Sweet Home Alabama: The Honda IndyCar Grand Prix of Alabama Preview

Here we go. This is the 2021 IndyCar Preview from yours truly. A new season is upon us meaning another enthralling few months of exciting and dramatic wheel-to-wheel action from some of the best drivers on the planet.

We kick off with the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama after the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg (which has opened the IndyCar slate in 10 of 11 seasons before becoming the 2020 season finale) was delayed to April 25. It is the first time in IndyCar history that the season has opened on a permanent road course and the first at Alabama since the 2020 iteration was postponed due to COVID-19.

Now, this article was rather difficult to put together as there is so much to cover. So, if you are tuning in to IndyCar for the first time, we will do our best to hit all the important beats. Yes – you are going to have the usual players, meaning Chip Ganassi’s Scott Dixon and Penske’s Josef Newgarden are almost certain to be fighting for another championship. Scott Dixon will be chasing his seventh title in his bid to become the most successful IndyCar driver of all time. Only A.J Foyt sits on seven titles while Mario Andretti sits second on the all time wins record on 52 – only two more than Dixon.

Josef Newgarden will be looking to avenge his previous championship campaign, narrowly missing out on the title after a titanic second half of the season winning three out of the final six races. The American two-time champion ended the 2020 season on a high winning the Firestone St Petersburg Grand Prix and will look to continue that momentum this weekend.

Now, you also must consider his Penske teammates Simon Pagenaud and Will Power into the equation. Moreover, can Takuma Sato put a full season of top finishes together? He is the defending Indianapolis 500 winner and had one of his best campaigns to date with an impressive stint during the middle third of the season.

Takuma Sato sat on pole and dominated last time IndyCar visited the road course. Could he repeat the feat? Can teammate Graham Rahal mount a challenge? There are so many scenarios that could happen!

Takuma Sato on the top step at Barber 2019. Courtesy of Joe Skibinski

Spaniard Alex Palou is now driving for Chip Ganassi racing. He will be looking to make a statement of intent right from the get-go. Speaking of Ganassi drivers, he will have exquisite company in the form of former F1 driver Marcus Ericsson and a star-studded rookie who we will discuss later. The Arrow McLaren SP team could also return to the top step of the podium with Felix Rosenqvist and Pato O’Ward. They finished one-two at Road America last year and will undoubtedly be the dark horses for the championship.

Andretti Autosport will likely return in emphatic style with one of the strongest line-ups on the grid. Alexander Rossi was winless last year as was Ryan Hunter-Reay. However, a myriad of misfortune plagued both of their seasons and should not be underestimated. Moreover, James Hinchliffe has the ability to steal a win or two as does Marco Andretti, last years Indy 500 pole sitter.

However, if there is anyone to watch out for this year it will be Colton Herta who improved on his impressive debut season to finish third in the championship. His incredible qualifying pace and relentless race craft proved to be a successful combination finishing in the top five on seven occasions. Herta has won at Barber in the Indy Lights junior category and will be looking to stamp his mark on the Andretti team.

Other drivers who could steal a win this year are Jack Harvey with Meyer/Shank and Ed Jones at Dale Coyne.  Sebastian Bourdais, in the newly sponsored Rockit A.J.Foyt entry, has shown promise in early testing.  There is no doubt we could see the Foyt team snatch victory.

And who could forget the Ed Carpenter Racing’s Conor Daly who races alongside 2020 Rookie of the Year Rinus VeeKay.  After a solid campaign which saw Rinus feature in the final qualifying shootout at the Indianapolis 500, can he take the next step in his sophomore season?

Now, let us get on to the rookies. Never have we seen such a roster of rookies who paradoxically come with pedigree, experience and titles. Formula One refugee Romain Grosjean joins Dayle Coyne Racing looking to cause a stir after a difficult campaign at Haas and a disastrous accident saw him leave the sport with certainly something to prove. His experience on road courses could prove vital this weekend.

Courtesy of Joe Skibinski

Seven-time NASCAR Jimmie Johnson will have one of the biggest uphill battles who joins none other than Chip Ganassi Racing alongside Scott Dixon, Marcus Ericsson and Alex Palou.

The former Australian V-8 Supercar Champion Scott McLaughlin joins Penske but stands a decent chance at putting something together this weekend. Unlike Grosjean and Johnson who are forgoing the ovals, McLaughlin is also looking forward to running the ovals and the Indianapolis 500.  Penske has an eye for drivers. In addition, Rick Mears will no doubt come into play as a huge help to the Australian as an advisor.

Rick Mears and Scott McLaughlin. Courtesy of Chris Jones

In a tweak to race weekend schedule Barber will be a two-day event which will see Saturday feature two practice sessions totalling 90 minutes and a qualifying session. Sunday will include a 30-minute warmup before the race goes green at around 7:40/7:45pm (BST).

There is so much to look forward to this weekend. A highly rated trio of rookies. Seasoned veterans going for glory. Young superstars looking to make a name for themselves. What is there not to love?

You can watch the 2021 IndyCar season opener on SkySportF1 in the UK. Alternatively, you can find live-text updates on ThePitCrewOnline Twitter account during the race.

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