Marcus Ericsson dodged multiple incidents in a chaotic season-opening race for the NTT INDYCAR SERIES, winning the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding on Sunday in a day overflowing with drama.
2022 Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge winner Ericsson earned his fourth career NTT INDYCAR SERIES victory by 2.4113 seconds in the No. 8 Huski Chocolate Chip Ganassi Racing Honda over runner-up Pato O’Ward in the No. 5 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet.
Ericsson, who started fourth, took the lead when O’Ward slowed suddenly exiting Turn 14 on Lap 97 of the 100-lap race when his engine lost torque momentarily due to a brief misfire in the plenum chamber of his powerplant.
“I feel bad for Pato for having the issue, but that’s racing,” Swedish driver Ericsson said. “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.”
Six-time NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion Scott Dixon finished third in the No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda. Alexander Rossi finished fourth in the No. 7 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet in his debut with the team after seven seasons at Andretti Autosport.
Callum Ilott rounded out the top five after starting 22nd in the No. 77 Juncos Hollinger Racing Chevrolet, with his 17 spots gained the most of any driver in the race.
O’Ward took the lead on Lap 74 when leader Scott McLaughlin in the No. 3 DEX Imaging Team Penske Chevrolet and second place Romain Grosjean in the No. 28 DHL Honda collided while dueling side by side for the lead, both plunging into the tire barriers in Turn 4. McLaughlin had just exited the pits on cold Firestone tires after Grosjean had pitted earlier and was on warm rubber, and McLaughlin took responsibility for the incident in a post-race interview.
McLaughlin and NTT P1 Award pole sitter Grosjean were the dominant drivers out front, leading 37 and 31 laps, respectively.
On the ensuing restart on Lap 79, O’Ward built a 2.8-second lead in just one lap and appeared to be destined for victory. But Ericsson steadily chipped at O’Ward’s gap, helped by saving twice as much Push-to-Pass time as O’Ward for the final stint of the race.
Ericsson pulled to within one-half second of O’Ward on Lap 97 when O’Ward’s car suddenly slowed with the plenum problem and then regained speed.
“We did everything right today,” a crestfallen O’Ward said. “There’s always something. The boys deserved that. Compared to where we were here last year, this is a massive step. But we gave that one away. We can’t have that happen anymore. I know we’re second, but …”
Ericsson slipped past O’Ward, taking the lead for the first time and cruising to the checkered flag to enthrall a chanting corps of Swedish fans in the grandstands. 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.
Two major incidents on the 14-turn, 1.8-mile temporary street circuit thinned the 27-car field in the first half of the race.
On a restart on Lap 41, Rinus VeeKay’s No. 21 Bitnile.com Chevrolet nosed into the barriers in Turn 4 amid heavy traffic. The No. 30 Kustom Entertainment Honda of Jack Harvey had nowhere to go and plowed into the back of VeeKay. Then the trailing No. 27 AutoNation Honda of Kyle Kirkwood hit the rear of Harvey’s car and vaulted over that machine and VeeKay’s wounded car.
Harvey was released late Sunday afternoon from a local hospital, where he was transported in stable condition for further evaluation as a precautionary measure. The other drivers in the incident were unhurt.
The race started with a chaotic incident on the first lap. Felix Rosenqvist’s No. 6 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet and Dixon’s car made side-by-side contact in Turn 2, with Rosenqvist being shoved into light wall contact.
That minor clash triggered a big, chain-reaction collision involving six cars that wiped out two teams’ hopes for a strong finish in the race. Drivers involved: Meyer Shank Racing teammates Helio Castroneves in the No. 06 AutoNation/Sirius XM Honda and Simon Pagenaud in the No. 60 AutoNation/Sirius XM, AJ Foyt Racing teammates Santino Ferrucci in the No. 14 AJ FOYT RACING/SEXTON PROPERTIES Chevrolet and rookie Benjamin Pedersen in the No. 55 AJ FOYT RACING/SEXTON PROPERTIES Chevrolet, rookie Sting Ray Robb in the No. 51 biohaven Honda and Devlin DeFrancesco in the No. 29 EVTEC Honda.
DeFrancesco’s car was tossed into the air in a pirouette when T-boned by Pedersen in the unfolding maelstrom. None of the drivers involved in the incident was hurt.
The next NTT INDYCAR SERIES race is the PPG 375 on Sunday, April 2 on the 1.5-mile oval at Texas Motor Speedway.
Article by Paul Kelly for indycar.com