A viewer’s guide to the IndyCar 2021 season opener: 5 things to watch starting at Barber
It sounds like the start of an absurd joke, but its punch line is actually a jaw-dropping perspective on the red-hot status of the NTT IndyCar Series.
A seven-time NASCAR Cup champion, a Kiwi wunderkind from Supercars and a Frenchman of Formula One renown will begin their rookie seasons in IndyCar this weekend at a road course just east of an unlikely IndyCar bastion better known as Birmingham, Alabama.
With its 11th IndyCar race, Barber Motorsports Park will debut as a season opener for one of the most highly anticipated and scrutinized campaigns in series history – led by a remarkable freshman class whose accomplishments and experience dwarf many in the field for the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama (Sunday, 3 p.m. ET, NBC).
WEEKEND SCHEDULE: All the on-track activity for Barber
Jimmie Johnson, 45, virtually will be starting over after a Hall of Fame career in NASCAR. Scott McLaughlin, 27, already is considered one of the greatest in Australia’s biggest racing series. Romain Grosjean, who turns 35 Saturday, has F1 podium finishes at Spa, the Nurburgring and Circuit of the Americas.
But they all have been drawn to IndyCar, cementing its reputation for showcasing elite talent demanding versatility across a variety of demanding courses in cars with less competitive disparity than other major racing series.
For some longtime observers (such as IndyCar on NBC analyst Paul Tracy), there are echoes of the allure triggered by reigning F1 champion Nigel Mansell’s 1993 arrival in CART (the feisty Brit won the championship as a rookie and drew fans worldwide to the preeminent single-seater series in North America of that era).
“It’s just being able to have pretty much the same equipment as everybody on the grid and having the possibility of winning the race that is pulling people in,” six-time and defending series champion Scott Dixon said.
“Plus all the other things of the cool tracks we go to -- the different disciplines, short ovals, superspeedways. There’s just so many appealing things about our series that I think you’re seeing a lot of people trying to make the switch. With the current formula, the equality between the small team and big team, there is no small team anymore the way the rules play. There’s not much that a big team can outspend anybody on. It’s just not that factor. So it really comes down to now the people that you get to work with in the process of what you do, and then sometimes a bit of luck.
“The competition, I’ve never seen it so strong. I think when you look at it from a driver standpoint to a team standpoint and the options that you have, it’s pretty packed, man.”
While this year’s rookies bring sterling resumes, it’ll be a shock if they immediately excel in a highly competitive IndyCar field of former winners and series champions.
McLaughlin has shown enough speed to have Penske teammate Simon Pagenaud already predicting a victory in 2021 (and a future title) for the new driver of the No. 3 Dallara-Chevrolet. Yet the learning curve will be much steeper for Grosjean and especially Johnson, whose No. 48 Dallara-Honda has improved in limited offseason testing but still is about a second off the pace of Dixon and his Chip Ganassi Racing teammates.
Dixon, 40, will be gunning for a seventh title (that would put him amid a pantheon of racing legends such as Johnson, Petty, Earnhardt, Schumacher and Hamilton) in a stacked field of proven champions (Ryan Hunter-Reay, Josef Newgarden, Will Power and Pagenaud), established and rising stars (Alexander Rossi, Colton Herta, Graham Rahal), a two-time Indy 500 winner (Takuma Sato) and a complement of young drivers on the verge of their first victory (Pato O’Ward, 2020 rookie of the year Rinus VeeKay, Alex Palou, Marcus Ericsson).
“You look at just how deep the field is, and it’s impressive,” Rahal said. “Maybe everybody wants to say the golden era of IndyCar was in the early (to) late ‘90s. But I’ve got to be honest: From a talent pool perspective, the golden era is right now. We’re living the golden era. It’s never been better, and I’m not sure it will get better.
