The 2021 NTT IndyCar Series season is now under way, and after announcing himself to the world with his first IndyCar win last weekend in the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, Chip Ganassi Racing newcomer Alex Palou leads the series to the Streets of St. Petersburg for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
Normally the season opening fixture for the series, this race was moved from that slot in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic striking the United States, and became the season finale. It was delayed once again in 2021 due to the pandemic, originally scheduled for 07 March and moved to 25 April.
With (hopefully) no more delays in sight, here’s everything you need to know ahead of the 2021 Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
WHAT HAPPENED LAST YEAR?
Last year, St. Pete was home to the season finale, with only 32 points separating championship leader Scott Dixon and challenger Josef Newgarden. The two title hopefuls had a less than ideal qualifying, with Dixon starting eleventh and Newgarden ninth, while Will Power won his ninth career pole at St. Petersburg and led the field to green.
Power’s lead would not last long, as he experienced issues downshifting on lap 5, and was passed by Alexander Rossi. Rossi would dominate the race up until lap 36 when Power wrecked in turn three. This would set off a string of cautions on restarts without completing one full lap under green, claiming the cars of Santino Ferrucci, Conor Daly and a debuting Scott McLaughlin.
Third time would be the charm as the field got back to green on lap 53, but on lap 72 the demons that had haunted Rossi’s 2020 campaign reared their ugly heads once more, as he crashed from the lead in turn three. Rossi’s Andretti Autosport teammate Colton Herta would lead the field to green on lap 75, where once again another caution would come out, this time for Marco Andretti after making contact with Takuma Sato in turn four. More craziness would ensue as James Hinchcliffe span in the final hairpin while under caution, collecting Jack Harvey in the process. It even began to lightly rain on parts of the track!
Newgarden and Dixon were quietly navigating the chaos all race long, and found themselves in third and fifth respectively at the next restart. Newgarden went for it all making an incredible move on Herta and second-place Palou in turn two to claim the lead of the race, while Dixon tried to follow him through, taking third from Palou, before the sixth caution flag of the race was displayed, as Oliver Askew was squeezed into the barriers at turn 10 by Sato. This was the furthest the field had gotten on a restart all day, so at least there’s that, right?
This caution exhausted not only the drivers, but the pace car too, as it ran out of fuel and left Newgarden to control the field going to green with 15 laps to go. Newgarden held on to win back-to-back races at St. Pete, but with Dixon finishing third it wasn’t enough to steal the championship from IndyCar’s “Iceman”.
You can read the full race report here.
WHAT TO LOOK OUT FOR THIS WEEKEND?
Much like Barber Motorsports Park, Team Penske has a wealth of drivers with plenty of success at the track. Newgarden has won back to back races at the track and Power has not only nine poles, but two wins to his name here as well. After starting the season with a scary crash not even a lap into the race, Newgarden will be looking to rebound at a track he has lots of success at. Power, who finished second at Barber, will also be looking to move one more step up the podium to start his season with an early victory.
Poor strategy cost Rossi a shot at victory last weekend, and a lack of grip saw him fall further down the field, finishing just inside the top ten after starting on the front row. Speaking of the front row, that’s where the 29-year-old California native started last time out at St. Pete. Barring another wreck, Rossi knows he has the pace at the track to dominate once more and return to victory lane.
Also hampered by strategy last weekend was this season’s first polesitter, Pato O’Ward of Arrow McLaren SP. O’Ward finished second in last year’s race, and after coming tantalizingly close to winning once again, maybe this could be his chance to finally take it.
A resident of St. Petersburg, A.J. Foyt Enterprises‘ Sebastien Bourdais has a great deal of success at his home track, including a win in 2017 where he started from last place. Last year’s even was one of three where he made his return to the series, and the Frenchman took home a fourth place finish. After finishing fifth last weekend, Bourdais could be a name to watch for an upset win on Sunday.
It is also worth keeping an eye on “marble” buildup this weekend. Marbles are small bits of tyre debris that build up on the track as the tyres wear out, and were a major culprit of the litany of cautions we saw last year. They were not cleaned thoroughly last year until the fifth caution, so there is the chance that track crews may clean them more carefully at every caution, or they might not be touched and become an issue again.
Friday 23 April
1615 EST / 2115 BST – Practice 1
Saturday 24 April
0945 EST / 1445 BST – Practice 2
1345 EST / 1845 BST – Qualifying
Sunday 25 April
1200 EST / 1700 BST – Race
WHERE CAN I WATCH?
Coverage in the UK for qualifying and the race will be provided by Sky Sports F1.
In the United States, coverage for the race will be on NBC. Practice and Qualifying will be shown live on the Peacock streaming service.
HOW CAN I KEEP UP WITH ALL THE ACTION?
You can follow all the all the action here at The Checkered Flag. We will be providing coverage of the practice, qualifying, and race sessions.
You can also follow IndyCar on Twitter (@Indycar) for live updates during the sessions.