The NTT IndyCar Series kicked off the 2023 season with a bang — or more accurately, a cascade of crashes — at Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
In a race that saw Andretti Autosport teammates Devlin DeFrancesco and Kyle Kirkwood both blown up in separate serious accidents that ended DeFrancesco’s day and spanned almost half of the 27-car field, the season opener was a day of Attrition.
In the end, it was Chip Ganassi Racing’s Marcus Ericsson, the 2022 Indianapolis 500 winner, who took the checkered flag for his fourth career IndyCar win at the street circuit in St. Petersburg, Fla.
The Swedish racer, driving the No. 8 Honda, held off second-place Pato O’Ward in the No. 5 Arrow McLaren Racing Chevrolet by 2.4113 seconds. Ericsson teammate and six-time IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon finished third in the No. 9 chip Ganassi Racing Honda.
Here’s how the race went:
The lap 1 incident involved nine cars and ended five days
IndyCar race officials were forced to issue a red flag on Round 1 of the IndyCar season opener after a pile-up that spanned nearly a third of the 27-car field and sent second-year Andretti Autosport driver Devlin DeFrancesco airborne to hoist.
The incident was sparked by Felix Rosenqvist and Scott Dixon, who started from 8th and 9th respectively, battling for position going into Turn 1 after taking the green flag. Dixon said on the NBC show during the red flag he thought they just had a “little friction” as he pinned the inside position between the drivers’ left and right fronts.
“Felix is my best friend, man. I’m really sad,” Dixon said on the NBC show. “We made contact on the exit of Turn 2 and into 3 as it enters the funnel. I thought I was free but you saw in the mirror it backed up and it must have been a slightly bigger hit for him.”
Things got a lot worse for Rosenqvist and much of the field.
“It felt like he didn’t see I was there, and when the wall came back to the left, I never expected him to swerve out of the normal racing line,” Rosenqvist told NBC. “I wasn’t really trying to go outside. I was just trying to get through the first few corners. He was on the red so he was probably going to get me anyway. I don’t know if he knew I was there.”
Dixon’s hip check then sent Rosenqvist into the wall, damaging his car enough that he continued to roll down the track and slowed. Behind him, the cars began to kick in response to the brakes, forcing a pile-up between turns 3 and 4 that blocked the course and forced the red flag.
The chain reaction started when Santino Ferrucci stabbed Helio Castroneves in the back. With Castroneves in the middle of the track, Andretti Autosport’s Devlin DeFrancesco had nowhere to go, although Jack Harvey made little contact with him as he navigated the incident. Sting Ray Robb couldn’t avoid hitting DeFrancesco with his front wing.
The biggest contact came when AJ Foyt Racing rookie Benjamin Pedersen flew into the frame and ran right into the side of DeFrancesco, sending him airborne and spinning him 180 degrees.
“I’m fine, but it was a really hard hit and not how you want to start the season,” DeFrancesco said. “I saw Helio spinning in front of me and I hit the brakes but I couldn’t go anywhere. And when I saw (Pedersen) coming, I was like, ‘Oh no, this is going to be a big deal.’ I adjusted to it and prepared for it. It was a wild ride.”
Towards the end, Simon Pagenaud was no longer able to avoid the pile-up and ended up in the wall. He told NBC he thought he would be able to control the incident, but his window closed when Robb was thrown in front of him. He told the NBC show he had “a little finger problem” but was otherwise “fine.”
“I was expecting (a fall) to be honest,” said Pagenaud, “because that was tricky territory all weekend. I thought I made it. That’s my strength, avoiding such falls.”
Castroneves exited his car with a significant limp in his right leg and told NBC he had an X-ray of his right knee at IndyCar’s new mobile medical unit, but everything was clear again.
“Everything is OK. It’s like you’re meeting your prankster, like, ‘Ahh, it hurts!'” Castroneves said. “I was just putting ice on it to make sure everything was fine.
“I just got hit from behind and the next thing I knew a car went over me. I’m so happy because despite the many accidents we’ve had there from everyone, we haven’t had any problems.”
Ferrucci added: “I’m fine but heartbroken for AJ Foyt Racing. It’s just one of those things you can’t do anything with an accordion effect like that. Everyone checked and I just smoked, braked and drove right into the back of Helio. I thought I would be ok but then when he came around it hit me on the right rear and that killed our race.