“For sure there’s going to be times that guys go out there and they’re going to perform great and we’re going to be like, Oh, yeah, they’re awesome, and then next weekend like us in Gateway, you may just completely suck, and it shouldn’t be a surprise because you cannot miss a step. The depth, every single driver in the series can win. That’s factual. That couldn’t have been said 20 years ago, let alone five years ago. … I think it’s just a very pure form of motorsports right now, and what I mean by that is (there are) no driver aids.”
Said James Hinchcliffe, who rejoins IndyCar as a full-timer with Andretti Autosport: “Every year for the last five years we’ve done interviews at the start of the season and said things like, ‘Man, this is the deepest talent pool we’ve ever had in IndyCar.’ And it’s started to sound like a line, but it’s true. We just keep adding talent the whole way through the field.
“When you look at the fact that those three guys in particular that all come from different disciplines, all have been successful in those disciplines, and whether it was the goal to come here always, IndyCar is where they wanted to be next. For whatever reason they left their old sport, this is where they wanted to be, and I think that speaks volumes for what we’re doing as a series, for the product we have on track, the quality of the racing. I think it’s the biggest endorsement we can get having guys like that come over here.”
With the addition of a street race in Nashville that has the makings of the series’ next marquee event and some major lineup reshuffling by drivers and teams, IndyCar will have many new looks in 2021.
But for the past 20 years, there remains a constant atop the standings: Dixon, who will open the season at two of the only tracks (Barber and St. Petersburg) that he has yet to conquer (despite a combined 10 runner-up finishes at those courses).
“We always say, ‘Oh, my God, it’s the most competitive year ever,’ ” said Rossi, the 2016 Indy 500 winner and F1 veteran hungry for a first championship after a disappointing 2020. “It’s like, ‘Well, yeah, but so was last year, so was the year before.’ As long as Scott Dixon is here it’s going to be pretty hard to win at the end of the day. So it doesn’t matter if there’s one Scott Dixon or four Scott Dixons, you’ve got to beat Scott Dixon.
“I love the passion that Scotty has for this series. I’ve briefly spoken to Romain about it. He’s already loving it. They all are having the same kind of first impressions that I had in the fact that it’s a hell of a series, and we’re all very fortunate to be able to race here.”
Here are four more things to watch in our IndyCar Viewer’s Guide heading into Sunday’s season opener at Barber Motorsports Park:
--A seven-time champion and the teammate who wants to join him: In making the transition to a much lighter car with wildly foreign braking points and no power steering, Johnson -- a married father of two who could have taken his millions and ridden into the sunset -- faces the toughest challenge of possibly any newcomer in IndyCar history. But his irrepressible work ethic already has team owner Chip Ganassi believing that a victory is “certainly not impossible. He has the talent. He has the racecraft. I know he can do it.”
But realistically, just a top 10 in the first half of the season would be a major accomplishment for Johnson, who will race on 13 street and road courses (where he had only one of his 83 career Cup victories). He has some great sounding boards in four-time champion Dario Franchitti (a Ganassi driver coach) and Dixon, who says Johnson “definitely blows up your phone.
“There’s a lot of text messages going back and forth, and he’s not afraid to ask any question, which is good,” Dixon said. “He’s been a good friend for many years, but to be able to work with him in the same environment has been really cool. He’s a great person, as we all know, great family man, but definitely he’s one of the greatest of all time in that discipline and got some crazy ambition. To take on this task is pretty insane.
“The easiest way to put it is that he’s been doing one sport for 20, 25 years. He kind of basically has to start, try and unlearn all that stuff and then learn a totally new process.”
Though he’s been running IMSA races to adapt to the high-downforce setup, Johnson will be hampered by a lack of track time and experience with varying tire compounds, particularly on street courses such as St. Petersburg and Long Beach. Because IndyCar’s restrictive offseason testing policy allowed him only a half-dozen sessions in his new No. 48, Johnson went as far as running lower-level Formula 3 cars with teenagers to get a handle on the new driving style.
He recently said he is “60 percent” acclimated to IndyCar and predicts “the last 10 to 15 percent is going to be the hardest.
