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Race report
IndyCar St. Pete

St. Pete IndyCar: Ericsson beats O’Ward in crash-filled nail-biter

Marcus Ericsson opened his 2023 season in brilliant style after passing Pato O’Ward with four laps to go, but there was carnage throughout the field in the IndyCar season-opener at St. Petersburg.

Marcus Ericsson, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda

Polesitter Romain Grosjean and Scott McLaughlin collided while dueling for the lead and went into a tire wall, allowing O’Ward of Arrow McLaren to hit the front, but a small engine issue for the leader allowed Ericsson to slip past and sprint away in the closing lap.

A disconsolate O’Ward held off Scott Dixon to the checkered flag, while Alexander Rossi came home fourth in his first race for Arrow McLaren, and Callum Ilott took a brilliant fifth for Juncos Hollinger Racing.

STORY OF THE RACE

The race was red-flagged on the opening lap, after a collision triggered by Santino Ferrucci of AJ Foyt Racing who nerfed Helio Castroneves into a spin. Quickly the second Meyer Shank car of Simon Pagenaud and Dale Coyne Racing’s rookie Sting Ray Robb was involved.

Devlin De Francesco skidded his Andretti Autosport car to a halt in a vain attempt to avoid the carnage but was hammered by rookie Benjamin Pedersen, whose Foyt machine sent De Francesco into the air and spun the stricken car through 180 degrees before it landed again.

Nearer the front, Arrow McLaren’s Felix Rosenqvist had bounced off Scott Dixon’s car left-rear wheel as Dixon thought his Ganassi machine was clear of the Swede. The impact sent Rosenqvist into the outside wall at Turn 3 and was left limping to the pits with left-rear damage.

Polesitter Romain Grosjean and Colton Herta had kept their Andretti Autosport-Hondas ahead of Pato O’Ward and Marcus Ericsson, but Palou had moved up to demote Kyle Kirkwood (Andretti) and Scott McLaughlin – the highest starter on the Firestone primaries. For the restart, McLaughlin would line-up ahead of fellow primary runners Dixon and Penske teammate Will Power.

Ahead of the restart, Josef Newgarden, Rinus VeeKay and Conor Daly pitted, Newgarden taking on a new set of primaries after picking up a right-rear puncture.

The restart was clean until the run from Turn 3 to Turn 4, when David Malukas’s Coyne w/HMD car made contact with rookie Marcus Armstrong’s Ganassi machine, puncturing its right-rear tire, and sending the New Zealander limping to the pits. Lundgaard made an error that saw him lose 10th to Malukas but the DCR driver soon pitted as Race Control ordered him to serve a drive-through penalty.

Up front, Grosjean held a one-second lead over Herta, but by Lap 12 they had over four-second margin over O’Ward. Behind O’Ward, the drivers ran in line, a little under one second apart, clearly all planning to make only two pitstops. McLaughlin, Dixon, Power and Arrow McLaren’s newest recruit Alexander Rossi ran P7-10 on primaries, waiting to see the alternate-tired cars ahead cause their rubber to wilt.

By lap 23, Grosjean had dropped Herta by 5.5s, and Herta was dropping into the clutches of O’Ward and Ericsson. Into Turn 10 on Lap 25, the Arrow McLaren driver moved up to claim second. Simultaneously, another Andretti driver, Kirkwood, lost sixth and seventh place to McLaughlin and Dixon, and on Lap 26, Power, Rossi and Jack Harvey (Rahal Letterman Lanigan) also demoted the 2021 Indy Lights champion.

Herta then pitted on Lap 27, and Kirkwood on Lap 28. Then it was Palou’s turn to feel his alternates go off, and he lost places to McLaughlin and Dixon on consecutive laps, before pitting on Lap 30, along with teammate Ericsson. The latter’s stop was excellent, and jumped the Indy 500 winner out ahead of Herta.

O’Ward closed the gap to Grosjean to five seconds before stopping on Lap 31, while Grosjean went a lap longer but with tired tires, he lost a lot of time, and so emerged barely more than one second ahead of the McLaren.

That left McLaughlin, Dixon and Power in the top three positions for one lap on their primaries, but the two Penske drivers pitted on Lap 35. McLaughlin emerged from the pits ahead of Grosjean and the pair went side by side down to Turn 4. But McLaughlin was on the inside and even on cold tires could brake just deep enough to protect his position from the polesitter.

That gave him the net lead – although it nearly didn’t! The yellows flew just as Dixon pitted, due to Daly spinning and stalling after being tagged by Kirkwood., but on checking the blend line, Race Control ordered Dixon to drop to fifth.

Thus the restart would see McLaughlin leading Grosjean, O’Ward, Ericsson, Dixon, Power, Herta, Rossi, Palou and Graham Rahal, with the three Antipodeans and Rossi now on alternates.

That softer rubber was going to get nursed through the caution that followed, when VeeKay slid into the tires at Turn 4 while being passed by Newgarden. It left Harvey with nowhere to go, and then Kirkwood struck the RLL car in the rear and launched over it. For the second time in 45 laps, an Andretti car was sent into the air. Kirkwood was, remarkably, able to hobble back to the pits, but Harvey took a while to emerge from the cockpit of his car, and VeeKay was also out on the spot.

