Random Thoughts on St. Petersburg

The 2023 season for the NTT IndyCar Series got off to a flying start yesterday – literally. Two Andretti Autosport cars took flight, not in a good way, in separate accidents in yesterday’s opening race at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

Devlin DeFrancesco was hit by AJ Foyt’s Benjamin Pedersen in the opening-lap melee. It was a frightening scene as he DeFrancesco was hit broadside by the trailing Pedersen, and sent careening into the air. I’m sure it’s not the case, but the TV angles looked as if Pedersen didn’t even think about hitting his brakes.

Five of the six cars involved made it only three turns into the 2023 season, before their day met a premature end. The only one of the bunch to continue was rookie Sting Ray Robb. Those that saw their race end in Turn Three were Pedersen, DeFrancesco, Helio Castroneves, Simon Pagenaud and Santino Ferrucci – who may have ignited the whole situation. Fortunately, the most serious injury resulting from the crash was sore right leg for Helio Castroneves.

On Lap 42, another Andretti car went airborne as Kyle Kirkwood saw a promising day come to an end as he encountered a crash between Rinus VeeKay and Jack Harvey in Turn Four. Somehow, the pink car of Kirkwood was launched over those two cars as he came back down to earth with a resounding thud. Miraculously, Kirkwood was able to re-enter the race, albeit three laps down.

I’m not sure exactly what happened, but Jack Harvey caught the worst of the accident. As soon as the accident came to a halt, Harvey looked dazed in the cockpit. He looked even more dazed as he sat on the back of the ambulance. He was taken to a local hospital as a precaution, but was released by late afternoon.

The remaining two Andretti cars weren’t that lucky. Both Romain Grosjean and Colton Herta started on the front row, with Grosjean on pole. Herta was innocently pushed into the Turn Eight tire barrier by Will Power on Lap 50, who really didn’t have much room to avoid Herta. Power accepted full blame, but I thought both had an equal hand in it. Nevertheless, Power was sent to the back of the field on the re-start – but still managed to finish seventh.

On Lap 72, Michael Andretti received the biggest blow of all. Grosjean and Scott McLaughlin had been engaged in a spirited battle for the lead for several laps. Grosjean pitted first, while McLaughlin came in a lap or two later. McLaughlin came out of the pits, just barely ahead of Grosjean – but he was on cold tires. Grosjean tried to pass McLaughlin on the outside heading into Turn Four, when McLaughlin’s rear-end stepped out enough for the two to make contact. Both contenders stuffed themselves into the tire barrier. Grosjean could not continue, while Penske’s McLaughlin limped back around to the pits. What seemed to be a certain 1-2 finish for those two, ended up with McLaughlin finishing thirteenth and Grosjean a forgettable eighteenth.

From that point, it looked like Pato O’Ward was going to score the opening win of the season for himself and Arrow McLaren. But Chip Ganassi Racing’s Marcus Ericsson was in second and quickly closing the gap to O’Ward. At the conclusion of Lap 97, as the combatants were rounding Turn Fourteen and heading onto the main straightaway, O’Ward’s Chevy engine chose a less than desirable time to hiccup. The power was gone for a second or two, but that’s all Marcus Ericsson needed to pounce. Ericsson seized the opportunity and took the win. It was just Chip Ganassi’s second win ever, at the temporary street circuit that overlooks Tampa Bay.

There are a lot of adjectives to use in describing yesterday’s Firestone Grand Prix at St. Petersburg, but dull or boring are not in that group. It has been a while since I’ve seen a race this crazy, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a season-opener as wild as what we saw yesterday. That is going to be a hard act to follow, almost a month from now at Texas.

TV Coverage: For it to be a season-opening race, I thought the NBC crew seemed to be in mid-season form all through the weekend. Were they perfect in identifying every car or situation? No, but who is?

If I’m going to nitpick, I have two complaints. The first is the dreaded in-car interview while cars are on the parade lap. James Hinchcliffe “called” Scott McLaughlin yesterday just as the cars were moments away from going green. Fortunately, there weren’t the usual technical glitches – but it is still awkward and tells viewers absolutely nothing. I always feel like I am interrupting someone’s lunch when they do this. This is not new technology, as Sam Posey and Kevin Cogan can attest to from the 1986 Indianapolis 500. No one is impressed by this. It needs to die a merciful death.

My second complaint is about Peacock. I chose to watch yesterday’s race on Peacock, rather than my local NBC affiliate. I got a new TV over the offseason; and the HDR 4K content really shows up much better going through my Apple TV, as compared to NBC coming through my Xfinity cable box.

