How Do You Rate the 2021 IndyCar Season?

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I have a former co-worker and good friend that texted me over the weekend, named Chris. Chris retired over a year ago. Like most former co-workers. We went from seeing each other practically every day, to a semi-annual lunch at our favorite Chinese restaurant. Chris has been a lifelong Formula One fan, but became somewhat of an IndyCar fan mainly through this site.

Another interesting tidbit is that Chris and I grew up about three blocks from each other, in Jackson, TN. We are the same age, went to the same elementary school and he was close friends with our next-door neighbor. What is interesting about all that was, we never crossed paths in that entire time. We never met, or even heard of each other, until we started working together in Nashville about seven or eight years ago.

The text that Chris sent me on Saturday morning sort of came out of the blue. It asked “Now that the dust has settled, what is your overall take of the Indy season?” I was in a hurry. I was trying to mow the yard before my Tennessee Vols came on at 11:00; so it was a quick, one-word answer “Meh”. As I put my phone down and walked off, it dawned on me that that was just a little too dismissive. An analysis of an entire season should not be boiled down to one syllable. So I went back an added “Good Indy 500, the rest of the races were so-so”.

My mind wanders a lot when I mow the yard. I started pondering that question more as I mowed the grass (weeds) and also chopped up the early fall leaves that had already dropped. Was I just trying to give a quick answer without thinking, or was that how I really felt. Not to be overly negative, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that my quick answer without thinking, may have been a pretty honest assessment.

The 105th Running of the Indianapolis 500 may go down over time as one of my all-time favorites. When Helio Castroneves crossed the yard of bricks for the 200th time, just ahead of Alex Palou – it was pure exhilaration. Every Indianapolis 500 is special, but only a handful becomes a treasured lifetime memory. Many times over the years, I walk away from an Indianapolis 500 disappointed because a certain driver faded at the end. For example – in 2019, I hoped against hope that Alexander Rossi would catch and pass Simon Pagenaud to take the win. It didn’t happen. It was a great 500, but it will never be one of my personal favorites like 2021.

But if you take out the Indianapolis 500, what else did we have? That’s really a tough one to answer. Ten years from now, we may look back on the 2021 IndyCar season as either the season that everything shifted, or as an aberration.

Alex Palou had a great season that really came out of nowhere. It started by him earning his first-ever NTT IndyCar Series win, in the opening race of the season at Barber. That was also the same race where Josef Newgarden suffered the first of many fatal errors that ultimately ended up costing him the championship. Newgarden’s error at Barber was of his own doing. He initiated a crash on the opening lap that took himself out along with a few others. There would be other miscues to directly affect Newgarden that were not at all his fault, but would still cost him the championship.

Two other items came from qualifying that hindsight shows were signs of things to come for the 2021 season. Four of the Firestone Fast Six drivers came from different teams; Arrow McLaren SP, Andretti Autosport, Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing – the four teams that make up the newly dubbed Big Four. The other item from that was there were three Ganassi drivers in the Firestone Fast Six; Palou, Scott Dixon and Marcus Ericsson. If you want to dissect that further; Palou qualified ahead of teammate Scott Dixon and Ericsson’s presence in the Fast Six was not as much of a fluke as we thought it was at the time.

The Honda Indy Grand Prix at Barber Motorsports Park turned out to be a microcosm of the entire 2021 season to come. Looking back, it served as a great preview for the season that was in front of us.

The next race at St. Petersburg confirmed what we already knew – if Colton Herta’s car was right, he was untouchable. He proved that early on by winning at St. Petersburg, and closed out the season with two consecutive wins at Laguna Seca and Long Beach. It’s what happened in between Rounds Two and Fifteen that relegated him to a distant fifth in the championship, even though Herta had as many race wins as Palou.

The double-header at Texas gave us a mirage and a glimpse of what was to come. Scott Dixon won the first race at Texas, giving us the impression he was going to be a force to be reckoned with the entire season. It still stands as his most recent win, as he would never win again for the season. Pato O’Ward won the second half of the double-header at Texas, serving notice that he and McLaren were for real.

The GMR Grand Prix on the IMS road course provided another mirage. Rinus VeeKay came away with the win, making everyone talk about the Young Guns in IndyCar having won four of the first five races, with Dixon being the outlier. VeeKay would win a podium at Belle Isle, but he broke his collarbone in a bicycle accident the very next day. His season spiraled downward from that point on. His best finish after Detroit was a seventeenth at Portland and VeeKay finished twelfth in the championship. Right now, you would have to say Rinus VeeKay is more of a pretender, rather than a contender. He has a lot to prove next season.

