Ericsson Emerges With Victory In St. Pete

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, March 6 2023

Marcus Ericsson pops a bottle of victory bubbly after winning in St. Pete. (Photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Sweden’s Marcus Ericsson maneuvered through an afternoon of high-speed mayhem to win Sunday’s season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, marking himself as a bona fide favorite for the 2023 NTT IndyCar Series championship.

Ericsson earned his fourth career series victory and third on a street-course by a margin of 2.4113-seconds over hard-luck runnerup Pato O’Ward of Arrow McLaren. Ericsson, who started fourth, took the lead when O’Ward suddenly slowed on Lap 97 of the scheduled 100-lap/180-mile event exiting Turn 14 as his Chevrolet engine momentarily shut off due to a fire in the plenum chamber.

“I feel bad for Pato for having the issue, but that’s racing,” said Ericsson, 32, driver of the No. Chip Ganassi Racing Honda. “You need to get there to the finish line. We were having such a good weekend. The car was fantastic all the way through. We were hunting him down, putting the pressure on and that’s when things happen. It was a hell of a start to the season.”

Indeed. Ericsson now has recorded a victory across each of his three seasons with CGR, which notched its 124th overall INDYCAR victory and 245th in the organization’s history. In addition, Ericsson became the fourth reigning Indy 500 champion to win an ensuing season-opener, joining Juan Pablo Montoya of Colombia in 2016; Dario Franchitti of Scotland in 2011 and the late Dan Wheldon of Great Britain in 2006.

“I’m really happy with our results and our performance,” said Ericsson, who finished sixth in the 2022 point standings topped by two-time/reigning series champion Will Power of Team Penske. “I think it shows all the hard work we put in this offseason as a team. For myself, I’ve been focusing a lot on qualifying, trying to be better there and improve our qualifying form. This is a great start to that and to the season.” 

Scott Dixon, Marcus’ CGR teammate and a six-time series champion, finished third in the No. 9 Honda. Dixon’s 132nd career podium is second all-time in INDYCAR history and tied the native of New Zealand with open-wheel icon Mario Andretti for most top-five finishes in the series.

Alexander Rossi finished fourth in his debut behind the wheel of the No. 7 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet after seven seasons in Honda-powered cars at Andretti Autosport. Callum Ilott of Great Britain completed the top-five after starting 22nd in the No. 77 Chevrolet. Ilott’s 17 spots gained were the most of any driver competing on the 1.8-mile/14-turn Florida layout that includes the downtown streets of St. Petersburg and a runway at Albert Whitted Airport.

O’Ward took the point on Lap 74 when leader and defending event champion Scott McLaughlin and second-place Romain Grosjean collided while dueling side-by-side for P1, with both drivers plunging simultaneously into the tire barriers lining Turn 4. McLaughlin had just exited the pits in his No. 3 Team Penske Chevrolet on cold Firestone tires after Grosjean had pitted moments earlier and was running on up-to-speed rubber on his No. 28 Honda.

Scotty Mac took responsibility for the incident with Grosjean, the NTT P1 Award pole-sitter, during a post-race interview.

“Very sorry to Romain. He’s a friend of mine,” said McLaughlin, a native of New Zealand who is in his third INDYCAR season with team and series-owner Roger Penske. “I know we were both going for the win there. I just made a big mistake. I tried to push on cold tires. I just didn’t have the grip on the inside (on primary/hard Firestones) like I did on the greens (alternate). Locked the rears. Unfortunately, we made wheel-contact that time and it took us both out.

“Look, I don’t race like that. I apologize. I feel I had plenty of good battles with many good drivers. I just got to thank my DEX Imaging Chevy crew. The car was great. My fuel mileage was great. You have your good days, you have your bad days. I do apologize to Romain and I’ll go see him soon.”

McLaughlin and Frenchman Grosjean clearly had emerged as the day’s dominant drivers, leading 37 and 31 laps, respectively. A former Formula One regular, Grosjean was seeking his first INDYCAR victory in his second season with the team owned by former series star Michael Andretti.

The ensuing restart on Lap 79 saw O’Ward build a 2.8-second lead in just one lap, with the native of Mexico apparently headed to Victory Lane. But Ericsson chipped away at O’Ward’s lead, aided by saving twice as much Push-to-Pass time as O’Ward for the race’s final stint. Ericsson pulled to within one-half second of O’Ward on Lap 97, when O’Ward’s car suddenly slowed with the plenum problem before regaining speed.

