ST PETERSBURG, Florida – It was shaping up as a battle royale between last year’s winner, Scott McLaughlin, and this year’s pole-sitter, Romain Grosjean, in Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
It was obvious that McLaughlin of Team Penske and Grosjean of Andretti Autosport had the two best cars in Sunday’s race. That’s just what race fans want to see, the two best battle it out all the way to the checkered flag.
McLaughlin, who won the NTT IndyCar Series opening race at St. Petersburg last year, led a race-high 37 laps. Grosjean, who won the pole on Saturday by four-tenths of a second over teammate Colton Herta, led 31 laps.
It appeared the race would be determined in a real battle after both drivers made their final pit stops.
Grosjean pitted on Lap 71 for what he hoped would be the final stop of the race. One lap later, McLaughlin pitted as the leader.
As Grosjean came down the frontstraight at full speed, McLaughlin left pit lane on cold tires and the two cars intersected at pit out in a side-by-side battle.
But as the two cars raced into the Turn 4 area, both made contact, and both crashed into the tire barrier.
Grosjean’s race was over, but McLaughlin would later continue in the race and finish 13th, one lap down. He was issued an “avoidable contact” penalty by IndyCar Race Control.
Both drivers sat in their cars as they waited for the IndyCar Safety Team to reach the area. Grosjean climbed out of his car, walked over to the tire barrier and was furious.
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He pounded his fist into the stack of tires and was visibly upset.
After making the trip to IndyCar’s new medical trailer for the mandatory checkup, the Frenchman gave NBC’s Dave Burns a few cryptic comments alluding to the fact he thought McLaughlin was at fault (while also saluting his illustrious resume that includes three IndyCar wins and three Supercars championships).
“You saw it on TV, so I’m not going to elaborate too much on that,” Grosjean said. “I’m very, very disappointed, and I hope some rules will be put in place.
“We had a super fast car, but I’m really annoyed. What we saw today on the track was not racing.”
When Burns asked, what it was, Grosjean replied, “I don’t know. You tell me.”
Meantime, McLaughlin was able to finish the race, a lap down in 13th.
Shortly after Marcus Ericsson of Chip Ganassi Racing crossed the finish line as the winner, McLaughlin drove his No. 3 Dallara-Chevrolet down pit lane in front of his Team Penske pit.
Behind that pit area were some guests and VIPs from DHL, Grosjean’s sponsor. They stood against the rail and loudly booed McLaughlin, venting their displeasure at the driver they believed was responsible.
“You’re a bum, McLaughlin,” a fan yelled at the Team Penske driver. “You crasher!”
When McLaughlin took off his helmet, the dejection was evident on his face. The New Zealand native took it very hard and sat on the pit wall with his head dropped in dejection.
He shouldered the blame for what happened.
“First of all, I’m very sorry to Romain, he’s a friend of mine and I made a mistake,” McLaughlin said. “I just made a big mistake. I tried to push him on cold tires and didn’t have the grip on the inside like I did on the (softer compound). I locked the rears, and we made wheel contact that time and it 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 was racing for the win. I just made a stuff up. I really do apologize to Romain, and I’ll go see him in a bit. I knew if I could stay in front of him, I had a shot to win. I need to be better than that, I need to make better decisions. I was racing hard; I was racing for the win.
“I’ll go man up, and I’m going to see Romain right now.”
McLaughlin was hoping to back up the first win of his career last year on the streets of St. Petersburg with another win to open the 2023 season.
Prior to that, the strategy was working well, and the car had speed. That is what made what happened so frustrating.
“The guys did an awesome job with strategy and Ben Bretzman (his engineer) gave me a great car,” McLaughlin told NBCSports.com. “There is nothing more they could have done.
“I wish we had pitted behind Agustin Canapino there. That cost us a couple of seconds.”
McLaughlin predicted the race would be wild, and it was. Two drivers went airborne in two separate crashes. Luckily, none of them were injured.
“We predicted it was going to be wild,” McLaughlin said. “Last year was wild and this year was wilder.
“I’m just gutted, man.”
True to his word, McLaughlin walked over to Grosjean’s transporter at Andretti Autosport to apologize and accept the blame for his role in the incident.
The two drivers hugged twice and Grosjean smiled.
“We all race, we all make mistakes,” Grosjean said. “Scott (McLaughlin) came over and apologized, which means everything to me. He did get a penalty.
“Unfortunately, that doesn’t really change anything for my race, but the fact that he comes here and says he’s sorry is a big deal.
