'We knew there were better days': After rough 2022, Andretti locks up St. Pete front row

Nathan Brown
Indianapolis Star

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Traditionally, race team owners are particularly cagey when it comes to contracts, but when Michael Andretti's was asked about his new deal with Romain Grosjean to man Andretti Autosport’s No. 28 DHL Honda, Andretti made clear the Swiss-born Frenchman was locked up for two years.

No more, no less.

It makes 2023 a contract year for Grosjean, who, when asked Friday about the heightened need to perform and whether contract talks had begun, answered, “Let’s win the race on Sunday, and then we can talk.”

The last two polesitters have thoroughly dominated the races on the streets of St. Pete, leading a combined 146 of 200 laps. Grosjean, who grabbed Sunday’s pole for the 2023 season-opener by a comfortable 0.4155 seconds over teammate Colton Herta, hopes he can continue the streak during what has been an energizing weekend for Andretti Autosport.

Romain Grosjean captured his second IndyCar pole on Saturday at St. Pete, helping Andretti Autosport lock out Sunday's front row.

“We improved a lot from last year and I was really impressed when I came to (the Open Test at Thermal),” said Grosjean after clinching the second pole of his IndyCar career Saturday – his first with Andretti. “Good test there, and Sebring was another good one. With three of us (Grosjean, Herta and Kyle Kirkwood) in the Fast Six and locking out the front row, that was a pretty impressive start.

“We knew there were some better days, and today is a good one.”

This strong start to the 2023 IndyCar campaign for Michael Andretti’s crew follows its most disappointing season in quite some time. In 2022, the team amassed just two wins – one each to Herta and Alexander Rossi, who after seven seasons departed for Arrow McLaren. Neither of the team’s unofficial lead drivers were ever in title contention, finishing 9th (Rossi) and 10th (Herta). The pair combined for 17 finishes outside the top-10 in the 34 races and only five podiums.

In his first year with his new team, Grosjean lost the luster of his rookie run with Dale Coyne Racing and finished a disappointing 13th with just six top-10s and only one weekend – his runner-up at Long Beach – where he was seriously in the race-winning conversation. As a rookie without a top-10, Devlin DeFrancesco finished 23rd in points. And so when the team rose toward the top of the testing charts in Thermal and Sebring – as they also did a year ago – questions were still raised as to whether the team’s overall performance had been raised.

Andretti came to Florida bullish, and placing two cars in the top-4 in both practices, followed by three in the Fast Six – and his fastest pair locking out Sunday’s front row – backed up those early premonitions. Sunday though, he said, will be where the real results will show – or not.

After an up-and-down 2022 campaign, Michael Andretti's IndyCar team locked out the front row for Sunday's season-opener at St. Pete.

“We did have many races last year with fast cars, but we shot ourselves in the foot one way or another so many times,” Andretti said. “Hopefully our pitstops and strategy will be better. We’ve really tried to be a lot more detail-oriented, and I hope it pays out.”

With a chuckle and a smile, Andretti was nowhere near as willing to elaborate on where his team had found the speed.

“If I told you, I’d have to kill you,” Andretti said. “We just stumbled across a few things that seemed to work for us, but I’m not going to tell you! Are you nuts?”

Herta chimed in: “We finally attached the front wing. We realized, ‘This thing really does something!’”

Romain Grosjean celebrates his second IndyCar pole with his family in St. Pete.

The rest of the grid

On his final lap, in attempt to grab his second St. Pete pole, Herta said he made a massive mistake that left him nearly a half-second off his Andretti teammate. As only he can, the 22-year-old American driver had a unique way to describe the move. “I was as useless as gum on a boot heel,” he told the Peacock broadcast. “I probably did just about everything wrong I could’ve.”

The pair will be followed at Sunday’s green flag by Pato O’Ward (3rd) and Marcus Ericsson (4th). The Fast Six’s final two drivers, Kyle Kirkwood and Scott McLaughlin, failed to throw down a time after both caused red flags early in the six-minute session. Kirkwood caught himself pushing too hard to get his tires up to temp at the start of his first lap, locked his front tires and nailed the concrete barrier with his left-front. McLaughlin lost it coming out of Turn 10 and spun down the final straight and off into the dirt but appeared to suffer very little, if any, physical damage to his No. 3 Chevy.

McLaughlin only narrowly advanced to the final round, edging Alex Palou (7th) by less than one-hundredth of a second (0.0095) in an uber-tight battle that also included Felix Rosenqvist (8th, 0.0285 seconds back) and Scott Dixon (9th, 0.0324 seconds back).

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Rossi, in his first race with his new Arrow McLaren crew, saw growing pains that limited his running in Day 1 of Thermal testing bleed into this weekend. Zak Brown’s newest IndyCar driver told the broadcast, “(Friday) was pretty much a lost day. We’ve still got some learning to do and some steps we need to take forward.”

He’ll start 12th Sunday.

One row back in 14th, Josef Newgarden came away particularly disappointed after the three-time defending series runner-up was bounced from the first round and quickly stormed out of his pit box and back to his bus. He’ll share the seventh row with Chip Ganassi’s top qualifying rookie Marcus Armstrong (13th).

Helio Castroneves will lead the charge for Meyer Shank Racing in 15th Sunday after his teammate Simon Pagenaud locked up his tires in Turn 4 and skidded into the tire barrier – as so many drivers had done in some form earlier in the weekend. The section of the track between Turns 3 and 4 were repaved since the race last February, leading drivers to believe that the fresh tarmac would lead to much higher grip. Instead, drivers struggled to find comfort, plagued by a consistent tailwind that ratcheted up speeds and a bump that caused some cars to bottom-out and lose control entering one of the highest speed braking zones on the course.

Pagenaud’s accident came with just 12 seconds left in the session, meaning with IndyCar’s new red flag rules that pause a session after its first red flag, each car would receive one final flying lap. In his final attempt, Kirkwood jumped into the advancing group with the third-fastest lap of the opening session, as did fellow second-year driver Christian Lundgaard, bumping out Armstrong and Castroneves.

Further down the grid, DeFrancesco (18th) will have plenty of work to do to make up the gap to his trio of teammates, as will the Rahal Letterman Lanigan teammates of Christian Lundgaard (11th). Jack Harvey (19th) and Graham Rahal (20th) will share the 10th row Sunday, followed by Juncos Hollinger Racing teammates Agustin Canapino (21st) and Callum Ilott (22nd).