For the record, Marcus Ericsson scored his career IndyCar victory at Belle Isle, while Pato O’Ward took advantage of a poor tire strategy by Team Penske that cost Josef Newgarden a victory. Newgarden ultimately finished second, but those extra ten points could have been helpful down the road.

By all rights, Road America was Josef Newgarden’s to lose – and he did just that. He won the pole and dominated the race from the very beginning. But a restart late in the race once again proved to be his undoing as his gearbox went out and he was passed going into Turn One by Palou with two laps to go. By the time the checkered flag flew, Newgarden had dropped from a likely first-place finish to finishing twenty-first. These are the things that cost championships.

After having two weeks to stir over the events at Road America, Newgarden and Team Penske finally put it all together at Mid-Ohio on the Fourth of July. Newgarden won the pole, led the most laps and won the race for his and Team Penske’s first win of the season.

That win gave Newgarden some much-needed momentum as the series was inactive for over a month before reconvening in my hometown for the Music City Grand Prix. As a Nashville resident, I would like to say it was a great race. It wasn’t. It was a fantastic event, but the race was partly affected by a not-so-great layout that was coupled with poor decision-making by many of the drivers. Newgarden did not fare well in his hometown, finishing a disappointing tenth – and he was fortunate to finish that high, as Marcus Ericsson won after launching himself over the car of Sébastien Bourdais early under caution.

The IndyCar/NASCAR double-header on the IMS road course provided us another chance to go to IMS – this time in August. But it was a so-so race and it seemed surreal to have IndyCar play second-fiddle on the grounds that gave IndyCar its name. I know I am in the vast minority on this topic, but that really bothered me to see stock cars in the Gasoline Alley Garages and Formula One Garages, while IndyCar was relegated to the Turn One parking lot operating under tents and awnings. Will Power won a race that didn’t provide a ton of drama, but did give Team Penske their second win of the season.

Then came Gateway, where Josef Newgarden collected a big win, after Rinus VeeKay took out two of his championship rivals – Palou and Dixon. There it looked as if Newgarden would actually overcome his adversity from most of the season, and overtake Palou, who had slipped to second in points behind O’Ward (who finished second at Gateway).

At that point, I thought we had a real championship fight on our hands. If Dixon could rebound, we would have a four-way fight heading into the season-finale at Long Beach. It didn’t happen.

Although Dixon closed the season out with two podium finishes in his last three races, Palou won at Portland, finished second at Laguna Seca and fourth at Long Beach to clinch a race that became pretty much drama-free after Ed Jones made a way too-aggressive move in the hairpin of the first lap that pretty well ended O’Ward’s thin hopes of overtaking Palou for the championship.

After I sat down to watch my Vols take car of business against Missouri on Saturday, Chris texted me with one very astute comment; “I thought Penske would do better”.

Truer words were never spoken. Alex Palou earned this championship. He won it and didn’t inherit it. It’s always easy to go back and point to certain events that shaped a championship. But Josef Newgarden and Team Penske left a lot of points on the table throughout the season. Would it have made a difference in who won the championship? Maybe. Maybe not.

The bone-headed move on the opening lap of the season was no one’s fault but his. He had another mediocre finish in the Indianapolis 500 (twelfth) that was magnified by the double points that Palou got for finishing second. The botched tire strategy at Belle Isle was on Tim Cindric, not Newgarden. Was the failed gearbox at Road America a symbol of a mistake by a crew member, or just bad luck. We’ll never know, but it cost him an almost certain win. The points between finishing first and twenty-first are significant. Mediocre performances at Nashville and the August IndyCar race on the IMS road course were also costly.

So how do you rate the 2021 IndyCar season? Was I fair with my “Meh” comment? It seemed to me that too many races were decided by strategy and not speed. You need both to make for an interesting season and I felt like there was too much emphasis put on tire strategy and fuel mileage, and not enough on driver talent for pushing the limits of the car itself.

Opine away in the comment section below. This will give Chris a more detailed analysis than the brief answers I gave him on Saturday.

George Phillips

11 Responses to “How Do You Rate the 2021 IndyCar Season?”

  1. Brandon Wright Says:

    I think it was nine different winners to start the season. Multiple first time winners, three of which went on to win again. Several young guns rising to the top. Indy GP, both Detroit races, and Gateway were finally entertaining. Romain Grosjean blowing the doors off everyone race after race. A new four-time Indy winner. The title again came down to the final race. It was one of the most enjoyable racing seasons I’ve seen in a long time. Very far from meh for me.

    • Good points, all. That’s why I asked.

