Note: Today’s guest panelist on the INDYCAR Writers’ Roundtable is Indianapolis Motor Speedway Senior Manager of Media Relations Suzi Elliott. She has worked at IMS since 2005 and has been at a racetrack nearly her entire life, following the tire tracks of her late father, Midwestern short-track racer Greg Staab; her late brother-in-law, two-time USAC Sprint Car champion Tony Elliott; and many more.
Today’s question: There are an assortment of driver changes heading into the 2021 NTT INDYCAR SERIES season. Which change will have the most impact?
Suzi Elliott: The most significant driver change, in my humble opinion, is Felix Rosenqvist moving to Arrow McLaren SP from Chip Ganassi Racing. He is one to watch, for sure. Felix was impressive last season with one win, two top-five finishes and five top-10’s in his sophomore year in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES. Rosenqvist is no stranger to road courses, as a 2015 FIA Formula 3 European championship and a three-time Formula Renault title winner, but he also has taken well to the ovals. I’m looking for big things from the Swede in 2021.
Curt Cavin: Hands down, Sebastien Bourdais to A.J. Foyt’s team. Bourdais was expected to make a big impact on the team in the early races of 2020, but the pandemic-driven reshuffling of the INDYCAR schedule meant the Frenchman didn’t join Foyt until the final two events of the season. A fourth-place finish in the finale in St. Petersburg could be a foretelling of strong runs to come, and that’s supported by last week’s impressive test at Barber Motorsports Park. Honorable mention goes to Tony Kanaan joining Chip Ganassi Racing for the oval races. Fifteen of the Brazilian’s 17 career wins have come on ovals, and he scored a pair of top-five “500” finishes driving for Ganassi. Don’t be surprised if Kanaan wins Indy again.
Zach Horrall: Curt absolutely nailed it with Bourdais at AJ Foyt Racing. I think some really great things are going to come out of the No. 14 this season. I also have my eye on another driver who turned some laps at the end of 2020 in his 2021 ride: James Hinchcliffe. Hinch returned to Andretti Autosport in 2020 to run a limited schedule before hopping into the No. 26 Honda for the final three races of the season. The box score doesn’t show it, but Hinchcliffe had a solid performance at St. Petersburg and ran near the front of the field all day until a costly mistake under caution led him to a 14th-place finish. Already having some reps in that No. 26 car will be really beneficial for Hinch so he isn’t coming into 2021 completely new. And after a down year, Andretti Autosport appears to have hit on something. The team looked very strong in the season finale last October and have shown speed in preseason testing. The Canadian hasn’t won since 2018, and I think he’s well positioned to end that winless streak.
Paul Kelly: There’s a blessing and a curse to going last here. I can avoid redundancy, but in this case, all three of you made outstanding picks! I’m going with the guy who may not make a massive splash on track but who still might capture the most eyeballs this season – Jimmie Johnson. No one thinks his transition from seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion and legend to NTT INDYCAR SERIES rookie with Chip Ganassi Racing will be easy, none more than Jimmie himself. But he is making progress with every test and is very serious and studious about success in this second chapter of his remarkable career. Johnson is asking all the right questions and doing all the right things as he adapts to open-wheel cars with half the weight and much more braking power and aerodynamics than his stock car of the last 20 years. No power steering, either! But I think Jimmie’s move to INDYCAR will be most impactful simply because he will attract fan and media attention everywhere he goes, hopefully expanding the tent for new fans for this incredibly competitive series.