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Who has the edge among IndyCar's 'big four' teams?

After one round of the 2023 IndyCar Series, there are already more questions than answers over who is championship favourite. Autosport spoke to key figures from the leading Ganassi, Penske, Andretti and McLaren squads to gain more insight

Marcus Ericsson, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda - podium

Photo by: Richard Dole / Motorsport Images

IndyCar fans have been left so many questions to ponder after last weekend’s Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. In no particular order, we wonder if Andretti Autosport had pitted Romain Grosjean a lap earlier in his first stint – before his green alternate Firestones gave up and lost him time – whether Team Penske’s Scott McLaughlin would have been unable to get in front of the Frenchman for the middle stint and therefore unable to wrestle for the lead at the start of his final stint, ergo Grosjean wins.

We wonder whether Colton Herta, had he hung back from his Andretti Autosport team-mate in cleaner air in the opening stint, could have made his greens last longer, lost less time before pitting, and then been able to tackle Grosjean or pick up the win in the event of the Grosjean/McLaughlin clash.

Equally, had he not been nudged into the wall (inadvertently) by Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon on the opening lap, would Felix Rosenqvist have been in second to take over the lead from Arrow McLaren team-mate Pato O’Ward when the latter’s Chevy-powered machine had a quick burp four laps from the end? And, of course, it’s anyone’s guess whether O’Ward, without his “plenum event”, could have held off eventual winner Marcus Ericsson all the way to the chequered flag.  

The speculation above is irrelevant once you see the results sheet: McLaughlin and Grosjean did clash, Herta and Rosenqvist weren’t around to pick up the pieces, O’Ward’s engine did hesitate, Ericsson did win.

So now the biggest question is, were the St. Pete performances a true gauge of the relative merits of Ganassi, Andretti, McLaren and Penske on all street courses in the season ahead? Depends who you ask…

Chris Simmons, Chip Ganassi Racing’s director of performance

Ganassi's Simmons feels the team has taken a step forward in the tight IndyCar pack

Ganassi's Simmons feels the team has taken a step forward in the tight IndyCar pack

Photo by: IndyCar Series

Simmons saw Ericsson transfer to the Fast Six, Alex Palou and Dixon line up seventh and ninth, and rookie Marcus Armstrong grab 13th. Could they have done better?

“Scott started two positions further back than last year at St. Pete, but this year we were three tenths closer to transferring out of Q2,” observes Simmons. “It’s super-tight for that cut-off position. We only missed the top six by 0.04s and 0.07s would have put us P3. Unfortunately, we didn’t put the best lap together – although obviously most of the drivers could say something like that.”

Last year at this track, Ganassi looked mediocre in practice but got better and better with every session, so that Palou finished a very close second on race day. This year, the team was up to speed from the very first session, but Simmons insists this was not because the squad focused on street course performance in the off-season.

“Our street course performances last year were strong [Dixon won Toronto and Nashville, Palou was on the podium at St. Pete and Long Beach, and Dixon was also third in Detroit],” he says. “It’s qualifying that was our top priority in the off-season, for street and road courses. We did a long examination of where we were losing out, made some changes to our set-ups to make them less knife-edge and coached the drivers on how they could also help themselves as well.

“We still have work to do. But, on race pace, I think we looked strong compared with the opposition all weekend” Chris Simmons

“And I think that was reflected in St. Pete. Our race pace was still there but qualifying pace was a bit better. Obviously we’d have liked to have had all four cars in the Fast Six but the guys were all pretty happy with their cars, and the results were more a reflection on struggling to find the ultimate lap. And getting all four in the top six is about as much down to luck as skill, these days, given the traffic situation.”

That said, Simmons is honest enough to admit that he doubts the Ganassi cars could have ruined the Andretti Autosport front-row lockout.

“If we’d put our best laps together for all cars, I think we’d have been in the hunt,” he says, “but I’m not sure we would have matched the lap that Grosjean threw down there in qualifying. We still have work to do. But, on race pace, I think we looked strong compared with the opposition all weekend.”

While Simmons thinks the Ganassi cars were faster than the McLaren machines in race trim, he’s not going to emphatically say that Ericsson would have made the pass on O’Ward.

“I think we were faster, yeah,” he says. “Pato didn’t look particularly quick in the first stint of the race, and was holding everyone up from fourth on back. But whether Marcus could have made a move on him with all the marbles that were on the inside, I don’t know. When Scott tried to pass Marcus on that last restart, he had wheelspin in fourth gear from all the marbles offline. I would have liked to see IndyCar use one or two of the longer yellows to clean the track; that would have helped the racing, because with that many cars out there, the marble problem is only going to get worse.”

Gavin Ward, Arrow McLaren racing director

Ward says Arrow McLaren really targeted street course improvement

Ward says Arrow McLaren really targeted street course improvement

Photo by: Jake Galstad / Motorsport Images

Ward says street course performance was where McLaren most needed to up its pace for 2023, so he was gratified with the progress on show last weekend.

“That was the weakest part of our game in 2022,” says Ward, “and we were pleased with the year on year gains at St. Pete. Clearly, Andretti has still got something on the field, but St. Pete is a little bit of an outlier in terms of street courses because of the track surface. I would say it’s too soon to tell how things might stack up at the other street races. Detroit is a new layout; Long Beach, Toronto and Nashville we know and hopefully a lot of work we’ve done will transfer to those. Actually, I hope a lot of work we’ve done will also be applicable to the road courses, too.”

O’Ward outqualified all three Team Penske cars in St. Petersburg, and Rosenqvist started ahead of two. When one considers how superior Roger’s team looked at St. Pete last year, that is quite the turnaround for the Zak Brown band. But Ward will not go so far to suggest his team is now ahead of Penske on street courses.

“That’s a little tricky to say,” he comments, “because McLaughlin was competing for the win. On one-lap pace, yeah, I think we were ahead: in terms of the race, I’m a little less confident. Did we see anyone truly flat out? It’s IndyCar, it’s so tight; the margin between looking good and looking bad is very narrow.”

Ward confirms that O’Ward deliberately hung back from Grosjean and Herta in the opening stint to escape their dirty air and therefore protect his alternate tyres, while doing just enough to stay ahead of Ericsson, Palou, Kyle Kirkwood, etc.

“That was our play going into the race,” says Ward. “I was super-impressed with Pato’s maturity and self-discipline the entire weekend. We knew making the alternates last was key for pulling off a two-stopper – you lose around 28s in pitlane – and we went into the race thinking about the best way to achieve a top three or top four, because we want to be consistently top-five cars every week. Our target is to reach the season finale with all three cars still in contention for the title, and that’s all about consistency.”

Aside from O’Ward’s bitter pill, Rosenqvist was bounced into the wall on the opening lap of the race, taking him out of contention, while Alexander Rossi drove a smart race with a car that lost downforce from a damaged diffuser after being struck on lap one.

“Alex got the most out of what he had,” Ward states, “and Felix was right there with Pato in terms of pace. It could have been him who took over the lead when Pato had his issue…

“But we’ve definitely made a huge step since last year. Will that transfer to Long Beach? I don’t know. Where are we in relation to the other teams? I don’t know. But there’s enough difference between these tracks that St. Pete isn’t necessarily a form guide for other street races, and there’s enough tightness in the field that you still have to nail absolutely everything or you’re going to miss out.

“The good thing is that we believe there’s more to come.”

Rob Edwards, Andretti Autosport COO

Edwards was impressed by the way Andretti's drivers were working together

Edwards was impressed by the way Andretti's drivers were working together

Photo by: Gavin Baker / Motorsport Images

There’s a variety of ways to sum up the depressing ‘what might have been’ tale at Andretti but it’s not all bad: the cars clearly had huge pace. That surely won’t be the last time we see Grosjean, Herta and Kirkwood all making it through to the Fast Six in qualifying.

“We’ve all been in this business long enough to realise it ebbs and flows,” says Edwards. “And you’re right, there are a lot of positives to still take from last weekend.

“Whatever reset buttons were hit over the off-season, Romain has been great – he’s been everything we need him to be. I said to someone at the weekend that it’s like our four drivers went to Vegas over the winter and had a bonding exercise to all get on the same page.

“The dysfunction at Mid-Ohio last year was well documented, but Romain, Colton, Kyle and Devlin [DeFrancesco] have all got the message for 2023 – they need to work together – and Romain has been a really big part of that over the past few months. So as much as I think he deserved the St. Pete win because he drove really well, I think he also deserved a reward for the work he’s been doing in the off-season that has contributed to the team as a whole.”

