ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Marcus Ericsson won a chaotic IndyCar season opener, leading the final four laps of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg after Pato O’Ward had engine trouble.
O’Ward finished second by 2.4113 seconds and led 23 laps before his No. 5 Dallara-Chevrolet experienced a brief loss of power out of the final corner on Lap 97 of 100.
“Obviously, that’s racing,” Ericsson told NBC Sports’ Marty Snider. “I feel bad for Pato for having an issue. That’s racing. You need to get to the finish line. We were having such a good weekend. The car was fantastic all the way through, and we were hunting him down, putting the pressure on and then things happened. Really proud of the team.
“That was a hell of a start to the season.”
O’Ward said the engine in his No. 5 Dallara-Chevrolet briefly stopped in Turn 14 because of a plenum event or misfire that causes a drop of engine torque. The only remedy is for the driver to lift off the accelerator (which extinguishes the small fire).
According to a Chevy spokesperson, it’s a random blip that can happen to any turbocharged engine, particularly those running at high temperatures as in IndyCar.
RESULTS, POINTS: Full stats package and where everyone finished at St. Pete
“We did everything right today,” O’Ward said. “Just …. Ugh. It’s always something. The boys deserved that. Yeah, (Texas) is next. We’ll fight for that one and compared to where we were last year, it’s a massive step. We gave that one away. We can’t have that happen anymore.”
Asked by NBC Sports whether it was an Arrow McLaren IndyCar Team issue or a Chevrolet issue, O’Ward smiled and paused for nearly 10 seconds.
“We need to analyze,” said O’Ward, who then added it’s happened to his car before. “It comes up randomly. You can’t really predict it.
“So yeah, we just have to have a look into it. We ended up with some great points. We started the year like we wanted to, right, but they’re very valuable points at the end of the day. We just got 10 points thrown away. We’ll have a look at all the data and stuff and then just make sure how for that not to happen.”
Third-place finisher Scott Dixon said a plenum event “is just something you can’t do anything about.
“I’ve had them in the past, too, and it’s not a fun situation because it’s not like you can just drive through it, either,” Dixon said. “You’ve got to get off the throttle and then try and go again. I think luckily with us, touch wood, we’ve been pretty good on that side of things. Feel bad for Pato.”
Josef Newgarden (17th) also had a late-race engine fire and finished five laps down. Chevy was unable to diagnose Newgarden’s problem at the track because of missing engine parts. The No. 2 engine will be examined in the coming days after returning to Chevy’s Michigan shop.
Ericsson became the fourth defending Indy 500 winner to win the opening race of the next season. It’s Ganassi’s second win in St. Pete and first since Dario Franchitti in 2011.
It’s the fourth career victory for Ericsson and the Chip Ganassi Racing driver’s first since winning last year’s Indy 500.
“I think people forget us in some conservations when they talk about the championship,” said Ericsson, who won his his first race with new Ganassi team manager Taylor Kiel as his strategist. “We’re here to win. We won the 500 last year. We were leading the championship for a long time. That’s our mission this year. This is a good start to it.
“Taylor’s been a great addition to the team. He’s brought a lot of experience and energy to the team. Win on your first try, it doesn’t get much better than that. Such a great start to the season.”
Noting that each of his four IndyCar wins (Detroit and Nashville in 2021 are the others) have included a red flag, Ericsson laughed off the notion
“Today was another one of those races where a lot of things happened,” said the Swede, who won the inaugural race at Nashville after going airborne on the fifth lap.
“it seems when a lot of things are happening, and people are making mistakes, we seem to be able to stay cool, both me and the car, and the guys on the strategy and pit stops and everything. And we seem to be able to get everything together in those situations.
“All those races are very high-intensity races. It’s not sort of straightforward races. There’s a lot of things happening. You need to be ready to adjust your strategy, pit stops, restarts. There’s a lot of things going on, and we seem to be very good at that. That’s definitely one of our strengths. Not saying we cannot win without the red flag, but it’s definitely been working for us.”
Scott Dixon finished third, followed by Alexander Rossi (in his Arrow McLaren debut) and Callum Ilott in a career-best fifth.
Graham Rahal, Will Power, Alex Palou, Christian Lundgaard and David Malukas rounded out the top 10.
It was a devastating day for Andretti Autosport, which took three of the top six spots in qualifying but had all four of its Dallara-Hondas involved in wrecks.
The last involved pole-sitter Romain Grosjean, who led 31 laps but collided with Scott McLaughlin (who led 37 laps) in Turn 4 on Lap 71 of 100.
McLaughlin received a drive-through penalty from IndyCar for avoidable contact.
“What happened was really obvious on TV, so I’m not going to elaborate too much on that,” Grosjean told NBC Sports’ Dave Burns. “I’m very, very disappointed, and I hope there’s going to be rules put in place. What an amazing weekend. We had a super fast car, and the team did a really good job, but I’m really annoyed to be talking to you with the race going on.
“That’s not racing.”
McLaughlin agreed and took full blame in an interview with NBC Sports’ Kevin Lee. He later found Grosjean in the paddock for an in-person apology.
“I’m very sorry to Romain,” McLaughlin said. “He’s a friend of mine. We were both going for the win. I just made a big mistake. I tried to push on cold tires and didn’t have the grip and locked the rears and made a little bit of contact that took us both out.
“Look, I don’t race like that. I apologize. I’ve had plenty of good battles with many good drivers. I just made (a mistake). You have your good and bad days, and I really do apologize to Romain, and I’ll go see him soon. I need to make better decisions.”
After a tense battle on track, @smclaughlin93 and @RGrosjean discuss their late-race contact and share an embrace.#FirestoneGP #IndyCar pic.twitter.com/falIG6d6Vi
— Christopher DeHarde (@CDeHarde) March 5, 2023
Andretti teammate Colton Herta also was outraged at a rival after being squeezed into the Turn 8 tire barrier to bring out a Lap 50 yellow.
“He wanted to use the next state over for room on the exit,” Herta told NBC Sports’ Lee about Power while watching the replay. “I don’t know what else I can do there except hit the wall. Yep. What an ass.”
The other two Andretti drivers were involved in separate airborne crashes in the first 42 laps as the 2023 season got off to a wild start on the streets of St. Pete.
Devlin DeFrancesco was OK after his No. 29 Dallara-Honda went skyward from being T-boned by rookie Benjamin Pedersen in a pileup on the first lap.
Kyle Kirkwood, who was making his Andretti debut, briefly took flight, too, but he was able to continue after sailing over Jack Harvey (who had slowed for a spin by Rinus VeeKay).
Harvey needed help from medical personnel exiting his car and was in distress while sitting on the back step of an ambulance. IndyCar medical director Dr. Julia Vazier said Harvey was taken to Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg because of “an abundance of caution.”
Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing later posted on social media that Harvey had been checked and released.
.@jack_harvey93 has been checked and released from Bayfront Medical Center.
Thank you to the @indycar medical team, who are the best in the business, and the helpful staff at Bayfront. #INDYCAR pic.twitter.com/2fvl8BHbnh
— Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (@RLLracing) March 5, 2023