until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League


The top 10 IndyCar drivers of 2021 ranked

by Jack Benyon
14 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

A hard-fought 2021 IndyCar season is over, and The Race has ranked the top 10 drivers.

Number one might not be a surprise, but there are likely to be some differing opinions so please leave a comment letting us know where we went right or wrong.

Ultimately, even the drivers have disagreed with our rankings in 2021, so we certainly want to know what you think!

10 Scott McLaughlin

Team Penske
14th in championship, 1 podium

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OK, McLaughlin was 14th and only narrowly beat Romain Grosjean – on a part schedule – to the rookie of the year honours in one of the series’ best teams. But that doesn’t matter.

Before this season McLaughlin had basically no single-seater experience and had been driving touring cars for a decade. To then come into what many of the drivers on the grid often refer to as the most competitive open-wheel championship in the world, how can you not celebrate McLaughlin’s performances?

He did something some Indianapolis 500 winners and series champions in the field haven’t done this year – score a podium – and by the way, he did that on his first weekend on an oval at the tricky Texas venue.

There was so much to like about this 2021 for McLaughlin which didn’t always scream great results at you, but there was plenty of progress week to week.

His team-mates put too much pressure on him claiming he could win as early as this season, but I think that’s where he’s heading over the next couple of years.

How he responds to his new engineer next year will be a big part of how quickly or slowly more progress comes.

9 Will Power

Team Penske
9th in championship, 1 win


You might think I’m bonkers for putting Power in here given he finished ninth in the standings at the expense of Simon Pagenaud who was eighth.

My thinking here is that Pagenaud’s points tally is slanted slightly by his strong Indianapolis 500 run, but in actual fact there was not a single race this year you felt like Pagenaud could or would win. I rate Pagenaud extremely highly as a driver but even in the worst of years that’s not acceptable for Pagenaud. He won’t need me to say that either, he’ll know.

Power delivered one of the qualifying laps of the season to even get into the 500 such were Penske’s woes, and finished 30th.

Elsewhere he 100% should have won at Detroit before an ECU overheating issue meant his car wouldn’t restart after a red flag.

Power did win at the Indy road course, one of his best circuits, and scored a pole at Gateway. Ultimately I expected more from Power and Pagenaud but they can’t always have successful years.

8 Graham Rahal

Rahal Letterman Lanigan
7th in championship, 1 podium


Rahal’s consistency was brilliant in 2021 and he’s one of the drivers that, if you were able to go and erase a few incidents totally out of his control, would most likely be in championship contention.

Where he’s marked down is he hasn’t won since 2017, and only looked like ending that streak once, at the Indy 500, before the wheels literally came off.

If you remove St Pete where he was on for a top five before being taken out by Alexander Rossi, Indy after the wheel issue and Gateway where he was took out by Ed Jones, only at Road America did Rahal and the team struggle for pace and they finished 11th. Every other finish apart from Long Beach where strategy caused an issue, were or would have been top 10s.

All of those issues mentioned – apart from possibly Road America, and 11th isn’t a bad result in IndyCar when you consider the calibre of teams and drivers – Rahal wasn’t at fault and deserves this place in the rankings.

7 Romain Grosjean

Dale Coyne Racing
15th in championship, 3 podiums

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Some might argue it’s harsh Grosjean has gone in above Rahal, but despite all his consistency Rahal only had one podium, no poles or wins this year in his 13th year of IndyCar.

Grosjean did bag a pole and three podiums for the much smaller and underfunded outfit Dale Coyne Racing in a part season, and if you use his average finish to make that a full season he would have finished ahead of Alexander Rossi – his new team-mate at Andretti next year – in 10th.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Grosjean has been his approach and desire to learn something new each weekend.

The series is radically different to what he is used to in so many ways, but each week he’s got better at things like restarts, tyre usage, being aggressive on the brakes and in and out laps. It’s all added up to a very capable IndyCar driver.

A bit more consistency and the erasing of a couple of mistakes would have made this season even better, but for a first year in a small team in the context of returning from a crash that almost killed him, it’s been a spectacular rollercoaster ride.

Sep 24 : Grosjean lands big IndyCar move to Andretti Autosport

6 Marcus Ericsson

Chip Ganassi Racing
6th in the championship, 2 wins

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Introducing…Marcus Ericsson. We all knew who he was/is, but now he is properly on the scene and in the elite group of drivers in this series.

Since moving to Ganassi for his sophomore season in 2020 Ericsson has been so consistent, but until mid-way through this year he lacked the elite peaks to bag wins, podiums and top fives to make him a title contender.

Sep 01 : Ex-F1 driver Marcus Ericsson on his 2021 IndyCar breakthrough

He went on a bonkers run after Indy this year though, using his Detroit win to energise his own performance and that of this still new #8 team. Another win at Nashville later in the year which he declared probably the best of his career to resist Colton Herta was sensational considering it started with an airborne crash.

