Of the ‘Big Four’ in IndyCar – comprising of Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing, Arrow McLaren and Andretti Autosport – the latter were yet to stamp their mark on 2023.
That is until the circus turned up in Long Beach, California and suddenly they were an animal awoken in the sun.
Kyle Kirkwood, who had never secured a pole position, win or even podium in his short IndyCar career so far, showed all the skills of a future champion to claim a famous victory.
The 24-year-old stunned the field by taking pole on Saturday, just fractions ahead of reigning Indianapolis 500 winner Marcus Ericsson, and held that lead for the opening stint.
He did spend the middle portion of the race staring at the back of Josef Newgarden’s Penske after a chaotic restart but he kept his cool and made his strategy work and claim his maiden win in the big time.
“I just had a moment of relaxation to be honest,” Kirkwood said after winning at Long Beach. “I was just like, finally!
“It’s not really finally, because we are only three races in, but it felt like it for me. I felt like I needed this win and we got it today.
“A moment of relief no doubt. And I can’t thank the team enough. Bryan [Herta] did a fantastic job with strategy.
“We didn’t touch anything from qualifying. The car has been the same the entire time.”
Romain Grosjean was also very quick all day and came home second while Colton Herta consolidated fourth to gain valuable championship points and put a big smile on Michael Andretti’s face.
Chink in the armour
Pato O’Ward appeared to be a changed man in 2023 and took the philosophical view after finishing second in the opening two races but things were different in California.
The Mexican was very impatient at the start and jumped out of line early before having to settle in on the primary tyres while the alternates had the pace advantage.
Once the crossover occurred, O’Ward attacked but he hip-checked Scott Dixon into the wall to cause a caution on lap 21 although race control viewed it as a racing incident.
He then made a similarly desperate lunge on Ericsson at Turn 8 but spun himself around on this occasion and dropped back into the pack.
The Championship leader prior to the green flag showed signs of crumbling that we haven’t seen yet this year and he has to cut that out immediately if he wants to be the man on top at the end of the season.
|1||Kyle Kirkwood||Andretti Autosport||1:43’17.3748|
|2||Romain Grosjean||Andretti Autosport||+0.9907|
|3||Marcus Ericsson||Chip Ganassi Racing||+2.0588|
|4||Colton Herta||Andretti Autosport||+7.6371|
|5||Alex Palou||Chip Ganassi Racing||+8.7770|
|6||Will Power||Team Penske||+30.3224|
|7||Felix Rosenqvist||Arrow McLaren||+30.9744|
|8||Marcus Armstrong||Chip Ganassi Racing||+31.9119|
|9||Josef Newgarden||Team Penske||+33.7842|
|10||Scott McLaughlin||Team Penske||+42.8320|
Ericsson himself is showing signs of a proper title contender as he continually finds himself up at the sharp end without making a big song and dance about it.
The Chip Ganassi Racing driver qualified on the front row but dropped back into fifth or sixth at the start.
He didn’t let that phase him as he regrouped, found his rhythm and started to carve his way forward when the chance presented itself.
After victory in St Petersburg, Ericsson is making himself into someone you have to worry about if you want to win on a road or street course.