If you’re a person who usually only tunes in to IndyCar for the Indianapolis 500 each year, you’re certainly not alone.
But this year more than ever, riding the momentum and following along promises to be worth it.
The Race has broken down some of the key storylines remaining for the 2021 season, including if the championship’s biggest team can win a race, the future of a well known phoenix driver, starring venues, comeback drivers and if there really is a changing of the guard taking place between the veterans and up and comers.
Are Dixon and Newgarden in trouble?
Six-time title winner Scott Dixon and Josef Newgarden (two titles, and Dixon’s biggest championship threat lately) have become the perennial yardstick in IndyCar. They’ve just been on another level compared to the opposition across the balance of a season for a couple of years now, arguably more.
However, the emergence of Dixon’s new Chip Ganassi Racing team-mate and series sophomore Alex Palou could have both drivers worried.
1 Palou 248
2 Dixon 212
3 O’Ward 211
4 Pagenaud 201
5 VeeKay 191
6 Newgarden 184
7 Herta 154
8 Rahal 148
9 McLaughlin 143
10 Ericsson 138
Dixon trails by 36 points and Newgarden is 64 points behind Palou. Last year after six races Dixon was leading and 49 points ahead of Newgarden, so there’s cause for concern for both drivers heading into the second part of this season.
It’s hard to know how the tracks will influence things, too. We’ll be going to many circuits Palou hasn’t raced at, but some he was strong on last year, so he’s going to be no pushover in this fight.
Pato O’Ward, Simon Pagenaud and Rinus VeeKay are all drivers who have shown a lack of consistency over the last season and a half, but youngsters VeeKay and O’Ward have won races – two of the six different victors in as many events.
While Palou has a strong lead and there’s no reason his consistency can’t continue, there’s still chance for a fightback from some of IndyCar’s most established figures. But with the only double-points round now complete, Palou’s in a strong position.
Rapid drivers poised for rebounds?
Have a look at this list of drivers below. It shows their number of points so far (380 is the maximum) and how far they are behind the leader with 594 points still on the table, providing they got pole, fastest lap, lead a lap and won every race for the remainder of the season. I’ve added on a race which is yet to be confirmed but will replace Toronto, possibly Mid-Ohio.
12 Will Power 128 -120
15 Alexander Rossi 101 -147
17 Ryan Hunter-Reay 94 -154
18 Sebastien Bourdais 89 -159
20 Felix Rosenqvist 82 -166
That means there’s three Indy 500s, two IndyCar championships and four Champ Car titles between the drivers 12th on back, listed above.
It’s unbelievable to think this group of drivers could be so far off, but putting the points aside, some are further off than others.
Power and Bourdais both had strong starts to the season with two top 10s to open the year, Bourdais especially coming from the back of the grid to fourth with strategy at Barber and a top 10 at St Petersburg.
However he was taken out of both Texas races through no fault of his own and a “conservative” month of May at Indianapolis ended with a strategy gamble that didn’t pay off. The road course race was hampered by a practice issue and AJ Foyt Enterprises still failing to nail the set-up.
Power was second at Barber and eighth at St Pete recovering from a rare qualifying blip in the latter, but four finishes outside of the top 10 including a spin in the pitlane at the Indy 500 following have cost his campaign dearly.
However, at least these drivers have proven capable of delivering results so far.
Rossi’s had another tricky start to the year like he did in 2020, and three top 10s have been supplanted by team and driver errors of judgement. It’s easy to criticise from the armchair but Rossi and this team are capable of performing to an elite level, which means when spells like this happen they get criticised even more harshly than most.
They know better than anyone they need to improve and deliver though, and Rossi’s run of five podiums – which was almost six – at the end of last year could be repeated at any moment.
Hunter-Reay isn’t quite in the same boat. The 2012 champion had a 2020 that felt sub-par, finishing 10th with one podium. However, he only has one top 10 to start 2021 and appears a bit ‘at sea’. We can’t write him off – as a champion and Indy 500 winner – but more needs to come from him over the rest of the year or questions surely have to be asked of his seat, especially when Andretti as a whole is struggling.
Rosenqvist has struggled to adapt to Arrow McLaren SP’s tail-happy car, which his team-mate O’Ward has described as the most difficult to drive in the series. O’Ward won at Texas but there’s only one Gateway round for Rosenqvist to rely on a strong oval car for, so his comeback depends whether he can be better suited to this car turning right as well as left-only.
All of these drivers are of a very high level, but where there’s a positive in the competitiveness of the series in the reward for delivering, it’s offset by the negative that performing even slightly below your best is often enough to put seats at risk.
