ST. PETERSBURG — Andretti Autosport has insisted for months that it was doing the behind-the-scenes work to recover from last year’s brutally disappointing IndyCar season.
The team won only two races among its four drivers, former Formula One star Romain Grosjean was a bust in his first year with the team and Alexander Rossi decided early that his seventh season at Andretti would be its last.
Michael Andretti powered forward. He signed Colton Herta to a long-term extension, pulled Kyle Kirkwood back into the organization and made changes at the shop that had him optimistic for 2023.
So far, so good on the opening weekend.
Grosjean opened his third season in IndyCar by winning the pole in Saturday qualifying on the downtown streets of St. Petersburg, where the Frenchman led an all-Andretti front row. He surged to the second pole of his IndyCar career in the waning moments of the session and beat teammate Colton Herta for the top starting position in Sunday’s race.
“We got here and I said, ‘Boys, I think we’ve got something,’” Grosjean said.
His wife and three children raced to pit road, with the kids jumping into their father’s arms in celebration. Grosjean moved to IndyCar in 2021 after his nearly fatal fiery crash in a Formula One race ended his European career. He joined Andretti last season but didn’t have the success he expected to achieve with one of IndyCar’s top teams.
“As Mike said, we improved a lot from last year as a team,” said Grosjean, who added that the improvement was noticeable in preseason testing. “We worked really hard from a tough season last year. The car felt much more alive.
“There’s always bits and pieces we can improve on the car, but this weekend as a team we’ve been very impressive and hopefully we can carry that out in the race.”
The last two winners of the race — Scott McLaughlin of Team Penske and Herta — both won from the pole. Asked how he felt about his team’s chances on Sunday, Andretti smiled and said “I feel a lot more optimistic.”
“I think we really studied ourselves and got real honest with ourselves where we needed to improve. I think we’ve done it,” Andretti said. “Obviously the race is going to be another thing. Hopefully we can have all four cars go through the race without making a mistake. If that happens, I think we have a great shot at winning.”
It’s been an incredible opening weekend for Andretti, which has had three fast cars since unloading for Friday practice. Along with Kirkwood, the team put three drivers into the Fast Six qualifying shootout.
“We’ve done a lot of work, for sure, it’s a pretty good feeling,” Andretti said before the last qualifying group. “We know the competition has done so, too, but so far so good. Feels good to have three in the top six.”
The Andretti group stumbled at the start of the final shootout when Kirkwood crashed to bring out a red flag.
“Sorry, I hit the wall,” Kirkwood radioed.
Kirkwood, in his second IndyCar season but first with Andretti, said after he locked his brakes that the wind made his qualifying lap “kind of sketchy.”
“Disappointed, it was less than ideal,” Kirkwood said. “Ultimately, we are in the Fast Six with three cars, happy with that.”
Andretti wasn’t all that bothered by Kirkwood’s stumble.
“Been very, very happy with his results and testing,” Andretti said. “Up until the last mistake, this weekend he’s been doing a great job.”
Pato O’Ward of McLaren was the highest-qualifying Chevrolet driver in third and followed by Indianapolis 500 winner Marcus Ericsson of Chip Ganassi Racing and then Kirkwood, as Honda drivers took four of the top five spots.
McLaughlin of Team Penske went off course in the Fast Six and qualified sixth in a Chevy.
Marcus Armstrong, a rookie for Chip Ganassi Racing, was the highest qualifier among the newcomers at 13th. The biggest qualifying disappointment was Penske driver Josef Newgarden, who missed out on advancing in qualifying by a tick — under .04 seconds to teammate Will Power.
Newgarden will start 14th and stalked down pit road in anger.
By JENNA FRYER AP Auto Racing Writer