“We did everything right today,” a crestfallen O’Ward said. “It’s always something. All the boys deserve better than that. Compared to where we were at this point last year here, it’s a massive step. But we gave that one away. We can’t have that happen anymore. There was a flaming fire in the engine plenum, and that was just random. I know we’re second, but …”

O’Ward’s disappointment was echoed by Gavin Ward, who made his official debut as Arrow McLaren race director. “Obviously, a little bit heartbreaking when you think you’re going to win a race and it doesn’t quite go your way at the end, but that’s motor racing,” Ward said. “Overall, you take the big picture view here. We came in here wanting to get some good points on the board. It’s a long season, and the key to the season is consistency and two of our cars got right up there in the top-four, so have to be super-happy with that.

“Felix (Rosenqvist of Sweden), his crew dug deep and got that car back out there to gain some extra points and spots. I’m proud of those guys. Rossi has a lot of new people on his car, his first race with the team. His finish is what we need to be doing to give him a chance for the championship. Pato had a great car all weekend and had a strong race, but we have a lot we need to look at on the end of the race there. Onwards to Texas (for Round 2 of the schedule), where we were strong last year and we hope to be even stronger this year.”

Ericsson subsequently slipped past O’Ward, taking the lead for the first time and cruising to the checkered flag in front of a chanting corps of Swedish fans. Ericsson will split $10,000 with his Chip Ganassi Racing team and his chosen charity, Riley Children’s Foundation, for his victory as part of the PeopleReady Force For Good Challenge.

Earlier, two major incidents on the tight and concrete wall-lined temporary circuit thinned the 27-car field in the race’s first half. During a restart on Lap 41, Rinus VeeKay’s No. 21 Chevrolet nosed into the barriers in Turn 4 amid heavy traffic. The No. 30 of Englishman Jack Harvey had nowhere to go and plowed into the back of VeeKay’s Ed Carpenter Racing entry. The trailing No. 27  Honda of Kyle Kirkwood of Andretti Autosport then hit the rear of Harvey’s car, vaulting over that machine and Dutchman VeeKay’s wounded Chevy.

Harvey was transported to a local hospital in stable condition for further evaluation as a precautionary measure, according to INDYCAR Medical Director Dr. Julia Vaizer. The other drivers in the incident reportedly were uninjured.

The season started with a chaotic incident on the opening lap when Rosenqvist’s No. 6 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet and Dixon’s Honda made slight side-by-side contact through Turn 2, with Rosenqvist being shoved into “light contact” with the wall.

However, that minor clash triggered a chain-reaction collision involving six cars that wiped out two teams’ hopes for a strong finish. Drivers involved included Meyer Shank Racing teammates Helio Castroneves of Brazil in the No. 06 Honda and Frenchman Simon Pagenaud in the No. 60 Honda; AJ Foyt Racing teammates Santino Ferrucci in the No. 14 AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet and rookie Benjamin Pedersen of Denmark in the No. 55 AJ Foyt Racing Chevy; rookie Sting Ray Robb in the No. 51 Honda and Canadian Devlin DeFrancesco in the No. 29 Honda.

DeFrancesco’s car drew gasps when it was tossed into the air in a pirouette when T-boned by Pedersen’s car during the maelstrom. Miraculously, none of the drivers involved was seriously hurt.

Round 2 of the series and the season’s first oval-track race _ the PPG 375 _ is scheduled for Sunday, April 2, on the 1.5-mile oval at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth. Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden will return to “The Great American Speedway” in the No. 2 Hitachi Chevrolet for a two-day program as defending event champion after finishing 17th on the Streets of St. Pete.

“We had a really solid race,” said Newgarden, a two-time series champion and runnerup to Penske teammate and native Australian Power last season in the final standings. “Everything was executed just beautifully as always. The Hitachi car felt racy. We made some moves there in the middle. I was proud of everybody. It was a good first race to work together; a lot of new people on the crew. Everyone performed incredibly; really good stops. So, I feel really encouraged for the next round. We’ll just get back on it and get this thing tuned-up and keep going.”

Danial Frost took the lead on a late restart and powered victory in Sunday’s season-opening INDY NXT by Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, earning his second career win in INDYCAR’s developmental series.

Frost, from Singapore, crossed the finish line in the No. 68 HMD Motorsports with DCR car 1.8038-seconds ahead of teammate and rookie Nolan Siegel in the No. 39 HMD Motorsports with DCR machine. Jacob Abel finished third in the No. 51 Abel Motorsports car.

