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IndyCar: Things we learned and questions that were raised during the St. Pete weekend

New Zealand's Scott McLaughin drives from pole position to the checkered flag to capture his first career IndyCar win, winning the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg over defending champion Alex Palou and teammate Will Power.

ST. PETERSBURG, Florida -- The NTT IndyCar Series brought record crowds, gorgeous weather and the industry’s biggest movers and shakers to the paddock and hospitality areas during the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

Teams use the season opener as a vehicle for kickoff events, making their personnel available to reporters in an atmosphere that usually breeds optimism and openness about the new season -- as well as yielding some nuggets off the track about what might lie ahead over the next six months and 16 races of the 2022 season

Here are some things we learned and a few questions that were raised during a race weekend of full access to virtually all of the major decision-makers and drivers in IndyCar:

--Yes, Mario Andretti meant to send the F1 tweet … and here’s why: When the news of Andretti Global materialized out of the blue on a Friday afternoon through the social media account of an auto racing legend, there were some educated guesses that perhaps Mario Andretti inadvertently had tweeted the news. Perhaps it was meant to be a text from the 1978 world champion?

But Michael Andretti confirmed he had given his father the go-ahead to release the information in a manner that was so an unconventional and stunning, many key team personnel were unaware ahead of time.

“I know we were making it look like, ‘Here Dad goes again, he always gives away my news,’ ” Michael Andretti told NBC Sports, the Associated Press and the Indy Star during a Friday interview at St. Pete. “But he’s excited, and that would be great for him. He’d come to all the races there, and that helps keep him going.”

The tweet was Mario’s idea, and as Michael Andretti talked at length about his grandiose vision of entering Formula One in 2024, the context became evident.

After having one deal collapse to merge with an existing F1 team, the Andrettis quickly had cobbled together a $200 million package for a startup team and submitted paperwork around Christmas – just after the championship controversy had reached a fever pitch from the Abu Dhabi season finale. They were told that FIA/FOM would render a decision on their bid by early January.

But that soft deadline passed, and the uncertainty dragged on for weeks while other news related to Abu Dhabi took a higher priority. With preseason F1 testing looming along with the IndyCar opener in St. Pete, it’s easy to see why Mario went to Michael and convinced his son that taking their case public was the best way to get on the front burner again after their momentum was blunted by the chronicles of Masi, Max and Lewis.

“It was his idea, and I thought it was a good idea, because I think it was important to get it out there that we’ve been working on this for a long time,” said Michael Andretti, who apparently could get an answer on his F1 vision by next week.

--Speaking of F1, Pato O’Ward isn’t going there next year even if he wins the championship: Ever since Pato O’Ward’s emergence as an IndyCar winner last season coincided with Arrow McLaren SP’s developing even closer ties to its sister F1 team in England, it seemed only a matter of time for the Mexican star returning to Europe. O’Ward also didn’t do much to tamp down speculation that a 2022 IndyCar title would be his ticket to an F1 ride.

But in meeting with a small group of reporters, McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown swatted down that speculation, noting the new four-year contract for Lando Norris and “another couple of years” with Daniel Ricciardo ensured that O’Ward “definitely would” be in IndyCar again next season even with a title because there’s no imminent seat available in F1.

A new wrinkle that allows F1 teams to test with last year’s car (because of massive rules changes for 2022) means McLaren will be starting a test program for young drivers. Brown said O’Ward likely would be a part of that and also be a candidate for Friday practice sessions “to just give Pato some seat time because you never know if a driver gets injured, or gets COVID. Strange things have happened. But what we won’t do is compromise the IndyCar team at all. So I would never take Pato out of IndyCar into F1 without having a great solution because IndyCar is as important. So this is not a training ground for Formula One.”

Brown also hinted McLaren is considering another current IndyCar driver to be a part of its F1 testing.

--Arrow McLaren SP still needs more consistency while working on expansion: Brown confirmed the team will have a third full-time car next season and possibly a partial schedule this year (AMSP already announced a third car for Juan Pablo Montoya at the Indy 500 for the second consecutive year). If the team has a rookie in place for ’23, it likely will have the driver in a third car for the last three races this season, but if the new hire is a veteran from an existing team “then we wouldn’t (run a third car this year) because they’re racing somewhere else. To put someone else in the car for three races, I don’t think would achieve much,” Brown said.

Besides, the team is more focused on trying to shore up its consistency to give O’Ward a shot to run for the title. Sunday’s race in St. Pete, where O’Ward and teammate Felix Rosenqvist both finished outside the top 10, reinforced concerns about the team’s street and road course program.

During an interview in January, O’Ward said the team had yet to prove worthy of competing regularly against Penske, Ganassi and Andretti. He reiterated those concerns last weekend and noted that McLaren often has been “misguided by sim land” and led him to question relying so much on computer programs to set up the car.

Pato O'Ward - Firestone Grand Prix of St_ Petersburg_LargeImageWithoutWatermark_m51876

Pato O’Ward said the Arrow McLaren SP must improve its consistency at street and road courses (Chris Owens/Penske Entertainment).

“Sometimes it takes me or my engineer to say sometimes, ‘This is just terrible,’ and we need to go our own route with a bit more of an old-school approach to see where we stack up,” he said. “Because you can’t get guided by sim land every single time. It’s great to be guided by it and to nail it, but there are so many times you go by it, and it’s just terrible.

