It’s good to be back.
After 175 tortuous days, two closed-door preseason tests, and one CW documentary series entering production, the NTT IndyCar Series finally drops the green flag on the 2023 season when America’s premier open-wheel series attacks the streets (and runways) of the Sunshine State’s fifth-most populous city in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg (March 5).
The 1.8-mile, 14-turn layout was the first non-oval track visited by what was then the Indy Racing League when the series made its St. Pete debut in 2005, but the first IndyCar race of any type at the track came two years earlier, when Paul Tracy won the one and only CART event held in St. Pete for Forsythe Racing.
The Firestone Grand Prix consists of 100 laps (180 miles) around a circuit of extremes. The tight, bumpy back half of the layout takes drivers on a tour of downtown St. Pete, including passing alongside the marina on Bayshore Drive, before the final corners open up onto the wide, smooth runway of Albert Whitted Airport that serves as the frontstretch.
Keep your eyes on the first turn, which should be the site of the most action all weekend. Not only does the double-apex right-hand hairpin at the end of the runway serve as the prime passing opportunity on the track, the combination of wide entry and narrow exit (with a treacherous tire barrier) mean it has also seen more than its fair share of pileups, particularly on starts and restarts.
Adding to the cauldron of chaos, the white-painted runway markings are much slipperier than the surrounding asphalt, meaning that drivers who attempt to make an inside move are at a much, much higher risk of locking up or overshooting the corner, as Alexander Rossi did on a late-race restart in 2018. Rossi’s error brought a potential Cinderella story for Canadian rookie Robert Wickens to a close, and allowed Sebastien Bourdais through to claim the final win of his IndyCar Series career.
Traditionally the season-opener, St. Petersburg was run as the season finale in 2020 due to delays associated with COVID-19. That race saw Scott Dixon claim the championship for the sixth time, the most among active drivers, despite a clutch performance from title rival Josef Newgarden.
A late-race run to third place for “the Iceman” was his sixth podium at St. Pete, the most of all active drivers without a win.
Who to watch:
Chip Ganassi Racing rookie Marcus Armstrong will make his IndyCar debut this weekend, with the three-time Formula 2 race winner set to wheel the No. 11 Honda at the 12 road and street courses on the 2023 schedule.
The former Ferrari Driver Academy prospect was consistently the fastest rookie in preseason testing, and looks to impress in his debut IndyCar campaign. If his results back up his potential, the young Kiwi will surely be on the shortlist for a full-time Ganassi seat in 2023 – especially as Alex Palou is expected to depart the No. 10 machine for a seat at Arrow McLaren.
Joining McLaren this season is Rossi, who will take over the No. 7 Chevy. The streets of St. Pete have proved tricky for the eight-time IndyCar race winner. His best result is only third place in the aforementioned 2018 edition, although he led 61 of the first 70 laps in 2020 before crashing out in the third turn. McLaren have never found victory lane here either: a runner-up result for Pato O’Ward (2020) is all the hardware the boys in papaya have to show.
Replacing Rossi at Andretti Autosport is second-year driver Kyle Kirkwood, who adopts the traditional pink, blue, and yellow of the NAPA/AutoNation No. 27 Honda. The 2021 Indy NXT champion struggled in his rookie campaign with AJ Foyt Racing in 2022, earning a best finish of 10th at Long Beach, but is sure to improve on that record now that he’s found himself in competitive machinery.
Always strong on street courses is his Andretti teammate and 2021 St. Pete winner Colton Herta, who will look to bounce back from a difficult 2022 season that saw him win only a single race.
The true favorites for this weekend’s race can likely be found among the names of its previous winners: Josef Newgarden and defending series champion Will Power have won the race twice apiece, and last year their Team Penske teammate Scott McLaughlin earned his first IndyCar win in the 2022 running after starting from pole position.
Yes, Helio Castroneves is the winningest driver at the circuit, but all three of his wins came driving for Roger Penske, and none more recently than 2012. With 11 wins in 19 races, when no other team has managed more than three, statistically speaking, if you want to win St. Pete, you have to drive for the Captain.
Frontstretch Race Prediction
- Scott McLaughlin – Team Penske
- Josef Newgarden – Team Penske
- Colton Herta – Andretti Autosport
The 2023 Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg airs Sunday, March 5 at 12:00 p.m. ET on NBC.
About the author
Jack Swansey primarily covers open-wheel racing for Frontstretch and co-hosts The Pit Straight Podcast, but you can also catch him writing about NASCAR, sports cars, and anything else with four wheels and a motor. Originally from North Carolina and now residing in Los Angeles, he joined the site as Sunday news writer midway through 2022 and is an avid collector (some would say hoarder) of die-cast cars.
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