IndyCar’s 2021 Field Will Be Something To Behold
IndyCar’s format, built around a spec chassis and a limited pool of engine suppliers, makes both building a new team and expanding an existing one relatively easy.
Unfortunately, it makes contraction similarly straightforward.
The result of this is a consistent ebb and flow of power; At its worst, this is former championship-level teams like Panther Racing and KV Racing Technologies disappearing overnight.
At its best, the IndyCar field can expand massively overnight, and every major team in the series can bring in their own new, major talent in the same season.
This could be the case in 2021. Even if the field doesn’t grow any further from here, we will be talking about the strongest and most accomplished IndyCar field in a generation.
The foundation of the grid is nothing new.
The five best drivers in the series are Chip Ganassi Racing’s many-time champion Scott Dixon, Andretti Autosport’s Indianapolis 500 winner Alexander Rossi, and Team Penske’s championship winning trio of Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, and Josef Newgarden.
Each driver has been in IndyCar for some time, and each has shown a distinct set of strengths and weaknesses that can be predicted week to week. Power is, by far, the fastest on the grid in a single lap, but he is far from the most consistent. Dixon is just the opposite, the ultimate fuel saver and the best driver a strategist could possibly ask to be paired with.
Rossi is the most reckless, but he has the pace to back up his consistent capacity to take risks. Both Pagenaud and Newgarden are more steady, but, while Pagenaud’s runs of enormous success are streaky, Newgarden seems to always find himself in the top seven or so at the end of a race.
Last year, these five finished first through fifth in the championship standings; The year before that, they made up five of the top six.
These are the headliners, but they are joined in weekly race contention by the category’s middle class of race winners, made up of some combination of Sebastian Bourdais, Ryan Hunter-Reay, James Hinchcliffe, Graham Rahal, and Takuma Sato. These drivers have had very different years, and both Hinchcliffe and Bourdais had been relegated to part-time competition by funding woes, but each is capable of winning any race they enter.
The same can be said about the younger class of traditional open wheel racing prospects that has begun to filter in over the past two years, the likes of Rinus VeeKay, Felix Rosenqvist, Patricio O’Ward, Oliver Askew, and, most notably, Colton Herta. This is a rising group, only Rosenqvist and Herta have race wins to their name to date, but each of the five have proven they can contend for race wins on a weekly basis.
Herta and O’Ward will likely each finish the 2020 season in the top five in the championship standings, VeeKay will win Rookie of the Year, and Rosenqvist will parlay his finish of sixth in the 2019 series standings and his unbelievable win at Road America this season into a ride with Arrow McLaren SP next year.
Unfortunately, that will come at the cost of Askew, whose strong rookie year with the same team will end with him unemployed; After a public disagreement over mishandling of an in-season injury, the two will be going their separate ways. Askew was able to show his talent this year even after missing a few races due to the injury, and would be a strong hire for any interested team next season.
That strong group of fifteen will be joined by at least two new headliners next season, the best drivers in the recent history of their respective categories. First comes Scott McLaughlin, who announced yesterday that he will officially leave the Australian Supercars series to join Penske Racing for a full-season IndyCar bid.
McLaughlin is a three time and reigning series champion, a winner of Australia’s legendary Bathurst 1000, and, most crucially, the driver who dethroned both seven time series champion Jamie Whincup and his championship-winning Triple Eight teammate Shane van Gisbergen as the best drivers in a category they could have dominated alone for the next ten years. He makes his IndyCar debut this weekend, but he’ll be starting at the back of the grid after tapping the wall in qualifying.
McLaughlin’s competition for Rookie of the Year will be none other than Jimmie Johnson, the seven time NASCAR Cup Series champion that was the sole controlling force of the category for a decade. After nearly twenty years in NASCAR’s grueling 36-race schedule, he comes to IndyCar seeking a new challenge and significantly more flexibility.
He’ll find it with Chip Ganassi Racing, where he will join Scott Dixon on a team that accounts for at least twelve, if not more pending further signings and Dixon’s chance at a title tomorrow, championships between IndyCar and NASCAR. Ganassi announced on Saturday that Johnson’s entry will be a new one for the organization, numbered 48 and sponsored by Carvana.
He is currently scheduled to run only road courses, leaving the car open for another driver on ovals, but has previously said that he would consider contesting the Indianapolis 500 next year if he feels comfortable.
Johnson and McLaughlin alone already make an argument for the most accomplished rookie class a series has ever seen, but that group could become even larger. Multiple current Formula 1 drivers are set to lose their rides at the end of this season, and, with limited F1 seats available, drivers like Kevin Magnussen have begun to show interest in switching to IndyCar to stay active. The big prize of this group would be Sergio Perez, a driver who has impressed in Formula 1 for years but has always been in the wrong place at the wrong time and now finds himself out of a ride entirely.
McLaren showed interest in Perez just last month before ultimately signing Rosenqvist. He may need to raise his own funding to make it happen, but, if Perez cannot find a Formula 1 seat, he could convince one of IndyCar’s top teams to expand even further.
Other opportunities exist, too.
With Chip Ganassi Racing considering the No. 48 of Jimmie Johnson and an unnamed oval driver to be an expanded entry, they could still field a driver of Ganassi’s choice in the No. 10 entry Rosenqvist will be vacating at the end of the season.
That could be Oliver Askew, who Ganassi tested last season. It could also be Brendon Hartley, the sports car driver who signed with Ganassi to fill that exact seat in 2018 before a Formula 1 call voided the deal. It could be someone else entirely; The announcement of Hartley seemingly came from nowhere when the seat was open in 2018, and the signing of Ed Jones that followed when Hartley stepped away was equally surprising.
If Ganassi wants to field that car, he will have no shortage of strong options to choose from.
Another champion could be in the mix to join the grid, too. Antonio Felix da Costa, who won his first Formula E title earlier this year, announced last week that he would soon be testing for Rahal Letterman Lanigan, this year’s Indianapolis 500 winning team, and that he considers IndyCar a long term goal of his.
The Portuguese driver may be a long shot for the 2020 grid, and any role with RLLR would require either dropping the reigning Indianapolis 500 winner, dropping the team owner’s son, or expanding to a third car, but he would make a strong addition to any team, and a successful test next weekend could force someone’s hand.
Whether or not the field expands past what is already announced, the additions of Johnson and McLaughlin add significant prestige and talent to the top end of a series that has already proven itself to be one of the most competitive in the world. If neither Andretti Autosport nor Chip Ganassi Racing close any teams next season, the top three teams in the series will field a combined fourteen entries.
Adding expected two car entries from Arrow McLaren SP, Rahal Letterman Lanigan, and Ed Carpenter Racing, next year’s IndyCar field will consist of at least twenty cars capable of winning any given race.
The 2021 IndyCar season is set to begin on March 7th at the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, the same race that will end the 2020 season tomorrow. It will be worth your time.
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