Last year, Scott Dixon’s best-ever start to an IndyCar season with three victories signalled his intent, and he’ll be just as motivated to kick off 2021 in style as he hunts a record-equalling seventh premier title.
That being said, 2020 was far from normal. The new aeroscreen’s impact on car performance and the impact of the virus on time at the track and back in the factory for teams produced some topsy turvy results and this year could provide a relative return to normal.
There’s still a bit of testing to be done, but we’ve broken down the challengers to assess those most likely to topple Dixon, currently on route to matching AJ Foyt’s seven-title record.
In his rookie year, Herta was peaky in 2019. The highs were incredible with two wins and three pole positions. However, he didn’t score a podium outside of his race victories, that wouldn’t come until after he reached his current total of three wins after a victory at Mid-Ohio last year.
The 2020 season went a bit too far the other way for Herta, in the sense that he was the more consistent of his Andretti team-mates and more so than his rookie campaign, but it took until the second half of the season to become a regular threat for wins and podiums.
A lot of that was down to Andretti being one of the teams to struggle with set-ups in able to adapt to the induced understeer the aeroscreen delivered. Herta performed best of the Andretti lot through the first three-quarters of the year with this and perhaps would have been in contention if not for an off Iowa weekend.
For his second year, he knew he needed to be more consistent having shown his speed in 2019. Now he needs to put the two together and if Andretti’s form from late last year is anything to go by, he’ll have all the tools at his disposal to make good on that promise.
If there’s any other criticism it’s that when those race winning opportunities came late in the season, he made errors like at Indianapolis and St Pete. Cut out the errors and blend his speed and newfound consistency and this could be Herta’s year.
A shock struggler in 2020, it was definitely Rossi’s worst season since he came to IndyCar and won the Indy 500 in 2016.
He’s been a title contender ever since that debut until a bit of bad luck and Andretti’s aforementioned set-up struggle led to him languishing in 18th in the standings after nine of 14 races in 2020, before four consecutive podiums helped fire him back up the order.
Perhaps his desperation to avoid ending a season without a win for the first time in his IndyCar career contributed to an amateurish mistake (admittedly also made by Will Power) at St Pete, but the season was peppered with little errors that looked a lot worse on the scoreboard when you factor in an unusually high amount of bad luck and a couple of technical issues.
For me, his Indy 500 summed things up. He complained about a pitlane penalty for an unsafe release while challenging eventual winner Takuma Sato out of the pits, but instead of using that rage to comeback in a Dixon-style way, he crashed.
He’s undoubtedly one of the most talented drivers on the grid, but he has to be perfect to fight with Dixon and Newgarden. A inward-looking off-season may have helped to reset and fight for honours in 2021.
Even being picture-perfect isn’t enough to beat Dixon in a title fight sometimes, which should show you the standard of driver Dixon is and it’s baffling that he’s not rated higher globally.
Anyway, Newgarden was fantastic from a driving point of view in 2020 and is still the equal favourite with Dixon in 2021. A few pieces of bad luck made the difference and his excellent second half of the season was not enough to overcome his deficit last year.
Still, year-on-year he shows improvement in different areas and there was no sign of costly errors like Mid-Ohio in 2019, just polished driving and a typical honest and critical approach of himself that helped him and the team get the best out of what they had.
Penske did struggle a bit at times in 2020 but Newgarden was its shining light while Will Power showed what it was capable of on a good day too, without Newgarden’s consistency on the bad days.
The fact of the matter is, if Dixon and Ganassi are on form then perfection is the only thing that will beat them and even then it’s not always enough, as Newgarden showed last year.
There’s little to add here from the spectacularly honest and brilliant interview Pagenaud gave The Race at the end of last year.
The handling characteristics introduced by the aeroscreen was his main issue in 2020, but you can never rule him out. His 2016 title being the perfect example. He’d had a below average year before that too…
“I’ve had issues with making the car rotate around the corner the way that I want,” he told The Race in October.
“The added weight to the front has added natural understeer to the car that’s causing me a lot of issues to get back to the throttle. It’s very much that simple.
