The NTT IndyCar Series has a race this weekend!! Those words sound so wonderful to finally say.
After a seemingly-endless off season, much of it due to the continued repercussions of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series finally gets underway this weekend at the 2.38-mile Barber Motorsports Park just east of Birmingham, Alabama. This will be the first time Barber has hosted the season opener and the first time any site other than St. Petersburg has kicked off the festivities since the 2010 season opened on the streets of Sao Paulo, Brazil.
New (and returning) faces in new places
There are many changes heading into the season, so let’s dig in and look at some of the major changes. The focal point of the contenders always has to start with Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing, both squads which feature revised lineups this year. Penske will return its three veterans from last year who account for a pair of Indianapolis 500 victories and four IndyCar championships while adding New Zealand star Scott McLaughlin into the fold. McLaughlin comes highly touted on account of his three consecutive championships in the Australian Supercars Championship.
Over at Ganassi Racing, six-time champion and perpetual favorite Scott Dixon returns along with Swedish teammate Marcus Ericsson. Fellow Swede Felix Rosenqvist, however, is out – having moved over to Arrow McLaren SP – and former Dale Coyne Racing driver Alex Palou settles into the #10 entry this year. Tony Kanaan returns to Ganassi after a three-year stint with AJ Foyt Racing, having previously departed CGR after the 2017 season (and perhaps not necessarily under the most pleasant terms). TK will be sharing that ride with some guy named Jimmie Johnson with Kanaan running the ovals while the 7-time NASCAR champion handles the road and street courses.
Four-time Champ Car champion Sebastien Bourdias returns to the series full time with AJ Foyt Racing, mostly taking the seat previously occupied by Charlie Kimball. Bourdais ran the final three races of the 2020 campaign with Foyt and looks to be that teams best hope for an actual turnaround since the days of Billy Boat and Kenny Brack in the late 1990s. Kimball will return for the IndyCar Grand Prix and the Indianapolis 500, driving a third car for the Houston-based team.
Andretti Autosport (and all its various sub-entities) will again field four full-time entries with 2016 Indianapolis 500 winner Alex Rossi in the defacto leadership role, 2012 IndyCar champion and 2014 Indianapolis 500 winner Ryan Hunter-Reay back for what could well be his final go ’round, young and seemingly likely future superstar Colton Herta jumping into the #26 Gainbridge ride vacated by Zach Veach, and former Andretti Autosport race winner James Hinchcliffe returning back to the team of his greatest success in the #29 car. After the announcement that Marco Andretti was stepping away from a full-season IndyCar effort to focus on other endeavors, the former Indianapolis runner-up, who is still only 34 years old (though sometimes it’s difficult to believe he’s even that old), will drive the team’s fifth entry at this year’s Memorial Day classic.
Dale Coyne Racing heads into 2021 with a completely new look and two new drivers. Five years ago, that statement wouldn’t have been unusual, but recently, DCR has generally had at least one hold over from year to year. However, since the last checkered flag flew at St. Pete in October, sophomore Santino Ferrucci departed for the presumably greener pastures of NASCAR, and the aforementioned Alex Palou took his services to Ganassi Racing. Into their seats will slide a familiar face returning to the Series in 2017 IndyCar Rookie of the Year Ed Jones and longtime Formula One veteran Romain Grosjean. Grosjean, like fellow rookie Jimmie Johnson, decided the dangers of racing on high-speed ovals outweighed the allure, so his ride will be pilot by Pietro Fittipaldi, grandson of the two-time Indianapolis 500 winner and 1989 CART Champion, at Texas, Indianapolis, and perhaps Gateway.
What to expect in 2021
If you’re looking for prognostications with a history of accuracy, you’re probably in the wrong place. Consider the following paragraphs the proverbial kiss-of-death for those drivers whom I expect to shine and likely the best career moment for those drivers I expect to struggle.
The only sure thing to know going into 2021 is that the championship will go through two drivers – Josef Newgarden and Scott Dixon. For anyone else to win the Astor Cup, it will take 17 very well executed races and a heavy dose of luck. Neither Newgarden nor Dixon will beat themselves this year, nor will their teams fail them and cost them a championship. To beat both of these brilliant drivers, another driver and team are going to need to be at their very peak from this weekend’s first practice at Barber until the final checkered flag falls at Long Beach in September.
