At last, it’s time for Indycar. The season begins this coming Saturday at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham. As life as we knew it slowly creeps back to normal, COVID protocols and spectator limits continue to affect how we watch sports. The 17 race schedule should have fewer disruptions and changes than last year. Some races will see expanded grids as part time teams and drivers jump in at various races. The front of the field shouldn’t change much though. Here are some things to watch in the 2021 NTT Indycar Series. Part II tomorrow.
No Indy lights in 2020 means no champion to move into an Indycar seat for the new year. The rookies arguably are the most experienced and oldest rookie class in history. A seven time NASCAR champion, a three time Australian Supercars champion, and a 10 year formula 1 veteran.
Jimmie Johnson, seven time NASCAR champion, gives Indycar a try with Chip Ganassi Racing. Johnson realizes he is on a steep learning curve. He has tested at Barber a couple of times, so he should be more comfortable in the opener. Johnson is not ready to tackle the ovals this season, but has not ruled out the Indianapolis 500 in 2022. I look for him to have some good runs starting at Road America.
Scott McLaughlin is the only rookie who will run the entire schedule. The three time Australian Supercars champion will run a rare fourth car for Team Penske. McLaughlin seems to have adapted quickly to Indycar in testing, but qualifying and racing are another matter. I expect he will get some top 10s, possibly a podium, and if things fall the right way, he may even win a race. McLaughlin should win Rookie of the Year simply because he is running all the races.
Romain Grosjean will drive for Dale Coyne with Rick Ware Racing. He comes to Indycar after a Formula 1 career in which he earned several podiums early in his career. Grosjean should do well on the larger road courses like Road America and Laguna Seca. The Frenchman will sit out the first three oval races at Texas and Indianapolis, but he is considering running at Gateway.
Will Big 3 Become Big 4?
Most of the race winners will come from the Big 3 teams- Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing, and Andretti Autosport- but Arrow McLaren SP is looking to join the club. Pato O’Ward has made it very clear that he considers himself a title contender this year. Entering his second full time season, O’Ward should win his first career race and possibly his second in 2021. He will also need several podiums to stay in contention.
“We want to win races. We want to be consistently fighting for podiums, and we want to be there. We want to be contenders every single race weekend.I think in doing so, that’ll put us in a position at the end of the year to fight for the championship. That is the goal. I want to get to Long Beach having a possibility to win the championship,” O’Ward told media in March.
Scott Dixon should win the two races he needs to tie Mario Andretti’s career total of 52 victories, but getting a third win might be difficult. Josef Newgarden will win at least three races this season. Colton Herta has a chance to be a multiple race winner. Alexander Rossi should get back to Victory Lane as well.
Will Power somehow manages to squeeze two wins out of a year no matter how frustrating a season he has.
Track Time at a Premium
Barber is the first track where Indycar will be on track just two days instead of the usual three at road courses. This will give an advantage to the bigger teams and hurt the rookies and smaller teams. I understand the reasons for the move. It cuts costs to teams and creates less risk to all race participants by minimizing contact.
Fridays will still be busy with Road to Indy and other support series. I’m looking at it as a day where i can enjoy the series that are running and pay a little more attention to the drivers in the ladder series. I hope having a day entirely to themselves gives the young drivers some more exposure.
I don’t think the third day will be coming back. It will still be a part of street course weekends, but expect shortened shows to be business as usual going forward. I hope this never applies to Indianapolis 500 practice.
Tomorrow, I’ll talk about the championship battle, what’s new for television, and what fans can expect at the track.