“I couldn’t believe it at the end,” Frost said. “I was still driving until the checkered and as soon as we passed the checkered, I was like, ‘OK, we won!’ So, it feels amazing.”

Christian Rasmussen finished fourth in the No. 6 HMD Motorsports with DCR machine, while Hunter McElrea rounded-out the top-five in the No. 27 Smart Motors car fielded by Andretti Autosport.

Frost earned his first win since last May on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road-Course by squeezing past leader Siegel on the first full lap after a restart on Lap 38. Siegel ran wide in Turn 2 and Frost took advantage to grab the lead.

“I kind of planned it out that everyone else was shooting in (Turn 1) and going wide, so I tried to take a different approach and go inside and get a switchback,” Frost said. “It’s been working for me all race, so I might as well do the same thing. It paid off, so No. 1 in the end. It’s perfect.”

Frost pulled away over the closing two laps. He started seventh, tying the record for the longest climb to victory in this race, as Felix Serralles also won from that spot on the starting grid in 2016.

The decisive move by Frost was one of 119 on-track passes during a frantic, 55-minute race on the 1.8-mile/14-turn temporary street circuit that includes the downtown streets of St. Petersburg and a runway at Albert Whitted Airport.

Abel and Siegel both laid claim to victory earlier but ended up settling for their respective first career podium finishes in INDY NXT by Firestone. Siegel, of Palo Alto, Calif., took the lead on Lap 35 after a restart in which leader Abel and second-place Rasmussen slid wide in Turn 1, giving Siegel an opening for the top spot.

“I’m really proud of the effort,” Siegel said. “Starting sixth, this is not an easy place to pass. We were hoping for as good of a recovery as we could get. Obviously, that win would have been the best recovery, but I think this is a really strong performance. We just missed out on it that tiny little bit on that last restart.”

Abel, of Louisville, Ken., led a race-high 27 laps. He took the lead for the first time on Lap 8 when pole- sitter and leader Louis Foster slid wide while fending off Rasmussen for the point in Turn 1 on a restart. Much like Siegel’s dash to the front, an alert Abel saw the opening and capitalized.

Foster, of Great Britain, made contact with the wall on the lap where he lost the lead and was forced to the pits for repairs of a broken left-rear toe link on his No. 26 Copart/USF Pro Championship car fielded by Andretti Autosport. He ended up 14th, running at the finish.

Next series race is the INDY NXT by Firestone Grand Prix of Alabama on Sunday, April 30, at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Ala.


Results of the 2023 season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding NTT IndyCar Series event on the 1.8-mile/14-turn Streets of St. Pete circuit in Florida, with order of finish, starting position in parentheses, driver, chassis-engine, laps completed and reason out (if any):

  1. (4) Marcus Ericsson, Honda, 100, Running
    2. (3) Pato O’Ward, Chevrolet, 100, Running
    3. (9) Scott Dixon, Honda, 100, Running
    4. (12) Alexander Rossi, Chevrolet, 100, Running
    5. (22) Callum Ilott, Chevrolet, 100, Running
    6. (20) Graham Rahal, Honda, 100, Running
    7. (10) Will Power, Chevrolet, 100, Running
    8. (7) Alex Palou, Honda, 100, Running
    9. (11) Christian Lundgaard, Honda, 100, Running
    10. (16) David Malukas, Honda, 100, Running
    11. (13) Marcus Armstrong, Honda, 100, Running
    12. (21) Agustin Canapino, Chevrolet, 100, Running
    13. (6) Scott McLaughlin, Chevrolet, 99, Running
    14. (26) Conor Daly, Chevrolet, 99, Running
    15. (5) Kyle Kirkwood, Honda, 97, Running
    16. (23) Sting Ray Robb, Honda, 96, Off Course
    17. (14) Josef Newgarden, Chevrolet, 95, Running
    18. (1) Romain Grosjean, Honda, 71, Contact
    19. (8) Felix Rosenqvist, Chevrolet, 51, Retired
    20. (2) Colton Herta, Honda, 49, Contact
    21. (24) Rinus VeeKay, Chevrolet, 41, Contact
    22. (19) Jack Harvey, Honda, 41, Contact
    23. (15) Helio Castroneves, Honda, 0, Contact
    24. (17) Santino Ferrucci, Chevrolet, 0, Contact
    25. (18) Devlin DeFrancesco, Honda, 0, Contact
    26. (25) Simon Pagenaud, Honda, 0, Contact
    27. (27) Benjamin Pedersen, Chevrolet, 0, Contact

