IndyCar Media Day: Day 1 Wrap Up With 7 main storylines from Thursday

INDIANAPOLIS — The weather is starting to turn and that must mean one thing – the NTT IndyCar Series season is almost set to begin. Initially, we were supposed to be starting this weekend on the streets of St. Pete, but due to COVID, that race was moved back to the end of April instead.

That means the new season opener will be at the Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama on April 18. So, instead of preparing for a race this weekend, we were allowed to speak via zoom to several of the drivers on Thursday as INDYCAR conducted the annual media day this week.

Thursday was a cast of 14 drivers with 14 more on the docket for Friday.

Here’s some tidbits that came out of the calls on Day 1.

McLaughlin Ready For Rookie Season

Scott McLaughlin knows that there’s a tall task to be had in 2021. The NTT IndyCar Series is not an easy series to compete in. Arguably, it’s the toughest in the world. So, to come here as a rookie this season and challenge for wins against some of the best drivers on the planet is going to be no easy feat. That’s why McLaughlin has tempered his goals for the upcoming year.

“I’m very competitive, but I’m realistic at the same time,” said McLaughlin. “I’ve got a lot to learn. Yeah, I’d love to try and beat them (his Team Penske teammates) a few times throughout the season. I’m not putting off that I can’t. I think if I feel the car and work with my engineer well enough and get better and better, there’s no reason why we can’t be at the same pace as those guys, if not better.

“But I’m very lucky in that way. I’m trying to soak everything up like a sponge, learn their data, learn how they drive the car, what does Will do, what does Josef do, what does Simon do? They’re three very different guys in terms of driving style. I got best of both worlds. I can pick sort of what I want to do, how I want to feel the car kind of thing.

“Look, it is a learning year. I’m being realistic. I know it’s going to take time. Those guys got experience. Everyone has experience here. I’d love to — yeah, for sure, my competitive instinct will kick on at some point for sure.”

Luckily for McLaughlin, the first few races of 2021 he’s actually been on the track before. He’s tested multiple times at Barber. He did his ROP at Indy. He’s even raced at St. Pete. Does that give him at least some comfort?

“Yeah, it’s definitely nice to head to a track that you know,” he told me. “For me, heading to Sebring, for instance, just for the test, that was one of my first INDYCAR tests. To turn around there about a year later, actually get into it and know where everything goes, know some of the bumps, the curbs, dropoffs off the curbs, stuff like that, just little things you don’t know when you turn up to a racetrack for the first time was invaluable.

“I think for me right now, heading to Barber after testing there twice now, then St. Pete obviously racing there, it’s a big thing for me in my first foray into INDYCAR racing. It’s not going to be like that all year obviously, so I really have to take that in my stride, try to accelerate my learning as much as I can in this period for sure.”

McLaughlin says that he’s not just doing this as a one-off. This is something he’s preparing to do for a long time, so 2021 is all about learning and helping for 2022 and beyond. In saying that, he knows that there’s still a lot to get used to from that one start last year in St. Pete.

“For instance, even just driving a turbo car,” McLaughlin said on what he still can get used to. “I’ve never really done that before in Australia. For me, I’m learning boost levels, aero maps, trusting aero, aerodynamics through corners and stuff. It’s taken me a little bit of time at Barber. Barber is quite difficult. I put Barber at the same commitment level that you need at Bathurst. It’s very tough.

“To build up and not make a mistake in that period, it’s a tough thing there. I’m slowly getting used to what I want from the car, what I can ask for, what I can’t ask for. That’s just going to keep getting better and better throughout the season.

“I think for me it’s learning the pit stops and stuff were very big for me. Like cold tires, hot tires coming in, cold tires going out. Obviously driving the red tire was a good little introduction for me. It’s one thing that I probably struggled with at St. Pete was just getting the most out of that tire. Unfortunately we can’t test on that. That’s all going to be race miles on that tire to get used to it.

“But, yeah, just understanding little things like how to get from the hotel to the track, where the pits are, what it’s like. I didn’t even realize I had a scooter when I got there to get from the pits. Stuff like that. It’s learning not only on-track stuff but off-track stuff to make me comfortable, settle into the series quick.