“My team-mates found ways with their driving to get around the problem, and I haven’t. I have no shame in saying it.
“Actually, to me, it’s a positive knowing what I need to go faster. And yes, some will say that I should have adapted better, that’s certainly one opinion.
“My opinion is that when I’m going to get the car the way I want, I’m going to crush it. That’s how I look at it.”
It’s a refreshing approach when we’re often told drivers who can’t adapt won’t succeed, or that they are inferior in some way. There’s a different train of thought that says, drivers constantly adapting to and driving around a less than ideal set-up mask the problems. Perhaps Pagenaud’s commitment means when he finds the sweet spot he will indeed “crush it”.
It’s a shame he and the team couldn’t get on top of things quicker, but with a year and an off-season they really should have things figured out ready for a title challenge.
Felix Rosenqvist and Patricio O’Ward
Don’t view this as a copout listing these two together; it’s merely because the duo fighting for the title relies on them getting the car to do it and the jury’s out as to whether that will happen.
Welcoming McLaren onboard for 2020, Arrow McLaren SP delivered fourth in the standings with O’Ward which could and should have been third had a few niggly errors been avoided.
The thing we didn’t really see from the team in 2020 was a race-winning package. OK, they ran up front, but weren’t able to get a win over the line. Whether it was strategy and pitstops or keeping the tyres alive, the team couldn’t get it done and if you can win a race, you won’t win an IndyCar title.
There’s plenty of hope for optimism for its fans though. Rosenqvist – in terms of talent – is one of the most naturally talented drivers on the grid and he’s proved it all over the world. What he’s yet to do is couple that speed with the nuances of racing in America and his sophomore season was less impressive in 2029 when his team-mate Dixon won the title than it was the year before when he didn’t.
A switch to Arrow McLaren SP will bring the pressure of leadership and the attention of McLaren fans, so there’s a lot to cope with. But perhaps emerging from Dixon’s shadow will allow him to excel.
O’Ward now has a full season under his belt, so he should be a bit more polished in 2021 where he was ragged at times last year despite an epic break-out season.
Then there’s the team. It’s new-to-IndyCar way of working with a small team back at the Formula 1 team’s base in Woking has been honed over the course of the season and the team should have worked out operational and personnel kinks ready to make that work this season, which could give it a great advantage.
There’s too many question marks to declare the pair contenders now, but enough upside that they both could achieve just that if things go their way.
Will another Ganassi expansion hurt Dixon?
One of the great things that helped Dixon and Ganassi in 2020 was the liquidation of Ganassi’s GT programme at the end of the previous year. It freed-up personnel to help the IndyCar programme excel, and to get Marcus Ericsson up to speed quickly having joined the team for his second IndyCar season after leaving F1.
Fast forward a year and the team is going the other way. Not only has it stepped up and gone for a full factory-backed Acura prototype programme in IMSA – which Kevin Magnussen will race for – but it will also run another full-time IndyCar entry for Jimmie Johnson and Tony Kanaan taking it from two cars in 2019 to four in 2021.
Now – let’s just get one thing straight – Ganassi have done this type of expansion before and it has some of the best personnel in the business. It’s one of the few teams that can pull this off and there’s every chance and likelihood it will.
Despite the talent in the shop though, having those two extra programmes will stretch them further than before. So it’s worth consideration, if that will affect Dixon’s title challenges.
Losing Rosenqvist for his replacement, Alex Palou, is also likely to be a short-term loss for the squad. Palou is a brilliant driver, but in only his second season of racing in the States.
Even Rosenqvist had Indy Lights experience where Palou is coming from a more shallow knowledge base despite his innate talent. Perhaps Ericsson will be able to step up and support Dixon in terms of set-up and data direction, or perhaps it won’t matter and Dixon’s #8 crew will just ace it alone.
One thing’s for certain. IndyCar is one of the most competitive and unpredictable elite championships in motorsport and should the season run as planned, it should be an entertaining one.
Disagree with Jack Benyon on any of his points in this article, or feel he has left someone out? Let us know in the comments who you expect to fight Dixon the hardest in 2021.