“I’ve made some great strides,” said Johnson, who seems rejuvenated by the buzz surrounding his switch to IndyCar and the ribbing it’s drawn from his NASCAR rivals. “I’m going in the right direction. I’m within a second of my treatments now, which has really been my goal out of the box. But that last little bit, that’s what the elite guys are so good at and chase their whole career. I don’t know if I’ll get to 100 percent with the amount of years that I have to give this a try, but there’s still so many things I haven’t even experienced yet. I’ve never been on a red tire. I’ve just recently had a chance to drive a street circuit tire and understand how much more grip it has versus a traditional road course tire.
“I feel like my best chance, though, is later in the year when we get to Laguna Seca. I’ve been able to test there twice. I will have a large part of a season under my belt, and I think that’s a track that I should be in there racing with the guys. Or I hope to be.”
It would be a tall order if he can keep pace by then with Dixon, who remains as formidable as ever entering his 21st season (and 20th at Ganassi). The 50-time winner in IndyCar has extra motivation after a 2020 title in which he opened with three victories but staggered a little (particularly in road course qualifying) toward the end in fending off Newgarden.
“Last year was tough to lead from start to finish,” he said. “To have the pressure all season long, even though we built up a big buffer at points, it dwindled away pretty quickly, hadn’t really been a part of something like that. So it was an intense year, man.”
It seemed only to raise Dixon’s stature among his peers.
“I admire him,” Newgarden said. “I look at him as a fierce competitor but look up to him in a way and emulate him to certain degree. He’s the person I want to beat. He’s one of the most talented to ever be in IndyCar.”
Said Hinchcliffe: “It’s sort of tough to really put into words and proper context what Scott has accomplished. It’s unreal. We’re going to look back on this in 20 years and be even more impressed. Scott Dixon is on the podium for all-time greats, no doubt about it.”
--As youthful rivalries develop, who will be the next first-time winner? Though McLaughlin could spoil the party, it seems likely IndyCar’s next first-timer in the victory circle will come from the select under-25 age demographic: VeeKay (who won his first pole position last October at Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s road course), O’Ward (who finished fourth in points with four podiums), Palou (who moves to Ganassi after an impressive rookie campaign at Dale Coyne Racing).
And you could make the case that Ganassi’s Marcus Ericsson, 30, will be in the mix for his first win as the F1 veteran enters his third season.
VeeKay, 20, broke a thumb in an Indy 500 testing crash last week, but the supremely confident Dutchman hardly seemed fazed -- another indicator of a potential second-year breakthrough that could take Ed Carpenter Racing to new heights.
“I think we can be a front-runner regularly; like we can be one of the favorites every race,” VeeKay said. “Once you’re in that position, I think there will be an opportunity where you can go for that race win where everything goes your way. We just have to make sure we have the pace. I know we’ve got the strategies, and just me being the driver I am that got a podium in Indy. If I just keep doing what I’m doing and have the team keep putting in the work that they did in the off-season, I think we can really run at the front, and yeah, hopefully go for podiums.”
Palou also seems ready as the Spaniard boldly predicted he will win ahead of countrymen Fernando Alonso and Carlos Sainz Jr. (both in new F1 rides).
“I’m in the best opportunity ever,” Palou, 24, said. “I’m with a great team, but I’m with a great group of guys, as well, which makes a difference. The pressure of winning, that’s racing, and you have to win to be able to race another year. That’s been always with me, and it doesn’t change this year.”
With new teammate Felix Rosenqvist (who outdueled him for a victory at Road America last year) at Arrow McLaren SP, O’Ward’s natural speed marks him as a can’t-miss in 2021.
“I feel like last year we left a lot of unfinished business,” O’Ward, 21, said. “We were close to winning four races, and we didn’t get it done. There were tough pills to swallow, and I felt like that left everyone in the team so hungry. I can see it from the off-season, just how much work has been put into the development of trying to make the cars go faster at the speedway and road courses.
