Points to ponder from IndyCar 2023’s first quarter
We’ve put the first quarter of the NTT IndyCar Series season to bed, and with that in mind, it’s time to make a few observations and draw a few conclusions about all that’s taken place before we hit the fast forward button and blast through the month of May, starting with Saturday’s Indianapolis Grand Prix.
• Spanning the opening four rounds, this has been the season of Romain Grosjean. With the 37-year-old leading three of the four races and showing himself to be Andretti Autosport’s most consistent threat and its steadiest performer, he heads to Indy sitting fifth in the championship, just 15 points out of the lead. That breakthrough victory can’t be far away.
• As much as I didn’t anticipate Grosjean would assert himself as Andretti’s top dog (so far), I also failed to imagine a scenario where Colton Herta would get through the four opening races with zero poles and zero wins. Herta’s had more than enough adversity to open the season and holds P10 in the championship, but so has Kyle Kirkwood, whose lone finish inside the top 10 came with his Long Beach win. It’s a bit of deja vu from 2022 for Herta, who entered the Indy GP sitting P11 in the championship. Herta, rolling into the Speedway, while P3 among Andretti’s four drivers? That’s a shocker.
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• Kirkwood’s one spot ahead of Herta in the standings in P9. If it weren’t for his terrible luck at St. Petersburg (launched over Jack Harvey) and the suspension failure at Texas, he’d be a lot closer to Grosjean in the championship. And he’s almost out of bad finishes if he wants to be a title contender; you only get three or four poor results before championship aspirations start to fade, and registering two with 13 rounds left to run means Kirkwood needs to race clean and avoid cartoon anvils over the next five months.
• Marcus Ericsson’s doing something for the first time in his IndyCar career, and it bodes well for the future. A poor qualifying run to P16 in Texas? He flipped that into a finish of P8. Another underwhelming start at Barber where he rolled off P13? Improved to P10 by the checkered flag. Ericsson’s turning bad starts into better results, which is why he’s leading the championship and will continue to do so if he can keep landing on the podium as he’s done twice this year. He’s one of only two drivers — along with Ganassi teammate Alex Palou — to finish inside the top 10 at every round, and that’s how title bids become possible. The only fix Ericsson needs right now is to get his qualifying results back in order.
• Piggybacking on Ericsson’s season to date, Pato O’Ward has been a beast with a pair of seconds and a fourth. If he could go back to Long Beach, avoid the unwise lunge on Kirkwood that caused him to spin and trade a likely podium for P17, O’Ward would be the runaway championship leader.
• Leaving Barber last year, Team Penske landed at the Indy GP as Chevy’s top squad with Scott McLaughlin holding P2 and Josef Newgarden at P3 in the standings; O’Ward and Arrow McLaren, in P5, were second on the Bowtie’s depth chart. The tables have been turned departing Barber where McLaren is Chevy’s No. 1 team heading into the Indy GP, with O’Ward in P2. McLaughlin, in P4, isn’t far behind.
• Newgarden and Kirkwood are having extremely similar seasons where one big win has been surrounded by largely forgettable results. P6 in the standings, Newgarden’s been wearing his anger and frustration on the outside — readily visible in person, and on the broadcasts — which only emerged sporadically last season. Maybe “Angry Josef” is the persona that’s needed to earn a third championship.
• As noted, Palou has been a vision of consistency with all four finishes being between P3 and P8. If there’s a surprise here, it’s not in his solid performances; it’s in how he’s yet to look like a threat for victory, with a brief exception at Texas. Coming off a turbulent 2022 where it took until the 17th and final race for Palou to deliver a strong win, I didn’t anticipate the new season getting under way without him being in the mix for victory on a regular basis.
• Chevrolet caught Honda by surprise last year and ran away with the manufacturers’ championship after winning the first four races and seven more of the remaining 13. In response to its shellacking by the Bowtie, Honda’s taken two of the first four rounds this year and, thankfully, there doesn’t appear to be a major difference between the two, which should make for good fun as both appear capable of winning every race.
• The only caveat to the apparent engine parity is the Indy 500, where Honda mopped the floor with Chevy in 2022. One brand owned the season; the other owned the biggest race. Will we see a reversal of fortunes in qualifying and the race? Or will Chevy match or exceed the power and fuel economy Honda used to such devastating effect at the Speedway? I can’t wait to find out in a few weeks’ time.
• The mounting number of unforced errors by Helio Castroneves has been hard to watch and harder to ignore. Three off-track excursions of his own making at Barber, along with the solo lap 1, Turn 1 spin and crash at Long Beach, have placed the 48-year-old on the hot seat.
• The four-time Indy 500 winner’s struggles are emblematic of his Meyer Shank Racing team’s season. To his credit, Castroneves has MSR’s only top 10 — a P10 at Texas — and every other result when combined with Simon Pagenaud’s output has been P15 or worse. Said another way, of the eight total races with both drivers, seven of the eight finishes have been between P15 and P26, which isn’t sustainable. I can’t think of a tandem that needs to have a transformative Indy 500 more than Castroneves and Pagenaud.
• Rookie Sting Ray Robb heeded the advice of many entering Long Beach: Just get to the finish. And after two DNFs to open his season, the dialed-back mindset helped. A fiery end to Barber wasn’t his fault, but it did compound the issue of completing so few race laps. Of the 525 race laps run in 2023, Robb’s missed out on 101 in just four races.