It used to be if there were local breaks, Peacock would continue to show us cars on-track with nothing from the announcers. Now they show a generic screen that says something to the effect that Coverage Will Resume Shortly. Give us the bonus coverage of cars on-track during commercials.

National Anthem: If you’ve been coming here for a while, you know that I am fairly particular about the various renditions of our National Anthem we hear before IndyCar races. Some are quite good, while others are beyond awful. Where do I rank Trace Adkins and his version yesterday? Close to the top. He played it straight with very little added flair. The result was something that got my attention – this time, in a good way.

The Great Escape: There were a lot of great moves yesterday, mixed in with a few dumb ones. There were also lots of excellent drives all day, by several drivers. But the single one great move of the day, occurred during the first lap incident. Conor Daly started twenty-sixth in a twenty-seven car field. That means he was way back in the back when all of the mess started.

As the wreck just ahead was quickly unfolding, Daly somehow squeezed himself through a closing gap between the concrete wall on the left and a disabled car sliding in his direction on the right. Somehow, he made it through unscathed as the hole closed just behind him. Daly went on to finish a much more respectable fourteenth, all by escaping the first-lap carnage by inches.

Someone to Watch: If you heard Juncos Hollinger Racing’s rookie driver Augustin Canapino interviewed on Trackside a few weeks ago, his goal going into the Open Test at The Thermal Club last month was simply to not be last. He met that goal by a long-shot at the two-day test. That was also his goal for the first few races.

I can’t say how he’ll do at the next sixteen races, but Canapino more than acquitted himself this past weekend at St. Petersburg. He was relatively quick in practice and qualified twenty-first out of twenty-seven cars. But for his first race in any type of open-wheel car, Canapino impressed, He kept his nose clean and was running in the Top-Ten late in the race. He ultimately ended up a respectable twelfth-place – ahead of many former champions and Indianapolis 500 winners.

I’m thinking that Canapino will be someone to watch going forward this season.

The Incident: Much like the Herta/Power incident where Will Power took the blame; Scott McLaughlin took the blame for the incident that took out pole-sitter Romain Grosjean. Quite honestly, I didn’t blame either one – but I also blamed them both. It was strictly a racing incident.

Now, the prudent thing would have been for one of them to lift – allowing them both the opportunity to finish near the front, collect a lot of points and give them both a lot of momentum heading into Texas. That would’ve been the smart and prudent thing to do.

However, we were dealing with two pure racers going into Turn Four, fighting for the same piece of real estate – and the win. They weren’t concerned with points. All either one was concerned about at that moment, was the race win.

In my opinion, we need more racers like that in all forms of motorsports. Most fans have been turned off by NASCAR drivers that seem content to ride around and collect points. Roger Penske and Michael Andretti are both racers at heart. While they were probably disappointed to see a good day end up in the tire barrier, I have an idea that by today – they understand and appreciate their driver’s mentality to go for the win and not worrying about the consequences.

Yesterday’s crash into the tire barriers will have an effect on the season for Grosjean and McLaughlin. At some point in mid-August, they may even wish they could have a do-over for their actions at St. Petersburg. But my hat is off to both of these drivers for doing whatever it takes to win a race at that moment, versus being careful, backing out of the throttle and living to see another lap. Good for them!

Drive of the Day: There are many contenders this week for Drive of the Day. Graham Rahal finds his way a lot in this segment. For whatever reason, he has not been a very good qualifier as of late – and he has to rely on his race savvy ability on Race Day. He came close again this week for this mythical award on this site. Rahal qualified twentieth, but crossed the line on Lap 100 in sixth-place – giving himself a nice start for the season.

Although Rahal passed almost as many cars, I am not giving him the award this week. There is a lot that goes into this award, rather than passing the most cars in a race. Expectations, budget, experience are all part of the excruciating decision process I go through after each race. For those that can’t tell from print – that was sarcasm.

Still, I do take all those things into account as I type. My Drive for the Day this week goes to Callum Ilott of Juncos Hollinger Racing. Ilott started twenty-second, drove a steady race with carnage all around him – and came home in fifth place. This team and driver combination continues to amaze.

All in All: From the first practice session on Friday, it looked like we could be in for a wild race. Rear brake lock-ups seemed to be a recurring theme. That meant Sunday had the potential to be a free for all. Saturday morning’s practice and Saturday afternoon’s qualifying session did nothing to change our initial impressions. It took only three turns into Sunday’s race to confirm our suspicions.