“As much as the results were disappointing, one good race or one bad race doesn’t define the season. I hope we can take away some positives from St. Pete” Rob Edwards

It wasn’t only the drivers hitting the reset button at Andretti, as Edwards explains: “From our perspective, we had to take a long hard look at ourselves, reprioritise some areas, correct some things that we’d discovered were not as good as we hoped they’d be in 2022, and leave alone the things that were working well. And then hope that we were addressing the right things.

“Car-wise, there have been definite steps, and that has a positive effect on other areas. If you have the speed, it opens up two or three strategies and make you look like a hero. There were one or two slightly late calls, there were some aspects of tyre management that could have been handled better. But we have improved communication paths so I think you’ll see our strategies and tactics improve and we’ll get sharper at decision-making ‘in the moment’.”

Had he not needed two sets of alternates to get through to the Fast Six, and then crashed, Kirkwood might have made it an Andretti 1-2-3 on the grid. So has Michael Andretti’s squad regained whatever it lost in 2022 and become the street course masters once more?

“It’s too early to say,” says Edwards. “Sometimes you’re not quite as good as it appears, and sometimes you’re better than you appear. Certainly the one data point we have, St. Petersburg, makes us feel we’ve remedied some of the things that weren’t working last year, and gone back the way they were. But it will probably take the next three or four races to figure out where we stack up overall. There are so many strong teams and variables on any given day.

“As much as the results were disappointing, one good race or one bad race doesn’t define the season. I hope we can take away some positives from St. Pete, be smart about what we do and aim to have several cars in contention for the championship. Those are the expectations from Michael and the team’s partners.”

Will Power, Team Penske driver and defending IndyCar champion

Power reckons a podium was possible without the penalty for clashing with Herta

Power reckons a podium was possible without the penalty for clashing with Herta

Photo by: Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images

How good was Team Penske? That’s possibly the hardest question to answer. What we can say is that the squad did not look like the team that at St. Pete last year started 1-2 and finished 1-3.

McLaughlin probably only led the middle stint due to a tactical misstep from Andretti Autosport, which is what gave him a chance to also emerge in front for the start of the final stint, leading to the infamous clash. It was notable that even at the start of the middle stint when running on fresh alternates, he could not shake off Grosjean on the harder primaries.

But McLaughlin was swift in qualifying and without his wall-brush that bent a toelink, and caused a spin, he might have outpaced O’Ward for third on the grid. Underwhelming qualifying for Power (10th, too much understeer) and Josef Newgarden (14th, too much traffic) defined their races.

Power spent the first stint in ninth, right behind fellow primary users McLaughlin and Dixon and was a legitimate sixth in the second stint but he was adjudged to be more at fault in the clash that sent Herta into the tyre wall, and so was made to restart at the back of the pack, in 15th. After the final yellow caused by the McLaughlin/Grosjean clash, he was up to 12th, and elected to grab a second set of alternates. He cut through the pack to claim seventh at the flag.

“I found the greens pretty good even in the middle stint,” he says. “With the track fully rubbered in, it was easy to make them last, and so we ended up quick in the third stint. Our car was fast in race trim.”

Which implies…

“Yeah, qualifying was a bit of a different story,” Power continues. “The car’s handling was just as good this year as last year, but the lap times weren’t there compared to our competitors. We had a pretty good balance, so it was hard to pin down what we were missing. We had a bit too much understeer – that was one thing I could have helped with, by fixing my line down to the last corner. It’s those little details that cost you when the field’s very, very competitive like this.”

Without the penalty for the clash with Herta, Power said he was destined for “third or fourth – just ahead or just behind Dixon”, but added, “Given the situation with the penalty, dropping to the back, I was pretty happy with seventh. That wasn’t bad.”

But where does he reckon Penske is compared with the others? “If you look at the weekend overall, Andretti was the strongest – they were quick and their cars looked to be handling really well,” says Power. “I think we were really good in the race, but it’s hard to tell how we stacked up compared with McLaren and Ganassi because, to make a two-stopper work, there weren’t many times when we were flat out and on the same strategy as people around us.

“But at a push, I’d say only the Andretti cars were better than Penske over the weekend; I think our cars were at least a match for McLaren and Ganassi. And who knows if it will be the same in Long Beach? Andretti’s been strong there the last few years, but I think we’re close enough to put them under pressure.”

Power says it's still hard to know the true IndyCar pecking order

Power says it's still hard to know the true IndyCar pecking order

Photo by: Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images

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