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• Juncos Hollinger Racing’s impressive opening to its season took a step back at Long Beach and again, slightly, at Barber, and it wasn’t a coincidence as the team’s ace technical director Yves Touron was away for both races while tending to more important personal matters. The team’s strong start to the championship slowed once Touron was away, but he should be back in full force sometime soon. If there’s an award for the most underrated engineering mind in IndyCar, it belongs to the Frenchman.
• Reigning champion Will Power has been a vision of consistency, just as he was on the way to securing the IndyCar title last year. The difference, however, is where that consistency has been delivered. Power’s championship was earned through living on or near the podium with the No. 12 Chevy, and even though he only won one race, it was the capturing of big points at the other rounds where he outran rivals who won as many as five races in 2022. Over last year’s first four races, Power finished P3-P4-P4-P4 and went into the Indy GP fourth in points. Across 2023’s three opening races, Power went P7-P16-P6, which wasn’t bad, but wasn’t going to produce another championship as he arrived at Barber in ninth. Thanks to that charging finish to the Alabama race that netted P3, Power’s up to seventh in the standings, but he can’t afford to fall out of that podium groove if he wants to defend his title. Barber was a corrective result, and it needs to be the first of many or his hopes of going back to back will fade.
• On a related Power topic, IndyCar’s all-time pole winner, who earned five poles in 2022, hasn’t been close to capturing his first of 2023. This, too, would not have been predicted prior to the season; his best start so far is eighth at Texas and worst is 19th at Barber. Strange.
• It’s a good thing Christian Lundgaard’s under contract with RLL for next season. If he was a free agent, Lundgaard would be fielding offers from half the grid. Separate from its youngest driver, who’s P12 in the championship, the organizations is in a crucial phase of the season where another slow start has everyone on edge. Graham Rahal (P16) and Jack Harvey (P23) are at a tipping point where a good month can rewrite the trajectories of their year and a bad month could lead to some swift changes.
• Devlin DeFrancesco made good strides in the latter half of his rookie season. The start to his sophomore year has shown small glimpses of progress, but those moments have been mostly reserved for practice sessions. In the races, however, DeFrancesco’s been stuck in a nightmare. Presently last in the championship standings entering the month of May, things can only improve for the kind Canadian. Andretti’s resurgence with its other three drivers spread between fifth and 10th in the standings has only magnified DeFrancesco’s unfortunate grip on 27th.
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• In my pre-season prediction pieces, I mentioned that Ed Carpenter Racing was almost unchanged from 2022 and that by maintaining the status quo, it would either emerge as a benefit and leapfrog ECR forward while other teams that made a lot of internal changes took time to get up to speed, or it would prove to be a setback as many of its rivals marched forward from the outset and left ECR behind. On the championship front, Rinus VeeKay is P18 and Conor Daly is P24 and the team continues to hunt for its first top 10, so the early data suggests the latter is more likely than the former. The team is often impressive on the Indy road course and at the Indy 500, so maybe a better version of itself will stand tall in May. Otherwise, ECR is in for a long year.
• P13 in the standings is strong for David Malukas after losing his race engineer to Scott Dixon. Even better, “Little Dave” is clicking with his new engineer and they’re directly ahead of Alexander Rossi, Felix Rosenqvist, Rahal, VeeKay and Pagenaud in the championship, which is impressive.
• Let’s talk about Marcus Armstrong. He’s missed one of the four races (Texas) in his debut season that’s limited to road and street courses, and with an average finishing position of 10.0 from those three rounds, he’s in P17 in the championship, right between Rahal and VeeKay who’ve done all four. Look higher in the standings and Armstrong’s teammate Dixon is P8, but his average finish is 10.5. Kirkwood, in P9, has an average of 13.75. On average, Armstrong is putting up numbers that say far more than his placement in the standings might suggest.
• So much of what stands out from the season’s 25-percent mark are the things that haven’t happened. Arrow McLaren is a perfect example. Not only is the expanded three-car team winless, but over the four races and 12 total runs by O’Ward, Rossi and Rosenqvist, only two podiums have been produced (both by O’Ward).
• Of the drivers in the top 16, all but two — Ericsson and Palou — have at least one terrible race result, if not two, which is just plain weird for a season that’s only put four races in the history books. Of the 14 in the top 16 with one or two races to forget, McLaren has a monopoly on the misery with Rossi (P4-P22-P22-P8) and Rosenqvist (P19-P26-P7-P9). Things have gone pear-shaped for Malukas of late (P10-P4-P20-P19), but the WTH King is still Kirkwood (P15-P27-P1-P12).
• We’ll close with Santino Ferrucci and Benjamin Pederson who, like the drivers at ECR, MSR, and RLL, are praying for relief at Indy after suffering in almost every race. Ferrucci’s P11 at Long Beach offered hope, and despite finishing three out of four races, Pedersen is behind Robb in the standings, who’s only finished one race. A pair of family losses within the Foyt team have only made things harder for the squad. I’m not sure if the Indy GP is where the sunshine starts to break through the clouds, but Foyt’s technical director took the last two 500 poles with Dixon and Ferrucci is an animal on the Speedway. Indy doesn’t owe anything to anybody, but nobody would begrudge the racing gods if they treated the Foyt team with kindness this month.
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