“I know that we were the fastest car on track by a long way and that’s all that matters. We were competitive, we were up there, and we have 16 races left. We showed today with Andretti that we can be up there.”
Glad we could talk man to man. Racing hard, both going for the win. We have had many good battles with @RGrosjean – I apologise for my part in this. Press on. https://t.co/1BZ4qc0kzt
— Scott McLaughlin (@smclaughlin93) March 5, 2023
As McLaughlin’s engineer, Bretzman believed changes to Turn 3 from last year’s race course created an all-out battle heading into Turn 4. That is why he was not surprised that so many of Sunday’s incidents came in that portion of the track.
“The whole race was getting into Turn 4 – who can get there first and get out of there first,” Bretzman told NBCSports.com. “Looking back at it, the only thing we could have done better was pitting on the same lap as he did. Then, it would have been pit crew vs. pit crew, and we’ll take that battle all day.”
Bretzman said there were a lot of cars that had issues in Turn 3 and Turn 4 in practice, similar to when changes were made to the track in 2020.
“There are 27 cars and luckily we finished 13th, so we take that as a positive,” Bretzman said. “It’s going to be tight. You have to keep finishing up front. If you can, you have to get what you can.
“I’m happy we were able to keep running and at least finish 13th. It’s better than the alternative.
“We have to keep bringing it, but it’s not going to be easy.”
So, what can Bretzman do to cheer up his driver?
“You just have to give him the night,” Bretzman said. “He’ll be back to normal, Monday.
“But he’s going to feel like a punching bag tonight.”
It was not a good day for Team Penske.
Josef Newgarden finished two laps down after his Chevrolet had a sensor issue on the engine that caused a small fire.
“Pretty tough day,” Newgarden said. “Just terrible ending. We had something mechanically break unfortunately on the engine side. Had a small fire. Tried to come to pit lane and shut it off, get it back to pit lane and get the fire out.
“It’s unfortunate because I think we were on for a top five. I made a mistake on the last restart unfortunately with about 25 to go. We were restarting fifth, and I went back to either eighth or ninth. I just got wide. I think for sure a top 10. We were capable of producing a good day which would have been a good start. Unfortunately, we just had to stop early.
“A real good job to the team. We had a really solid race. Everything was executed just beautifully as always. The car felt racy. We made some moves there in the middle. I was proud of everybody. It was a good first race to work together; a lot of new people on the crew. Everyone performed incredibly, really good stops. So, I feel really encouraged for the next round. We’ll just get back on it and get this thing tuned up and keep going.”
McLaughlin wasn’t the only Penske driver to be assessed an avoidable contact penalty.
Defending NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power rebounded for seventh after being sent to the rear just past halfway for his role in an incident that took out Colton Herta, who had qualified second.
“We banged all the way in, and I went up the inside, and I had as much lock as I could,” Power said. “I feel bad that it ruined his day, but I thought for sure he knew I was there. I was up his inside, and I just understeered. It wasn’t like just a big divebomb. I was here, and he kind of hung on the outside.
“I hate to ruin anyone’s day. I do. I hate that. I like to race these guys clean, and he races me clean, so I feel really bad. He ended up out, and I was able to keep going. Still a very good day for us. I’m really happy to get the Verizon car in the top-10. A very hectic day.
“I will definitely talk to Colton and let him know that it was cold tires and marbles and as much lock in to give him as much room. It was unfortunate.
“I always feel bloody bad after incidents like that.”
It’s already been a difficult 2023 off the track for Power, whose wife, Liz, has been battling a serious staph infection that required spinal surgery and two hospitalizations.
With so much weighing on his mind, Power will take the seventh-place finish and move on to the next race at Texas Motor Speedway on April 2.
“A great day,” he said. “I’m really happy with the day. The guys made all the right choices on tires and strategy. Unfortunately, we got the penalty.
“That’s IndyCar racing. It’s very, very aggressive.
“The cars were on edge around this track this weekend. Turn 3 made it very difficult. I’m not surprised. It’s going to be a pretty hectic year.”
At 42, Power can take the long view of the season. He also can understand the torment that McLaughlin felt because he was racing for the victory in the battle with Grosjean that eventually cost both the race.
“It really sucks for Scott McLaughlin,” Power said. “Do you give up a win to finish for the championship, or do you go for the win? Those are the lessons you learn. It’s tough.
“You always want to win the race. Every driver has their own personality, so you know what you are dealing with when you are out there fighting at the end.”
It was a tough lesson learned by McLaughlin on Sunday, but in Power’s mind, it’s a lesson worth learning.