“Me as a driver, I truly don’t think I’ve ever been fitter, more ready to try and win. I have lots of faith that we can make some great stuff happen this year.”
--Teams shuffle lineups and restructure personnel amidst tighter schedules: There are the typical annual driver dominoes, which are highlighted in moves by Palou, Rosenqvist and Hinchcliffe. Sebastien Bourdais also returns full time at AJ Foyt Racing, and Brazilian Indy 500 winners Helio Castroneves (Meyer Shank Racing) and Tony Kanaan (racing the No. 48 on ovals for Johnson) are back for partial schedules.
But there were some major yet less noticeable moves made by many teams shoring up their personnel in the offseason. After a mostly miserable season for Andretti (aside from Indy 500 qualifying), the team rededicated itself to its simulation programs and processes for attacking qualifying during race weekends truncated by COVID-19 restrictions. It also took the opportunity for some reshuffling, including pairing Colton Herta (the team’s only winner in 2020) with his father, Bryan, as his strategist.
The reduction in practice time also had Team Penske focused on working more efficiently and arriving with a better plan of attack at the track.
“Last year we struggled a little bit with the shortened sessions,” said Newgarden, who has two championships and a runner-up points finish in four seasons for Penske. “We were not always prepared. And not prepared in that we weren’t doing our job, we just didn’t forecast correctly what we needed some of the time showing up to these tracks. When you don’t do that, you don’t have a lot of time to figure it out. If you don’t have the time, you might not get there on race day.
“I think that is the new challenge with the pandemic: How do we work better in simulation; how do we show up more often with exactly what we need right away? We just know we don’t have the time to fix it across a race weekend. Pretty much how you roll off is going to dictate a lot of how your weekend goes. We’ve been working a tremendous amount figuring out how to be better right off the truck, so we don’t have to play catch-up like we did last year.”
The big teams will have strength in numbers, too, as Ganassi and Penske each expanded back to four cars (matching Andretti Autosport, which dropped a full-time car with Marco Andretti scaling back his schedule). Penske also might benefit from the closure of its IMSA team, reorganizing some talented engineers and team members to the IndyCar side (which seemed to work well for Ganassi after its GTLM cars were shuttered for 2020).
--Big names in contract years: It could be a pivotal season for three past series champions. Pagenaud, Power and Hunter-Reay (whose one-year extension with Andretti was announced in January) are entering the final years of deals in coveted rides.
Team owner Roger Penske, who also has NASCAR star Brad Keselowski in a one-year deal, talked last month as if it’s a mere formality to re-sign former Indy 500 winners Pagenaud, 36, and Power, 40.
“I think we’re moving in the right direction,” Penske said of all his impending free agents. “There’s no reason we wouldn’t renew for sure. I guess it’s just a matter of us sitting down and putting it together, but with everybody not being able to move around you don’t do that over the phone and you don’t do it by Zoom, so we want to do that face-to-face with all of them.”
Pagenaud politely demurred when asked about his status.
“At the moment, I don’t see why there would be a need to talk about it,” he said. “The season hasn’t even started. My personal opinion is just go out there and do the best you can, race hard and be in the moment. The contracts will take care of themselves when they do.”
Power, who told NBC Sports last year he never has been better and plans to race well into his 40s, confirmed his contract year last month but added it had no impact. “I so badly want to win,” he said. “Yep, same internal fire burning.”
There could be more pressure on Hunter-Reay, who turned 40 in December and is coming off his fourth winless season in five years. ”My whole career has been that way,” he said. “It’s been, Hey, here is your opportunity. Get in the car, we’ll let you know if you’re going to be in the car the next race. That’s how it always has been for me. That’s why I’ve always had that grab-it-by-the-neck mentality.
“Even when I had a three-year deal, if I had a bad weekend, it was the end of the year. I have to make sure I’m performing next weekend, otherwise somebody with a big smile is getting ready to jump into my seat. It’s just part of my mentality, part of my makeup. That’s how I’ve been operating for 20 years, man.”