Wednesday, September 6, 2023

INDYCAR: Grosjean’s frustrating season continues at Portland

PHOTO: Luis Torres, @TheLTFiles

by William Soquet Staff Writer

Romain Grosjean finished last for the 1st time in his NTT IndyCar Series career in Sunday’s Grand Prix of Portland when his #28 DHL Honda retired with contact damage after completing 31 of the race’s 110 laps.

The finish came in Grosjean’s 46th career start. Across NTT IndyCar Series history, it was the fifth for the #28, the 223rd for Honda, and the 108th from damage.

Since he came to IndyCar from Formula 1, Romain Grosjean’s career has been quite the rollercoaster. He was immediately impressive in a road course-only slate for Dale Coyne Racing, claiming runner-up finishes at both Indianapolis road course races, then stood on the podium at Laguna Seca. From there, he made the move to the supposedly greener grass of Andretti Autosport. While this did bring a runner-up finish at Long Beach, Grosjean failed to reach the podium any other time that season, his seventh-place run at Laguna Seca emblematic of his season. With a year under his belt at one of IndyCar’s power teams, Grosjean was a popular pick for a driver to win his first career race during the 2023 season.

The pick looked to pay off early on as he led the most laps at St. Petersburg only to be involved in a late-race crash with Scott McLaughlin. Another competitive race at Texas ended in a late crash, but he rebounded to finish second at Long Beach for the second consecutive year. Barber seemed to be his race – he led the most laps again, only to lose to McLaughlin on strategy. From there, the season spiraled quickly with bad runs at the Indianapolis 500, Detroit, and Road America killing any kind of momentum. Combined with radio outbursts, the poor results also halted any and all rumors that Andretti and Grosjean were working towards an extension and instead swung towards Grosjean not returning at the end of 2023, something that was pretty much confirmed by the Frenchman during the Portland weekend. He finally got back on track with a sixth-place finish at Nashville, his first top-ten since Barber. Heading into Portland, Grosjean sat 12th in the standings, third of the four Andretti entries.

Portland's entry list continued to shuffle as Silly Season inched closer to completion. Simon Pagenaud was not cleared to compete for the rest of the season, so Meyer Shank Racing put Tom Blomqvist in the car. Blomqvist, already a star in the team’s IMSA program, was given a two-race head start on his full IndyCar season with MSR in 2024. And with the termination of Jack Harvey, Rahal Letterman Lanigan signed Estonian Jüri Vips for the final two races of the season.

Vips came through Europe's open-wheel ladder, gaining prominence in 2019 when he placed fourth in the Formula 3 championship. His name recognition shot up in 2022 - though not in a good way - when he uttered a racial slur on a Twitch stream, causing immediate controversy. He was dropped by Red Bull as a member of their junior driver academy and was replaced by Liam Lawson. However, he retained his Hitech Grand Prix seat for the remainder of the season. Vips claimed a late-season win at Monza but it wasn’t enough to overcome early-season troubles, finishing 11th in the championship. He was not renewed at the end of the season and had not participated in racing until the RLL deal came together. He previously tested for RLL at Sebring in March after Harvey was injured at St. Petersburg – an ironic full-circle moment.

Blomqvist's was the slowest car in opening practice, finishing with a fast lap of 59.84, about two-tenths off of Sting Ray Robb. Grosjean was seventh with a 58.72, about six-tenths off leader Christian Lundgaard. The #60 and #51 were again anchors during second practice, making marginal improvements from first practice. After an encouraging top-ten speed in first practice, Grosjean slid back to 16th place in second practice. There were no drastic changes in qualifying, either – Blomqvist and Robb were at the bottom of their respective groups, and Grosjean was eighth in his group, doomed by a crowded release from pit road.

Behind surprise pole winner Graham Rahal, Grosjean lined up 15th and Blomqvist 27th. As the field queued up for the start finish line, much of the attention revolved around the Turn 1 chicane – a crash there could open or close a door to Scott Dixon’s championship hopes. As it happened, the only incident in that turn was a Marcus Armstrong lockup, which resulted in damage for Kyle Kirkwood and evasive action for Josef Newgarden.

The duo of Kirkwood and Newgarden trailed the field after the opening set of corners, but it wouldn’t last for long. Coming off the backstretch at the exit of Turn 7, Alexander Rossi was pushed wide into the grass, creating a thick dirt cloud. Marcus Ericsson and Callum Ilott also ran wide, creating an even thicker dust cloud that was hard to see through. Driving behind Ilott, Grosjean ran on the curb on the exit of the turn and got a faster run than Ilott, but both drivers came together when Ilott attempted to rejoin the track. The contact significantly bent Grosjean’s front suspension, and he limped the car back to pit road without a caution.

The crew instructed Grosjean to immediately turn the car off on pit road, seemingly headed towards a first-lap retirement. However, the crew went to work after assessing the damage and was done a favor by Team Penske driver Will Power, who spun after trying to pass Alexander Rossi on the second lap and stalled, bringing out an early caution. Despite the decreased pace of laps, the #28 crew could not get the car on track before the end of the caution period, effectively killing any chance at a competitive result. He didn't return to the track until Lap 12, primed to pass anyone who would have mid-race problems. However, after quietly plugging around under green, the car pulled in on Lap 44, not to be seen again on the track.

Agustin Canapino was 26th, the victim of the only other caution period of the race. Putting together a solid lead-lap run, Canapino spun off-track in Turn 11 on cold tires and damaged the engine, forcing a retirement. Power was 25th, doomed by few opportunities to recover from going a lap down early. Blomqvist and Robb rounded out the Bottom Five, the last cars with no issues during the race.

Heading into this weekend's season finale at Laguna Seca, the IndyCar drivers title is all but locked up, and so are the LASTCAR titles for manufacturers and owners. Honda claimed the manufacturers title with several races to go, but Dale Coyne Racing just secured the owners title this race with neither Foyt nor Ganassi gaining ground. Benjamin Pedersen controls his own destiny in the drivers title, having a Bottom Five tiebreaker over Sting Ray Robb. However, Robb wins the championship with a last-place finish, no matter what Pedersen would do otherwise.

*Grosjean is the first non-American to finish last in the #28, with Mark Dismore and Ryan Hunter-Reay recording previous last-place finishes with the car number.
*Grosjean is the third first-time last-place finisher this season, and the first since Sting Ray Robb at Barber in April.
*The 31 laps completed are the second-most for a last-place finisher at Portland, less than only Conor Daly’s 67 last year.

27) #28-Romain Grosjean / 31 laps / contact
26) #78-Agustin Canapino / 82 laps / engine
25) #12-Will Power / 108 laps / running
24) #60-Tom Blomqvist / 109 laps / running
23) #51-Sting Ray Robb / 109 laps / running

1st) Honda (11)
2nd) Chevrolet (5)

1st) Dale Coyne Racing (5)
2nd) A.J. Foyt Racing, Chip Ganassi Racing (3)
3rd) Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (2)
4th) Andretti Autosport, Arrow McLaren, Juncos Hollinger Racing (1)


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