ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Beginning the IndyCar season last year at St. Petersburg, Scott McLaughlin won what was pretty much a clean, strategy-dependent race with only one caution throughout.
The exact opposite happened to open the season this year with Marcus Ericsson securing his fourth career win in the NTT IndyCar Series by surviving a crash-filled event that saw plenty of drama right down to the wire.
Ericsson, who started fourth when the green flag dropped, was able to get around Pato O’Ward who had led the previous handful of laps and appeared to be cruising to a win. But, O’Ward’s engine misfired momentarily causing him to lose torque with just three laps to go and thus creating an opening for Ericsson.
“I felt bad for Pato, but we were there to pick up on it,” Ericsson said. “If I wasn’t putting pressure on him and hunt him down, he would have been fine and we would have been second. But we were there right on his gearbox, and we got past.”
The first of what would eventually be five cautions on the day happened not even halfway into the first lap. Heading into turn three pole sitter Romain Grosjean led the front runners on a clean start of the race, but near the back, Felix Rosenqvist made contact with the outside wall which started a chain reaction crashing involving six other cars, one of which was Devlin DeFrancesco who ended up briefly going airborne.
Later on Lap 41 another big crash happened when Rinus Veekay overshot his marks into Turn 4 and nosed into the barriers. Jack Harvey has nowhere to go and slammed into Veekay’s gearbox. The wreck also collected Kyle Kirkwood.
The wrecks played a critical role in how the teams played out their strategies, especially with how teams managed their black and red tires. That strategy got defending race winner Scott McLaughlin to the lead in the back half of the race in a battle with O’Ward and Grosjean.
On Lap 74, McLaughlin collided with Grosjean bringing out the race’s final caution. The wreck gave the lead to O’Ward who held the lead for the next 23 laps.
“We did everything right today,” O’Ward said. “There’s always something. The boys deserved that. Compared to where we were here last year, this is a massive step. But we gave that one away. We can’t have that happen anymore.”
O’Ward’s aforementioned engine issues along with the fierce pressure put on by Ericsson gave the Swedish driver the lead with three to go and eventually the win. O’Ward came home second and Scott Dixon quietly survived the race taking third.
“We were definitely not in a winning position to start with,” said Ericsson. “There was a few cars ahead of us. I think we did a good strategy and the car felt good, but we needed a bit of help. You know, we were staying cool when other people did mistakes, and that’s what got us to Victory Lane.”
The series will take nearly a month off as the teams get ready to tackle the high banks of Texas at the beginning of April.
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