Following the restart on Lap 50, Dixon took advantage of his softer rubber to dive down the inside of Ericsson, but when Power also tried to make a move on the Swede, he found the door closed and bumped wide. That allowed Herta to draw alongside the #12 Penske on the outside, but the pair made contact and Herta went into the tires at Turn 8. Power was adjudged to be at fault and would have to serve a drive-through penalty.

Thankfully the next restart was clean and stayed clean, and Grosjean did a superb job on primaries to hang on to McLaughlin on alternates over the next laps. The pair dropped O’Ward who was three seconds off the lead after just three laps. The McLaren driver was also having to keep his eye on his mirrors for Dixon and Ericsson who were both edging away from Rossi, Palou, Newgarden and Callum Ilott of Juncos Hollinger Racing.

Palou made his final stop on Lap 65, and Dixon did the same next time by, with Rossi emulating them on Lap 67, O’Ward and Newgarden on Lap 69.

In the lead battle, it was Andretti Autosport who blinked first, bringing Grosjean in for fresh Firestone primaries, while McLaughlin stayed out and got held up by a backmarker. As he emerged from the pits next time by, once again this pair were battling for the lead with McLaughlin on the inside, Grosjean on the outside. This time Grosjean was a tad further ahead on the hot tires and while he left room for McLaughlin, the defending St. Pete winner squirrelled under braking, the tail flicking out and sending the Andretti car into the tire wall. The impact also straightened the Penske and sent it into the tire wall too. Grosjean was out on the spot, while McLaughlin was bumpstarted and went to the pits.

This farce, once late-stopping Power and Malukas pitted, left O’Ward up front ahead of Dixon, Palou, Newgarden, Rossi, Ilott, Rahal, Lundgaard, highest rookie Agustin Canapino of Juncos Hollinger, Power, and Malukas.

O’Ward staved off Ericsson on the restart, and the Swede had his mirrors full of Dixon. Rossi, Ilott, Palou and Rahal pounced on Newgarden after he ran wide at the final turn, and the following lap Power also demoted his teammate after passing Canapino and Lundgaard on the restart lap. He alone among the top 13 had gone for fresh alternates for this final stint and for now it was paying off.

Ericsson was clawing back time on O’Ward, after the Mexican ace pulled 2.7sec at the restart, and on Lap 88 he was only 1.1sec adrift, and a similar gap ahead of Dixon. This trio dropped Rossi, who was himself reasonably comfortable ahead of Ilott, Rahal and Power.

Newgarden’s messy weekend got worse when, with five laps to go, he had fire emerging from his left-rear corner, but all eyes were on the front. At the end of Lap 96, O’Ward got sideways off the final turn, a plenum issue in the Chevrolet engine temporarily caused the Arrow McLaren to burp, and that was all Ericsson needed to duck around him and claim the lead which he held to the checkered flag, winning by 2.4sec.

A desperately frustrated O’Ward held off Dixon by half a second, with Rossi, the overachieving Ilott completing the top five. Rahal and Power demoted Palou on the final lap to claim sixth and seventh.

P Name Laps Diff Pits Led ST Engine Team
1 Marcus Ericsson 100 LAP 100 3 4 4 Honda Chip Ganassi Racing
2 Pato O'Ward 100 2.4113 3 23 3 Chevy Arrow McLaren
3 Scott Dixon 100 2.9257 3 3 9 Honda Chip Ganassi Racing
4 Alexander Rossi 100 6.7689 3   12 Chevy Arrow McLaren
5 Callum Ilott 100 8.2650 3   22 Chevy Juncos Hollinger Racing
6 Graham Rahal 100 10.7671 3   20 Honda Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing
7 Will Power 100 11.6798 3   10 Chevy Team Penske
8 Alex Palou 100 14.7244 3   7 Honda Chip Ganassi Racing
9 Christian Lundgaard 100 14.9528 3   11 Honda Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing
10 David Malukas 100 15.4401 4 2 16 Honda Dale Coyne Racing with HMD
11 Marcus Armstrong 100 15.8049 4   13 Honda Chip Ganassi Racing
12 Agustin Canapino 100 28.1332 3   21 Chevy Juncos Holling Racing
13 Scott McLaughlin 99 1 LAPS 6 37 6 Chevy Team Penske
14 Conor Daly 99 1 LAPS 5   26 Chevy Ed Carpenter Racing
15 Kyle Kirkwood 97 3 LAPS 5   5 Honda Andretti Autosport
16 Sting Ray Robb 96 4 LAPS 6   23 Honda Dale Coyne Racing w/RWR
17 Josef Newgarden 95 In Pit 5   14 Chevy Team Penske
18 Romain Grosjean 71 Contact 3 31 1 Honda Andretti Autosport
19 Felix Rosenqvist 51 In Pit 4   8 Chevy Arrow McLaren
20 Colton Herta 49 Contact 2   2 Honda Andretti Autosport w/Curb-Agajanian
21 Rinus VeeKay 41 Contact 3   24 Chevy Ed Carpenter Racing
22 Jack Harvey 41 Contact 2   19 Honda Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing
23 Helio Castroneves --- Contact     15 Honda Meyer Shank Racing
24 Santino Ferrucci --- Contact     17 Chevy AJ Foyt Enterprises
25 Devlin DeFrancesco --- Contact     18 Honda Andretti Steinbrenner Autosport
26 Simon Pagenaud --- Contact     25 Honda Meyer Shank Racing
27 Benjamin Pedersen --- Contact     27 Chevy AJ Foyt Enterprises

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