“I’m enjoying it so far. I’m really excited to head back to St. Pete. I love that race circuit, love the vibe there. Hopefully we can have an amount of fans that makes it really cool.”

“This year for me is a learning season. I’ve got time. I’m planning to be here for a long time, not a short time. Just got to make sure I get through this year, learn the tracks, learn the car, come back stronger, even better in 2022 as well.”

Team Penske All In On An Indy 500 Title, But Can’t Afford To Slip Elsewhere Either

An Indy 500 win and a championship. That’s the top two goals for any NTT IndyCar Series race team. But for Team Penske, those aren’t lofty goals. Those are realistic. When they don’t win either, as was the case for 2020, it means they take it personally.

So, how do you balance those goals? Putting too many eggs in the Indy basket can compromise success elsewhere and vice versa. How do you go all in at trying to make the gains to win at Indy, but not lose ground elsewhere a vie for a championship?

That’s the challenging part of INDYCAR racing. There’s superspeedway’s. There’s short ovals. There’s also road and street courses too. Everyone is trying to improve on areas to where they’re bad at, so even if you’re good in one area, you can’t rest on your laurels. For an organization like Team Penske, you can’t go all in and try to win the Indy 500 but risk a decline in stats for other tracks either.

“It’s a balancing act, for sure. That’s a good point,” Josef Newgarden told me. “You have to try and understand, when you push resources one way, how does that affect everything else. I think for us, we’re pretty good at balancing that formula.

“Indy is a really tough track, not only because it’s the most important race but I think because it’s all about very small details, and those little details take a tremendous amount of time and effort to move the needle. It’s all these little things that add up at the end of the day when you show up in the month of May. It takes a tremendous amount of time to make large progress at Indianapolis, whereas at another track you may find a small difference or small change with something that you found that didn’t take nearly as much energy or money or resources.

“I think you can have these bigger magnitudes of shift at a place like a street course or a road course compared to Indianapolis. Indianapolis really takes a ton of time, ton of resources to make those little incremental improvements forward. That’s why we emphasize trying to get that right. For us, it was skewed last year in that Indy was probably one of our worst tracks. There’s no doubt. We didn’t perform like we wanted to at the 500 from a qualifying standpoint and race standpoint. I think that’s why we’ve heavily leaned to get that right in the off-season.

“We haven’t left anything else behind. We’re still pushing forward on all the other fronts because we need to be strong across the season.”

Newgarden has won two NTT IndyCar Series championships to his credit. He nearly won a third last year. But, the one thing that’s nagging in the back of his head still is the lack of an Indy 500 win. Newgarden, is 0-for-8. He does have four top 10’s in his last five starts there, but that lack of taste of the milk in victory lane isn’t quenching his thirst.

“We want to win an Indy 500,” Newgarden said. “For me specifically, that’s a big goal. I’ve not won that race. Obviously as a team, we’ve had a lot of success there. They’d like to add to that. For me, I’d like to get my first.”

See, Penske is synonymous with Indy success. Heading into 2020, Roger Penske had just purchased the place. He figuratively and now literally owned victory lane. But, Penske’s cars struggled on track in August. They finished P4-11-14-22. They were rarely found up front on any speed chart all month.

That’s not good enough for Penske. It was honestly rare to see. So, instead of staying status quo, Penske has been all-in on an Indy 500 victory in 2021.

“Last year our qualifying form was not strong,” Newgarden continued. “We were all disappointed with our speed. That was first and foremost. How do we fix the speed of the cars from last season? There’s been a tremendous amount of work that’s been put in. We have the best of the best in my opinion when it comes to talent and personnel. There’s been no shortage of effort and time to make these Penske racecars as fast as possible. That was first and foremost.

“Then I think the race condition of the car, how does it really work across 30 laps on a set of tires in multiple-car drafts? That’s probably the most important ingredient nowadays is just figuring out if you get buried 10 or 15 cars back, how is your car reacting in that much dirty air. That was something we needed to be stronger at.

