Marcus Ericsson endures chaotic INDYCAR opener, wins at St. Pete
The 2023 NTT IndyCar Series season opened up in a dramatic style at the drop of the green flag and ended with the unshaved Swede standing in victory circle just off the streets of St. Petersburg.
Marcus Ericsson’s fourth career IndyCar Series win once again came of the result of a heavy attrition-filled day. The Kumla, Sweden-born driver kept his Dallara-chassis clean throughout the entire 100-lap affair.
In the closing laps, his No. 8 Honda was pressuring young Patricio O’Ward, setting up a pass in the final moments. This never came to be, as a plenum fire inside the Chevolet engine strapped to O’Ward’s Arrow McLaren IndyCar team No. 5 entrant developed as the Mexican racer drove on the main straight, just shy of the start-finish line marking three circuits to go. Ericsson drove past and cruised to the win by 2.4-seconds.
The joy and relief Ericsson experienced Sunday evening post-race was allotted to the Chip Ganassi Racing No. 8 team, as the rest of the 27 crews packed up what was left to regroup before the next stop on the calendar in four weeks time. 11 of the cars were either retired from the Grand Prix early or sidelined off-course when the checkered flag flew of the shorefront runway-converted racetrack.
Incidents plagued the 180-miler right from the start, with the first of two major and freak crashes sidelining five teams from the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Pete as it was getting underway. It started right at the front of the field, as the 13-and-a-half row field tightly squeezed through turns one, two and three — a hotspot section of the track this weekend entering Sunday’s race as the city resurfaced the road in anticipation of providing more grip for the racecars, driving complained since the start of first practice that it lacked all traction with their Firestone rubber.
The contact was just inside the top 10, Scott Dixon hip-checked former teammate and close friend of Felix Rosenqvist, sending that Swedish driver towards the concrete barrier. Behind them, a chain reaction of brake-checks ensued, leading to a frightening pileup. First, Helio Castroneves spun from contact with Santino Ferrucci, leading to a near-blocked track as Devlin DeFrancesco also got caught up in the wheel-to-wheel impacts.
Conor Daly was able to narrowly squeak through the left side of the road as to his right, Simon Pagenaud clogged the track with his broken car. Then, rookie driver Benjamin Pedersen abruptly came onto the crash site blindsided by the car ahead, smoke and white walls. With little reaction time, the debut driver for A.J. Foyt Enterprises veered directly into the disabled car of DeFrancesco, launching the Andretti Autosport Steinbrenner Racing No. 29 through the air.
After a harsh impact back to Earth, the 23-year-old Toronto-native climbed from the Andretti Honda and waved to the crowd. “Yeah, I’m fine, you know a really hard knock and not the way we wanted to start the season,” DeFrancesco told NBC Sports post-crash after being checked from the IndyCar Meidcal Center. “The No. 29 Capstone Andretti Steinbrenner Honda, qualifying was very promising day after not driving in free practice two. We had our concerns about turn three, we made INDYCAR very aware there were multiple accidents there all weekend – it’s been slippery and that’s the scenario that happened.
“I saw Helio spinning infront of me and really, I’m on the brakes and there’s nowhere to go. And then I saw the [No.] 55 coming, I was like ‘Yeah, this is gonna be a big one,’ so just braced up and got ready for it. It was a wild ride.”
Felix Rosenqvist continued in the race despite the accident. The No. 6 Arrow McLaren group worked feverishly during the first portion of Sunday’s race to allow 31-year-old to leapfrog cars that sustained too much damage to continue. And as Rosenqvist drove his car back to pit lane, they were allowed to work on the car. Going 40 laps down, and eventually parking in the closing 20, the Swede beat nine cars in competition.
When Helio Castroneves climbed from his Meyer Shank Racing No. 06 Honda, he was noticeably in slight pain. After being checked and released from the IndyCar Medical Center, the four-time Indianapolis 500 champion related the pain from the accident to hitting “your funny bone on your chair”, while icing his hand and sitting in the make-shift paddock.