Once the red flag was raised, the race was suspended for almost 20 minutes while the AMR Safety Team cleared the cars and the carnage. The race returned to green on lap 5. DeFrancesco, Ferrucci, Pedersen, Pagenaud and Castroneves were all seen and released from the medical center. These five drivers’ cars were all too damaged to continue Sunday’s 100-lap race, with Rosenqvist’s Arrow McLaren crew taking his No. 6 Chevy back to the garage in hopes of saving his team before the four-week break of Getting IndyCar to race level a few laps ahead of Race #2 in Texas.
Lap 41: Kirkwood sails over two cars in the tires
Just one lap after the race had returned to green on Lap 36 after Conor Daly’s spin and stall at Turn 9, chaos erupted just one corner down on the track where the pile-up on Lap 1 took place. Rinus VeeKay struggled around Turn 4 and was unable to avoid the tire barrier on the outside wall. Jack Harvey, running just behind him, was unable to avoid Ed Carpenter’s race car and crashed into the driver’s side of him. Behind them both and in 17th place at the time, Kyle Kirkwood drove right into the back of Harvey’s No. 30 Honda and blew up completely.
VeeKay climbed out of his car with ease, but Harvey’s exit was clearly a struggle. He was seen hunched over in the back of an AMR Safety Team truck surrounded by security personnel. Kirkwood managed to navigate his car back to the pits, where his No. 27 Honda crew replaced his front wing, sending him back two laps down.
“It’s just difficult out there. I’m glad I’m okay but I hope Jack is okay because it looked like he was in a bit of pain,” VeeKay told NBC Sports. “Josef was inside and I was only an inch (offline) and out there you have no grip and you can’t do anything. I’m really disappointed because I really wanted to finish the first race of the season and carry that momentum.
This was announced by IndyCar that Harvey was taken to a local hospital for further evaluation “as a precaution”.
Lap 50: Power sends Herta into the wall
Just as the race turned green again on Lap 50, things went from bad to worse for Andretti Autosport as Will Power and Colton Herta battled it out at Turns 5-8. Herta held the edge as they entered Turn 8 despite being forced off the line and he ended up in the tires. Power was sent to the back of the field for his role in the incident, and Herta’s day was over when eighth car retired (Rosenqvist was able to make it back on track 40 laps down after his lap 1 crash).
“I thought I was pretty far ahead of (Power) but I felt a mark in the back left,” Herta told NBC Sports of the incident. “He wanted to use the next state for his exit there. I don’t know what to do there except bang on the wall.
“It’s unfortunate. What a (expletive).”
Lap 72: Race Director McLaughlin, Grosjean crash late
Romain Grosjean hadn’t won a race in 12 years when he climbed into his pole-winning car on the streets of St Pete on Sunday and he knew it.
With that in mind, the Swiss-born Frenchman, on a contract year with Andretti Autosport, risked everything to try and pass Scott McLaughlin on Lap 72 as the pair sped down the straight out of Turn 3. Neither wanted to be ready to move – McLaughlin on the inside and Grosjean hoping the Penske driver would blink and allow him to fly around the outside – the pair tapped the wheels and both landed in the tire barrier that had just minutes earlier Harvey, VeeKay Kyle Kirkwood.
McLaughlin was able to continue after pit lane repairs but received an avoidable contact penalty for the incident. Grosjean’s day was finished on the 18th.
“I think what happened was pretty obvious on TV, so I’m not going to elaborate,” Grosjean told NBC Sports. “I am very, very disappointed and I hope that rules will be introduced. I am really annoyed that you are talking to me during the race.”
Grosjean led the first 31 laps of the race until he made his first green flag pit stop and handed the lead to McLaughlin who then pitted on lap 35. When Conor Daly caused a yellow card on lap 36 as race director Scott Dixon pulled in the pits, McLaughlin held the lead over Grosjean.
The Andretti Autosport driver shadowed McLaughlin for the next stint, lagging just under 1 second until he pitted on lap 70. McLaughlin then followed on the following lap and his dart out of the pits, just ahead of Grosjean, started their race at Turn 4 which handed the lead of the race to Pato O’Ward.