Race Statistics
Winner’s average speed: 86.047 mph
Time of Race: 2:05:30.7907
Margin of victory: 2.4113-seconds
Cautions: 6 for 26 laps
Lead changes: 6 among 6 drivers

Lap Leaders
Grosjean, Romain 1 – 31
McLaughlin, Scott 32 – 34Dixon, Scott 35 – 37
McLaughlin, Scott 38 – 71
Malukas, David 72 – 73
O'Ward, Pato 74 – 96
Ericsson, Marcus 97 – 100

NTT IndyCar Series point-standings: 1, Marcus Ericsson, Chip Ganassi Racing, 51; 2, Pato O'Ward, Arrow
McLaren, 41; 3, Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing, 36; 4, Alexander Rossi, Arrow McLaren, 32; 5, Callum
Ilott, Juncos Hollinger Racing, 30; 6, Graham Rahal, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, 28; 7, Will Power,
Team Penske, 26; 8, Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi Racing, 24; 9, Christian Lundgaard, Rahal Letterman
Lanigan Racing, 22; 10, David Malukas, Dale Coyne Racing with HMD, 21; 11, Scott McLaughlin, Team
Penske, 20; 12, Marcus Armstrong, Chip Ganassi Racing, 19; 13, Agustin Canapino, Juncos Hollinger
Racing, 18; 14, Conor Daly, Ed Carpenter Racing, 16; 15, Kyle Kirkwood, Andretti Autosport, 15; 16,
Romain Grosjean, Andretti Autosport, 14; 17, Sting Ray Robb, Dale Coyne Racing with RWR, 14; 18, Josef
Newgarden, Team Penske, 13; 18, Felix Rosenqvist, Arrow McLaren, 11; 19, Colton Herta, Andretti
Autosport, 10; 20, Rinus VeeKay, Ed Carpenter Racing, 9; 21, Jack Harvey, Rahal Letterman Lanigan
Racing, 8; 22, Helio Castroneves, Meyer Shank Racing, 7; 23, Santino Ferrucci, AJ Foyt Racing, 6; 24 (tie),
Devlin DeFrancesco, Andretti Steinbrenner Autosport; Benjamin Pedersen, AJ Foyt Racing and Simon
Pagenaud, Meyer Shank Racing, 5.

Results of the INDY NXT by Firestone GP of St. Petersburg INDY NXT by Firestone event on the 1.8-
mile/14-turn Streets of St. Pete circuit, with order of finish, starting position in parentheses, driver, laps
completed and reason out (if any):
1. (7) Danial Frost, 40, Running
2. (6) Nolan Siegel, 40, Running
3. (2) Jacob Abel, 40, Running
4. (3) Christian Rasmussen, 40, Running
5. (12) Hunter McElrea, 40, Running
6. (17) Ernie Francis Jr., 40, Running
7. (10) Josh Green, 40, Running
8. (8) Reece Gold, 40, Running
9. (4) Rasmus Lindh, 40, Running
10. (5) Kyffin Simpson, 40, Running
11. (14) Colin Kaminsky, 40, Running
12. (19) Christian Bogle, 39, Running
13. (18) Jamie Chadwick, 39, Running
14. (1) Louis Foster, 38, Running
15. (9) Matteo Nannini, 34, Contact
16. (15) Josh Pierson, 26, Contact
17. (16) James Roe, 23, Mechanical
18. (13) Jagger Jones, 3, Contact
19. (11) Enaam Ahmed, 0, Contact
Race Statistics
Winner's average speed: 77.977 mph
Time of Race: 00:55:24.0489

Margin of victory: 1.8038-seconds
Cautions: 5 for 13 laps
Lead changes: 3 among 4 drivers

Lap Leaders
Foster, Louis 1 – 7
Abel, Jacob 8 – 34
Siegel, Nolan 35 – 38
Frost, Danial 39 – 40
Editor’s Note: John Sturbin is a Texas-based journalist specializing in motorsports. During a near 30-
year career with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, he won the Bloys Britt Award for top motorsports story
of the year (1991) as judged by The Associated Press; received the National Hot Rod Association’s Media
Award (1995) and several in-house Star-Telegram honors. He also was inaugural recipient of the Texas
Motor Speedway Excellence in Journalism Award (2009). His list of freelance clients includes Texas Motor
Speedway, the Dallas Morning News, New York Newsday, Rome (N.Y.) Daily Sentinel, Corpus Christi
(Texas) Caller Times, NASCAR Wire Service, Ford Racing and Used Car Dealer magazine).

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, March 6 2023
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