2022 is going to be a landmark season for Ericsson and his IndyCar career, but the signs point to ‘serious title contender’. Whether he can go a step further…we’ll have to wait and see.

5 Scott Dixon

Chip Ganassi Racing
4th in championship, 1 win

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Obviously putting Dixon somewhere below Colton Herta in this list will be controversial, especially when you consider that if you gave Dixon a top five at the Indy 500 where he actually ran out of fuel under a caution and got bumped to the back, he easily would have been in championship contention.

I guess Dixon being in this position in the rankings is a compliment because we hold him to such high standards that a season finishing fourth and a bit of bad luck costing him points is only good enough for fifth in our rankings.

May 05 : Crashes, an F1 test and a rookie hero: IndyCar's oval kick-off at Texas

My thinking here is that, however you slice this, Dixon’s been comprehensively beaten by a team-mate for the first time since Dario Franchitti in 2012. Apart from at Texas, he’s not felt threatening to win a race and has made the odd mistake like the spin in qualifying for the Indianapolis road course race in August.

There’s just been one too many average performances in the shadow of what his team-mate has achieved, even if swapping him with the next driver in our list wouldn’t be outrageous.

4 Colton Herta

Andretti Autosport
5th in championship, 3 wins

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It might be a surprise he’s here over Dixon, but for me, Herta was one of two drivers alongside Josef Newgarden who you felt could come in to a weekend and dominate every session.

Sure, Alex Palou won three races, but his first IndyCar pole didn’t come until September 2021 in Portland. Pato O’Ward still hasn’t won a race from his four pole positions.

Apr 27 : Everyone should be scared of IndyCar's new 'top gun'

Herta had pole and led almost every lap at St Pete, had pole but strategy robbed him at Nashville although he did crash trying to pass Ericsson for the win.

He crushed the opposition at Laguna Seca and Long Beach, the latter from 14th on the grid having been favourite for pole before crashing in qualifying.

In many ways, it’s been a sensational season as he once again led the Andretti team with an inconsistent Alexander Rossi nowhere to help support Herta up front.

Speaking of up front, Herta also had the best qualifying average of the year.

He did make a few errors across the season which he’ll need to cut out in the face of a prolonged title fight. But every year Herta improves something or adds something to his repertoire and 2021 was no different.

He had his own fair share of bad luck too like being taken out by Newgarden in the first race, a right-rear bearing issue at Texas and fuel hose issue at Mid-Ohio as a few examples.

3 Josef Newgarden

Team Penske
2nd in the championship, 2 wins

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The fact that Newgarden’s average finish matches champion Alex Palou’s tells you this position might be harsh on the list, and I understand that.

Let me explain. It’s my belief that Newgarden is the best and most complete driver in this series at the moment, so unfortunately expectations are high and if he doesn’t win the championship he’s going to get penalised for it here.

The fact that he made a very uncharacteristic mistake in the season opener at Barber by crashing out, and that when he is usually bulletproof under pressure he and his Penske crew could only follow up their mid-season run of three poles in a row with one qualifying in the top 12 before the pole in the season finale, only adds to that disappointment.

Jul 08 : Can Penske launch a late title charge with Newgarden?

On the other side, Penske’s struggles at the Indy 500 continued and go some way to explaining the championship situation as Palou beat Newgarden by 38 points, but their respective second and 12th place finishes represented a 49-point swing at the 500.

Newgarden’s gearbox issue at Road America with two laps to go also handed Palou a win and cost him his own, so that was another crucial blow.

Ultimately it was a strong season for Newgarden, but given his little errors, Palou’s consistency and Pato O’Ward’s outperforming of his machinery, they’ve just beaten Newgarden in the rankings. I expect Newgarden to come back strong next year.

2 Pato O’Ward

Arrow McLaren SP
3rd in Championship, 2 wins

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It’s impossible not to be disappointed by the relative inconsistency of the Arrow McLaren SP package and the fact that O’Ward had significant leads in this championship twice, including by 25 points heading into the last three races.

However, I certainly get the feeling that this car shouldn’t have been anywhere near some of the results it’s scored this year and they were down to O’Ward’s refusal to allow things like physics and normality to intervene with what he wants to achieve.

Some of his qualifying laps have been absolutely sublime, and you only have to look at how much team-mate Felix Rosenqvist has struggled as the perfect benchmark of O’Ward’s breathtaking natural ability.

That’s all in a team – unlike Ganassi – that is still finding its way forward since McLaren came onboard for 2020. There’s so much upside in this team and it has a long successful future if it hangs on to O’Ward.

The new test for O’Ward is if he can lead this group to a car that is still fast but easier on its tyres and doesn’t require out-of-body experiences to perform to the level of its rivals.

