It’s been three years since the sun-splashed streets of St. Petersburg have marked the dawning of the NTT IndyCar Series, and the sense of renewal is stronger than ever.
With the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Pete returned to its rightful place as the 2022 opener after two seasons of pandemic-driven schedule upheaval, “new” seems the operative word for IndyCar.
The annual curtain-raiser always offers a thick swath of fresh looks on firesuits, but there will seem an unusually novel sheen this weekend in every corner of the IndyCar paddock (whose footprint also will house the Indy Lights Series for the first time).
WEEKEND SCHEDULE: When cars are on track for the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg
There have been personnel shifts and restructuring among elite powerhouses and ambitious growth among organizations trying to enter the top tier.
Some star drivers and emerging talents have new teams, race engineers and workout partners. Others have new lifestyles, sponsors and schedules that have been expanded. A bumper crop of rookies are driving in a new series with three also taking residence in a new country (as the influx of European drivers to IndyCar continues unabated).
There’s even a new wrinkle for the Chip Ganassi Racing driver who personified consistency last season by winning the championship in only his second season.
Alex Palou already has added another ring in the offseason, getting married to his longtime girlfriend, Esther, while vacationing in their native Spain.
Though no one will enter 2022 with more continuity than Palou, who is with the same team in consecutive seasons for only the second time in his career, he also is treating his success as a motivational change agent for restarting at zero.
“I think two or three weeks after the championship, I already erased it,” Palou, 24, told NBC Sports. “Obviously I’m super proud, super happy. I celebrated with all my family, but yeah, it starts again. We will be forever champions of 2021, but in order to continue being a champion, you need to win every single year.”
As Palou attempts to become the repeat champion since 2011, here are five storylines to watch in our viewer’s guide for the NTT IndyCar Series season opener Sunday in downtown St. Petersburg (broadcast coverage begins at noon ET, NBC):
Drivers shifting gears: Yes, there are some high-profile moves – Romain Grosjean to Andretti Autosport, Simon Pagenaud to Meyer Shank Racing, Jack Harvey to Rahal Letterman Lanigan – but you’d need a supersized scorecard to keep track of all the nuanced alterations on the grid this season.
Two-time IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden will have a new engineer for the first time in five seasons at Team Penske as Gavin Ward has departed for Arrow McLaren SP. And coupled with the professional turnover, Newgarden also is set for a personal life change with his wife, Ashely, expecting their first child in April.
Though “sad” about Ward’s departure, Newgarden also vowed his No. 2 Dallara-Chevrolet team would be more vigilant in hunting for speed because “getting to work with new people always pushes me to concentrate and be the best version of myself.
“There’s definitely going to be a shift this year and a new challenge of starting a family, but any year I’ve had a lot of chaos normally translates to a pretty positive season, so I’m hoping that’s the case this year,” Newgarden (whose 2019 title came in the same year he got married, moved and had major dental surgery) told NBC Sports. “It’s all good stuff and been a good restful offseason. I’m feeling energized and refreshed from last year.”
Six-time series champion Scott Dixon also is feeling rejuvenated after winning once in 2021 (only the fourth time in 19 seasons he has lacked multiple victories). After he found himself overdriving the front tires on low-grip sections of road courses such as Laguna Seca and Mid-Ohio, Dixon intently began studying the driving styles of teammates Palou (three wins in ’21) and Marcus Ericsson (two). Dixon plans to apply their approaches – proving it’s never too late to improve.
“Every day you’re learning, and if you’re not, you’re a bit arrogant,” Dixon told NBC Sports. “I was lucky that I had two teammates doing a great job and see it firsthand. You’re in a sport you lose a lot more than you win. Always have to push to better yourself because it’s never the same.”
Rinus VeeKay also is motivated to improve after a disappointing second half of 2021 that started by missing Road America with a broken collarbone. He finished no higher than 16th in the last seven races after podiums (including a breakthrough victory at the Indy road course) in two of the four starts before being hurt.
“It really made me think,” VeeKay said. “It really opened my eyes to always keep looking for that little bit of extra speed that’s hidden for the weekend. Now I know that I’ve won my first IndyCar race, I want to win more. I want to win an Indy 500 and also become an IndyCar champion. I need to find every little speed I can. The last half of (2021) really opened my eyes in a good way. I think it really matured me, too.”
