The frustration burning within Michael Andretti was clear in the images of him taken throughout the first race of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES season.
Not one or two or three … but all four of his Andretti Autosport cars were knocked out of contention in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding, and almost none of the trouble was the fault of the drivers on the Indianapolis-based team.
Devlin DeFrancesco suffered one of the most dramatic side impacts in recent memory, his car taking a broadside hit from a trailing car three corners into the opening lap, sending the No. 29 EVTEC Honda helicoptering in the air. Fortunately, he wasn’t hurt.
“I saw Helio (Castroneves) spinning in front of me and then I saw the No. 55 (Benjamin Pedersen) coming, and I knew it was going to be a big one,” DeFrancesco said. “(I) braced up and got ready for it. It was a wild ride.”
Kyle Kirkwood, who rejoined the Andretti organization during the offseason after a year away, would like to forget two incidents in Sunday’s 100-lap race. The first was Lap 38 contact that sent Conor Daly spinning.
Kirkwood’s second incident, on Lap 42, was even bigger: Running into Jack Harvey’s braking car, which launched Kirkwood over the cars of Harvey and Rinus VeeKay. The damage to all three cars was significant, although Kirkwood was able to continue in the No. 27 AutoNation Honda, finishing three laps off the pace in 15th.
Take note: Kirkwood’s car was the second Andretti Autosport machine airborne on the day.
Ten laps later, Colton Herta took a couple of bumps from Team Penske’s Will Power approaching Turn 4, the last of which bounced Herta’s No. 26 Gainbridge Honda hard into the tire barrier. Herta was dumbfounded, placing blame squarely on the reigning series champion. Race control aligned with Herta’s assessment, slapping Power with a penalty for avoidable contact. But Herta’s day was done.
“Yeah, I don’t know what I can do there except for, I don’t know, hit the wall,” an exasperated Herta said of his moment with Power. “It sucks. We were fast.”
It surely didn’t please Herta that Power came back from the drive-through penalty to finish seventh in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet, earning a respectable number of points – 26 – that figure to be beneficial later in the season.
Lastly and most significantly for Andretti Autosport, pole sitter Romain Grosjean, aiming for his first NTT INDYCAR SERIES victory, appeared to be charging toward the lead on Lap 72, but being alongside Scott McLaughlin, last year’s race winner, wasn’t good enough. McLaughlin felt his rear brakes lock approaching Turn 4, and the situation caused him to bounce into Grosjean’s No. 28 DHL Honda. The result: Both cars slammed the tire barrier, with Grosjean slamming his fists on the stacked tires upon exit. Again, race control issued a penalty against an Andretti aggressor, this time McLaughlin.
“What happened was pretty obvious on TV, so I’m not going to elaborate too much on that,” Grosjean politely said during his TV interview. “I’m very, very disappointed. … I’m really annoyed to be (interviewed) while the race is going on.”
McLaughlin vowed to apologize to Grosjean, and he did. Evident by a video captured by journalist Christopher DeHarde, Grosjean met him with smiles, a handshake and a hug, and that’s how they departed, too.
“First of all, I’m very sorry to Romain,” McLaughlin had said moments earlier during the television broadcast. “He’s a friend of mine, and I know we’re both going for the win there. I just made a big mistake there. While I tried to push on cold tires, I didn’t have the grip on the inside that I (had) on the (alternate tires). It took us both out.
“Look, I don’t race like that. I apologize.”
Still, the damage was done – again to Andretti Autosport.
After starting three cars in the top five of the race and leading 31 laps, the combined average finish of the four was 19.5 among 27 starters, with Kirkwood the team’s top finisher in 15th. Grosjean finished 18th, Herta 20th, DeFrancesco 25th – clearly not the way a season is supposed to start.
Oh, the agony, clearly and vividly expressed in Andretti’s disappointed face.