A Perfect Race Weekend- St. Pete Wrap Up

Photo: Scott McLaughlin at the post race press conference.

Race weekends just don’t get any better than the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding that concluding with a very good race yesterday.

Scott McLaughlin won his first Indycar race by hitting the correct pit strategy and holding off defending series champion Alex Palou by 0.5 seconds. The race was a fascinating ix of pit strategies, complicated by the race’s only caution flag, which happened at the start of the first pit window.

Scott McLaughlin leads Alex Palou in the closing laps. Turn 10 saw a lot of passes for position Sunday.

Huge Crowds

The race, however, was just one part of what made the final weekend of February so special. The crowd was definitely a record. I have been going to this race since 2013, and I have not seen a crowd this size in St. Pete. Indycar officials say attendance was up 49% from the 140,000 in 2019, the last pre pandemic race. In 2020 and 2021, the race had a limit of 20,000 fans each day.

I have never seen the turn 10 bleachers so full, and the general admission area in front of the Mahaffey Theater was packed.

Fans on the lawn just before the green flag.

The atmosphere at the track on Sunday felt like Race Day at IMS.

Party in the Park

The Grand Prix added a free event for fans Saturday afternoon. Party in the Park featured giveaways, including a two seater ride, show cars, and driver interviews. The event was well attended. I was pleased to see so many families there.

Pato O’Ward and Felix Rosenqvist talk to the crowd.
Half a dozen Indycars and and Indy Lights cars were on display.

Sirius XM I’s Indycar channel conducted driver interviews at the event. Tony Kanaan and Conor Daly were guests when I arrived.

After sunset fireworks lit up the harbor.

Ancillary events like Party in the Park are essential to the community involvement needed for a successful street race. The St. Petersburg race has grown steadily since I began attending. This year the event has begun to approach the level of Long Beach. I hope this trend continues.

Reunions

The season opener at St. Pete is always a time to see friends that you haven’t seen all winter. In 2022, the reunions were more special. I saw some dear friends I hadn’t been able to see in three years due to the pandemic. I am now more eager for the month of May, when I will be able to see even more friends in person.

Quick Thoughts- Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

I like this trend. For the second year in a row, the winner of the season opener is a second year driver winning his first race. Scott McLaughlin had to battle Alex Palou for the win. It was not an easy win despite his starting from pole on a street course.

The battle for the lead over the last 15 laps was a great way to start the season.

I don’t recall a St. Pete race with just one yellow. The long green stints may have changed some strategy, which made this race intriguing.

Rinus VeeKay is back. He backed up a strong qualifying effort with a sixth place finish. VeeKay also led 13 laps during an extended stint.

Nice Debuts

In spite of several on track adventures in practice the last two days, Romain Grosjean had a solid debut with Andretti Autosport with a fifth place finish.

Takuma Sato earned a 10th place result after starting 22nd in his first race for Dale Coyne Racing.

Christian Lundgaard was the top finishing rookie in 11th.

Whatever Happened to…

Josef Newgarden was never a factor in the race. He started ninth, but went to an alternate three stop strategy, which had him mired in 16th at the end. newgarden has seemed a step behind his teammates all weekend.

Alexander Rossi dropped to 20th from starting 13th. He led 10 laps during pit cycles. I’m not sure what’s going with the 27 team.

Kyle Kirkwood started strong but ended 18th.

Arrow McLaren drivers Pato O’Ward and Felix Rosenqvist each improved four spots from their starting spots, but O’Ward’s 12 the was the best they could muster. Rosenqvist came home in17th.

Fans Came Back

Today was the ninth time I have attended this race. The crowd was the largest I have seen. For many fans this was their first race in nearly three years. I think more local people attended than have come in a while as well.

I will have more on the race tomorrow. Thanks for following all weekend.

Herta Leads Morning Warmup

Cplton Herta led this morning’s final warm up for the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, edging Josef Newgarden by 0.27 seconds. Herta’s quick lap of 1:00.328 came late in the session.