As I scan the list of drivers for 2021, I am honestly having a tough time putting any other drivers in my “Tier 1” list of championship contenders. The only really feasible driver to go there would be Alexander Rossi. Rossi has shown he can be utterly dominate at nearly any track and has a habit of turning races into complete snoozers. When Rossi starts up front, he tends to stay up front and doesn’t usually beat himself. However, Andretti Autosport seems to be perpetually bitten by rotten luck and prone to mistakes at the worst possible moments. It will take a season-long effort like we haven’t seen from Andretti Autosport in many years to secure the team’s first championship since 2012.
Tier 2 is where things really start to get interesting and where the real changing of the IndyCar guard will start to take shape. The remaining Penske veterans – Will Power and Simon Pagenaud – certainly lead this group of strong drivers. Neither of these Indianapolis 500 winners and IndyCar champions were satisfied with their performances in 2020 and will look to bounce back strong. Both of them will likely win races this year, and Power is well known for heating up through the summer months. More important, my gut (and the opinions of other people I respect) says that only one of these drivers – at most – will be returning to Team Penske in 2022. Mounting their face on the Borg-Warner Trophy or hoisting the Astor Cup at the end of the season will go a long way in helping Roger Penske and Tim Cindric make that decision come this fall.
Joining Power and Pagenaud in this group are the two young-and-coming future superstars in the series – Colton Herta and Pato O’Ward. The former Indy Lights teammates have been more or less linked together since 2018 and appear poised to take the series by storm together, having finished third and fourth, respectively, in the final 2020 standings. In spite of what you’ve read elsewhere, though, that day isn’t here quite yet.
Herta, last season’s third-place finisher in the final standings, will have the easier go of it due to the very experienced teammates he will have rowing with him at Andretti Autosport. He will need to overcome the same inconsistencies that have plagued Rossi in the last several seasons to become a legitimate title contender, but with 11 top-10 finishes in 14 starts last season, Herta has shown he can be fast at nearly all the tracks. Where Herta has yet to shine is on the ovals. He did finish fourth at Gateway last season and a solid eighth at Indianapolis, but a pair of 19th place finishes at Iowa – including a spectacular crash that saw him launched over the car of Rinus Veekay – put a big dent in his season point total.
Pato O’Ward could be a wild card and a fun driver to watch throughout the 2021 season. O’Ward has been knocking on the door of victory since returning from his stint with the Red Bull Junior Team last spring. However, the young Mexican will have to overcome three very significant statistical hurdles to have a chance at winning the championship – 1.) no team outside of Penske, Ganassi, and Andretti have won an IndyCar Championship since Panther Racing in 2002, 2.) Arrow McLaren SP as a team haven’t won a race since Iowa in 2018, and 3.) no driver has won a championship in a year he won his first race since Sam Hornish, Jr. accomplished the feat in 2001. Arrow McLaren SP has talked a big game for several years about expanding the “Big Three” IndyCar teams to become the “Big Four.” Thus far, their results haven’t backed up their talk, having only three wins in the past six seasons of competition. Ultimately, I think O’Ward runs strong in 2021, wins a race (or two), finishes in the Top 5, and departs McLaren after 2021 to join Team Penske.
Finally, we come to “Tier 3” containing drivers who will run well sporadically throughout the year, could very well win a race to two, but will ultimately be doing well to finish in the second half of the Top 10 at season’s end. This is where guys like Ryan Hunter-Reay, both of the Rahal Letterman Lanigan drivers, Marcus Ericsson, and Scott McLaughlin reside.
Ryan Hunter-Reay simply has to have something finally go his way in 2021. It has seemingly been several years since the 2012 champ has had anything go well for him. The law of averages eventually has to fall his way and help him. I don’t think he’s realistically a title contender, but I won’t be surprised to see him have a bit of a resurgence. Last year’s 10th-place finish in the standings saw RHR earn seven top-10 finishes but also five finishes of 15th or worse. There are undoubtedly more days of his career behind him than before him, so if the end is drawing near, Hunter-Reay will certainly want to show he is winding down his career on his own terms rather than being disgracefully shown the door.
