Race Weekend Central

2024 IndyCar Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg Preview

The 2024 NTT IndyCar Series season is here. For the 13th season, the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is the site of the first race to kick-off IndyCar’s year. A field of 27-cars descends on the sun-soaked concrete of the Albert Whitted Airport and the rest of the 1.8-mile track that weaves through downtown. It will be the first race for several drivers in new environments and with a long offseason to build up positive vibes and confidence, every team thinks they have a shot at victory. 

Last Year

The 2023 running of the St. Pete Grand Prix was one of the most memorable races of the year. In the span of 30 laps, four drivers thought they had a shot at winning the season’s premiere event. First was Romain Grosjean, who overtook Scott McLaughlin after their final pit stops and returned to the lead after dominating early. But then McLaughlin saw a chance to put himself back up front and ride to victory when his tires came up to temperature. Of course, they both careened into tire barriers in turn four, eliminating each other’s shot to finish. Pato O’Ward went on his merry way around the two bulldozer-modified IndyCars and thought the day was his. Instead, a plenum event stole his thunder, and Marcus Ericsson sped by to take the checkered. 

Alrighty then. 

The three that were locked out of victory lane would have had much different seasons if one of them had made it into the winner’s circle that day. Grosjean might not have had to use the IndyCar employment portal had he triumphed, securing his seat at Andretti Global that was reportedly his until management thought otherwise later in the summer. O’Ward’s early season success in being a professional runner-up would have looked more positive with a victory mixed in. Now Grosjean and defending winner Ericsson, who walked across the paddock to take the vacant seat at Andretti, return with new teams, O’Ward is starting on a quest to claim a bigger throne at IndyCar’s royal court and McLaughlin is seeking a run at a title after finishing third in 2023. All are looking to take this one for redemption one way or the other.

See also
Open Wheel Archive: The 2005 Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

Eyes on the Prize

Two-time St. Pete winner Josef Newgarden put his Team Penske No. 2 Chevy in victory lane at four races last year. All ovals, including the 2023 Indianapolis 500. That sounds like a remarkable season and reason to pop champagne corks as well as make toasts to a great year.

That doesn’t seem to be the feeling from the Nashville native. The two-time series champion has been focused on returning his car to consistent results that can challenge for a title. He postponed his entertaining and fan-friendly Bus Bros show with teammate McLaughlin, only adding more to the notion that this year is about attention to the details to get him back up front every weekend.

It’s not like he should be disappointed, after finishing second in the points 2020 to 2022. But the fifth place championship result last year tied for his worse since signing with Penkse. The Captain has high standards, and you better believe it that Newgarden is going to aim to deliver. To do that, he must return to form in the race tracks he took his first victories, the road and street circuits. His last win on a twisty was in 2022 at Road America. While he has recently shown his mastery of the ovals, grabbing a good result at St. Pete will remind the paddock why he has 14 wins on these types of tracks.

Lighter Cars Equals More Speed 

IndyCar mandated lighter components with some of their vendors this year, taking some weight off the DW12 chassis. This move, made in preparation for the upcoming hybrid units, will in the meantime adjust balances and possibly increase speeds in the first half of the season. Indianapolis 500 qualifying will be a show, but let’s scale it back and keep the focus on this weekend first to see how this all comes together. 

The best scenario is that the racing product, with lighter cars, will be entertaining. Teams have sunk thousands of man-hours into improving engineering and racing setups on the edges to find just a slight advantage to beat the competition. Throw in a weight reduction, and now teams are given a lot to work with to maximize improvements. We won’t know for sure how the cars handle until they hit the track on Friday.

Nobody Knows

The best thing about St. Pete and any first race of a season is that there is no favorite. If anyone has a clue what will happen, chalk that up as a big fat lie. It’s a crap shoot to know how this is going to turn out. For example, Ericsson won last year, so the Swede starts the season strong right? Well, besides a third at Long Beach and then coming a lap short of repeating at Indianapolis he never really sniffed victory lane again in 2023. Eventual champion Alex Palou thought he was driving in his last St. Pete with his No. 10 crew at Chip Ganassi Racing, fully expecting that this weekend he’d arrive trackside wearing papaya orange. A year later, the Spaniard has a nice new contract with Ganassi, a new sponsor in DHL, and probably free international shipping for free. Maybe.

Let’s also not forget the man that ran a cool race and grabbed third. Would it be surprising to know that Scott Dixon finished on the podium? No, it wouldn’t because regardless of the whole idea of this section, stating ‘no one knows,’ the entire paddock does know Dixon will do Dixon things. That never changes.

Elsewhere in the field, there is opportunity for drivers to rise to the challenge, or for those that finished the season on a high-note ready to rock and roll. The 100-lap, 1.8-mile circuit awaits them all.

See also
Carlos Sainz Out of Saudi Arabian GP, Oliver Bearman Making F1 Debut

Frontstretch Predictions

Yes, this section returns. Let me interject myself into this story. Last year, I made selections for the top three for each race. I nailed approximately 3.7%. Okay, that’s not true, I don’t think it was that high.

Anyway, expanding this to include pole winner, because that way my average can be even worse by year’s end. I’m also going to ask for some help on this by adding in my editor Alex Gintz to throw down his thoughts so folks out there have a confident source to compare to versus my dartboard choices. Here we go.

Pole Winner: Scott McLaughlin – he was fast last year, ended the season strong and wants to go fast out of the gate.

Tom:

  1. McLaughlin – Sweeps pole and win. Launches onto a championship run.
  2. Palou – If McLaughlin wants the title, he will have to pry it out of Palou’s greasy, fried chicken-stained hands.
  3. Alexander Rossi – Didn’t touch on him much, but entering his second year with Arrow McLaren, expect his professional approach pays off and finds a good result.

Alex:

  1. McLaughlin – I’m in the boat with Tom here; prepared to go down with the ship.
  2. Colton Herta – The young American needs a strong start to this season, and a street circuit is the sort of place I expect him to show up.
  3. O’Ward – Like Herta, it’s just time to get things rolling and there’s no better time to start than the first race of the season.

The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg will kick off at 12 p.m. ET on Sunday, March 10, with coverage on NBC.

About the author

Tom is an IndyCar writer at Frontstretch, joining in March 2023. He also works full-time for the Department of Veterans Affairs History Office and is a lieutenant colonel in the Army National Guard. A native Hoosier, he's followed IndyCar closely since 1991 and calls Fort Wayne home. Follow Tom on Twitter @TomBlackburn42.

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