Looking Back at Long Beach and the 2021 INDYCAR Season

Colton Herta navigating around Turn 11 at Long Beach (Photo: Luis Torres/TPF).

Two weeks removed from the 46th Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, there’s a lot to ponder how that race impacted the NTT IndyCar Series. Needless to say, the changing of the guard has officially arrived.

Colton Herta dominated the race despite starting 14th while Alex Palou locked up his first on what could be many IndyCar championships.

This campaign saw the likes of Palou, Pato O’Ward, Rinus VeeKay and Marcus Ericsson score their maiden IndyCar victories. While Ericsson is the oldest of the bunch at 31 years old, we’re ushering in a new era of American Open Wheel Racing.

Palou and O’Ward, in particular, have stepped up to the plate tremendously against established champions such as Scott Dixon, Josef Newgarden and Will Power. They’re not settling for second. They’re out to fight for wins and titles. This season certainly peaked in terms of parity and how the tide has shifted in favor of the young over the veterans.

It didn’t meant the icons didn’t skip a beat with Helio Castroneves besting Palou in the 105th Indianapolis 500. But when it’s all set and done, six of 16 races were won by drivers 30 and older which includes Dixon’s lone win at Texas Race No. 1.

After winning the 105th Indianapolis 500, Helio Castroneves scaled the catchfence. (Photo: Luis Torres/The Podium Finish)

Castroneves won his fourth Indianapolis 500 this year, bringing Meyer Shank Racing its first victory (Photo: Luis Torres/TPF).

The rest were below that age mark, including the ruler of California in Herta.

Had it not been for a series of subpar races and a late-race crash at Nashville, Herta would’ve been in that title mix. Considering how he ended the season with wins at Laguna Seca and Long Beach, I see Herta as an early title favorite. As long as those mistakes are polished which will be instrumental.

When Herta’s out front, good luck chasing him down because each of his wins have shown the tenacity he brings to the table. With the off-season underway, 2022 must be the year all the eggs go on the championship basket to really prove a point it’s a young man’s game now.

While the championship trail came down to Palou, O’Ward and Newgarden, it could’ve been over before Long Beach. The two DNFs at the Indy Road Course and Gateway really made the title picture open, but without those woeful moments, it would’ve been one-sided in favor of the Spaniard.

In fact, had Palou won the Indy 500 over Castroneves, those double points would’ve put the title away much more. It showed how consistent and strong he’s been all season.

Palou’s moment in the sun after kissing the Astor Cup (Photo: Luis Torres/TPF).

The moment Chip Ganassi Racing announced Palou replacing Felix Rosenqvist in the No. 10 Honda, it was a helluva steal. Prior to 2021, Palou spent a year with Dale Coyne Racing with Team Goh where he had stellar runs. This was highlighted with a podium in Saturday’s race at Road America.

From there, Palou continued growing as a competitor and at the tender age of 24, he’s already showcased his maturity. This championship season was everything and more than expected from Palou. It helped that he competed in Super Formula three years ago where he has seen some similarities to an Indy car.

I can see why some folks see a bit of Dixon in him. That’s because Palou racks up as many points as possible should a fight for the win look out of reach.

Alex Palou and Chip Ganassi celebrate their championship campaign with jubilation at Long Beach (Photo: Luis Torres/TPF).

Compared to O’Ward, mistakes and consequential outcomes were minimal. O’Ward is fast, raw and determined to go to the front at all costs. Sometimes, it got the best of him but lucky really wasn’t kind to him.

Especially in the finale where a shot at the Fast Six and a Lap 1 tangle by Ed Jones dashed his morale. On top of everything, the championship was out of reach and wound up third in the final standings.

Pato O’Ward scored two wins in 2021 for Arrow McLaren SP (Photo: Luis Torres/TPF).

As frustrating as it was, O’Ward said it best that there’s nothing to be ashamed of what his No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP squad accomplished. Let’s hope the “title contender hangover” doesn’t plague him like Alexander Rossi has endured since 2018.

Long Beach also marked the end of an era of some sorts. Four men bid farewell to their tenured teams with some already having rides secured for 2022. The quartet being Ryan Hunter-Reay (Andretti Autosport), Simon Pagenaud (Team Penske), Jack Harvey (Meyer Shank Racing) and Takuma Sato (Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing).

Hunter-Reay’s front wing prior to the start of Long Beach (Photo: Luis Torres/TPF).

