After 175 days of waiting, the 2023 NTT IndyCar season began with one of the most thrilling races in recent memory. A race full of carnage and controversy finally ended after Pato O’Ward’s car misfired in the final corner coming to 3-to-go allowing defending Indianapolis 500 winner Marcus Ericsson to score his fourth career IndyCar victory.
“That’s racing,” said Ericsson to NBC after the race. “I feel bad for Pato for having an issue, but that’s racing. You need to get there to the finish.”
The phrase “that’s racing” could best sum up the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. With so many race-altering incidents, it wasn’t apparent who the likely winner would be until the white flag flew. The IndyCar offseason is one of the longest in all of auto racing and it appeared as though drivers might need another race sooner rather than later to shake off the cobwebs from the long break.
Aggressive driving appeared as though it would be the theme of the afternoon from the drop of the green flag. A massive accident on the first lap eliminated both Meyer-Shank teammates Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud along with Devlin DeFrancesco, Santino Ferrucci, and rookie Benjamin Pederson. Pederson caught heat on social media when replays showed he did not appear to brake before his car speared that of DeFrancesco, causing the No. 29 car to go airborne. At the same time, on-board footage from Conor Daly showed that he also did not yield sufficiently to the crash, but managed to avoid being collected in the melee.
“As soon as I came through turn three, which is a blind corner, there was just a pileup of cars,” said Pederson. “I slammed on my brakes to do my best to not be involved and looked for a gap, but there were no holes to squeeze my car into.”
Helio Castroneves climbed out of his car following the accident on his own power, but with a noticeable limp. After being released from the medical center, the four-time Indy 500 winner noted that the injury was no different than hitting his funny bone.
As the race resumed, the drivers remained aggressive. Grip outside the racing line was hard to find for the entire field. This, however, never stopped drivers from attempting aggressive passes on restarts.
Following a yellow for Conor Daly’s spin on lap 37, another incident occurred on the ensuing restart that featured another airborne race car. Daly’sn Ed Carpenter Racing teammate, Rinus VeeKay, was racing on the outside of Josef Newgarden when his car lost grip and slid into the tire barriers. Without any time to react, Jack Harvey and Kyle Kirkwood slammed into the rear of VeeKay’s No. 21 Chevrolet, sending Kirkwood over the top of both Harvey and VeeKay.
All three drivers were checked and released from the medical center, but Harvey was taken to a local hospital for further evaluation.
On the ensuing restart, once again racing off the racing line resulted in another crash. While racing for the sixth position, Will Power pushed Colton Herta wide, sending Herta into the tire barriers, ending his day. Power was given a penalty and sent to the rear of the field for the restart. Herta however, was not happy with how he was raced by the defending series champion.
“He wanted to use the next state over for track room on the exit,” said Herta to NBC. “I don’t know what I can do there except hit the wall.”
Herta’s retirement left Romain Grosjean as Andretti Autosport’s last hope for a race victory. Unfortunately for the Andretti team, the family curse was not finished inflicting adversity.
Following a thrilling battle of wits on pit strategy, Romain Grosjean and Scott McLaughlin emerged side-by-side following what was sure to be their final pit stops of the race. Grosjean stopped one lap prior to that of McLaughlin. The slower car of rookie Agustín Canapino held up McLaughlin’s in-lap, allowing Grosjean a perfect opportunity at the undercut with a fast out-lap.
As McLaughlin finished his pit stop, the two drivers found themselves side-by-side on pit exit, likely racing for the race win. However, McLaughlin’s tires were not up to temperature compared to those of Grosjean. As the two entered turn four, McLauglin’s car suddenly lost grip and slid into Grosjean, sending both drivers into the tire barrier.
Suddenly, the race appeared to fall into the lap of Pato O’Ward. O’Ward was running third when Grosjean and McLaughlin made contact. A strong restart all but guaranteed a race victory for McLaren following dismal results on the Formula 1 side. Sadly for fans of the papaya orange, it was not meant to be.
Exiting the final corner coming to three-to-go, O’Ward’s Chevrolet engine suddenly misfired allowing Marcus Ericsson to make an easy pass on the frontstretch. A visibly frustrated O’Ward began pounding on his steering wheel as a race victory once again slipped from his grasp.
“We did everything right today…it’s just always something,” said O’Ward to NBC following the race. “We can’t have that happen anymore. I know we’re second but…yeah.”
Sunday afternoon’s IndyCar opener has set a high standard for the rest of the season. Action from start to finish, the highest and the lowest of emotions, and the thrill of the unknown show that during this season of IndyCar, you shouldn’t take your eyes off the track until the checkered flag waves.