SEASON PREVIEW: 2021 NTT IndyCar Series

9 Mins read
(Photo Credit: John Cote / Courtesy of IndyCar)

The start of the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series is fast approaching, with the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park just one week away. This season boasts an incredible driver lineup with talented drivers from top to bottom, and an exciting rookie class full of drivers that are anything but. Seven time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson and Formula 1 star Romain Grosjean debut in the series, while Scott Dixon tries to tie A.J. Foyt‘s record of seven IndyCar Series championships.

Multiple tracks return to the series after being absent in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic like the Streets of Long Beach and Belle Isle, as well as new circuits like the Nashville Street Circuit, to create an electric 17 race schedule.

To get you up to speed ahead of the start of this exciting season, here is The Checkered Flag’s season preview of the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series.

(Photo Credit: Chris Owens / IMS Photo / Courtesy of IndyCar)

The Schedule

For the second year in a row, the first race of the season will not be held on the Streets of St. Petersburg due to concerns over COVID-19. This year it will be held at Barber Motorsports Park on 18 April, returning to the schedule after being a COVID-19 casualty last season. The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg will be the second event of the year on 25 April, after hosting the 2020 season finale where Dixon claimed his sixth series championship.

For the third straight week of racing, teams will travel to the Lone Star State and Texas Motor Speedway for a doubleheader event on Saturday and Sunday 01-02 May, for the Genesys 300 and Xpel 375. The drivers will then get a one week break before heading to the iconic Indianapolis Motor Speedway for an action packed month at the Brickyard.

On 15 May the teams will run the road course layout for the GMR Grand Prix, which was dominated by Dixon last season as he won the first three races of the season. In 2020, the series raced this layout three times, and in 2021 they will run the course twice, returning on 14 August.

Returning to it’s rightful home on Memorial Day weekend, the 105th Running of the Indianapolis 500 will be held on 30 May. Qualifying will be held the week prior on Saturday and Sunday 22-23 May. Last year, in the only Indy 500 held outside the month of May, Takuma Sato dueled with Dixon to the very end, winning his second Borg-Warner Trophy in the process.

The Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix, the doubleheader before doubleheaders were cool, returns to its spot on the schedule following the Indy 500, as teams will race on the bumpy streets of Belle Isle on 12-13 June. In 2019, Josef Newgarden won in a rain-shortened first race, and Dixon dominated the second race. Will they be contenders again this year?

On 20 June, Road America will host the ninth round of the season, moving back to one race after running a doubleheader last year. Dixon played strategy perfectly and took advantage of a Newgarden error on pit lane to win race one, while Felix Rosenqvist and Pato O’Ward had the duel of the year, with Rosenqvist taking his first career IndyCar victory in race two.

(Photo Credit: Joe Skibinski / Courtesy of IndyCar)

Next, the teams will head to the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course for the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio on Independence Day, 04 July. Teams will then go north of the border to Canada, returning to the Streets of Toronto for the Honda Indy Toronto. Simon Pagenaud won the 2019 event after battling Dixon for the win, aided by a full course caution on the final lap.

After a three week break, the Nashville Street Circuit makes its debut on 08 August for the Big Machine Music City Grand Prix. The  3.49 kilometer, 11 corner circuit will be the first new street circuit on the calendar since Houston in 2013. The circuit incorporates the Korean Veterans Memorial Bridge, which will be part of the two largest straightaways on the circuit.

On 14 August, the second race on the IMS road course will take place, followed by the final oval on the calendar, the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 at World Wide Technology Raceway. Ovals like Iowa Speedway that hosted events in 2020 are no longer on the calendar, and after being cancelled due to COVID-19, Richmond International Raceway never even got an event before being axed from the calendar.

After another three week break, the series takes a tour of the west coast, beginning with the Grand Prix of Portland at the Portland International Raceway, another race cut from the calendar in 2020. Will Power found himself in victory lane for the second consecutive year in 2019, holding off Rosenqvist for the win. Also returning to the calendar is the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey on 19 September at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. In 2019 this event was the season finale, where Colton Herta finished off his magical rookie season in victory lane and Newgarden won the 2019 series championship.

The final race of the season will be the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, moved from its original place in early April to the season finale to ensure that fans would be able to be at the event. An iconic fixture in the IndyCar calendar, Long Beach will provide an exciting backdrop to close the 2021 season.

The Grid

To perfectly compliment their exciting schedule, the NTT IndyCar Series has a grid of drivers just as exciting ready to race.

Scott Dixon comes into 2021 as the defending champion, as the old guard in a brand new four car lineup for Chip Ganassi Racing. 2019 Rookie of the Year Rosenqvist has left the team, and in his place comes twenty-four year old Alex Palou. Formerly of Dale Coyne Racing w/ Team Goh, Palou burst onto the scene in 2020 and started to turn heads with a third place finish in the first race of the 2020 REV Group Grand Prix at Road America. Despite struggles on the ovals, Palou showed a lot of promise, and will move into Rosenqvist’s No. 10 car.

Also joining the team is Jimmie Johnson, the seven time NASCAR Cup Series champion who, at forty-five years old, joins CGR in a road and street course program for the season, keeping his iconic No. 48 in the transition. For the four oval events, the team has reunited with Tony Kanaan to pilot the car. Marcus Ericsson also remains on the team in 2021 piloting the No. 8 Honda, coming off of a twelfth place points finish last season.

After coming up just short of a second straight title in 2020, Josef Newgarden returns to a relatively unchanged Team Penske lineup to make a challenge for the title once more. He is joined by fellow veterans Will Power and Simon Pagenaud, but Penske has now added a full-time fourth car for rookie Scott McLaughlin. The 27-year-old New Zealand native is known for his dominance in Virgin Australia Supercars Championship, winning the championship in three consecutive seasons from 2018-2020. After delays due to COVID-19, McLaughlin made his debut in IndyCar at the 2020 Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, but was in a collision and finished twenty-second. Despite that poor result, many are excited about the potential of McLaughlin.

Scott McLaughlin preparing for the 2021 season. (Photo Credit: Chris Owens / IMS Photo / Courtesy of IndyCar)

Andretti Autosport have downscaled their IndyCar program, moving from six full-time cars under their umbrella down to four. Alexander Rossi and Ryan Hunter-Reay remain in their 27 and 28 machines respectively, but now Colton Herta joins the main team from Andretti Herta-Steinbrenner Autosport and the No. 88 team, taking the Gainbridge No. 26 car driven by Zach Veach and later James Hinchcliffe in 2020. Speaking of the “Mayor of Hinchtown,” Hinchcliffe returns to the sport full time in the No. 29 car, completing a strong lineup for Andretti for the 2021 season.

Rossi had a season to forget in 2020, with many poor finishes to start the season. He would finally return to expected form at the end of the year, claiming four consecutive podium finishes starting at Mid-Ohio, before crashing from the lead in the season finale. Watch for the winner of the 100th Indianapolis 500 to be focused on returning to dominance this year.

After a breakout campaign last season, Arrow McLaren SP have only grown stronger ahead of the new season. Mexican superstar Pato O’Ward teams with Rosenqvist, the man he dueled with for the win at Road America, to form arguably one of the best driver lineups on the grid. After coming so close to glory in 2020, is this the year the team gets their first win?

Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing remain unchanged for 2021, with Graham Rahal and Takuma Sato racing full-time. Rahal and Sato finished sixth and seventh respectively in the points standings last year, and will be hoping for another strong (or potentially Indy 500-winning) campaign.

Dale Coyne Racing have a completely new lineup for the season ahead, and perhaps one of the most intriguing. Partnering with Rick Ware Racing, Coyne has brought in Romain Grosjean from Formula 1 on a road and street course schedule, after he was let go by Haas F1 Team at the end of the 2020 season most remembered for the Frenchman’s fiery crash at the Bahrain Grand Prix. Joining him for the oval events will be former Haas teammate Pietro Fittipaldi, who raced in Grosjean’s stead for the team to finish the year. Fittipaldi returns to DCR after racing with the team in 2018.

Pietro Fittipaldi testing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (Photo Credit: Chris Owens / IMS Photo / Courtesy of IndyCar)

Another returning driver to the team is Ed Jones, who will be piloting the Dale Coyne Racing w/Vasser-Sullivan entry. Jones, the 2016 Indy Lights champion, raced for DCR in his rookie year, 2017, before a move to CGR in 2018. Jones will be looking for a shot at redemption in a competitive car, after not having his career begin how he had hoped.

Meyer Shank Racing are getting ready to compete in their second full-time season in the series, and showed much promise with Jack Harvey behind the wheel. After recieving backing from Liberty Media in the offseason, the team has expanded to add a part-time car to the mix as well, which will be driven by the legendary Helio Castroneves.

Castroneves branched out from Team Penske in 2020, racing with Arrow McLaren SP in the absence of Oliver Askew due to injury. Castroneves now continues to branch out, and will run a six race program with MSR. Castroneves is slated to compete at the 105th Running of the Indianapolis 500, the Big Machine Music City Grand Prix, the second event at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course in August, The Grand Prix of Portland, WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, and the season-finale Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach.

Ed Carpenter Racing also remains unchanged, with 2020’s Rookie of the Year Rinus Veekay leading the team. The exciting Dutch driver collected five top ten finishes in his first year, including a pole position and third place finish at the IMS road course in the Harvest Grand Prix. The No. 20 car will be driven by Ed Carpenter on the ovals and Conor Daly on the road and street courses. Daly will pilot the No. 47 car in the Indy 500 for the team as well.

A.J. Foyt Enterprises comes into 2021 looking for a much better season than they had last year, struggling for pace at almost every event. Spearheading this new effort is the return of Sebastien Bourdais to the series full-time, and joining him will be Dalton Kellett, who will also be running a full-time schedule.

Rounding out the grid is Carlin, who will continue with Max Chilton on the road and street courses, as well as the Indy 500. It remains to be seen if they will sign a driver to run the oval courses, a move that allowed Daly to move to the team last season and claim pole position at the first race of the Iowa IndyCar 250s.

The Indianapolis 500

(Photo Credit: Joe Skibinski / Courtesy of IndyCar)

The prestige of the Indianapolis 500 always brings with it teams looking for their one shot at glory, and 2021 will be no different.

The most groundbreaking team to be a part of the grid this season is Paretta Autosport, a fully female-led and crewed team established by motorsports executive Beth Paretta in partnership with Team Penske. Simona De Silvestro will be behind the wheel of the entry, and the team will be an opportunity for women to get involved in IndyCar.

Many of the major teams on the grid have added one-off appearances for drivers in the 500. Arrow McLaren SP have brought in a third car for two-time Indy 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya, who’s white and orange No. 86 car pays homage to Peter Revson, who claimed pole position at the Indy 500 for McLaren 50 years ago in 1971.

Having left IndyCar to run the NASCAR Xfinity Series part-time in 2021, Santino Ferrucci will make his return to the series with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing for the event. The 2019 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year has two top-ten finishes in his two attempts in the race.

A.J. Foyt Enterprises has entered two one off cars for the Indy 500, driven by Charlie Kimball and J.R. Hildebrand. Hildebrand has been gifted the No. 1 by CGR for this event, as his car will celebrate the 60th anniversary of A.J. Foyt’s first victory in the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” in 1961.

2020 Indianapolis 500 polesitter Marco Andretti is also set to compete, despite stepping away from the sport full-time. He will drive the No. 98 car for Andretti Herta-Haupert w/ Marco & Curb-Agajanian. Fellow Nazareth, PA native Sage Karam will also compete in the event with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing.

Dale Coyne Racing w/ Rick Ware Racing will also be bringing in another entry for the Indy 500, which will be piloted by Ware’s son, Cody Ware. Cody currently competes in the NASCAR Cup Series as well as the IMSA WeatherTech Sportscar Championship for RWR.

The 2021 NTT IndyCar Series will begin on Sunday, 18 April with the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park. The 2021 Indianapolis 500 will be the sixth round of the season and will take place on Sunday, 30 May.

Coverage of the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series in the United Kingdom will, once again, be provided by Sky Sports F1; who will show every race and qualifying session live. In the United States, coverage will be provided by NBC and NBCSN, with further coverage also provided on the Peacock streaming service.

Be sure to keep up to date with the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series all season-long right here at The Checkered Flag.

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Lifelong sports junkie, currently studying Broadcast Journalism at Hofstra University. Lead writer for Indycar at The Checkered Flag.
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