The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding was a wild flurry of chaos to start the 2023 NTT INDYCAR SERIES season, with five caution periods and one red flag.
The 100-lap race featured six leaders and six lead changes, with Marcus Ericsson making the winning pass on Lap 97 of 100 to score his fourth career victory.
Friends Collide, Ignite Massive Opening Lap Crash
Scott Dixon and Felix Rosenqvist ran side-by-side in the back end of the top 10 on the opening lap when contact though Turn 3 led to Rosenqvist tapping the outside wall and slowing, which started a chain-reaction, multi-car crash for those behind.
The carnage collected Helio Castroneves, Devlin DeFrancesco, Santino Ferrucci, Sting Ray Robb, Simon Pagenaud and Benjamin Pedersen, along with Rosenqvist. Six-time NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion Dixon was able to continue and finish third.
The incident brought out the red flag, which offered a moment for NBC analyst James Hinchcliffe to call Dixon, driver of the No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Honda, over the radio and reflect on the incident with Rosenqvist that triggered the crash.
“He’s my best friend, man; I feel really sad that we made contact there,” Dixon said. “It’s kind of weird the area into (Turns) 2 and 3 kind of funnels and then the outside wall comes in. Honestly, I thought I was clear and felt just a small rub. But then I saw in the mirror that it kind of backed up the traffic there and was a bigger hit for him than I thought. I feel bad for Felix.”
Rosenqvist, driver of No. 6 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet, offered his thoughts on the contact.
“It felt like he didn’t see that I was there,” Rosenqvist said. “It’s kind of hard to see on camera, but the wall comes back on the left. I never expected him to swerve out and take the normal racing line because we were side by side. I didn’t really try to go on the outside. I was just trying to get through the first couple of turns. I was just hanging there, and I think he didn’t know I was there.”
The visually stunning part of the crash was seeing DeFrancesco’s No. 29 EVTEC Honda for Andretti Steinbrenner Autosport end up airborne after taking a direct hit from the incoming No. 55 AJ FOYT RACING/SEXTON PROPERTIES Chevrolet of Pedersen.
“I saw Helio spinning in front of me and really was on the brakes and there was nowhere to go,” DeFrancesco said. “And then I saw the (No.) 55 coming. I was like, 'Yeah, this is going to be a big one.' So, just braced up and got ready for it. It was a wild ride.”
Castroneves, Ferrucci, DeFrancesco, Pagenaud and Pedersen finished, respectively, 23rd through 27th. Rosenqvist returned 49 laps down to finish 19th.
INDYCAR Safety Reigns Supreme
The huge pileup on Lap 1 presented an early workout for the AMR INDYCAR Safety Team and new INDYCAR Medical Unit.
Castroneves, who was visibly limping after exciting the No. 06 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda for Meyer Shank Racing, received attention on his right leg, lower on the knee and offered praise for the safety innovations and support in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES, which include the new mobile medical trailer brought to every race.
“I'm very good,” said Castroneves, a four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500. “By the way, incredible from the AMR safety crew. They did an amazing job. This (mobile) facility that INDYCAR has now, it's absolutely paying off. It's a shame that I have to try it out, but it took an X-ray, and everything is fine.
“In terms of what happened, no idea. Just got hit from behind. I saw everybody slowing down, and you just got to be proactive in situations like that. But I turned around and next thing I saw was a car flying over. But thank God that he had the aeroscreen, which is phenomenal by safety standards with the INDYCAR SERIES.”
A rough start to the weekend ended on a positive note for Graham Rahal.
Rahal, driver of the No. 15 United Rentals Honda for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, started 20th and navigated carefully through treacherous incidents to race among the top 10. The efforts were bolstered, too, when Rahal’s constant pressure led to passing the No. 10 The American Legion Chip Ganassi Racing Honda of Alex Palou on Lap 99 of 100 to claim a stout sixth-place result.
“I thought we did a good job managing it all,” Rahal said. “The guys did a great job; the pit strategy was solid, and we were able to pass some cars on track. We put all those things together, makes for a solid day.
“At the end there, we were able to put consistent pressure on (Alex) Palou for 20-plus laps and eventually, he bobbled. Normally guys bobble earlier than that, but he's a pro, he's a champion for a reason. He's a good kid and good driver. I was glad we got him to make an error, but it took a lot longer than I expected.”
Rahal’s car came within inches of hitting the tire barrier in Turn 4 on a restart during the race, but he continued his pursuit of the front. His strong pace helped Rahal keep the likes of Team Penske series champions Josef Newgarden and Will Power in the rearview mirror.
“Our car was good today,” Rahal said. “We were able to minimize mistakes. Obviously, on the one restart, I had a head-in-the-rear moment and got lucky to keep her off the fence. From there, we were able to challenge hard.
“And then, what I liked the most today is when guys like Newgarden were behind me, Power was behind. They really didn't have anything for us, which is a great sign because I expected them to, frankly. We can build upon this, for sure.”
Odds and Ends
- Caitlyn Brown became the first full-time female crew member to go over the wall for Team Penske, with the primary role of serving as the fuel side (right for this race) front tire changer on Josef Newgarden’s No. 2 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet. She had a part time over-the-wall role with the team last year, with tear-offs the responsibility.
- Each of Ericsson’s four victories have come in races that featured a red flag (Detroit 1, 2021; Nashville, 2021; 2022 Indianapolis 500; St. Petersburg, 2023).
- Callum Ilott was the biggest mover on the day, charging from 22nd on the grid to finish fifth. The result marks the first top-five finish for Ilott and Juncos Hollinger Racing in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES.
- Alexander Rossi made the most of his debut behind the wheel of the No. 7 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet, delivering an under-the-radar drive to finish fourth after starting 12th.
Career Day in INDY NXT by Firestone for Abel, Francis
Offseason racing in New Zealand proved useful for Jacob Abel, who enjoyed a banner but likely bittersweet day on the streets of St. Petersburg. After starting second in the No. 51 Abel Motorsports car, the sophomore driver found the front on an early restart and led 27 of 40 laps. But a potential victory slipped away with six laps to go, and he finished a career-best third behind winner Danial Frost and runner-up Nolan Siegel.
It was also a career-best finish for Ernie Francis Jr., who dodged all the chaos and drove his No. 99 HMD Motorsports with Force Indy machine from 17th to finish sixth.
INDY NXT Rivalry in the Works
It was an early exit for Enaam Ahmed after an opening-lap collision between his No. 47 Cape Motorsports car and fellow series rookie Reece Gold’s No. 76 Juncos Hollinger Racing car. After starting 11th, the British-Pakistani driver broke into the top 10 moments after the drop of the green flag, but the contact led to an early retirement, while Gold continued on and drove to an eighth-place finish.
Following the incident, a fuming Ahmed offered an emotional response.
“I think we were eighth or something and he was seventh, came out of Turn 3, he messed up,” Ahmed said. “I was next to him, and he completely right-hand down me into the wall, destroyed the right hand side of my car. And then also he took himself out in the process.
“When you're driving cars like this and you're doing 170, 180 mph and someone's next to you and there's a concrete wall to the right, you can't just right hand down them like you can in a Formula 4 car and expect them to move out the way. (Effing) idiot, from that point of view.
“I'm a bit annoyed frankly, because the Cape guys did a very good job all weekend, and we were fast. I think he's just a sore loser. He didn't want to see me go past him, frankly, so that was it.”