In case you’re under the impression that Sunday was nothing but a crash-fest and Marcus Ericsson was the last man standing, there was also a lot of fascinating tire and pit strategy going on. All of that coupled with the passing on-track as well as the crashes made for one of the most entertaining races we’ve seen in a while. If the rest of the season is like yesterday – we are all in for a treat in 2023.

George Phillips

12 Responses to “Random Thoughts on St. Petersburg”

  1. OliverW Says:

    “There are a lot of adjectives to use in describing yesterday’s Firestone Grand Prix at St. Petersburg, but dull or boring are NOT in that group”

    I think that is what was meant ?

    Having watched the pre season video when Ericssons 500 win was dismissed as a non event I see this has carried over. Ericsson was in the right place and the right time. Congratulations to him and his work ethic.

    Shout out too for Grosjean amazing tyre management in the first stint.

  2. billytheskink Says:

    Too messy, but I liked seeing a lot of hard racing. Race control was asked to do quite a bit and I thought they handled all of the calls pretty well, even the Power-Herta call (as with McLaughlin-Grosjean, Power had the chance to back out of the game of chicken, Herta did not).

    Big kudos to Daly, Illot, and Rahal for some excellent evasive driving (and a bit of luck) yesterday. No one would have blamed them for getting caught up in multiple incidents that unfolded right in front of them.

    I still don’t think Ericsson quite has championship-level speed, but he doesn’t yield to the guys that do when they make mistakes. Great drive.

  3. Bruce Waine Says:

    “All of that coupled with the passing on-track as well as the crashes made for one of the most entertaining races we’ve seen in a while.”

    Wonder if one might add to “one of the most entertaining,” …….. and one of the most expensive in the number of damaged cars………..

  4. I agree with you 100%. While I don’t really care for the multi-car crashes, I do appreciate good racing. I too was impressed by Conor Day dodging all the bullets sent his way… even when Kyle Kirkwood tried to stuff it in and almost put Conor into the wall. I was also impressed by both Juncos drivers for being there at the end in relatively good positions… something that several much bigger teams could not come close to saying.

    All in all, I think the 2023 Indycar season is off to a great start! Now if we just had a few more ovals!!!

  5. EXCELLENT blogging, George
    I would just delete the second “DeFrancesco” in the second paragraph.

    Graham is infamous for NOT being a good IndyCar qualifier.
    And Townsend Bell, whom I don’t want to hear pontificate, claimed that Rahal has such wonderful “race-craft” with which he collects many ‘valuable points.”
    (eye roll) Rahal doesn’t wins many races or any championship. He finished sixth due to competitors’ attrition.

    • billytheskink Says:

      I would argue that good racecraft helps a driver avoid becoming part of attrition… particularly when two multicar wrecks unfold right around said driver and they do not get caught up in either one.

    • Matt B. (Dayton, OH) Says:

      Graham passes a lot of cars because there are always a lot of cars starting in front of him. 😉

  6. Any thoughts on the NEW alternate tires resulting in more than normal marbles? Why didn’t Race Control blow off the marbles during the two extended yellows?

  7. Shyam Cherupalla Says:

    All the carnage, damage and lost time from racing and the close competitive nature of the field like was the cause of these accidents. This is the reason that Indycar should look to add Standing starts in the street courses, I think it will prevent these carnages since the speeds in the earlier turns wont be quite as high as with rolling starts. Rolling starts are dynamic and people are jockeying for position even before the green and it just makes it worse in the first few turns with that jockeying going throughout the first lap. Not saying this wont happen in standing starts but it might create gaps relative to rolling starts. Plus it adds to the variation of Indycar with different type of tracks, different tires, and also different type of starts

  8. I thought the back of the field wasn’t lined up very well before the start, but it wasn’t waved off. Standing starts were tried at a couple of races several years ago and did not go smoothly.

    • Britindycarfan26 Says:

      Any ideas why indycar made such a mess off standing starts? ( yes I know one was a spa98 ish moment injuring the official starter or something but that aside it still didn’t work why?) It don’t really make sense as they totally fine in almost every pit stop ……… which to rejoin the race had to make a …… standing start! Personally I prefer many things in indycar to f1 but one thing both f1 and fe have over indycar is standing starts as adds a bit off grid moment to the race order especially early doors.

  9. Very entertaining race. I couldn’t agree more on the in-car interview needing to go away. It’s a total waste of time but at least Hinch sounds much more professional than good ole boy, back slapping, good buddy “Bowyer in the booth”. If NBC would just slide Diffey over to NASCAR where his carnival barking style would fit right in and replace him with Kevin Lee…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: