The 2021 NTT IndyCar Series season is finally upon us, and Barber Motorsports Park will play host to the first race of the season, the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama. The sixteen turn, 3.83 km track was not on the calendar last season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but makes a triumphant return this year.
This will be fans’ first look at some new drivers with new teams, returning series veterans and well the debut of one of the most oxymoronic “rookie” classes in the series’ history, featuring drivers like Jimmie Johnson and Romain Grosjean.
So before the first race weekend of the season gets under way, here’s everything you need to know going in to the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama.
WHAT HAPPENED IN THE LAST RACE AT BARBER MOTORSPORTS PARK?
Normally, this segment would be titled “What happened in 2020 at Barber Motorsports Park,” but like so many tracks on the calendar, it was axed due to the pandemic. In 2019, Takuma Sato dominated the race from pole to checkered flag, picking up his fourth career IndyCar series win.
Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing locked out the front row of the grid, with Sato joined by teammate Graham Rahal on the front row. Sato would pull out an early lead until the first pit stop, where Sato’s crew was slow on the left rear tyre. Rahal also had misfortune on pit road, having to spend extra time in his box while fixing a throttle sensor issue, knocking him out of contention for the win. Sato would be able to maintain his lead by a few tenths of a second.
With thirty laps to go, two separate incidents would bring out a yellow flag. Rahal’s misfortune would continue as he parked the car on track after it suddenly shut off. At the same time, Carlin‘s Max Chilton wrecked trying to avoid Tony Kanaan, who was also pitting at the time. Sato would lead the field to green after the final pit stops with Scott Dixon and Sebastien Bourdais, who was able to jump to third using a two stop strategy, right behind him.
With five laps to go, Sato would have another scare, running wide at the entry of the turn seven chicane, breaking off a piece of his rear diffuser. It would not stop him, however, from claiming the victory. Dixon and Bourdais would round out the podium.
You can read the whole race recap HERE.
WHAT TO LOOK OUT FOR THIS WEEKEND?
After their dominance in the last race at the track, RLLR will obviously looking to repeat and start the season on the right foot. Also looking to start the campaign well is 2019’s runner up and 2020’s series champion Dixon, who is entering this year looking to tie A.J. Foyt‘s record of seven championships.
2020 championship runner-up Josef Newgarden has had plenty of success at Barber with three wins, two of which were back to back in 2017 and 2018. Team Penske as a whole has dominated the event, winning six of the ten races at the track. After poor starts to last season for Simon Pagenaud and Will Power, the two veterans will look to draw on their past success and start the season off right.
This will also be our first look at many familiar faces in different equipment for this season. Alex Palou makes the leap from Dale Coyne Racing w/ Team Goh to a top team in Chip Ganassi Racing, and many eyes will be on the 24-year-old Spaniard as he makes his competitive debut in top equipment. The man he replaced, Felix Rosenqvist, will now be at Arrow McLaren SP to form one of the most exciting teams on the grid with Pato O’Ward to form a combination that excels on road courses. Will he be able to hit the ground running with his new team?
Also making their returns to the series are Ed Jones with Dale Coyne Racing w/ Vasser-Sullivan, James Hinchcliffe with Andretti Steinbrenner Autosport, and 2019 Barber third place finisher Bourdais with A.J. Foyt Enterprises. It will be interesting to see how these returning names begin their new campaign.
However the most exciting names to watch are that of the prestigious 2021 rookie class. Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson will make his competitive debut after months of testing with Chip Ganassi Racing, on a course and in a car he has very limited experience with in race conditions. The same statement could be made for Dale Coyne Racing w/ Rick Ware Racing‘s Romain Grosjean. Unlike Johnson, however, the 34-year-old Swiss veteran comes with eleven years of road course experience in Formula 1.
The most experienced of the three rookies in an IndyCar would be Penske’s Scott McLaughlin, who made his debut at last year’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. The 27-year-old New Zealand native brings three consecutive titles in the Virgin Australia Supercars Championship with him to America, and many are excited to see what he can do with more time behind the wheel.
Another story to watch will be that of Andretti Autosport‘s Alexander Rossi, who had an abysmal 2020 season after finishing two straight seasons in the top three in points. At the end of the season, he recorded four consecutive podium finishes before crashing from the lead in the final race at St. Petersburg in the perfect microcosm of his season. The winner of the 100th Indianapolis 500 will be hungry to return his place at the top of the series this season, hoping to finally claim that series championship.
Saturday 17 April
1100 EST / 1600 BST – Practice 1
1440 EST / 1940 BST – Practice 2
1750 EST / 2250 BST – Qualifying
Sunday 18 April
1500 EST / 2000 EST – 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.