The 2021 IndyCar season got off to a tantalising start at Barber Motorsports Park last weekend.
There were so many questions to be asked of the driver and personnel moves in the off-season, with teams expanding and shrinking and the usual predictions for how 24 entries with the same chassis would stack up on track.
And with multiple strategies playing out and setting up a very close finish, plus a massive lap one crash putting some significant names out of the hunt, the race didn’t disappoint.
We’ve picked out the biggest talking points from the Barber season opener – though we’ve not included the star rookie class as Romain Grosjean and his peers have been covered in-depth here.
A woeful Andretti weekend, Penske’s not much better
Andretti’s troubled 2020 season is well documented, its cars weren’t well adapted to the understeer brought about by the new aeroscreen and only Colton Herta starred as its other drivers scrambled and sometimes squandered chances.
Qualifying second at Barber with Alexander Rossi looked like the start Andretti needed last weekend. Rossi’s been one of IndyCar’s top drivers ever since joining the series in 2016, but last season was his first without a win and he was only ninth in the points.
It seemed obvious to most that because of the long early caution period caused by Josef Newgarden’s crash – which took out Ryan Hunter-Reay and Herta of the Andretti stable too – the race had opened up to a two stopper. But when polesitter Pato O’Ward pitted early with a slow puncture, Rossi followed him in and committed to a poor strategy of stopping three times.
While O’Ward worked his way back to fourth, less than ideal pace on fresh tyres meant Rossi was only ninth, while team-mate James Hinchcliffe’s early rise – from a calamitous qualifying crash – was thwarted by stalling in pitlane.
Much better is needed all around at St Pete this weekend.
Herta 22nd (DNF)
Hunter-Reay 24th (DNF)
Newgarden’s crash was exactly what Penske didn’t need as his team-mate Simon Pagenaud qualified 15th and finished 12th, while Scott McLaughlin was 14th from 12th. Both were subject to a sub-optimal strategy.
Will Power was Penske’s leading light, but more on him later. Newgarden was perfect in his narrow championship defeat by Scott Dixon last year but the three-time Barber winner has started on the wrong foot in 2021.
If anyone can turn it around, it’s him, but Ganassi’s form is ominous. Newgarden has to be mistake-free from here.
Bad luck or better needed from Arrow McLaren SP?
It gets to a point where talk needs to stop and action needs to be fulfilled. This is the stage Arrow McLaren SP is at now.
O’Ward spoke of the team’s intentions to create an IndyCar ‘big four’ after his pole, and perhaps it is a sign of things to come that it sat atop the order at the beginning of the new season with a wild pole lap from its hugely talented young driver.
The race was less than ideal though, as that slow puncture led to an early stop that committed the team to a three-stop strategy.
O’Ward fought back gallantly to fourth and almost caught the two-stopping front three in the closing stages while comfortably setting the fastest lap of the race.
Perhaps the bad luck of that puncture meant fourth was a brilliant recovery, but it’s another ‘what if’ for a team that’s felt poised for a breakthrough for a long time.
There was a bit of ‘Newgarden’ or ‘Dixon’ style driving about it though, as O’Ward still scored a top five out of tricky circumstances.
That win does appear to be coming, and it will almost certainly be via O’Ward who’s now hyped up by the fact that he’s been promised an F1 test by Zak Brown if he wins a race.
O’Ward new team-mate Felix Rosenqvist had one of the worst starts to a career move in recent memory.
As Alex Palou won on his debut in Rosenqvist’s old Chip Ganassi Racing car, Rosenqvist crashed out at the start for his new team.
Admittedly, that wasn’t his fault, but he should never have been in that position as he had been set to make the top 12 in qualifying before crashing on his last lap, which sent him to the back. He’d done the hard work, he was into the next stage.
He’d also crashed in the pitlane in first practice. Not what you want while Brown is watching.
