Marcus Ericsson was not the fastest car in Sunday’s season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. He wasn’t the second fastest either, and may not have even been the third. But, in a form that is quickly becoming an Ericsson specialty, he kept the car clean, and found himself in victory lane after 3 hours of chaotic racing around the streets of St. Petersburg. Ericsson only led 4 laps– the last 4– on the way to his fourth career IndyCar victory, yet he was there when it mattered.
Ericsson was asked post race if he’s noticed that most of his wins have come during dramatic, chaos-filled events. His response? “It's my thing, apparently.”
“All those races are very high intensity races,” Ericsson said. “It's not sort of straightforward races. There's a lot of things happening. You need to be ready to adjust your strategy, pit stops, restarts. There's a lot of things going on, and we seem to be very good at that. That's definitely one of our strengths. Not saying we cannot win without the red flag, but it's definitely been working for us.”
Sunday’s chaos was hinted at on Friday and Saturday when multiple drivers experienced issues during practice and qualifying preparing for the main event. Scott McLaughlin and Josef Newgarden each had to sit through multiple toe link repairs before qualifying began on Saturday, and eventual pole sitter Romain Grosjean crashed by himself during Friday practice. The track proved to be tough on drivers throughout the weekend.
At the drop of the green flag, polesitter Romain Grosjean got away cleanly, as did his teammate and outside pole position driver Colton Herta. At the back half of the top 10, however, the race was immediately marked with a dramatic crash on lap 1.
Scott Dixon made contact with Felix Rosenqvist, which sent the Swedish driver into the wall. The field behind Rosenqvist checked up to avoid the slow-moving McLaren, and the resulting accordion effect saw Helio Castroneves get spun in front of the field exiting the turn. Multiple cars crashed in a 5-car pileup, which only got worse. Benjamin Pedersen, who was further behind the field, rounded the corner and was at near full speed when he encountered the wreck. The AJ Foyt Enterprises driver slammed into a stationary Devlin DeFrancesco, launching the no. 29 Andretti Autosport Honda into the air. The scary wreck resulted in a 20 minute red flag to clean up. Also involved were Santino Ferrucci, Simon Pagenaud, and Sting Ray Robb.
After the red flag was lifted, the drivers settled into the first long run of the day. Grosjean and teammate Colton Herta, both on the softer alternate tires for the first stint, built a big lead on third place Pato O’Ward. Herta used up his tires early and slipped back while Grosjean continued to expand his lead. The first pit cycle opened up on lap 28, with Herta being the first taker of fresh Primary tires, followed by leaders Grosjean and O’Ward 5 laps later. Scott McLaughlin took over the lead of the race, and maintained it over Grosjean when the no. 3 Penske crew executed a flawless pitstop to keep him out front of the former F1 veteran Grosjean. One lap later, Conor Daly spun with help from Kyle Kirkwood, bringing out the second yellow.
The cliche goes that cautions breed cautions. There is a reason it’s always repeated because it does often ring true. On the restart from the previous caution, Rinus VeeKay went too deep into a corner and cooked it into the tire barriers, making contact with Jack Harvey in the process. Kyle Kirkwood had nowhere to go, and launched over Harvey, completely clearing Harvey’s machine before crashing back to earth. It was the second liftoff at the converted runway/street course of the afternoon, after Devlin Defrancesco left the pavement briefly on lap 1. Miraculously, Kirkwood’s day was not done, though he was uncompetitive and finished 3 laps down in 15th place. Jack Harvey had a hard time getting out of his wrecked race car and was taken to the hospital out of an abundance caution; as of this writing, he’s been cleared and released.
