Romain Grosjean Leads Opening Practice at St Petersburg

The former Formula One driver led the season-opening practice session in his Andretti debut.
Romain Grosjean Leads Opening Practice at St Petersburg

Another long offseason has come to an end for the NTT IndyCar Series as they go full-throttle on the 2022 season. The action began today on the streets of St Petersburg where 26 cars and drivers were able to stretch their legs and get back into competition mode.

The Firestone Grand Prix of St Petersburg will kick off another exciting season of open-wheel racing in the US as the first of 17 races this year. This will be the 19th race for the series on the Florida street course, where a host of legendary names have claimed victory.

Colton Herta is the defending race winner, and he will try to keep the pattern of repeat winners going. Juan Montoya won at St Petersburg in 2015 and 2016. Sebastien Bourdais followed that up by winning the 2017 and 2018 races. Josef Newgarden kept the theme alive with a pair of wins in 2019 and 2020. Now it is up to the young Andretti Autosport phenom to duplicate last season's success.

That will be a tall task for any driver this year, as the depth of the series is as great as it has ever been. There are a dozen drivers with legitimate championship aspirations, and about twice as many that could realistically find victory lane at some point this season. It all begins this weekend with the 100-lap event around the 1.8-mile street course.

There was just one practice session today, which lasted 45 minutes. Every team was able to get on track, as a total of 471 laps were turned in. There will still be an opportunity to work on the cars before qualifying tomorrow afternoon. A second 45-minute practice will take place at 9 AM ET tomorrow morning, with qualifying getting underway at 12:30 PM.

Romain Grosjean led the first practice of the season in his new No. 28 DHL Honda with a best time of 61.052 seconds. "To be P1 in the first practice is amazing," Grosjean said. "We will keep up the work as well as pushing the setup but I am very happy with how the session went and to be here. Hopefully more to come this weekend."

Just behind him were Andretti Autosport teammate Herta and Team Penske's Will Power. Rounding out the top five were Simon Pagenaud with Meyer Shank Racing, and Graham Rahal with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.

Alexander Rossi, Jack Harvey, Scott McLaughlin, Rinus VeeKay, and rookie David Malukas rounded out the top ten on Friday. Parody was on full display during this session, with many teams staking their claim near the front of the field. It was competitive too, as the top 12 drivers were separated by just 0.56 seconds.

Helio Castroneves is returning to full-time competition for the first time since 2017 and was 11th quick today. The four-time Indy 500 winner has finished inside the top-six in 10 of his 12 starts at St Petersburg.

Rookie sensation Kyle Kirkwood was just behind him in 12th, in what was an excellent showing for the AJ Foyt Racing team. Title contenders Josef Newgarden, Scott Dixon, and Pato O'Ward finished near the bottom of the grid.

There were no incidents in the session, although Jimmie Johnson did bring out a brief stoppage when he went into the Turn 10 runoff area due to a small fire on the left-front of his Ganassi machine. The driver of the No. 48 Honda received a five-minute time penalty for causing a red flag.

Herta won last year's race from pole position, something that hadn't been done since the 2010 race. Starting up front will still be key though, as 11 of the 18 races have been won by a driver starting in the first two rows. There is also a championship point up for grabs to the driver that earns the top starting spot, which could be crucial in this fierce battle for the title.

One driver that knows how to put his car up front is Power. The Penske ace has nine poles at St Petersburg. By comparison, no other active driver has more than one. Power has also led 268 laps while Dixon has not led a lap here since the 2012 race.

Looking closer at the numbers for Dixon, Pagenaud, and Rossi, they have a combined 33 starts, 10 podiums, 16 top-fives, and 226 laps led. Still, none of them have ever won this race.

Sunday's season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St Petersburg begins at Noon ET on NBC.

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