“Just outright speed and the car’s potential in a big wake. That’s all different this year, too. We tried to learn where we were deficient last year, but now we also need to figure out where we need to be better in the future with the new aero parts. Quite a bit of difference with not only the front wing but the underside build of the car aerodynamically. There’s going to be some new elements. The car is going to drive different. We need to be better all around.”

Will Power, Newgarden’s teammate, agreed.

“I feel pretty good about definitely being better than where we were last year at Indianapolis,” said Power. “I think that’s probably the most disappointing we’ve been since I’ve been at Penske. It was a surprise to us. Certainly worked very hard on that.”

The goal is clear – Indy improvement. The next goal is clear – a championship.

“Then the championship as well, yeah, we’re looking for another one,” Newgarden continued. “Obviously I was hoping we were going to win our third championship last year and we could be working on the fourth. We’re going to have to go back to square one and try to knock the third off this season.”

Newgarden came from 117 points out to nearly win his third championship in four years. Still, he’s trying to take the good from 2020 and block the bad out. It stings too much for the kind of year that he had in terms of bad luck. You take that bad luck away, he likely won this championship by a mile.

“I’ve tried to wipe last year from my memory as best I can, at least the tough parts,” he said. “I felt like our momentum was quite consistent throughout the year, at least from a performance standpoint. We could just not seem to catch enough breaks. That’s the nature of the beast. Sometimes things just go your way without even realizing why; you can’t seem to do anything wrong. Some years you seem to be on the wrong end of the stick half the time.

“I feel like last year was one of those years. We were just in the wrong place, wrong time, a little too often. You have that happen just one too many times, basically what happened to us is the result of it.

“Yeah, we had a good run at it. I felt confident in what we could do every weekend. I felt like that in the beginning of the year, the middle and the end. I’m not trying to just ride the end-of-the-year momentum. I think the consistency we’ve had year over year is really strong. We need to keep that going. I think from year to year it’s been really good.”

Power, also made a big comeback last year in terms of the championship. He had no wins in the first nine races and just two podiums in the first eight. Then, he really turned it on after. He said that in order for him to compete for his second championship, his start to 2021 has to go way better.

“It actually does feel a little bit that way, you know, considering we’ve started the last four seasons in a really bad way,” said Power. “It certainly isn’t speed that’s the issue. It’s our bad days are just too bad. Our bad days are DNFs and multiple laps down. They’re not like a 10th place or a seventh place, and that’s our problem. The speed is certainly not. Winning is certainly not. Consistently, whether it’s mistakes on pit lane or mistakes by me, you just — we have to have a solid beginning to the season — I mean, you’ve just got to have a solid season, and that obviously includes the beginning.

“I said it last year, it’s a huge focus, and that did not happen for us. This year, again, if we can just have a solid first few races, I think it gives the team confidence and myself confidence.”

Big Season For The Series

Everything is lining up for the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series season to being among the most pivotal in a long time. You have a TV contract up at seasons end. You have as much talent now as you’ve ever had before. Almost everyone from 2020 will return. Then, you get additions of Romain Grosjean, Scott McLaughlin and oh yeah, that Jimmie Johnson guy. That makes 2021 as difficult to win in INDYCAR as it honestly ever has.

“It just seems like it gets better every year,” Josef Newgarden told me. “It’s hard to diminish what happened the last couple years. I think our depth of talent has been incredibly high since I’ve been in the series. It’s just been incredibly high. It’s only gotten better from 2012, whether that’s teams, personnel or the drivers themselves.

“Yeah, I think if you look at the championship, who is in there now this year, certainly the additions with people like Jimmie Johnson or Romain Grosjean, there’s a lot of talented people in the mix. It’s going to be really tough to stay at the front of the pack.

“The field count is going up. It’s not just the depth of talent is increasing, it’s the depth is increasing but the size is increasing and you’re keeping that depth with increased size. Yeah, it’s going to be a tough task. INDYCAR is so tight nowadays. This is the closest form of racing that I see on the planet at the moment, the most parity out there. To try to find an edge on this competition, it takes a tremendous amount of work.”