Two red flags interrupted action. The first was for Jimmie Johnson who spun and stopped on track. the second came with just about three minutes remaining. Cars returned to the track for one timed lap.

Romain Grosjean had some adventures in turn 1. He tried to pass a car on the inside, locked his brakes, and went into the run off area. The car he tried to pass narrowly avoided a collision and continued.

Grosjean points his car in the right direction after sliding into the run-off area.

Later Grosjean and Helio Castroneves went side by side into the first turn. The cars made contact but continued without any issues.

The top 12

Race Day!

Today’s Schedule:

Gates Open 8:30 AM- 2:30 PM

8:45AM – 9:15AM NTT INDYCAR SERIES Warm Up Peacock
9:30AM – 10:30AM Indy Lights Race Peacock
10:45AM – 11:25AM USF2000 Race 2
11:50AM NTT INDYCAR SERIES Driver Introductions
12:30PM Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding NTT INDYCAR SERIES Race (100 Laps) NBC coverage begins at noon

It’s time to begin the 2022 season. Thye Grand Prix of St. Petersburg begins at 12:30 PM Eastern time on NBC.

I still like Colton Herta to win today, but any of the top five candidates could take the checkered flag. Look for a possibly chaotic race with pit strategy possibly deciding the outcome,

Scott McLaughlin answers a question after winning the pole Saturday.

The start will be interesting with Team Penske teammates Scott McLaughlin and Will Power on the front row. It’s McLaughlin’s first pole in Indycar. Will he have a decent pace for the start?

Alternate tires are an unknown factor heading into today’s race. In yesterday’s post qualifying press conference, Will Power was asked how long he thought the reds will last. He answered,

‘Yeah, it’s a good question because no one
has done more than two laps on them. We heat cycled
them and did another one or two laps. Yeah, that will be
an interesting story tomorrow because I don’t even think in
warmup you’ll be able to tell because the condition will be
so cool and good, you won’t get a feel for is it going to go
off or not.”

The temperature for the morning warmup will be 71 degrees. By race time it will climb to 78 and stay there for the entire race.

The Rookie Factor

Kyle Kirkwood is the only rookie starting in the top half of the grid. No other first year driver starts higher than 15 (Christian Lundgaard.). How this group reacts in traffic and handles pit stops may affect other drivers and alter the outcome.

I look for a mostly clean race from these six. They have had enough race experience. Some of them have not made a lot of pit stops. In the warmup, we might see the rookies pitting frequently to practice pit procedures.

Big Movers?

Drivers who should finish ahead of where they start- Josef Newgarden (9th), Alex Palou (10th), Graham Rahal (11th), Pato O’Ward (16th), and Helio Castroneves (17th). Cautions should the ones further back on the grid.

It will be great to get the new season underway. Enjoy the race.

McLaughlin on St. Pete Pole as Penske Sweeps Front Row

Scott McLaughlin turned a sizzling final lap as time expired to win the pole for tomorrow’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg Presented by RP Funding. He edged teammate Will Power, who will start on the front row for the 12th time at St. Pete.

Scott McLaughlin on his pole winning lap

Group 1 in Round 1 ended with six different teams advancing, including A. J Foyt Racing with Kyle Kirkwood, Ed Carpenter Racing driver Rinus Veekay. Colton Herta led the round with a time of 59.466 seconds, followed by Graham Rahal, VeeKay, Scott Dixon, Kirkwood, and Josef Newgarden.

Group 2 saw Power lead with a lap of 59,394 seconds, followed by McLaughlin, Romain Grosjean, Simon Pagenaud, Marcus Ericsson, Alex Palou. Palou and Grosjean recovered from heavy damage in the morning practice.

The second round saw a great battle for the lead between Power, Grosjean, McLaughlin, and Herta, with Power taking the round. Power set a track record with his lap of 59.346 seconds.

