It all comes down to this. After five long months, fifteen exciting races, the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series season comes to an end, with a champion to be crowned this weekend on the iconic streets of Long Beach.
In only his second season in the sport, Chip Ganassi Racing‘s Alex Palou took the series by storm and sits atop the standings heading into the final race. Behind him is another young gun, Patricio O’Ward of Arrow McLaren SP, 35 points behind. Finally, Team Penske‘s Josef Newgarden sits third as the massive underdog, but with his 48-point gap to Palou he’s mathematically still in the title fight.
For the sixteenth consecutive year, the championship will be decided in the final race of the year, so the question remains, “who will be crowned the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series champion?”
Here’s everything you need to know ahead of the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach.
WHAT HAPPENED LAST YEAR?
Like the other west coast races last season, COVID-19 restrictions meant that there was no Grand Prix of Long Beach in 2020. In 2019, Alexander Rossi put on an absolute clinic at Long Beach claiming the pole position and race win.
At the drop of the green flag, Rossi went side-by-side dueling with Scott Dixon for the race lead on the run into turn one. Rossi wouldn’t get far as the lone caution flew on lap one as Spencer Pigot and Jack Harvey were stopped in the fountain section with the latter ending up in the flowerbeds after contact with Marcus Ericsson.
Dixon got another shot at Rossi going for the same move, but once again Rossi prevailed into the first corner. From here, he would stretch his legs to an incredible margin of victory of 20 seconds over Newgarden, who was able to overcut Dixon on the first round of pit stops for second place.
Dixon suffered again on his next pit stop as a fuel hose wouldn’t engage, with the slow pit stop sending him down to fifth. In the final five laps, he made his way past Ryan Hunter-Reay and on the final lap challenged Graham Rahal for third. With no push-to-pass boost left for Rahal, Dixon had the upper hand. The New Zealand native went for his move on the back-straight, but Rahal moved over to the right side of the track to block, killing Dixon’s momentum.
Rahal went on to keep his third place by less than one tenth of a second with Dixon calling for the stewards to penalize Rahal for his block. After reviewing the move they did penalize the American, pushing Dixon onto the podium with a call that seemed harsh to many.
You can read the full race report here.
WHAT SHOULD I LOOK OUT FOR THIS WEEKEND?
For Palou, winning the title this weekend is very simple. If he finishes eleventh or higher, he will win the championship regardless of where O’Ward or Newgarden finish. As long as he can stay out of trouble and have a clean race, the title is his. But at a tight street circuit with close quarters racing and not much margin for error, that’s a lot easier said than done.
Unlike the previous two tracks however, O’Ward has the upper hand in terms of experience. O’Ward took part in the 2019 race at Long Beach as a part of the Carlin team, finishing twelfth. Not only that, but O’Ward’s aggressive driving style may suit Long Beach more than a track like Portland International Raceway or WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca which benefited Palou’s more precise, methodical approach. AMSP’s street course package has been strong this season, as O’Ward finished third and then was victorious in the Duel at Detroit, which could give him a glimmer of hope going into the weekend.
Newgarden will need a great deal of luck for things to fall his way on Sunday to be crowned champion. He needs to score the maximum 54 points (winning the race, starting on pole, lead a lap and the most laps), while Palou must score six points or fewer, requiring the Spaniard to finish twenty-fourth or worse, and O’Ward must score less than 41 points, requiring him to finish second or worse while at maximum getting one bonus point. If Newgarden scores 53 points, the other permutations increase by one point. In any other scenario where Palou at minimum starts the race, Newgarden will not leave with the title.
Nathan Brown of the Indianapolis Star has put together an article with all of the possible title scenarios, which you can view here.
Another battle to watch is for Rookie of the Year between Penske’s Scott McLaughlin and Dale Coyne Racing with Rick Ware Racing‘s Romain Grosjean. McLaughlin currently leads the battle, with twenty points separating him from the Swiss-born Frenchman. The two have been stellar all season and regardless of who wins the title, both will have bright futures in IndyCar.
WHAT IS THE SCHEDULE FOR THIS WEEKEND?
Friday 24 September
1800 EST / 1500 PST / 2300 BST – Practice
Saturday 25 September
1200 EST / 0900 PST / 1700 BST – Practice 2
1500 EST / 1200 PST / 2000 BST – Qualifying
Sunday 26 September
1500 EST / 1200 PST / 2000 BST – Race
WHERE CAN I WATCH?
Coverage in the UK for the race will be provided by Sky Sports F1.
In the United States, coverage for practice will be broadcast on the Peacock streaming service, qualifying will be broadcast on Peacock as well as NBCSN and the race will be broadcast on NBCSN.
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.