Photo: Brian L. Spurlock/ASP, Inc.

Up to Speed: 2024 Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg Preview

By David Morgan, Associate Editor

After a long six-month offseason, the NTT IndyCar Series is back in action for the 2024 campaign, beginning with Sunday’s running of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

As the home of the IndyCar season opener, the 1.8-mile, 14-turn street circuit along the waterfront in St. Petersburg, Florida, including the runway of the Albert Whitted Airport has provided an exciting venue to kick off the season and the 2024 edition should be another action-packed chapter.

The on-track activity begins with practice on Friday afternoon at 2:45 pm ET, followed by a second practice on Saturday morning at 9:35 am ET leading into qualifying at 3:00 pm ET.  Sunday’s 100-lap main event is scheduled for a 12:30 pm ET start on NBC.

Friday’s first practice will be notable as it will be the first time that IndyCar will be rolling out a new practice format in an effort to alleviate traffic issues that have become more prevalent in recent years on the tight confines of the street course.

Instead of the full session featuring the full field, the session will have all cars run the first 20 minutes, followed by the field being split in half according to odd and even pit box numbers. For the remainder of the session, the two groups will alternate in 10-minute increments as they try to dial in their setups.

The new practice format is currently only planned to be used in the opening session of the weekend, but the sanctioning body will no doubt take the input from the drivers and teams into consideration when determining whether it will be used at any other events going forward.

By the Numbers

What: Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, NTT IndyCar Series Race No. 1 of 17

Where: Streets of St. Petersburg – St. Petersburg, Florida (Opened: 1985, first INDYCAR event was 2003)

When: Sunday, March 10

TV/Radio: NBC 12:00 p.m. EST / INDYCAR Radio Network (SiriusXM Channels 85 & 160)

Track Size: 1.8-mile street course

Race Length: 100 laps, 180 miles

2023 Race Winner: Marcus Ericsson – No. 8 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda (Started fourth, four laps led)

Track Qualifying Record: Will Power – No. 12 Team Penske Chevrolet (59.3466 seconds, 109.189 mph – February 26, 2022)

From the Driver’s Seat

“The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is one of my favorite races on the NTT INDYCAR SERIES calendar,” said Kyle Kirkwood.

“As a Florida native, I consider St. Petersburg to be a home race for me in a way. The track has a lot of unique corners and features where we have views of the water and the opportunity to race down the runway of an airstrip. Overall, St. Petersburg is a place I really adore, and I can’t wait to kick off the season with the AutoNation crew.”

New Faces, New Places

With the new season, there have of course been some changes to the landscape of the IndyCar paddock for the 2024 season with drivers moving from team to team and some new faces coming on board as well.

The reigning series champions Chip Ganassi Racing will have two rookies in Linus Lundqvist and Kyffin Simpson joining the team alongside returnees Alex Palou, Scott Dixon, and Marcus Armstrong to make up the team’s five-car stable.

Marcus Ericsson, who drove for CGR from 2020 to 2023, moves over to Andretti Global, formerly known as Andretti Autosport for 2024, joining Colton Herta and Kyle Kirkwood.

Former Andretti driver Romain Grosjean will be running the Juncos Hollinger colors in 2024 alongside returning driver Agustin Canapino.

Arrow McLaren welcomes David Malukas to the three-car team alongside Pato O’Ward and Alexander Rossi.

Unfortunately, Malukas will have to miss at least the season opener in St. Pete after an offseason mountain biking accident has left him on the mend from a broken wrist.

Felix Rosenqvist, who recently called Arrow McLaren home, shifts his alliance to Meyer Shank Racing for 2024 in a completely revamped team lineup with IndyCar rookie and sports car ace Tom Blomqvist in the team’s second car.

Last, but not least is Dale Coyne Racing, which just this week announced that Jack Harvey and Nolan Siegel will split time in the No. 18 Honda with Harvey running 14 races and Siegel, the Indy NXT pilot running the other four. Harvey most recently drove for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.

The team’s No. 51 entry will be piloted by sports car veteran Colin Braun this weekend in St. Pete and at the All-Star Race at the Thermal Club, but the plan for the remainder of the season for that car remains undetermined.

Calling in the Reliever

With David Malukas on the mend from his off-season mountain biking injury, Arrow McLaren needed a driver to fill-in for him during the duration of his absence and called in Callum Ilott to take on the reliever duties.