The cautions were not done yet. On the following restart, Will Power sent it on Colton Herta, made contact, and Herta went into the tire barriers. For the reckless move, Power was penalized and sent to the rear of the field; on the flip, the damage to his Gainbridge Honda sent Herta to the garage, done for the day. Calamity had struck 3 of the 4 Andretti Autosport Hondas during the afternoon, and more was on the way
The race finally settled back down long enough for a green flag run to develop. Scott McLaughlin led, but Romain Grosjean remained glued to his rear wing. Never dropping further back than a second, Grosjean kept up with McLaughlin despite having the slower primary tire compared to McLaughlin’s alternates. Grosjean seemed faster, and McLaughlin’s team was worried that if they pitted before Grosjean, the Frenchman would pass the Team Penske driver by virtue of having clean air. McLaughlin pushed it on the tire stint, forcing Grosjean to pit first on lap 71. McLaughlin followed on lap later, and the two converged at nearly the same exact spot on the track when McLaughlin emerged from the pits. Grosjean had warm tires, and flew to the outside, knowing that he had to act quickly to move in front of McLaughlin. McLaughlin fought back on the inside as the two cars screamed towards the right-handed Turn 4, and drove in deep. Grosjean gave room, but McLaughlin trusted his cold tires too much– the back end stepped out, and he slid into Grosjean’s Honda, putting both cars in the tires. Three times Grosjean has been the bridesmaid in his short IndyCar career; on an afternoon that looked like his first career win was likely, he went home with a crushed-up race car instead. McLaughlin suffered less damage, but incurred a penalty for the reckless move and finished a lap down in 13th. Both drivers were visibly frustrated post race (both with McLaughlin, ironically, as he even blamed himself for the move).
Pato O’Ward assumed the lead following the stunning development between Grosjean and McLaughlin, followed by Marcus Ericsson and Scott Dixon. O’Ward took off, and gapped Ericsson on the restart. Ericsson slowly chipped away at his lead, with Dixon in tow, and O’Ward’s lead was down to 7 tenths of a second with 10 laps to go. Another caution seemed to be a possibility with 6 laps left when Josef Newgarden’s Chevy caught fire, but he nursed the wounded machine back to the pits without causing an issue. Ericsson continued to hound O’Ward, but the Mexican McLaren driver proved adept at keeping last year’s Indy 500 winner behind him. Ericsson needed a daring move or a stroke of luck to get around O’Ward; the daring move may have happened soon had the latter not occurred with 4 laps to go. On the exit of Turn 14, O’Ward’s Chevrolet experienced a random plenum backfire– a rare occurrence that momentarily shuts the engine off– and Ericsson darted around him to take the lead. O’Ward regained power immediately and did not lose any more positions, cruising home in very disappointing second place.
“Yeah, we did everything right today,” said a frustrated O’Ward during his post race press conference. “I've got to give it to the teams. Arrow Electronics and everybody, not just our 5 car, but Felix, Alex, their groups, as well. I feel like we've all really collaborated fantastically and come with a package that has been a massive step up to where we were last year, so that's super promising. Super happy with that. Didn't really move much; we rolled off the truck strong, which is what we wanted to do…. I don't know what else to tell you. It's very unfortunate….It makes me proud of -- we arrived here, people knew we were here. We were fighting for the win. That was ours to take, and it was just very -- I wouldn't say heartbreaking, but I would say just very -- it was very generic. I was trying to find a more fancy word. Frazzled. I learned that maybe it's not the right thing. I learned it in school. But no, just slightly annoying.”
Savvy veteran Scott Dixon rounded out the podium by finishing third. Alexander Rossi came in fourth in his McLaren debut, and Callum Ilott turned in a very impressive fifth place finish for Juncos-Hollinger. Graham Rahal improved 14 spots from his starting spot to finish sixth, Will Power recovered from a penalty to place seventh, and Alex Palou slid back from the top 5 during the last run to the eighth finishing spot. Youngsters Christian Lundgaard and David Malukas closed out the top ten in ninth and tenth, respectively.
On the rookie front, Marcus Armstrong paced the 2023 class by finishing an impressive 11th in his IndyCar debut. Even more impressive is the fact that he achieved that result despite an unscheduled pit stop resulting from a flat tire. Augustin Canapino finished 12th, Sting Ray Robb finished 16th despite suffering heavy damage in the lap 1 wreck, and Benjamin Pedersen finished last in 27th.
Back to Ericsson. The 32-year-old Swede now has 4 career wins and an early points lead in 2023. The driver of the no. 8 Huski Chocolate Honda for Chip Ganassi is extremely optimistic for this season.
“I think we're going to be good on all types of tracks,” he said. “That's the goal, of course. Yeah, it's been a promising start for us, and we need to keep working hard because we cannot just relax and say everything is fixed. This was one weekend. We need to make sure we continue this trend for the rest of the year, as well.”
Ericsson may not have come to IndyCar by a traditional path. He’s not flashy, and has a penchant for unexpected wins. But there is no doubt what his goals are, and what he thinks he is capable of.
“I'm here to win. I want to win a championship. I want to win another 500. That's our goals, and what other people say doesn't really matter. But I think we've proven last year and the year before that we can be up front and run, fighting for a championship. We just need to keep doing that, and what people say, I don't really mind too much.”