The RLL Racing duo of Graham Rahal and Takuma Sato could be the wild cards here, having taken sixth and seventh in the 2020 standings. There was a time around 2015/2016 where it looked at RLL was really ready to take that next step and become weekly contenders. For whatever reason, that ascension just never fully played out. Both drivers have shown flashes of brilliance over the past few years, highlighted by Graham dominating double-header sweep in Detroit in 2018 and, of course, Sato’s victory in the 104th Indianapolis 500, but neither have been able to show the full-season consistency required to really take the fight to Penske and Ganassi. Seven top-10s for Graham in the final nine races of 2020 should give the team a solid foundation to spring forward into 2021. Unfortunately, Sato finished the season with results of 17, 18, 18, 14, and 10, dropping him from fourth to seventh in the final tally.
That brings us to Scott McLaughlin. It seems we’ve been hearing of the New Zealander’s impending US arrival for several years, and he probably starts the season as the most hyped rookie since Nigel Mansell. Quite honestly, watching many in the media fall all over themselves in advance of McLaughlin’s arrival seems a bit like watching the teenage girls on the Ed Sullivan Show when The Beatles first descended upon the United States. He undoubtedly has very strong credentials having won the last three Australian Supercars Championships and is with the best team in the history of IndyCar racing. I won’t be at all surprised if he wins a race in the second half of the season, but I think there is going to be a bit more of a learning curve than most people are conceding. Scott himself seems like an extremely likeable and personable guy, so I don’t intend in any way for my comments to sound demeaning to him personally. The media hype surrounding his arrival has been nearly unrivaled in an entire generation of IndyCar racing. Trust but verify, right?
The engine battle
When it came to the horsepower tracks (Texas and Indianapolis), there was really no engine battle at all in 2020. Honda simply spanked Chevrolet. Badly. But the Bowtie Brigade is a prideful bunch, and I know they did not just sit around idly in the off season and lick their wounds. I think the engine battle will be much closer this year than last.
It was shocking to see just how dominate Honda was last August at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and how quickly the pendulum swings from one manufacturer to the other. It wasn’t long ago at all that Chevrolet was mopping the floor with Honda’s pride, routinely securing six, seven, or eight spots in the Fast 9 shootout. As recently as 2017, Takuma Sato’s Honda simply outran Helio Castroneves’s Chevrolet to the checkered flag while in 2019, Rossi admittedly couldn’t peddle his Honda fast enough to chase down Simon Pagenaud’s Chevrolet. The gains from year to year have always been incremental, but they have been definite.
Based on results from last week’s two-day test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it appears this year’s Month of May may be significantly more balanced and competitive with each manufacturer claiming five of the top 10 spots. More importantly for Chevrolet, they are getting speed from more than just Team Penske and Ed Carpenter. Chevrolet desperately needs its teams not named Team Penske to step up their game and bring the fight to the more balanced Honda teams. Having ECR and Arrow McLaren firing on all cylinders will be a great advantage for Chevrolet. And although AJ Foyt Racing looked very strong at Indianapolis as recently 2018, the last couple years have been a struggle. It would be great to see a rejuvenated AJ Foyt Racing and Sebastien Bourdais run competitively throughout the Month.
Outside of Texas and Indianapolis, the engine battle of 2020 was not nearly as lopsided. Though Honda came roaring out of the gate with four consecutive wins by Chip Ganassi Racing, Chevrolet managed to tie Honda in the number of wins by the end of the season with seven a piece. Nonetheless, Honda eeked out a narrow 23-point margin in the final manufacturer point standings. Given that the current 2.2L turbocharged formula is entering its 10th season of competition, it stands to reason that gains to be had are even more incremental than ever. That said, I think the Honda team and driver lineup is stronger top to bottom, giving them an edge for the season-long championship.
Final predictions for the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series Season:
- Champion – Josef Newgarden
- Runner up – Colton Herta
- Third – Scott Dixon
- Indianapolis 500 winner – Josef Newgarden
- Indianapolis 500 pole sitter – Colton Herta (231.855 mph)