Indycar photo by Chris Owens
One of the best seasons I remember is over. The 2021 NTT Indycar Series concluded Sunday at Long Beach in a race that mirrored the entire season. The young drivers fought the veterans for the race win and the overall series title. The Rookies, all older than the second year drivers, enter d the race with Rookie of the Year still in doubt. We saw great driving and poor decisions. Let’s take a look at three groups of drivers- the kids, those with three years or less experience; the veterans, and the rookies.
The front row of many races symbolized the generational conflict in Indycar this year. Some examples- Pato O’Ward and Alexander Rossi at Detroit; Josef Newgarden and Colton Herta at three races; and Herta and Rossi at Portland.
The Kids Did Alright
Five drivers in this group, with an average age of 23, won 11 of the 16 races this season and had an average points finish of 5.4. Alex Palou is the seventh youngest champion in Indycar. Pato O’Ward and Palou exchanged the points lead twice during the season. Marcus Ericsson, Rinus VeeKay, Palou, and O’Ward each won their first Indycar race.
This is not a group of one year wonders. They are the future of Indycar. look for their names near the top of the standings for years to come.
Colton Herta and Palou each won a series high three races. Herta’s season season was reality a bit disappointing. He sat on the pole three times, started second five times, yet Herta had difficulty finishing up front several times. He only finished fifth in the standings. If he had converted his eight front row starts into podiums and top five finishes, Herta might be holding the Astor Cup today.
2022 could be even more competitive than 2021. This 25 and under crowd is going to be near the top of the standings for a long time to come.
Has the Old Guard lost a step? Josef Newgarden and Scott Dixon were close in pursuit of Palou and O’Ward, but never had enough to mount a serious challenge. Dixon won just one race, Texas, early in the season. he is still one win behind Mario Andretti for second place in career victories with 51. I haven’t seen a year when Dixon won just once before. he seemed to be just a bit off pace.
Newgarden’s two wins were also a low total for him. he twice lost the lead late to O’Ward and had a mechanical issue take a sure victory away at Mid Ohio. Newgarden was still in position to have a chance to take the title by winning the pole at Long Beach.
If this was not the worst year of Will Power’s career, it is awfully close. One pole and one win is a very abnormal season for Power. At the beginning of 21, I thought he would pass Mario Andretti for career poles, but he sits 4 behind Andretti heading into 2022. A failed ECU cost him a win at Detroit, and his Laguna Seca race didn’t last long after starting third.
I don’t think this group is done winning titles yet. Three of the veteran drivers who won races in 2021 were aged 40 or older.
It was hard to call the trio making up the 2021 Rookis class rookies. A seven time NASCAR champion, a three time Australian supercar champion, and an experienced Formula 1 driver all chose to try a completely different formula. Indycar is the better for their efforts. Jimmie Johnson took most of the year to acclimate nhimself after spending so much time in stock dars. He showed imnprovemnent the last half of the year, finishing in the top 20 and actually racing other people.
Scott McLaughlin had one podium early and had a steady, unspectacular season, winning Rookie of the year by 33 points. he was the onle one of the rookies to compete in all 16 races. Johnson did not drive any of the ovals, and Romain Grosjean only entered one oval race, at Gateway.
Romain Grosjean became am instant fan favorite. He adapted quickly to the car and the tracks. Grosjean won a pole and scored two podiums. In the races where he and McLaughlin both competed, Grosjean scored 51 more points than McLaughlin. Grosjean made some legendary passes at Laguna Seca.
The 2022 rookie class will be a more typical group of youngsters, many of whom will add to the already deep talent level in the series.
Some Odds and Ends
One indication of how competitive a season we witnessed is Palou’s winning points total. 549 points is the lowest total in a few years. Even compensating for one less race than a normal season, If you add Palou’s points per race average of 34.3 to his total, he would still have fewer than 600 points.
In 202, Dixon won with 537 points in two fewer races. Based on his points per race average, Dixon would have scored 613 points in 16 races.
In 2019 Newgarden won with 641 points in 17 races. Subtracting his per race, he would have had 604 points in 16 races.
Average age of the nine drivers who won races this year – 30 years old. The average was skewed with wins by 46 year old Helio Castroneves, and 40 year olds Dixon and Power. Take the old guys out of the mix and the winners’ average is 23 years.
Is there now a BIG 4? Arrow McLaren SP challenged the typical Big 3 this year, and held their own with two victories and two poles, finishing second in the championship. They have the same problem as Andretti Autosport right now- one solid car that can win and not much behind it. Will Felix Rosenqvist have a better 2022 for AMSP? Will Romain Grosjean help Andretti have a more formidable team?