Aug 18 : How IndyCar's title race has opened up + Pato O'Ward interview

1 Alex Palou

Chip Ganassi Racing
1st in championship, 3 wins

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There was only one person who could top this list and that’s the driver that won the IndyCar title at his second attempt, or what you might call his first realistic attempt having joined Chip Ganassi Racing for this season.

His calm, considered approach has galvanised this team and helped maximise the opportunities on track. He’s not always the fastest and certainly not the most wild, but his more straightlaced approach has paid dividends in this title battle.

Sep 28 : A dramatic season finale + 2021 IndyCar champ Palou joins us

While many remember O’Ward’s outrageous qualifying laps, Palou qualified a position higher per race on average and finished a position higher in races too – perhaps underlining the less spectacular looking approach has got the job done.

Three wins, a pole and a brilliant Indianapolis 500 performance all helped get this over the line, even if a blown engine on the Indy road course, mysterious mechanical issue in St Petersburg and being taken out in a crash at Gateway didn’t.

You could argue that in an Formula 1-style points system or without those issues he would have even won the title a round early. A brilliant year for a fantastic driver coming from a modest background and making a success of a career in motorsport anyway.

Top 5 part-timers

In this section, we’ve tried to shine a light on the drivers who competed less than half of the IndyCar schedule.

5 Christian Lundgaard

Rahal Letterman Lanigan
12th in August Indy road course race

Qualifying fourth on your IndyCar debut is very impressive indeed and Christian Lundgaard certainly made a splash at the Indianapolis road course.

Released by Alpine as one of its F1 juniors for the event, he was immediately at home on the European-style circuit and with the car which isn’t so dissimilar from the F2 machine he’s used to.

The strategy in the race and a couple of small errors led to a 12th place finish but it was still a great start to his IndyCar career, where it looks like he would be successful should he come back over in the future.

4 Simona De Silvestro

Paretta Autosport
31st in Indy 500

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I know the legions of Juan Pablo Montoya fans are going to be furious that I haven’t got him in this list after finishing ninth in the 500 when De Silvestro is and was 31st there.

I’ll might even get accused of positive discrimination.

However, De Silvestro hasn’t made the list because of being a female or because her team was mostly that too, it’s because three of the series’ best drivers and its top rookie were all blown away by her performance in qualifying.

Jun 08 : Indy 500-winning team owner Shank + your questions

The Penske drivers wondered – genuinely – if they could have kept the car on the road given its performance. The team’s engineers – who were helping Paretta as part of its technical tie-up – were surprised, many were shocked.

The race didn’t go to plan at all, but in qualifying alone De Silvestro had proved she belongs in this series after so many years away, and I for one hope she returns.

And on Montoya, he won’t have been happy with anything other than a win, so I’ll follow that line of thinking too.

3 Sage Karam

Dreyer & Reinbold Racing
7th at the Indy 500

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For years Dreyer & Reinbold has been trying to make a breakthrough at the Indy 500, the only race it did in 2021, and Karam scored a brilliant seventh earlier this year.

For a team without a technical tie-up with a big squad to rock up and do that well is no small feat, It was its first top 10 since Karam finished ninth in his rookie year in 2014.

It’s been a tough journey for Karam but hopefully that result was worth the ride for one of the paddock’s popular drivers.

2 Santino Ferrucci

Rahal Letterman Lanigan
24th in championship, 6th in Indy 500


After leaving Dale Coyne and switching to NASCAR’s second-tier for 2021, Ferrucci made a return with new team Rahal Letterman Lanigan and almost immediately crashed in Indy 500 practice.

Despite injuring his leg, he finished sixth in the big race – the best of the RLL group that won the race with Takuma Sato the previous year – and that started a run.

In fact, after five race starts Ferrucci has the fifth best average finish in IndyCar for drivers who have done more than one race.

It was a brilliant feat that should have automatically landed him that seat. Sadly financial implications mean that’s not a done deal and there are still questions over who will drive that car next year. It should be Ferrucci, but the team has also assessed Oliver Askew and Lundgaard.

1 Helio Castroneves

Meyer Shank Racing
22nd in championship, 1 win

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Ferrucci would 100% be at the top of this list if it wasn’t for Castroneves’ Indy 500 win. That kind of win always moves you to the top of a ranking.

This win won’t be appreciated properly for a few years, but for the minnow Meyer Shank Racing team to win the 500 on its first race with that second car is extraordinary.

Jun 02 : Inside stories from the 2021 Indy 500

There was nothing historic about the win itself on-track, Castroneves used all of his experience to know when to attempt the move that won the race from Palou late on, and the crowd was electric after a year away for the pandemic.

His best result in the next five races was a ninth at Nashville as he gears up for a full-season return for 2022.

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