ST. PETERSBURG — The largest IndyCar Series field in the two-decade history of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg delivered one of its wildest races yet.
One hospitalized driver. Two airborne cars. Five wrecks (including one for the lead) that knocked out nine competitors. And finally, an engine issue in the closing laps that helped Marcus Ericsson slip into the lead for his fourth career IndyCar victory.
“Today was one of those days,” said Ericsson, the reigning Indianapolis 500 champion, “and we were there to pick up the pieces.”
There were a lot of pieces to pick up because of a confluence of factors.
Because Sunday was the series’ season opener, some drivers were either overamped or not acquainted enough with their cars after an offseason with little testing. The race-record 27 entrants had little room on the 1.8-mile, 14-turn street course. There was a strong tailwind in Turns 3 and 4, and a new surface made Turn 4 especially slick; three wrecks happened in that area.
Several drivers said they had trouble warming up their tires on restarts, which also made things slippery. At one point, Ericsson said his No. 8 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda ran into marbles — bits of worn rubber that collect on the track — which felt like driving on ice for half a lap.
“I know there’s a lot of yellow,” sixth-place finisher Graham Rahal said, “but you’re not going to get anything more entertaining than that.”
The entertainment for what was believed to be a record crowd started on the race’s third turn when Felix Rosenqvist nicked the outside wall. The chain reaction collected five other cars, including Devlin DeFrancesco’s No. 29 Andretti Steinbrenner Autosport Honda. When DeFrancesco saw rookie Benjamin Pedersen speeding toward him, his thought was simple: Yeah, this is going to be a big one.
It was. The impact was so hard that it sent DeFrancesco airborne and spun his car 180 degrees before landing. Though DeFrancesco was unharmed, Helio Castroneves limped away from the wreck. X-rays to his right leg were negative, but the four-time Indy 500 winner needed an ice pack for his hand afterward.
That was only the first time a car left the ground. The second happened on Lap 42 when Kyle Kirkwood slammed into a wreck between Jack Harvey and Rinus VeeKay in Turn 9. Kirkwood’s No. 27 Andretti Autosport Honda flew over them and landed nose-first into the asphalt. Kirkwood was eventually able to drive back to the pit stall and remain in the race.
Harvey was taken to Bayfront Health St. Petersburg with wrist pain. He was evaluated and released late Sunday afternoon.
The craziest crash came between last year’s winner, Scott McLaughlin, and pole-sitter Romain Grosjean. They combined to lead 68 of the first 71 laps but got into trouble after McLaughlin pitted from the lead. He squeaked past Grosjean, but Grosjean challenged him on the outside heading into Turn 4. McLaughlin, on cold tires without much grip, didn’t back down.
“I just made a big mistake,” McLaughlin said.
That mistake sent them both into the tires, earned McLaughlin a penalty and effectively gave the lead to Pato O’Ward.
O’Ward seemed headed for his fifth career victory, but the Chevrolet engine of his No. 5 Arrow McLaren car briefly lost power on the front stretch with four laps left.
“We did everything right,” O’Ward said. “Just very annoying to give it away like that.”
Ericsson took it, as the 32-year-old Swede has a habit of doing in these situations. All four of his career IndyCar victories have come after red flags (2021 in Detroit and Nashville, and last year’s Indy 500).
“When a lot of things are happening, people are making mistakes, we seem to be able to stay cool,” Ericsson said. “We seem to be able to get everything together in those situations.”
And to be able to pick up all the fallen pieces from a wild afternoon downtown.
Contact Matt Baker at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.
Nuts and bolts
• Gulfport’s Nikita Johnson, the youngest driver in the event at age 14, earned his first career win in the USF2000 series. He led 18 of Sunday’s 20 laps to beat 22-year-old Simon Sikes by 0.5627 seconds. The victory party will have to wait. He had a 5:30 p.m. flight scheduled from Tampa International Airport to Frankfurt, Germany, to prepare for tests in Europe as Johnson gears for Formula4 Italian Championship events later this year.
• Six-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon still has not won the Grand Prix, but he finished on the podium in third. He tied the legendary Mario Andretti with his 193rd career top-five result.
• Bucs tight ends Cade Otton and Ko Kieft got to take a lap around the track before the race. Other notables involved in the festivities included former UCF and Lakewood High football star Shaquem Griffin, Rays pitcher Drew Rasmussen, LPGA legend Annika Sorenstam and actor Simu Liu (star of the Marvel film “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”).