Can Penske win a race?!
In 2020 Team Penske failed to win at least one of the IndyCar Series title or Indianapolis 500. So far in 2021 it’s on track to do the same, but last year it had won two races by this point and so far it’s yet to win one in six tries.
That paints a more negative picture than is necessary, because all four of its drivers are in the top 12 led by Pagenaud in fourth. Newgarden is sixth and only a few more points behind than he was at this stage last year when he ripped off a brilliant second half of the season to narrowly miss out on the title to Dixon.
The 500 has gone, but the title is not out of reach. However, Team Penske does need to convert more regularly if this is to happen. It’s a story that will be great to watch as will fellow ‘big three’ team Andretti’s potential rebound.
The shining light of the season so far has been how quickly Scott McLaughlin has come into his own, the rookie taking second at Texas and looked threatening until speeding in the pitlane late in the Indy 500 when a top 10 was on.
Apart from that, he’s totally error free in his first full season of single-seaters since some Australian Formula Ford in his youth. It’s a story that really deserves more praise and recognition than it’s received so far.
Grosjean’s strong form, and silly season
There’s more to come from The Race this week on Romain Grosjean’s return to IndyCar at Detroit this weekend. So I’ll leave that to my colleague and look at the bigger picture.
After his three races Grosjean would be sixth in the standings taking only those races into account for all drivers, so clearly it’s been a mega start. Enough that internal team talks are already ongoing to stump up the money to attract Grosjean for 2021.
He hasn’t flat out declared he’s ready to go oval racing but Grosjean has said he’s looking for a house in the States and he’s likely to stay on in IndyCar. So if he can be persuaded to take on the Indy 500, he’s going to be a very attractive property to a number of teams who have options to swap drivers in 2022.
Current employer Dale Coyne Racing would be a great option so that he can look to improve with consistency of personnel around him, in a family atmosphere team that he’s enjoyed and a strong engineer in Olivier Boisson.
If he does test the waters elsewhere for a bigger more consistently frontrunning team, there’s going to be a handful of operations wanting to take advantage of his marketability and driving talent next year.
In the meantime Grosjean just needs to get his head down and work on his restarts and pitstops – which were greatly improved on his way to second at the recent Indianapolis road course race – and his street course form. At St Pete he was 13th and struggled in qualifying. That was more set-up than driver error though, so all the signs are pointing to Grosjean being in a great position ahead of 2022 already.
The return of old favourite tracks…
In the second section of this season, we’ll have six races out of 10 that didn’t appear in 2020 due to the pandemic. That’s going to throw a number of unknowns into the mix.
Detroit, the new-to-IndyCar Nashville, Portland, Laguna Seca and Long Beach all add to the intrigue.
The likes of Palou – the current runaway championship leader – haven’t raced at any of them in IndyCar, while rookies Grosjean, Jimmie Johnson and McLaughlin obviously haven’t competed there.
Long Beach is one of the jewels in the crown of the series and that will be a massive boost to have back, especially as it’s concluding the championship. It’s a great year for the event and series to capitalise on a sort of ‘home’ counter for Johnson who grew up watching the event and gets to fulfil a life-long goal of competing in it.
…and a new one
Then there’s Nashville.
Every week it feels like the Music City Grand Prix adds a new superstar act, sponsor or bit of momentum that is helping this Nashville race shape up as one of IndyCar’s best new additions in years.
Whether it’s the tie-up with the Tennessee Titans football team and use of its stadium, or the use of a long scenic bridge that will feature divers underneath for safety, there’ something spectacular at every turn in what is a massive tourism city in America.
The only question about this event lies in how good with the layout be for racing, and will the bumpy downtown streets be transformed enough to make racing an IndyCar on it good enough? There’s no reason to doubt either will be fine and dandy.
Will the guard actually change as veterans are challenged?
Changing of the guard this, changing of the guard that. It’s a phrase thrown out way too easily in modern motorsport and especially when it comes to IndyCar.
Of course, I’m as excited as anyone about some of these young talents like Palou, Colton Herta and VeeKay. But until multiple younger drivers fight the veterans across a whole season, for the 500 every year, it’s not a changing of the guard for me.
At the moment Palou is leading the championship and fought Helio Castroneves for Indy 500 honours. But he was still gazumped by Castroneves, and Dixon won last year’s title. Age is merely a useless number when it comes to IndyCar at the moment.
Many young drivers have impressed and won races and then faded into the abyss. Hopefully this crop of ace youngsters can maintain a strong fight through the second part of 2021 and beyond.