Will Power

The Firestone Fast Six looked to be comfortably in Power’s grasp as Herta, Grosjean, and Pagenaud all failed to beat his time. McLaughlin’s final lap was 0.12 seconds better than his teammate. The second year driver has earned his first career pole.

Two drivers and teams who had great drives today- Kyle Kirkwood of A. J. Foyt Racing and Rinus VeeKay of Ed Carpenter Racing. Neither team is known for their prowess on road and street courses, nut today may be a sign that the situation could be about to change. Kirkwood finished fifth in Round 1. The rookie has shown in two days how talented he is.

VeeKay appears to be fully recovered from the shoulder injury he suffered mid -season last year. VeeKay was third in Round 1, sixth in Round 2, will start fourth tomorrow.

Qualifying Results:

McLaughlin Fastest in Practice

Scott McLaughlin led a disjointed practice session interrupted by three red flags, which consumed nearly a third of the time allotted. Indycar plans to extend sessions in this instance when possible. A street event, with a packed schedule, does not allow for time extensions.

McLaughlin, in his second Indycar season, posted a time of 0.59.734, the only lap under 60 seconds so far. Colton Herta was second for the second day in a row, 0.351 seconds behind.

Simon Pagenaud, fourth on Friday moved up to third.

Romain Grosjean, yesterday’s leader, was involved in a multicar incident. He ran into the back of a slowing Takuma Sato.

The first red flag flew 20 minutes into the session when Jack Harvey clipped the turn 9 wall. The last red flag with about five minutes left involved 2021 series champion Alex Palou, who had a hard hit at turn 9. The session restarted for one more lap.

Ed Carpenter Racing had a strong practice with Rinus VeeKay sixth and Conor Daly 11th. Rookie Kyle Kirkwood, 12th Friday, improved to eighth this morning.

Rinus VeeKay
Kyle Kirkwood

Results

Some Teams Still Looking for Speed

Today’s schedule:

Gates Open 7:45 AM-1:30 PM

8:00AM – 8:45AM Indy Pro 2000 Race 2
9:00AM – 9:45AM NTT INDYCAR SERIES Practice 2 Peacock
10:00AM – 10:45AM Mazda MX-5 Cup Race 2
11:00AM – 12:00PM SRO GT America Race 2
12:30PM – 1:45PM NTT INDYCAR SERIES Qualifying Peacock

2:00 PM-2:30 PM Indy Lights Autograph Session Fan Village

3:00 PM- 4:00 PM Indycar Autograph Session Fan Village

4:00 PM-6:00 PM Party in the Park North Straub Park

8:00 PM Fireworks

On track activity is packed into just five hours today. The Indycar field has just 45 minutes to prepare for qualifying. Andretti Autosport had three drivers in the top 10 Friday while Team Penske and Rahal letterman Lanigan Racing each had two drivers near the top. The team that puzzled me the most was Arrow McLaren SP, who had Felix Rosenqvist 16th and Pato O’Ward 20th.

Chip Ganassi Racing didn’t have any driver higher than 15th place Marcus Ericsson.

The practice round today will be run in cooler conditions than Fridy’s late day session. The temperature at 12:30 when qualifying starts is expected to be 76 degrees and sunny, rising to 78 by the time the Fast Six begins.

Indycsr decided not to alter it’s qualifying format in spite of a larger full time grid and even more cars at some events. We saw a few cars backed up in turn 10 yesterday trying to make a gap, but not a huge line. A qualifying round may look different.

Yesterday’s fastest driver, Romain Grosjean, said about his session,

“I think we’ve got a very, very strong baseline, but I think there’s a little bit more to come if we put it all together. Hopefully we can
find that and have fun for the rest of the weekend.”

Will Power said about qualifying this season,

“It will be very tight qualifying sessions, and it’ll come down to whether you get a clean lap and don’t get held up, if someone doesn’t back
up or you don’t go through a yellow. Yeah, it’s going to be
that sort of year, which is great. I think it’s very good, very fun.”

Today will be a fun day. Practice and qualifying can be seen on Peacock.