besides just kind of — I didn’t have a lot of Push-to-Pass to play with, so I was managing it accordingly, and I think we would have been just fine,” O’Ward said of the bad luck. “We were managing a one-second gap, and I don’t think Marcus was going to get us.

“Yeah, I mean, kind of speaks for itself. Right at the exit, we kind of lost drive and gained it back. We were lucky not to get passed by Scott.

“Yeah, I don’t know what else to tell you. It’s very unfortunate.”

Ericsson feels otherwise. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver says that while some people will say that he lucks into wins, he doesn’t frankly care. A win is a win and he’ll continue to take them as they come. He feels like even with O’Ward’s late race issue, that he deserved to win this race too.

“It seems whatever I do, people are thinking maybe I don’t deserve it or stuff like that,” he says. “I don’t know, I won a lot of races, four races now in INDYCAR, and been at the top of the championship the last couple years, so I’m just going to keep to that.

“Obviously today I didn’t want Pato to have a problem, but from what I heard the problem was because we were putting pressure on and they did a mistake or he did a mistake. And that’s when these things can happen. I felt bad for Pato, but we were there to pick up on it. If I wasn’t putting pressure on him and hunt him down, he would have been fine and we would have been second. But we were there right on his gearbox, and we got past.

“I think we deserved to win. We did a great weekend. We were there when they had an issue, did a mistake or whatever that was to happen. Like I said, if he had that two-second gap that he got after the restart, he could have had that issue and he would have won anyway because he only lost half a second or something. But we were right on his gearbox and that’s why we could get by. That’s racing. Things happen. That’s why you need to be there until the end.

“Yeah, I feel a bit bad for him, but I still think we deserved that win.”

3 of the last 4 winners of the INDYCAR season opener had gone on to win a championship later in the season. That’s great news for Ericsson. But, O’Ward says that he feels like a runner-up shows that they’ll be a force also.

“I think as a team we’ve arrived with something that’s just so much better than where we were last year,” he says. “Obviously every single track is different. You can be great one weekend, you can get to the next one and be like, where are we.

“But this is a great first step to where we want to be, and we’re in great position to challenge in Texas and so forth.

“It makes me proud of — we arrived here, people knew we were here. We were fighting for the win. That was ours to take, and it was just very — I wouldn’t say heartbreaking, but I would say just very — it was very generic. I was trying to find a more fancy word.”

The only thing missing for O’Ward is the consistency label.  He’s had two wins in each of the last two seasons. The Mexican star also has had 9 podiums in that same two-year span (5 in 2021, 4 in 2022). Out of his 8 Top-5 finishes a year ago, only four of them landed on the podium.

Now, he starts 2023 off with a podium.

3 of the last 4 years has seen the champion podium in St. Pete. Also, out of the last 18 years, the eventual season champion scored a top 10 finish in 17 of those 18 season openers. They’ve accumulated 8 wins and 14 top 5’s in the process including four consecutive podium finishes.

This could be a great stretch for O’Ward. Next up is Texas, the spot of his first win. Then it’s to Long Beach to where he was fifth last April. Two weeks after is a visit to Barber, a race he won last season. Then a pair of races at IMS ahead in May awaits. O’Ward has 3 straight top six finishes in the Indy 500 including a runner-up a season ago. The returns to the downtown streets of Detroit is a week after.

Ericsson hopes to turn this trend into a good omen too. He admitted as much last month at the Thermal Club that he was pissed off at how his 2022 season ended.

“I had a chance going into the final, but I also was leading the championship for a long-time last year. I’m still a bit pissed off about the ending of last year because I felt we were having a really strong year, then the last three races or so we just fell off a little bit. That was disappointing,” he said on Tuesday of INDYCAR content day.

“But it’s given me a lot of motivation to work hard in the off-season to try and be better this year. It’s definitely our goal to try and get that championship this year.

“We’ve been focusing on trying to improve our package for this year. We feel like we have some areas where we could improve from last year, so we’ve been focusing on that, trying to, yeah, become better as a team, as a driver. I’ve been focusing a lot on myself trying to improve my performance for this year.

“We were close to winning both the championship and the 500 last year. We need to keep pushing to try to do that this year.”

He’s off to a great start. While he didn’t get a front row starting spot on Saturday, coming from fourth was a hell of a lot better than his qualifying woes over the second half of last year.

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.”

The 32-year-olds career trajectory shows that he’ll be a championship front runner this season.

He may have had the same points finish and the same amount of Top-10 finishes (12) last season as he had a season prior (12), but the difference however is, the fact that last year while he had 2 wins in 2021 compared to 1 in 2022, 5 of his 11 top 10’s last season were found in the top 5. In 2021, he had just 3 top 5’s. He had 2 in 2020 and 1 in his rookie season in 2019.

He almost had as many top 5’s last season alone (5) than he had his 46 previous starts (7).

Which shows what?

He’s improving each year which is why he went from 17th in points in 2019 to 12th in 2020 to 6th the last two years. His consistency was why he was having a shot at last year’s title, not his Indy 500 win.

His race craft truly is as good as it gets. His peers took notice. That praise makes Ericsson feel good but he also says that it can only go so far. At some point, you have to focus back on yourself again.

“Of course it means a lot,” he says of the praise by his peers. “But at the same time, you sort of race for yourself in a way. I think INDYCAR is, if not one of the absolute toughest series in the world, it’s amazing drivers here in the series. I feel like the last couple years I’ve shown that I can be fighting up front, winning races, fighting for championships.

“But, yeah, of course it means a lot to get respected by your competitors.”

As far as when that race craft came about?

“Yeah, I think race craft is something I learned a lot in my Formula 1 years. Planning a race, driving, thinking longer ahead in stints, taking care of my tires, fuel, stuff like that,” he told me. “I think my race craft, I really started to master that in Formula 1. It was one of my big strengths in F1.

“I feel like I brought that to INDYCAR, and it’s been my strength really from year one. I felt like I was pretty good in the races.

“Of course, you always try to become better and better. I try and analyze a lot and work hard with my engineers to understand and be involved in a lot of things. I think that helps me on race day to be prepared.

“It’s the same thing, that’s what we’ve been working on hard now in the off-season to try and improve on the qualifying side, to sort of analyze and understand why we’re lacking a little bit more there comparing to the races.

“It all comes down to hard work, having good people around you, being open to try new things.”

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