Pushing the limits isn’t comfortable. Neither is losing.
When the points reset, what they did last season doesn’t matter.
— NTT INDYCAR SERIES (@IndyCar) February 21, 2022
Citing baseline setups (and not the injury) as the root of his mediocrity, the second-year Dutchman split with a personal trainer whom he had worked with “24/7” for four years. He instead spent much of his offseason in the guest bedroom of engineer Matt Barnes to forge “a bond where he can really read my feedback and make the best changes on the car. I think the best coworkers are friends, so we really have become friends in the offseason.”
Conor Daly, VeeKay’s teammate, also strengthened his connection to Ed Carpenter Racing, where he will begin a new multiyear deal racing full time for a single team for the first time in five years.
Among other notable personnel moves for IndyCar drivers: For the first time since 2012, Pagenaud will be without engineer Ben Bretzman (who stayed at Penske to work with Scott McLaughlin); Felix Rosenqvist will have ace engineer Craig Hampson for his second year at Arrow McLaren SP; and Alexander Rossi will have Brian Barnhart (the former IndyCar race director) as his new strategist as Andretti Autosport executive Rob Edwards moves to rookie Devlin DeFrancesco’s pit box.
Balance of power: It’s become an annual debate whether the “Big Three” of Chip Ganassi Racing, Team Penske and Andretti Autosport still reigns supreme in IndyCar, but that conversational fodder already seems to be superseded by the generational dynamics of drivers and teams for 2022.
Arrow McLaren SP, which led the points twice with two-time winner Pato O’Ward in 2021, could make the case for being among the elite now without even considering a reinforced alliance with its resurgent F1 team in England and the bolstering of its IndyCar engineering ranks.
Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing has added a third car on the verge of relocating to a new state-of-the-art shop on the outskirts of Indianapolis.
Meyer Shank Racing also has a new 44,00-square-foot home in Pataskala, Ohio, as it adds a second car and new full-time drivers with Indy 500 winners Helio Castroneves (who won at the Brickyard last year in his MSR debut) and Pagenaud.
There are changes at the top, too.
With the departure of Pagenaud, Penske has downsized from four to three full-time cars after seeming overextended at times last year (notably at the Brickyard, where Will Power literally drove through a wall to make the Indy 500).
Andretti (whose cars were winless aside from three victories with Colton Herta’s No. 26) has replaced half its driver lineup and brought in new fan favorite Grosjean with engineer Olivier Boisson in a package deal.
While things might seem more static at Ganassi, the team with three of the past four championships has added a second prototype in IMSA’s premier series at its Indy headquarters while selling its Charlotte arm in NASCAR.
Deepening the team rivalries will be the youth vs. experience tug of war among the stars that became a dominant storyline last year. With Palou, VeeKay, O’Ward and Herta all younger than 25, there’s an inherent tension with stalwart title contenders Dixon, Newgarden and Rossi (who enters a contract year off consecutive winless seasons after seeming on the verge of a championship in 2017-18).
Though the veterans downplay the youth gap, it’s admittedly fueling some of the Gen Z set.
“Oh man, it’s great, and that’s what it’s all about,” O’Ward told NBC Sports. “Whenever you’re a kid, you strive to beat them. I love to race with people that are well known, very respected, great, amazing race car drivers and beat them at the same game they’ve been playing for a lot longer than you. I think that’s the best thing that can happen to someone that’s young, because it just proves that you’re doing it correctly.”
Schedule additions, subtractions: St. Pete kicks off a 17-race schedule that generally will seem more normal than the COVID-required slapdash of the past two years. Iowa Speedway returns with a weekend doubleheader, raising the number of oval tracks and races by one to five (as Texas Motor Speedway loses a race).
For short oval aces such as Newgarden, Iowa’s return could mean a major points swing, but its addition mostly has brought universal acclaim.
“From a pure racing and entertainment standpoint, Iowa in the past has been one of the most exciting races,” driver-owner Ed Carpenter told NBC Sports. “If people ask me what race they could go to outside of Indy, I would always tell them Iowa. Des Moines is underrated and the racetrack itself is awesome. You can see everything in multiple lanes, which is something not enough places have, and it’s a great show.”
Barring new pandemic restrictions, 2022 finally should herald the first IndyCar race on the streets of Toronto in three years. And it will be the swan song for Belle Isle Raceway, which will be cut to one race from its traditional doubleheader before the Detroit Grand Prix moves to a new downtown layout in 2023.