Sebastien Bourdais (AJ Foyt Racing), a four-time Champ Car champion, will move on from life as a full-time open wheel competitor. He’ll be competing in IMSA full-time next season, hoping to run a few IndyCar races as well. Right now, his tenure with Foyt is unknown but hopes to be back.

On a year neither couldn’t find much luck, the impact each made to their teams will last a long time. As of right now, Hunter-Reay and Sato also don’t have a secured ride while Pagenaud will take Harvey’s No. 60 Honda.

Harvey himself has a ride set for next season but yet to confirm which team, but rumors suggest it’ll be Sato’s seat at RLL Racing. Time will tell when such announcement will take place, but Harvey’s impact with Meyer Shank Racing laid the foundation of good things to come.

Harvey, Callum Ilott and Scott McLaughlin gather before driver intros (Photo: Luis Torres/TPF).

It’ll be a fascinating story seeing how Pagenaud and Castroneves will fare as teammates once again.

Finally, we look at the three IndyCar rookies of Romain Grosjean, Jimmie Johnson and Scott McLaughlin. All established racers came from different disciplines, but entered into a whole different ballgame.

Grosjean showed the most promise with three podiums and an oval start to his name. Now, he’ll be driving for Andretti Autosport’s No. 28 DHL Honda, the ride Hunter-Reay had for over a decade. It’ll be a full-time deal, which means a shot at the 106th Indy 500 is happening.

Grosjean was announced as Andretti Autosport’s newest driver two days before the 2021 finale (Photo: Luis Torres/TPF).

A full 2022 season for Johnson, on the other hand, is still not finalized. He and Grosjean completed two thirds of the Rookie Orientation Program this week at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Rain curb stomped them from completing their last phase until April 2022.

If the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion, who got a best finish of 17th at Laguna Seca, runs the 500, we’re looking at a star studded ROTY battle. You’ll have the aforementioned duo join Callum Ilott and Indy Lights champion Kyle Kirkwood as 500 rookies in 2022.

By virtue of winning the Indy Lights title, Kirkwood’s scholarship earns him three IndyCar starts, including a shot in the Indy 500 (Photo: Luis Torres/TPF).

Don’t forget, there’s also some guy named Kyle Larson. I think the fans really want him to run the 500.

Let’s be real though. Who really knows if that’ll happen in 2022 though, but imagine the craze?

Finally, let’s consider the man who won this season’s ROTY – Scott McLaughlin. While his rookie year didn’t stood out as much like people expected, he was running at the finish in all 16 races. He proved to be the only man to do so following Ericsson’s crash at Long Beach.

With Pagenaud out of Penske, it’ll be interesting if the team scales back to three full-time cars. If they go that route, McLaughlin could improve a lot and perhaps see what he brings to the table like Grosjean did in 2021.

The multi-time Supercars champion looks to make more progress in 2022 (Photo: Luis Torres/TPF).

Sometimes, having an abundant amount of cars per team can be a blessing or a curse. This will fall in the latter as Newgarden was the only one that had the least amount of poor luck. The same can be said about Andretti Autosport as Herta was really the only shining driver all season.

In closing, the 2021 IndyCar season will be looked back fondly compared to last year where the pandemic sucked the joy out of everyone. Ratings have gone up. Field entries are on the rise and people are talking about the sport.

The young guns shined bright and I see that continuing for years to come. It’s their world now as the veterans will have to step up their game more than ever before to last.

One chapter closes, another one begins for INDYCAR next season (Photo: Luis Torres/TPF).

Luis Torres

Throughout my young motorsports media career, my number-one goal is to be a personnel that can be flexible with my writing and photography in the world of NASCAR, INDYCAR and ARCA (occasionally F1 and IMSA stuff as well). Whether it's the Daytona 500 or an ARCA Menards Series West race at Evergreen Speedway, content delivery is vital because this is my main passion and what keeps me going.

I've dealt with several challenges in my life, such as autism and making most out of trips despite relying on transportation. Even my quest of finding acceptance in my profession which has been my biggest challenge since graduating from college in 2016. Despite those hurdles with Motorsports Tribune and now The Podium Finish, I promise that you'll see excellence with my content.

Outside of media, I'm super vocal about my musical tastes that goes from Metallica to The Aces. Not only that, expect my social media filled with GIFs about my Seattle Seahawks because they make things a roller coaster experience.

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