When it was over, Marcus Ericsson had his fourth NTT IndyCar Series win and his third on a street course. His Chip Ganassi Racing team earned its 124th IndyCar victory, and Honda took first and third with Scott Dixon claiming the last podium spot. Dejected in second, Arrow McLaren’s Pato O’Ward held a half-second lead over Ericsson with three laps to go, but a momentary engine problem—a brief fire in the plenum, according to O’Ward — allowed Ericsson to pounce and streak away to a 2.4s win.
“We had a really good weekend,” said Ericsson, who acknowledged all four of his wins have come after a red flag was required. “It think the whole Chip Ganassi Racing team has done a tremendous job in the offseason. Going here we were confident we were going to be better here. Today was one of those races where a lot of things happen. It’s a perfect way to start the season for us. I’m not saying we can’t win without a red flag, but it’s working for us.”
The Arrow McLaren driver took his time and chose his words carefully when describing the unexpected change of fortunes late in the race.
“It’s so frustrating to give it away like that,” O’Ward. “We arrived here. People know we were here. We were fighting for the win. I wouldn’t say it was heartbreaking. Just slightly annoying.”
Dixon was enthused about his team’s form to open the season.
“All of us had great speed,” he said. “I think we just rolled off a little bit better. Hopefully that carries on through the rest of the season.”
Starring drives were delivered by Arrow McLaren newcomer Alexander Rossi in fourth and Juncos Hollinger Racing’s Callum Ilott in fifth; Ilott’s rookie teammate Agustin Canapino embarrassed a lot of his rivals after crossing the finish line in 12th at his first open-wheel race.
That was the only straightforward aspect of the race. The 100-lap contest began with a massive crash in Turn 3 that removed five cars from the race within seconds of the green flag waving over the new season. Thankfully, every driver was cleared by IndyCar Medical, but it didn’t change the fact that the A.J. Foyt Racing and Meyer Shank Racing teams were done on the spot and Andretti Autosport’s Devlin DeFrancesco went for a frightening flight.
Once the red flag was removed, the race went through spurts of regular racing and big hits as four more cautions and 26 laps spent behind the pace car were required. Ed Carpenter Racing’s Rinus VeeKay went into the Turn 4 tire barrier and was hit immediately from behind by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Jack Harvey, who was taken to a local hospital for further evaluation ‘In an abundance of caution,’ according to the series. Like Harvey, Andretti’s Kyle Kirkwood had no time to avoid the situation and flew over the back of Harvey’s car.
Will Power and Colton Herta clashed, with the Andretti driver ending up in the wall. By the halfway point in the race, only 15 of the 27 cars were on the lead lap. O’Ward’s ascension to the lead came as a result of another high-profile crash as Team Penske’s Scott McLaughlin — race leader — charged out of pit lane after making his final stop and emerged directly in front of pole-sitter Romain Grosjean, whose tires had one lap of heat in them — and after being held off in Turn 3, the Andretti driver went around the outside to try and take the lead in Turn 4.
McLaughlin fought it the entire way, lost traction at the rear of his car, tapped Grosjean’s car, and both were stuck nose-first into the tires to the benefit of the Arrow McLaren driver who was unable to keep pace prior to their crash. By the checkered flag, the mass of broken and lapped cars left just 12 drivers on the lead lap.
If you’re a fan of clean racing, this was far from a classic. But if you love drama-infused motor racing, Round 1 of the IndyCar season was the gift that kept on giving.
AS IT HAPPENED
Turn 3 bit once again as the opening lap of the race triggered a red flag when Scott Dixon clashed with Felix Rosenqvist who was the first to clip the wall on entry to Turn 3 and behind him a big pile-up as Santino Ferrucci hit Helio Castroneves from behind, and from there, Simon Pagenaud slammed the right-side wall, and behind him. Sting Ray Robb was entangled along with Devlin DeFrancesco who was hit from the rear and sent pirouetting through the air. Only Robb was able to continue as he drove slowly to pit lane without the nose on his car.
Both Meyer Shank Racing entries and both A.J. Foyt Racing cars were out on the spot, as was Andretti Autosport’s DeFrancesco.
Following a 19m25s stoppage, the field rolled out of pit lane and began warming their tires. A few pitted for tire changes, including Josef Newgarden who had a deflating tire and Rinus VeeKay. Conor Daly also pitted and spent extra time there as his crew attended to something in the cockpit.
The lap six restart saw Romain Grosjean lead Colton Herta and Pato O’Ward into Turn 1. Later in the lap, David Malukas hit Marcus Armstrong from behind and punctured one of Armstrong’s tires. Malukas would be assessed a drive-through penalty for the contact.