There also will be virtually no night races (though Gateway could end under the lights), and the plethora of early to midafternoon Eastern Time starts will mean more prime-time viewing in Europe than ever.
“I think it’s great for the series because there is a big interest in motorsports in Europe,” said Marcus Ericsson, who has a large following in his native Sweden along with countryman Felix Rosenqvist. “Everyone that I know that have started to watch IndyCar the last couple years have loved it because of how entertaining it is. I think it’s clever by the series to (make it easier) for people in Europe to watch.”
Indy and beyond: One of the major attractions for European fans will be turning more laps this season as Romain Grosjean expands to a full season in the move to Andretti. The Formula One veteran will be joined by Jimmie Johnson, who skipped the ovals as a rookie but was unable to resist the pull of an Indy 500 debut.
The seven-time Cup Series champion, who claimed 82 of his 83 NASCAR victories on ovals, already has seemed much more acclimated to his No. 48 Dallara-Honda in testing at Texas, where he was able to match teammate Scott Dixon’s speed on his second set of tires.
“I’ve never done that in IndyCar,” Johnson, whose best finish last year was 17th in 12 starts on road and street courses, told NBC Sports. “Usually, I’m a second, 1.5 seconds off, so to be right there on pace was a lot of fun. It’s a huge confidence-builder, but I’m being reserved. The cars are different, the speeds are higher, way it drafts is much different. Until I get reps, I don’t know what to expect. I know I’ll be more comfortable and in a more familiar environment than I was at all in 2021.”
Though he made an impressive oval debut last season at Gateway, Grosjean likely will be facing a tougher adaptation, but he also could be a championship contender given how close he came to winning on road and street courses last year.
“I can run for the championship, but I think first we need to win a race,” Grosjean told NBC Sports. “We will see for the championship at the end. It’s definitely something I would like to achieve before I close my chapter in IndyCar, but I still need to take a lot of experience on ovals.
“I still need to learn about the series. I would definitely try to be up there into the mix. But first things first, I need to win races.”
The rookie class: While they don’t bring the global cachet and fame from last year’s freshman field of Grosjean, Johnson and Scott McLaughlin, IndyCar’s six 20something rookies for 2022 are an intriguing mix of career paths and cultures.
After dominating the 2021 Indy Lights season with a memorable championship battle, Americans Kyle Kirkwood (hired by A.J. Foyt Racing) and David Malukas (paired with two-time Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato at Dale Coyne Racing) are joining midpack teams but have flashed decent speed in preseason testing.
Andretti’s Devlin DeFrancesco also is graduating from Indy Lights with an interesting backstory (he was born 15 weeks premature; counts heavyweight champ Mike Tyson as a friend through a psychedelics sponsor; and recently won the LMP2 class in the Rolex 24 with Herta and O’Ward).
Christian Lundgaard showed major promise in his debut last August for RLL, and the Danish driver returned to the IndyCar team because “it was my last and only option to be able to race in 2022” after being stuck on the Formula One ladder despite once being a highly touted Alpine prospect.
A similar situation befell fellow F2 driver Callum Ilott, who shares management connections with Romain Grosjean and became intrigued by his rapid development into fan favorite as an IndyCar rookie. After two years of being “on the edge of a seat in Formula One and some of the guys I beat ended up taking those seats,” the Brit signed with the upstart Juncos Hollinger Racing team, starting in the last three races of 2021.
“It just such an appealing championship with so much potential, especially longer term with a hybrid system,” Ilott told NBC Sports. “There’s big growth, and I want to be a part of it. With a new team, the reward to get it right is really impressive.”
With a road course and street schedule at Foyt, Tatiana Calderon will be the first woman racing regularly in IndyCar since Simona de Silvestro in 2013. A native of Bogota, Colombia, Calderon grew up a Juan Pablo Montoya fan and briefly was on an IndyCar path when she raced Star Mazda in 2010 before moving to Europe. She has raced in F2, GP3, F3, the WEC (LMP2 prototypes) and also tested in F1.
“IndyCar has always been in my sights,” she told NBC Sports. “I’ve been pretty much everywhere, and it’s been a privilege to have the opportunity to test so many cars and to race in so many places. But the only thing that was missing was IndyCar, so I’m really happy to be here.”