Fifth Gear: Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

  • Racing News
Streets of St. Petersburg

One race down, 16 to go. Imagine the drama that awaits.

Sunday’s season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding could not have packed more excitement into two hours, hence the need for an additional five-plus minutes. From the big mess in Turn 3 on the opening lap to a fierce, no-win fight for the lead to Marcus Ericsson’s stirring victory, the battle is on in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES.

Who figured Chip Ganassi Racing, a series champion on 14 occasions, would need 19 years to reach two victories on this 14-turn, 1.8-mile street circuit? Taking that a step further, who thought it would be Ericsson, and not the legendary Scott Dixon, a four-time St. Petersburg race runner-up, to post that second victory?

On Lap 72 of this 100-lap race, victory was in the hands of either Team Penske’s Scott McLaughlin or Andretti Autosport’s Romain Grosjean, but neither of them went to Victory Lane as their races effectively ended against the tire barrier in Turn 4. Go figure.

There were storylines aplenty amid this 27-car field, including the lead car of Pato O’Ward losing momentum three laps and one corner from the checkered flag, only to be overtaken by Ericsson. And Kyle Kirkwood, who made a big statement in his return to Michael Andretti’s organization by reaching the Firestone Fast Six in qualifying, became the second driver of the race to have his car knocked in the air, fortunately without injury.

There’s much to unpack, so let’s get to it.

First Topic, Safety

There is no better place to begin than with the protection of the drivers, specifically the aeroscreen introduced for the 2020 season.

INDYCAR President Jay Frye tweeted a video of the nose of Benjamin Pedersen’s No. 55 AJ Foyt Racing/Sexton Properties Chevrolet, which took a massive hit from the No. 29 EVTEC Honda of Andretti Autosport’s Devlin DeFrancesco. As the video shows, the aeroscreen had a big mark on the right side.

The incident began with mid-pack contact between Scott Dixon (No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda) and Felix Rosenqvist (No. 6 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet). Many drivers directly behind them checked up, leading to an accordion effect. In that, Santino Ferrucci (No. 14 AJ Foyt Racing/Sexton Properties Chevrolet) struck the back of the car driven by Meyer Shank Racing’s Helio Castroneves (No. 06 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda), leading to a chain reaction that collected DeFrancesco, among others.

Pedersen went nose-first into DeFrancesco’s left side, sending DeFrancesco spinning through the air. The crowd’s gasp could be heard above the roar of the engines, but neither driver was injured, and the five drivers eliminated from the race in the incident were soon cleared by INDYCAR’s medical team.

Later in the race, Kirkwood’s No. 27 AutoNation Honda ran into the back of Jack Harvey’s No. 30 Kustom Entertainment Honda, launching Kirkwood’s car over the top of the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing entry. Again, the aeroscreen and the other safety features built into these cars did the job. Harvey needed some time to gather himself and was taken to a local hospital for observation, but he posted a social media video reporting no issues. Kirkwood’s car landed hard on the track, but again, there were no issues. In fact, Andretti Autosport got the car back in the race after repairs, and Kirkwood finished 15th.

Difficult Start to Season for Foyt, MSR

Yes, this was the first race of the year, but two teams must wait until the XPEL 375 on Sunday, April 2 at Texas Motor Speedway to turn meaningful laps in a race.

Meyer Shank Racing and AJ Foyt Racing each saw both of its cars taken out of this race by the first-lap incident. In addition to Castroneves, Meyer Shank Racing had Simon Pagenaud (No. 60 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda) squeezed against the right-side wall. A.J. Foyt’s team suffered considerable damage to the cars of Pedersen and Ferrucci.

Castroneves and Pagenaud each reported some soreness from the contact, but again, credit the safety features INDYCAR has implemented in recent years. Castroneves also applauded the AMR Safety Team’s quick work, as crews were on the scene within seconds and examined the drivers in the new state-of-the-art INDYCAR Medical Unit.

Frustration Aplenty

There isn’t enough time here to list all of the drivers who left St. Petersburg disappointed, so start with the three who led the race but didn’t win it.

Romain Grosjean, the NTT P1 Award winner in the No. 27 DHL Honda, was positioned to control the race’s final laps and perhaps score his first series victory when he pulled alongside Scott McLaughlin (No. 3 DEX Imaging Team Penske Chevrolet) heading to Turn 4 on Lap 72. Grosjean had the momentum and his Firestone Firehawks were warm from pitting a lap earlier. McLaughlin was trying to get his tire temperatures up, but they weren’t ready for the aggression, and the contact between the cars sent both to the tire barrier. McLaughlin accepted blame for the incident after the race, apologizing in person to Grosjean.

O’Ward was virtually at a loss for words when his engine lost torque and sputtered due to plenum misfire coming onto the front straightaway while leading Lap 197. Thus, he was helpless to defend the charging Ericsson in the No. 8 Huski Chocolate Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, and O’Ward said this was a race that painfully got away.

McLaughlin (37 laps), Grosjean (31) and O’Ward (23) combined to lead 91 of the race’s 100 laps, but their combined average finish was 11.0. O’Ward’s consolation is that he finished second in the No. 5 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet.

Other Notables

  • Juncos Hollinger Racing deserves major kudos for finishing fifth and 12th in its first race after expanding to two full-season cars. Callum Ilott led the way, as expected, gaining a race-high 17 positions from where he qualified, but rookie Agustin Canapino delivered a solid drive in his first series race. The former Argentine touring car champion started ahead of six other drivers, including his teammate and two drivers who have won races in this series, and avoided the trouble of the race.
  • Scott Dixon (No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda) again was strong in this event without reaching victory lane. He finished third, his seventh podium finish in St. Pete and his 132nd career podium (second all time). Dixon’s 193rd top-five finish tied Mario Andretti’s INDYCAR SERIES record. The result was a good start toward what could be a record-tying seventh series championship.
  • Arrow McLaren Racing, which expanded to three cars for this season, got off to a good start with O’Ward finishing second, Alexander Rossi fourth and Felix Rosenqvist qualifying eighth despite the first-lap contact with Dixon that led to a 19th-place finish.
  • Remember Will Power’s comeback from a penalty for bumping Andretti Autosport’s Colton Herta (No. 26 Gainbridge Honda) into the Turn 8 tire barrier. Power finished seventh in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet, and those 26 points could be important late in the season as he tries to win a second consecutive series championship and the third of his career.
  • Graham Rahal (No. 15 United Rentals Honda) again drove a strong race, finishing sixth for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. He started 20th. Give props, too, to Christian Lundgaard (No. 45 Hy-Vee Honda), who gave RLL two top-10 finishers by placing ninth.