O’Ward already held the cards having been at the team a year, and Rosenqvist’s performance gives him a lot of catching up to do. A huge bounce-back is needed.
Ganassi’s busy off-season hasn’t broken it
Speaking of Palou – one of the most likeable drivers you’re ever likely to encounter – he polished off his day by celebrating with some fried chicken.
How he would bed into the Ganassi team was one of the big questions of the 2020 off-season.
Drivers other than Scott Dixon have not fared well at Ganassi recently, and Palou’s differing driving style from Dixon and Marcus Ericsson meant he may have been left behind.
On the contrary, he was the star of the show and delivered on the potential many knew he had.
Ganassi was on it from the start of the Barber weekend and it appears to have fixed one of its only weaknesses: road course qualifying pace. Its three leading entries qualified in the top six, led by Palou in third, and he then delivered a brilliant tactical drive under heavy pressure for the race win.
Another potential pitfall for Ganassi was the addition of an Extreme E team and IMSA prototype programme – coupled with a fourth IndyCar entry for Jimmie Johnson – spreading it too thin. This appears to have proven not to be an issue, although we can’t get too carried away after only one race.
“I think it’s great,” said Dixon when asked by The Race what he thought of Palou’s emergence, even though it has the chance to take points away from him.
“It’s kind of pushed the team forward, as you saw. In qualifying to have three Ganassi cars in the Fast Six was a big day for us. Obviously we’d have wanted that to be 1-2-3 but we were definitely a lot closer than we were in the past.
“I think it will drive the team forward. It’s great for team morale. It’s great for the #10 car group.
“It’s definitely been an interesting off-season, but this is huge for the team and hopefully that pumps everybody up.”
Bourdais is going to be a factor
I’m still in shock at how Sebastien Bourdais took fifth at Barber. He pitted at the first caution and then picked his way through the field with a long middle stint, before following the leader’s strategy from then on.
Barging O’Ward out of the way after his second stop was maybe a bit close to the limit of what’s acceptable as they banged wheels at Turn 5, but aside from that it was a second straight top five for Bourdais after joining the AJ Foyt team for the last two rounds of 2020.
AJ Foyt Enterprises – unlike Super Tex himself – has been a perennial underachiever and in qualifying it looked like even underdog-team specialist Bourdais couldn’t weave his magic as he lined up 16th.
But the race pace was phenomenal and the signs of Foyt’s investment in its engineering group and signing Bourdais could pay off.
It can’t qualify that badly all the time, though.
It only seems fair to mention the two drivers behind Bourdais who executed the same strategy at this stage. Rinus VeeKay was driving with a broken finger following his Indianapolis testing crash last week and was pitched into the Newgarden crash early on, but fought back to sixth with epic race pace.
Graham Rahal was confused as he and 2019 Barber winner team-mate Takuma Sato were nowhere in qualifying but he danced through the Newgarden wreck to pull off the same strategy and passed Ericsson at the last to take seventh.
Power’s strong start could herald a comeback
Since his title win in 2014, Will Power has had at least one woeful result in his first three races, and for multiple years now he’s hammered home the importance of a strong start to the season without getting one.
He has done well in the first race at times, like in 2019 – when a 24th and an 11th followed. So we aren’t quite declaring Power 100% ‘back’ yet.
He’s still the best driver in the field over one lap in qualifying, but the reason Barber was so positive was it delivered in all the places races have fallen apart for Power when in strong positions in the past.
He made no silly mistakes. His pitstops were good. The car was prepared and set-up well. His strategy was good. It all came together in a not very recent Power-like way.
If he can string a bit of consistency together he is still a title contender. He was fifth last year but bagged five poles – a stat which no one else got near. However he only won two races and failed to pick up the consistent top fives which are the key to an IndyCar championship
He knows all of this, his part of the Penske team as a whole just hasn’t been able to execute. But Barber pointed towards some proper improvements for this team in areas where it’s crumbled in the past.