The race finally broke clean following a lenghty red-flag process and four pace laps before a rhythm of 33 green-flag laps broke out. During this sequence of the race, the two polesitting Andretti entrants drove away from the field, the rest led by Pato O’Ward as Romain Grosjean and Colton Herta gapped themselves at some points seven seconds ahead.
During the first green flag sequence of pit stops, Scott McLaughlin carved inside the top three utilizing the primary tire option, while the entirety of the top five starters chose the alternate “green” compound. Because of this, it was a narrow race off the pit lane between McLaughlin and former race leader Grosjean, who surrended his first lead of the race to the Kiwi on lap 32 for a pit stop.
Fellow New Zealand-native Scott Dixon next took the lead once McLaughlin ducked into his pit stall on lap 36. When Scott Dixon left his pit box, however, the second full course yellow flew over the 1.8-mile St. Pete Grand Prix for a stalled Conor Daly in turn nine.
With the caution out, Dixon was relgated to fifth based off the pit-exit blend line, and McLaughlin led over Grosjean.
The green didn’t stay long, as on lap 42 another scary crash struck turn four. Rinus VeeKay was run wide and pushed off by Josef Newgarden into a tire barrier. His stalled Ed Carpenter Racing No. 21 was broadsided by Jack Harvey first, then Kyle Kirkwood, either of which had nowhere to go. The quick and brutal shunt sent Kirkwood launching through the air. And in true shades of Driven or Talladega Nights, Kirkwood continued to drive the No. 27 Honda back to the pit lane, reminisce of Marcus Ericsson’s launch-and-win at Nashville two seasons back.
It wasn’t the same result for the California kid in his debut appearance for Michael Andretti in the top step on the Indy ladder, however. Service and lack of pace following to his AutoNation Andretti Autosport machine left them three laps behind at the drop of the checkered.
Jack Harvey was winded after climbing from his Rahal Letterman Lanigan No. 30 Honda. The Englishman took his time climbing from the cockpit, resting on the lip of the aeroscreen and again on the backstep of the ambulance. He was transported to the Bayfront Medical Center as precaution, where he was released Sunday evening. “Pretty disappointing way for our race to go there,” said Harvey in a RLLR video posted to social media. “I really couldn’t avoid Rinus and then just had a little bit of pain in both wrists when I was trying to get out of the car.
“Physically, obviously, it’s a tough race but I felt great. The race was really playing out quite well for the No. 30 Kustom Entertainment car, so [it is] really disappointing.”
The next incident sidelined 2021 winner in St. Petersburg, Colton Herta. He was upset with contact from Will Power, which sent the 2019 series Rookie of the Year into a tire wall, and ending his day 51 laps short. “I’d like to see a replay of it,” Herta asked NBC Sports before commenting for an interview. “I’m still not sure what happened, I thought I was pretty far ahead of him and I felt a tag in the left rear.
“Oh yeah,” the 22-year-old Santa Clarita, California-born driver said while watching back footage. “He wanted to use the next state over for track exit there. Yeah. I don’t know what I can do there except hit the wall. It sucks, we were fast.”
Finally, on lap 53, racing resumed and another rhythm was established for the next tire stint. This time on opposite compounds, Grosjean once again short-pitted McLaughlin as he was chasing down the DEX Imaging No. 3 Chevrolet. McLaughlin’s extra lap was also deferred by debut driver Agustin Canapino just ahead on the tail of the lead lap, costing McLaughlin time.
On his pit exit, McLaughlin was launched as Grosjean swept through the opening turn on Albert Whitted Airport. The two nearly tangled as the No. 3 boosted through turns two and three, and McLaughlin veered to the right side to protect the inside cornering for turn four. Grosjean popped left on the much warmer tire, and with the preferred line down the straight, had hoped to out-brake the driver of the Thristy Threes into the corner — but McLaughlin didn’t brake first — and The Phoenix wasn’t lifting either. Both of their magical races came to a collision on entry before slamming the infamous tire stack laying at the apex of the fourth turn’s concrete wall.
