ST. PETERSBURG — Optimism is at full throttle at the dawn of the IndyCar Series season.
Last year’s ratings were robust — the best in six years — the constraints and cancellations caused by the pandemic are mostly in the sport’s rearview mirror, and the field for Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is expanding to a record 27 cars.
“It’s growing every year,” reigning Indianapolis 500 champion Marcus Ericsson said. “I think this sport itself is in a very good spot and has a lot of potential here in the next few years.”
Yet for many doing the driving Sunday, and in practices and qualifying, optimism remains more cautious than unbridled.
Twenty-seven cars? Get ready for gridlock.
“Oh, it’s going to be crazy out there,” reigning Grand Prix of St. Petersburg winner Scott McLaughlin said.
As the season commences along a 1.8-mile course bordered in part by Tampa Bay, “crazy” has various connotations.
While an expanded field with a smattering of rookies increases the chances of IndyCar spawning new stars and personalities, it also minimizes the margin for error, particularly on a street course with notoriously tight turns.
Even as those who revel in the spectacle of a crash are sure to tune in Sunday, those who directly feel its impact may not be so enthralled.
“(Twenty-seven cars) is great. It’s a good sign for the sport and the appeal of the sport, but we’ve got to be aware of it,” said veteran Graham Rahal, who won the Grand Prix as a 19-year-old in 2008.
“We’re going to have our challenges with 27 cars, too. And I think there’s a lot of tracks that 27 could be too many. I mean, I don’t know (that) you go to Toronto with 27 cars. Pit lane here already is a major bind. We’ll see.”
Partially easing concerns are modified qualifying rules lessening the overall sense of urgency. Unlike past seasons, IndyCar will pause the first and second rounds of qualifying on road and street courses for the first red flag.
Previously, a crash early in qualifying, and the ensuing cleanup, essentially derailed the whole session, sometimes enabling less-deserving cars that ran a solid early lap to advance to the next round. Now, if there’s only one crash necessitating a red flag, drivers still can get their allotted 10 minutes of green-flag driving.
The clock will keep running with a second, or third or fourth, red flag. The final round of qualifying, the Fast 6, still will feature six minutes of guaranteed green-flag running.
“Hopefully that allows a few more people to have a little bit of spacing and time,” said six-time series champion Scott Dixon, seeking his first Grand Prix victory in his 19th start.
But come Sunday, spacing will be at a premium.
“I think Going into Turn 1 with 27 cars behind you, if you’re leading, it’s going to be tough,” McLaughlin said. “There’s going to be rookies out there trying to go for broke; they’re trying to prove themselves as well. So I’m sure there’s going to be some crazy passes as well, but I think it will be interesting.”
And perhaps invigorating.
“I came here in 2019, and every year it’s become more cars, and more good cars as well,” Ericsson said.
“And that’s the thing. If you look at the field today, it’s 27 cars and every one of them is competitive. … I would say 20 cars could win races if they have their day. And I think that’s the only championship in the world that can say that.”
Contact Joey Knight at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.
Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg
Through Sunday, downtown; the 1.8-mile, 14-turn track uses the streets circling Pioneer Park, the Duke Energy Center for the Arts and The Dalí Museum, and extends onto the runways at Albert Whitted Airport.
Main race: 12:30 p.m. Sunday TV: NBC
More info: Details on tickets, parking, event schedule and more here.