until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League


10 things to watch in the 2021 IndyCar season

by Matt Beer
10 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

IndyCar is on the crest of a wave in momentum entering 2021, as it boasts a hugely significant rookie class, a brilliantly exciting formula for racing and plenty of change gearing towards a more successful future.

However, its ratings still leave a lot to be desired as it nears the end of its current TV contract, and the lack of a third engine manufacturer for 2023 also looms.

The Race takes a look at 10 things to watch this IndyCar season ahead of – whatever happens – will be an entertaining season of action in 2021.

21 Mdf Ot 4 0860

The rookie battle

In terms of actual winners, there’s only going to be one Rookie of the Year and that’s Team Penske’s Scott McLaughlin as he’s the only one who will contest the whole season. However, there are bigger stakes to play for with Romain Grosjean and Jimmie Johnson.

Johnson provides IndyCar’s golden ticket to accessing NASCAR’s fanbase – along with some weekends where NASCAR and IndyCar share a track – and provides the constant storyline if he’ll contest the Indy 500, which you can read more about in our in-depth feature with him earlier this week.

With only five days in the car prior to the season and no single-seater race experience, temper your expectations to him breaching the top 10 and 15 on a good day.

16c 0326

The one we really don’t know what to expect from is Grosjean. Other F1 converts have struggled in the past and he’s joining a Dale Coyne team which is not usually a regular threat. However, he has the talent to elevate the team and prove his mettle.

McLaughlin and Johnson are both thought to be on two year deals where Grosjean’s is only the one, so seeing if he will sign on again – and like Johnson, for ovals – is another big talking point.

With McLaughlin, it’s more about just how far can he go. His team-mate Simon Pagenaud has guaranteed McLaughlin will win a race this year, which is a lofty goal in such a competitive series but the treble Australian Supercars champion has never shied away from a challenge before.


A thorn in the side of the most reliable driver?

Last year, Ganassi really struggled to get tyre temperature into the right window in qualifying. It didn’t affect Scott Dixon too much as he won another title – despite not scoring a pole since 2017! – but for its supporting cast it’s a serious issue.

Marcus Ericsson told The Race that it’s an area the team has improved on in the off-season, but it wasn’t the only worry facing the squad.

While you just know Ganassi’s going to be competitive, there’s a lot to worry about at the team this year. Alex Palou – a very talented sophomore – joins, but has a different style to Dixon and Ericsson which could prove troublesome as much as refreshing, if he pulls in a different direction.

16c 4660 Edit 1

Then there’s the fact its taken on Johnson as a fourth entry – its second new entry in as many years – alongside expanded sportscar programmes and Extreme E entries – there’s a lot not to like about this off-season from an IndyCar perspective as Felix Rosenqvist has also departed.

Apr 07 : Rating IndyCar's big three teams and star rookies for 2021

Saying that, this powerhouse of American motorsport may well prove me wrong on all counts and give Dixon another title with impressive back-up performers. Time will provide the answer.

As you will know if you read our feature ranking the IndyCar ‘big three teams’, the tiniest of losses and gains can make the difference.

Jb1 1914

A TV future

IndyCar’s deal with NBC expires at the end of this year, and while it is set to offer more extensive coverage than ever in 2021, the future is still uncertain.

The series has maintained many of its international TV deals as well as expanding the content from NBC via its Peacock streaming platform and a record nine races on NBC’s main channel for 2021.

It’s a difficult time for any series to know what to do with TV rights given the emergence of streaming worldwide, so 2020 is a pivotal year in terms of extracting bigger numbers from the IndyCar fanbase to allow for more leverage, and/or to look at radical ways to shake things up.

Jb4 1999

A third manufacturer?

It seems the dream of a Ferrari ‘return’ to IndyCar is off, meaning the series is still searching for an elusive third engine marque to support Honda and Chevrolet.

2023 marks the beginning of IndyCar’s hybrid era, when it should prove the most attractive to the highest number of engine builders. However work is well under way at Honda and Chevrolet on that 2023 package. The longer the wait for a third marque the less likely it is as the new manufacturer becomes further and further behind each day.


A strong rebound at Penske

Penske didn’t win either the Indianapolis 500 or IndyCar title for the first time since 2013 last year, and Josef Newgarden had the most perfect second-place season I’ve ever seen. With Ganassi’s many signs of adversity and a clean off-season of reflection for Penske, I thoroughly anticipate Newgarden stealing the title back this year. Although just as much of his focus is on winning the Indy 500 for the first time.

Speaking of an off-season focus, Simon Pagenaud’s been working on combating the understeer brought about by the aeroscreen, which he couldn’t drive around last year, and Will Power finally needs a strong start to the season.

However, while everyone remains hyper-critical of Penske, last year it was still the only big team with three different winners. Expect it to do that again this year.


Can an intra-team Andretti battle lead to glory?

Colton Herta was the man at Andretti last year. He strung together a very consistent first half of the season while his team-mates were making silly errors, having a bit of bad luck and/or generally struggling with set-up which the aeroscreen intervened with.

