Yes, it’s all ready weird to say the 2021 NTT INDYCAR Series starts in mid-April at Barber Motorsports Park with the Honda INDY Grand Prix of Alabama. But you know, after 2020, I’m just going to roll with everything. We’re starting the season at Barber – sure! We got F1 and NASCAR drivers as rookies – okay. There could be worst places to start the season than Barber Motorsports Park. The track and the grounds are beautiful, there are so many viewing options, that if you happen to ever catch a race at the facility: use as many locations and viewpoints as you can.
When the drivers take on the 2.38 mile course, they’ll face seventeen turns and a myriad of elevation changes. Within the course there are four blind turns, a hairpin turn in Turn 9, and a corner specifically called “courage corner”. Drivers will need to have cars set up not only to handle the tight corners, but also the long sweeping lengths of the track. This truly is a course set up for motorcycles, so cars will need to have both speed and dexterity. It’s going to be quite the challenging race to start the season off!
Do we remember the last time the series was at Barber Motorsports Park? It was 2019, COVID-19 wasn’t a thought on our minds. Matheus List was driving for A.J. Foyt Racing. It started off weird with a kerfluffle in the tires provided by Firestone. Somehow the alternate tires (red) provided were of an older compound. It ended up that drivers found the black tires much quicker in practice sessions. Even weirder was that at the end of qualifying there was no Penske and no Andretti in the Firestone Fast Six. Rahal Letterman Lanigan locked in the first row with Takuma Sato wining the pole and Graham Rahal qualifying second.
The race started off hard for the whole field. The Push-to-Pass feature wasn’t properly working for any of the teams. Harding Steinbrenner Racing could have let this race absolutely destroy them. The #88 car ended up with a fuel cell issue and they had to pull it behind the wall. For most – it would mean time to pack it up and shut it down. They got the problem fixed and Colton finished the race. Sure he went from ninth place to twenty-fourth place and was thirty-nine laps down, but he did finish the race. Marcus Ericsson, Simon Pagenaud, and Patricio O’Ward were putting on clinics throughout the race. Hard charging and making moves. Ericsson finished as the biggest mover, finishing the race up thirteen spots. Both Pagenaud and O’Ward also finished higher than where they started. Of course though, the victory goes to Takuma Sato! He achieved his first pole on a road course this weekend (but not his first victory on a road course – he won Portland just last year). It was his race, the track had chosen him as the winner. He suffered a spin on Turn 8 near the end of the race, but was able to keep the car and won the race.
This year, well as this is the first race of the season, there are going to be some first-race mistakes. I expect some from both the rookies and the veterans. Remember, this race wasn’t held in 2020 (dang COVID). You add veterans with at least a year away from this track, rookies who haven’t seen this track, and first race bugs …well mistakes will be made.
I look for Romain Grosjean to put in a solid race. I’m not anticipating a podium, but this track reminds me of Formula 1 tracks, and his experience will come into play. Conversely, Jimmie Johnson is going to be navigating some tight corners. After seeing him drive during the Rolex 24…well he’s got a bit of a learning curve. Team Penske has always been dominant at Barber, with Josef Newgarden having three of the teams six wins. Also, sure if you want to make the safest bet in known history: pick Scott Dixon. It’s the first race of a season, there are just a lot more questions than answers right now.