Grosjean was unable to continue in his Andretti Autosport No. 28 DHL Honda, ending the chances for the last and fourth Michael Andretti-owned machine. As he climbed from his car, the now Miami resident was visibily disgusted and pounded the tire stacks in anger.
A very frustrated Grosjean spoke with NBC Sports following his trip through medical clearings and demaded McLaughlin to be penalized for his actions (McLaughlin had been served a drive-through pit lane as a result of the avoidable contact). Post-race himself, McLaughlin owned up to the mistake and apologized for the run-in, but not trying to keep the lead. After returning the race one lap down, the 2022 St. Pete Grand Prix finished 13th and caught up with Grosjean at the transporters.
With the two main competitors for the win now watching, Pato O’Ward picked up the lead on lap 74 for his first time on the day. On the final restart with just over 20 laps remaining, O’Ward took off from Marucs Ericsson and Scott Dixon.
It was a close march between the three drivers over the course of the final stint, but with ten laps remaining the gap became noticeably smaller. And, with four to go, the plenum fire erose in the No. 5 Chevy engine, allowing Ericsson to swing right past.
“Obviously that’s racing,” Ericsson told NBC Sports, climbing off his car in victory circle. “I feel bad for Pato for having an issue but… that’s racing and you need to get there to the finish line and we were having such a good weekend. The car was fantastic all the way through and we were hunting him down, putting the pressure on and that’s when [the engine hiccup] happened. I’m really proud of the Huski Chocolate Team and Chip Ganassi Racing, it’s a hell of a start to the season.”
Ericsson now holds four career IndyCar victories, all with his tenure at Ganassi in which he joined at the start of 2020. Joining his Indianapolis 500 victory last May is three street course triumphs at Detroit’s Belle Isle, Nashville and now St. Petersburg.
The 32-year-old with 97 Formula One Grand Prix under his belt was a legitimate championship contender in the 2022 IndyCar campaign. Off his win in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, he led the series championship for several weeks before placing sixth in the standings. “I think people forget us in some conversations as well when they talk about the championship. We’re here to win, we won the [Indy] 500 last year and we led the championship for a long-time — that’s our mission this year, so this is a great start for it.”
Race Results – 2023 Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg
1 – (8) Marcus Ericsson / 4th Career IndyCar Victory, 8th Podium
2 – (5) Pato O’Ward / 14th Career IndyCar Podium Finish
3 – (9) Scott Dixon / 132nd Career IndyCar Podium Finish
4 – (7) Alexander Rossi / Debut for Arrow McLaren
5 – (77) Callum Ilott / Best Career IndyCar Finish
6 – (15) Graham Rahal
7 – (12) Will Power
8 – (10) Alex Palou
9 – (45) Christian Lundgaard
10 – (18) David Malukas
11 – (11) Marcus Armstrong [R] / Debut
12 – (78) Agustin Canapino [R] / Debut
13 – (3) Scott McLaughlin / – 1 Lap / Led 37 Laps, Most of All
14 – (20) Conor Daly / -1 Lap
15 – (27) Kyle Kirkwood / -3 Laps
16 – (51) Sting Ray Robb [R] / -4 Laps / Debut
17 – (2) Josef Newgarden / -5 Laps
18 – (28) Romain Grosjean / -29 Laps / Led 31 Laps
19 – (6) Felix Rosenqvist / -49 Laps
20 – (26) Colton Herta / -51 Laps
21 – (21) Rinus VeeKay / -59 Laps
22 – (30) Jack Harvey / -59 Laps
23 – (06) Helio Castroneves / -199 Laps
24 – (14) Santino Ferrucci / -100 Laps
25 – (29) Devlin DeFrancesco / -100 Laps
26 – (60) Simon Pagenaud / -100 Laps
27 – (55) Benjamin Pedersen [R] / -100 Laps / Debut
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