Alexander Rossi has been the team’s talisman since his 2016 Indy 500 win but last year he was lacklustre, and even in his run of form toward the end the year he crashed all alone while fighting for a first race win of the season.

If he doesn’t rebound strongly, he really risks Herta taking over the attentions of this slimmed down team and losing its team leader focus.

Andretti’s form was epic at the end of last year and James Hinchcliffe and Ryan Hunter-Reay will chip in top fives and 10s. It’s up to Herta and Rossi to bag the team’s first IndyCar title since 2013, and its first 500 since 2017.

Jb1 1605

Will Arrow McLaren SP join the big three?

It was an intriguing first year of McLaren’s proper return to regular IndyCar racing in partnership with Arrow McLaren SP. It almost won a race, presided over the emergence of Pato O’Ward but also sacked concussed rookie Oliver Askew, and ultimately just showed a lot of potential without quite achieving that last step.

Many expect this team to win a race and challenge the big three of Andretti, Ganassi and Penske this year. I feel it’s another year off that but it would be a disappointment to go winless again. It has added Felix Rosenqvist for this assault – who is hoping to replicate his rookie of the year form in 2019 after a tricky last season at Ganassi. It could well be an inspired move if Rosenqvist’s third year is the one where his innate talent is blended with a proper adaption to the intricacies of racing in the States.

16c 6715 1

A year with its unique structure in place of having a team back at McLaren’s UK headquarters during in the weekend should help as well. It now knows what data to expect and how best to process this with the personnel in its team. Harnessing the date is more important than the quantity of it and seeing how the team moves forward in this regard will be important.

I’m expecting a proper emergence as a super team in 2022 if this partnership continues, but for now winning a race and refining its structure would be an admirable goal to achieve.

A nod here to Rahal Letterman Lanigan, constantly overlooked in these conversations but a team that constantly produces race-winning seasons. It feels like the team is making strides in its engineering division and a return of Takuma Sato and Graham Rahal should provide consistency. Sato having a new engineer will be a big thing to watch at Indy for the 500.

16c 8428 1

Can Bourdais give the big name the turnaround it needs?

AJ Foyt Enterprises is the biggest juxtaposition in IndyCar. The name tells you everything you need to know, Foyt being one of the biggest legends in American if not world motorsport. However, his team has struggled to assert itself, especially in modern IndyCar, as a team that won only one race in the 2010s.

However, a real feel of looking inwards and renovating its engineering approach has given the team a fresh look for 2021, spearheaded by Mr Giantkiller himself Sebastien Bourdais. OK, we know him from Formula 1 and Champ Car dominance, but in recent years he’s been a go-to for smaller teams like KVSH and Dale Coyne searching for wins.

You know, if the opportunity arises, that Bourdais will make the most of it and not squander key moments. An invaluable trait given the competitiveness at IndyCar.

There’s no doubt bringing in a name like Bourdais gives you immediate motivation, but also the gravitas to go and sign more heavy hitters to surround him in the personnel department.

Dalton Kellett continues his learning alongside and will do well to score the odd top 15, but the focus here will be on Bourdais and him giving Super-Tex a year to remember.

Worth keeping an eye out for JR Hildebrand and Charlie Kimball joining for the Indy 500 too. Both a steady pair of hands who will contribute too and benefit from the groundwork Bourdais is laying in equal measure.

Nashville,tn Skyline Aerial Panoramic Dusk

The Nashville neutraliser

Nashville is one of the cultural hot spots in America and its massive event being planned later in the year is sure to blow us all away as one of the most radical to join the calendar in years.

Any race that needs divers alongside is sure to provide interest…

Many street circuits don’t provide a complementary layout for racing , but the initial track map for Nashville looks great and even if it’s rubbish for racing, the backdrop of the Korean War veterans bridge will be simply breathtaking to look at. And the food and entertainment will be fantastic (although that might depend if you’re a fan of Justin Timberlake, who’s part of the ownership group putting on the race).

This event could really be huge for IndyCar providing something new and different, and the team behind the event seem to be going about everything in the right way.

As the only new track on the calendar, it might just give rookies Romain Grosjean, Jimmie Johnson and Scott McLaughlin less of a disadvantage as all of the drivers will be racing here for the first time.


Can aero changes reinvent the Indy 500?

The last three Indy 500s have proven tough when it comes to passing. Last year there’s no doubt Honda had an advantage, but even so the aero configuration of the cars play a big roll in the race.

You could make passes in two or three car groups but once you get a long train of cars the wash of dirty air drenched those following and made overtaking difficult.

IndyCar has been working on changes to the car including the front of the floor in a bid to make passing on ovals easier. Feedback from the recent Indy test said passing and following was easier, but don’t expect a golden ticket.

It may help mix up the Honda/Chevrolet battle and mean some teams get set-up very right or very wrong creating a bit of intrigue. Overall the changes should help, and Texas will give us the first indication of that.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Email
  • More Networks