Ilott is no stranger to the IndyCar paddock, having raced for Juncos Hollinger Racing over the last two seasons before cutting ties with the team over the offseason. The 25-year-old Brit also finished in the top-five in last season’s race at St. Pete.

While Ilott has taken on a full-time driving role with Hertz Team Jota in the FIA World Endurance Championship this season, he is ready to give his all in his return to open wheel, no matter how long the relief drive may be for.

“It’s great to be back. It’s great to the back in the NTT Series and getting on with it with the No. 6 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet. Really excited. It’s a great race to come in for,” Ilott said.

“First off, I feel really bad for David. I hope he gets a speedy recovery and gets back in the car soon. I think he’s coming to the race. We’ll get to work together and get him up to speed with the team as quick as possible, and also for me, as well, I need to get up to speed.

“But yeah, really grateful for the opportunity, so thanks to Zak, Gavin, Tony, the whole team and NTT Data for letting me in the car. It’s going to be exciting.

“Also got to give a thanks to Hertz Team Jota for allowing me to do this race. I’m very pumped to get going and give this orange car a go, or papaya.”

Last Time at St. Petersburg

To say the 2023 running of the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg was chaotic would be an understatement.

It only took until Turn 3 on the opening lap for the chaos to begin when several cars were involved in a crash that blocked the track and sent Devlin DeFrancesco’s Honda airborne in the process.

A second car went airborne in a crash on Lap 41 when Rinus VeeKay and Jack Harvey got tangled up in the tire barrier in Turn 4, leaving Kyle Kirkwood with nowhere to go as his Honda vaulted off Harvey’s back tire and ramped over his car before landing with a thud on the other side.

Harvey was taken to a local hospital for further evaluation afterwards, while Kirkwood and VeeKay were unhurt in the incident.

In the midst of the chaos, Scott McLaughlin and Romain Grosjean set themselves apart as the drivers to beat, leading 37 and 31 laps, respectively, but neither would finish the day in Victory Lane after their battle landed them both in the tires in Turn 4 on lap 72.

Pato O’Ward came out on the positive end of the McLaughlin/Grosjean incident, inheriting the lead as a result, which he built into a healthy lead over Marcus Ericsson over the final stint of the race.

However, winning in the IndyCar Series is never easy as O’Ward would come to find out soon enough.

As O’Ward came off the final turn coming to three laps to go, his No. 5 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet stumbled down the airport runway that serves as the frontstretch, allowing Ericsson to pass him for the lead and the win.

From then on O’Ward could do nothing but watch Ericsson score the win that likely would have been his and ponder what might have been.

“We did everything right today. It’s just…it’s always something,” a visibly frustrated O’Ward said. “The boys deserved that. [Texas] is next, so we’ll fight for that one.

“Compared to where we were last year here, it’s a massive step. We just gave that one away. We can’t have that happen anymore. I know we’re second, but yeah.”

O’Ward explained afterwards that the issue with his car was a plenum event, an engine overboost, which caused his car to lose speed momentarily before he was able to gather it back up and continue on for the remaining laps.

While O’Ward was frustrated with not coming away with the win and having to settle for second, Ericsson had no problem with capitalizing on O’Ward’s issue and stealing the win away.

“Obviously today I didn’t want Pato to have a problem, but from what I heard the problem was because we were putting pressure on and they did a mistake or he did a mistake,” Ericsson said. “And that’s when these things can happen.

“I felt bad for Pato, but we were there to pick up on it. 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.”

Weekend Schedule (All Times Eastern)

Friday, March 8

  • NTT IndyCar Series Practice 1 (2:45 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. – Peacock)

Saturday, March 9

  • NTT IndyCar Series Practice 2 (9:35 a.m. to 10:35 a.m. – Peacock)
  • NTT IndyCar Series Qualifying (2:00 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. – Peacock)

Sunday, March 10

  • NTT IndyCar Series Warmup (9:10 a.m. to 9:40 a.m. – Peacock)
  • NTT IndyCar Series Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg (12:00 p.m. – 100 laps, 180 miles – NBC/NBC Universo/Peacock/INDYCAR Radio Network)

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David Morgan is the Associate Editor for Motorsports Tribune. A 2008 graduate from the University of Mississippi, David has followed NASCAR since the early 90’s and became hooked at an early age after attending his first race at Talladega Superspeedway in 1993. He has traveled across the country since 2012 to cover some of the most prestigious events both IndyCar and NASCAR have to offer, with an aim to only expand on that in the near future.