    • For all of those reasons, I was leaning toward a 9 out of 10 rating. Given the existing parameters, and that fans were able to return to appreciate the action with all senses again, I’m not sure what else we could’ve asked for. The 4th 4-timer was as you said, “pure exhilaration” and the icing on the cakr of a rather flavorful and surprisingly entertaining season. In the post-Covid landscape, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the 2021 Indycar season. My first hope back in March was merely to not have a season of schedule interruptions from the pandemic and to be able to be at Indy for the 500. In relation to that, it was one to savor for me.

  2. For me it was a great season that slightly tailed off. Brilliant 500 race and result. Loads of different winners. However Nashville and Portland took the cream off the top and both being towards the end of the season perhaps had a larger overall influence than they should have.

  3. billytheskink Says:

    There were certainly plenty of meh moments, but collectively I thought it was quite an entertaining season. The fact that we kept waiting for the veterans to overhaul Palou only to find that they couldn’t was quite intriguing to me.

    The younger/newer drivers really seized control of the series this year, drivers who started racing in Indycar since the UAK introduction in 2018 won 11 of 16 races and took 4 of the top 6 spots in the championship… and that’s not even counting all the fun things Grosjean did!

  4. Vic Lovisa Says:

    The good: Read all the stuff Brandon wrote.

    The bad: PJ1 Motor Speedway in Ft. Worth. No Iowa. A disappointing Nashville race (I know my expectations were way too high, but it was ugly). And lastly, the “summer break” in the season. I know it was a logistical thing with the olympics or what not, but I’ve got football in the fall and college hoops in the winter/ early spring. Summertime is for IndyCar racing.

    Overall: Some seasons are better than others, but I still love it each and every year.

  5. Talón de Brea Says:

    There were a few races with dominating drives for the win, but I think it’s interesting that several different drivers accounted for those dominating drives. Even in domination, there was variety and a great depth of talent. Think how “meh” it would have been if one single driver had taken the season by the throat and dominated, say, six or eight races for flag-to-flag wins. This season wasn’t like that.

  6. Good winners, meh racing I guess to me. I’m glad it wasn’t boring old Dixon again, that was good. We need these young new winners to become stars now, Helio running 13th next year will hopefully push him back to an Indy only effort again (I don’t care what people want to say about this, Helio is long past being a full time driver, good at Indy yes, not everywhere though). We need to usher out some of these hacks like Daly as well, develop new talent and hopefully new teams winning more often. You know, if drivers like Johncock, Unser and Rutherford hung around forever, we wouldn’t have had room for new stars like Rahal and Sullivan.

    Personally I am down with a Palou & Pato future trading wins often.

    • billytheskink Says:

      That is an interesting point, about building new stars. I mean, guys like Johncock (18 seasons running most races), Unser (20 seasons for Al and 18 for Bobby), and Rutherford (22 seasons) did effectively hang around forever… and in doing so, likely contributed to the stunting of the development of new stars during the 70s (the loss of dirt and road races from the USAC schedule were also big factors).

      Drivers who began their careers in the 60s (plus Foyt) dominated the sport from the 60s into the 80s, and in doing so limited drivers who began their careers in the 70s to only 55 wins, about 3/4s of which belong to either Rick Mears or Tom Sneva. Drivers who began their careers in the 70s only won the most races in two seasons, 1981 and 1982, before the new faces of the 80s began to take over the sport.

      The immediate post-split (2008-2017) generation of Indycar drivers seems to be headed to a similar destiny as those 70s drivers, winning only 46 races since 2008 with nearly 60% of those wins coming at the hands of Newgarden or Rossi (with the next two drivers in total wins in the generation being Sato and Hinchcliffe). Only in 2019 has this generation of drivers won more races than the split era drivers, including this year in which they were beaten 3-2. Split the split generation up into two eras (96-02 and 03-07, coinciding with the end of engine competition in CART and the shift of top teams to the IRL) and the post-split generation only outpaces both split generations in 2018-2020. And now, like the 80s generation of Rahal, Sullivan, Michael, Little Al, and Fittipaldi… the generation that began racing after the introduction of the UAK in 2018 appears to be in the process of taking control of the sport. Seems an interesting phenomenon, as it has happened twice now.

  7. Hell, George, I TRIED to spice it up for you!!!!!

  8. Now that you ask me, I’d say this season was pretty good. Pato vs Alex was exciting to watch.

    It should be noted, however, that Alex Palou is now probably the 2nd US premier open wheel series champion to take the title before ever having won on an oval. The 1st one was Simon Pagenaud.

    I’m not doubting these drivers’ abilities by saying that. I’m doubting the event schedule. Good to see Iowa Speedway is back.

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