By the end of lap 7, Marcus Ericsson followed O’Ward in P4 with Alex Palou up to P5, Kyle Kirkwood back to P6 and Scott McLaughlin back to P7.
By the end of lap 18, Grosjean and Herta were within 1.4s of each other but O’Ward was falling behind at 7.0s back in P3. Grosjean started flying, pushing the gap to Herta out to 3.5s after 22 laps. The edge swelled to 5.5s after 24 laps as Herta acknowledged backing off to save his ailing tires.
O’Ward caught and passed Herta for P2 on lap 25 and Ericsson was next to pursue the struggling Andretti driver. Lap 26 saw Ericsson take P3 from Herta in Turn 1, and Scott McLaughlin was by moments later. Then it was Scott Dixon and Will Power and Alexander Rossi as Herta pitted for new primary tires on lap 28. Andretti teammate Kyle Kirkwood was in the same trouble, falling to P14 before pitting at the end of the lap.
Barring Grosjean up front, most of the other drivers on alternate tires were miserable and dove into the pits at their earliest convenience; drivers like Scott McLaughlin who started on primary tires shot to the front. Grosjean pitted at the end of lap 31 which gave the lead to McLaughlin who pitted on lap 36 and took on Firestone’s alternates.
McLaughlin returned in front of Grosjean and fought off a passing attempt in Turn 4 which involved a bit of wheel banging. Conor Daly spun later in the lap after being tipped from behind by Kirkwood and brought out a caution just as Scott Dixon pitted for primaries. The timing of the caution meant Dixon returned with the lead with McLaughlin, Grosjean, O’Ward, Ericsson, Power, Herta, Rossi, Palou, and Graham Rahal rounding out the top 10.
But after the series reviewed the timing line information at the time the caution began, the leaders were reordered with McLaughlin leading followed by Grosjean, O’Ward, Ericsson, and Dixon as the new top five.
The lap 43 restart saw McLaughlin get a good jump but Turn 4 claimed three cars as Rinus VeeKay went into the tires and Jack Harvey had no space or time to avoid him. Even worse, Kirkwood tried to avoid Harvey but he hit and flew over the back of his car, crashing down after flying a good 20 feet. Only Kirkwood was able to continue, pitting to have his bent front suspension replaced. Harvey took a few minutes to climb from the car, visibly distressed.
Restarting on lap 49, McLaughlin ran away as Grosjean and O’Ward followed; Dixon passed Ericsson on the run to Turn 4 and behind them Herta went into the wall in Turn 8 after he and Power went side-by-side in a corner that only welcomes one at a time. A fourth caution was required and Power was instructed to fall to the back of the field by IndyCar.
The lap 55 restart was a repeat of the last with McLaughlin, Grosjean, O’Ward, Dixon, and Ericsson charging at the front. Callum Ilott was dropped to ninth by Josef Newgarden.
Lap 61 saw Grosjean on sturdier primaries sitting a steady half-second back from McLaughlin on alternates that were reaching the end of their lifespan. Palou was the first to make the last stop, pitting on lap 65 for primaries. Dixon was in at the end of the lap.
Grosjean pitted on lap 71 as McLaughlin stayed out. McLaughlin was in at the end of the lap but lost time behind Agustin Canapino. Firing out of pit lane with Grosjean on his gearbox, McLaughlin defending heavily into Turn 3 as Grosjean went to the outside to make the pass for the lead. They hit while trying to go side-by-side in Turn 4 as McLaughlin’s car slid slightly nearing the apex and hit Grosjean; both cars were stuffed into the tire barrier. Caution number five as McLaughlin’s car was re-fired and dispatched for repairs on pit lane and Grosjean’s car was craned away.
O’Ward was the big winner as he inherited the lead with Ericsson, Dixon, Palou, and Newgarden in pursuit. The lap 78 restart saw O’Ward get a great jump along with Ilott who motored to P5. O’Ward was 2.7s clear after the first lap.
With 16 laps to go, O’Ward was holding firm in the lead with 2.2s over Ericsson. Dixon was 3.1s back, Rossi was 5.4s arrears, and Ilott was 6.5s behind the leader. With 11 to go, Ericsson cut O’Ward’s lead down to 0.9s and was charging. On lap 97, O’Ward said he experienced a brief engine malfunction; the Indy 500 winner duly went by and cruised to a 2.4s victory to open the season in style for Chip Ganassi Racing.