“I think what puts us in position to catch the Andrettis, Penskes, Ganassis, it’s our overall consistency. It’s not is the car capable. Of course it is. But we need to find those things in the places where last year we were truly horrendous. Our bad races were terrible, but our great races were awesome. So what I told them is that we don’t need to change much. We just need to bring that consistency here.”

Brown agreed that consistency remains the team’s biggest weakness.

“Our bad days aren’t good enough,” he said. “A (Scott) Dixon bad day is sixth. Our bad day is 14th. When we’re good, we’re as good as anyone, but our bad days need to be inside the top 10. That’s what (defending series champion Alex) Palou did last year, and that’s what Dixon did for 15 years. If he gets shuffled back, somehow Dixon is always there at the end. We get shuffled back and can’t seem to come through the field as consistently.”

--What will Chip Ganassi Racing’s lineup be next season? With all but one seat (Alexander Rossi’s) set beyond 2022 among the seven at Andretti and Team Penske, Ganassi’s lineup figures to be the source of some speculation this year. Alex Palou is unlikely to be headed anywhere anytime soon, nor his Marcus Ericsson, who re-signed late last year after earning his first two career victories.

Ganassi always has been reticent to discuss or announce his driver contracts, but he would say that he and Jimmie Johnson “are congruent in our plans going forward.” Johnson, who is in his second year with Carvana sponsorship and his first full-time season, has indicated he could drive another few years. “As far as I know, Jimmie’s in it,” Ganassi said when asked the status of the No. 48 for 2023.

Scott Dixon, 41, is entering in his 22nd season after winning once last year (for only the third time since 2005), but the six-time champion seems set for the long term after spending the offseason studying the driving styles of Palou and Ericsson. Asked by NBC Sports how long he intends to race IndyCar, Dixon said, “maybe ask me in another five years, but I love doing what I do. I love driving for Chip. I love driving for this team. It’s family. This being my 21st season with them. So trust me, man, I’m having as much fun now as I did in my first year. So yeah, not anytime soon.”

Ganassi said he’s had no discussions about the future with Dixon. “It’s not on my radar about the end of his career right now,” Ganassi said. “I don’t think he’s slowing down yet. I haven’t seen any crack in the retirement door there yet. I’m not looking for one yet.”

--Will Alexander Rossi be leaving Andretti? The 2016 Indy 500 winner has said he intends to test the free agent market when his negotiating window opens in a few months. But team owner Michael Andretti was noncommittal on whether the team would keep Rossi, whom he said was “ready to go and focused.”

Asked whether he wanted to re-sign him, Andretti said, “we’ll have to wait and see,” and asked about the team’s exclusive rights to re-sign him through May, Andretti said, “yeah, unless he finds something else.”

Did that mean Andretti already had a plan for filling the seat in 2023, perhaps with A.J. Foyt Racing rookie Kyle Kirkwood (who would have joined the team in place of Herta if its F1 deal hadn’t fallen through for this year)?

“Nah,” Andretti replied. “Well, there’s a lot more to it with Rossi. I don’t want to talk about it. I like him a lot, so there’s nothing to do with that. I’m really happy with where we’re are, as long as we can go out there and execute and not make mistakes, there’s no reason why we can’t win a lot of races and a championship this year.”

AUTO: FEB 26 IndyCar - Streets of St Petersburg Qualifications

ST. PETERSBURG, FL - FEBRUARY 26: NTT IndyCar Series driver Alexander Rossi stands in his pits during qualifications for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on February 26, 2022, at the Streets of St. Petersburg. (Photo by Brian Spurlock/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

--Meyer Shank Racing’s veterans know they need some time: Though Simon Pagenaud made the Fast Six, he and Helio Castroneves both finished in the back half of the running order Sunday. But both are expecting it will take at least until the Indy 500 for the team to be clicking in its first year with two full-time cars.

“We’re going to have some great results, and we’re going to have some bad results,” Castroneves said. “We feel that hopefully the partnership with Andretti Autosport will help us to keep more on the consistent side, but at the end of the day, it is a new team. We just have to make sure we’re finding quick enough solutions in case it’s ‘OK, what’s happening?’ ”

Said Pagenaud: “I think by Indy, we’ll be at a good level of where we should be. Before that, it’s difficult to say. I think we have the pace. I think the cars are going to be fast. My goal is to be consistently scoring big points. Hopefully we get in the top 10 regularly in the first few races and establish ourselves in the top five and see what we can do after that. I didn’t set myself any goals. I think the car is fast, so I think it’ll just unlock itself, but I think it’s about being consistent to start the season and avoid getting in trouble.”

--The 2023 engine is being delayed: IndyCar made it official Thursday morning that its plan for a hybrid engine would be postponed for the second time in 18 months. The news already was a foregone conclusion in St. Pete as many teams disclosed they were wrestling with the same supply chain backlogs that also have had a major impact in NASCAR (which has switched to the Next Gen model this season).

Chip Ganassi said his team’s 2022 uniforms and shirts “are on some ship somewhere. It’s a challenge. It’s not usually headline material, but it’s something the teams have to deal with; the challenges the teams face all the time.

“I think we’re going to start to feel some effects of supply chain issues here that I think are probably going to hinder some growth opportunities we have.”

What sort of “growth opportunities” could be curtailed?

“Everything from uniforms to engines and everything in between,” Ganassi said.