Graham Rahal agreed saying that this season has come a long way since his first one 14 years ago.

“It’s come a long way, man. I remember my first year in ’07 in Champ Car. I told this story last year, but if you were outside the top 5 in a Newman/Haas car you were probably pretty ticked off,” said Rahal.

“You look at where it is today and just how deep the field is, and it’s impressive. I mean, this is a — maybe everybody wants to say the golden era of INDYCAR racing was in the early ’90s or in Champ Car, may have been the late ’90s, early 2000s.

“But I’ve got to be honest. From a talent pool perspective, the golden era is right now. We’re living the golden era. It’s never been better, and I’m not sure it will get better. It is deep across the board, and it’s definitely cool because you’re also gauging yourself against the rest.

“For sure there’s going to be times that guys go out there and they’re going to perform great and we’re going to be like, Oh, yeah, they’re awesome, and then next weekend like us in Gateway, you may just completely suck, and it shouldn’t be a surprise because you cannot miss a step.

“The depth, every single driver in the series can win. That’s factual. That couldn’t have been said 20 years ago, let alone five years ago.

“I think it’s just a very pure form of motorsports right now. My opinion is it’s a very pure form, and what I mean by that, no driver aids. The physicality of it is at the prime. Jimmie grew up, he hasn’t been shy of saying it, his dream was to be an INDYCAR driver, and now he’s got the opportunity to be able to fulfill that dream.

“For Scott, he’s done all he could do. He could go win 20 V-8 super car championships, but at the end of the day he’s ready for the next challenge. For Grosjean what else is he going to do in F1? Unless he’s in a Mercedes he’s not going to win, so where doing go? What are you going to do?

“Might as well look across the pond where here he can compete. Here he is going to have the opportunity to win no matter what team he’s with. So these guys, I think the purity of INDYCAR racing is what’s attracting so many people to the sport right now.

“I think that’s only going to get better. There’s some great races on the calendar this year. You look at Nashville. Nashville is — if there’s ever an opportunity for a street race to be a home run, that’s it. I think even to see Dale get involved in the ownership role, Justin Timberlake, guys like that, they can make Nashville explode even more and put it on more of an international viewing platform. I think there’s great opportunity ahead.

“The positive I can say in the position I’m in today is the future, the next five years looks a lot brighter to me than maybe even the past five, and that’s a great thing.”

With that said, NASCAR is promoting their 2021 season as the “best season ever.” But, one has to think it’s that way for INDYCAR too. With how important this season is, would the drivers feel it in and out of the cockpit?

“Yeah, you definitely have a sense of what’s moving, what needs to move, what’s taking play around you definitely,” Newgarden continued. “There’s a lot to do. Like I said, the best I do feel is still to come. But there’s a lot of moving pieces. There’s just a tremendous amount of effort that’s going in, much more than I could fathom. Thank goodness I only really have to work on figuring out how to make cars go fast and keep it out of the wall and in Victory Lane. That’s my job, which is much easier than what they are tasked with at the moment.

“Yeah, there’s a lot on the horizon. I think the pandemic, navigating that, has been first on the list, trying to understand how do we just get to the racetrack, how do we serve our customers the best, how do we give our race fans the best experience possible. That’s still number one for all of us. Then how do we take the series as a whole, keep moving that forward every year, whether that’s TV contracts, engine manufacturers. There’s a lot at play there.

“We have a sense of that. Thankfully that’s up to better people than me. I think we do have the best of the best looking after it.”

Power said that he feels it too.

“I do actually. I think it’s a very important season, and it is sort of concerning at times to think that — we must have fans this year. We really must. It becomes very tough on these promoters when they’re not getting the income from the ticket sales. Really praying that things open up, and in particular the 500, with everything that Roger has put into that place and all the effort that’s gone on since the purchase, I really hope that we can have close to full capacity there. That’s obviously dependent on a lot of other things at the moment.

“Yeah, really hoping we can get another manufacturer. I think that would be great for the series. I’m sure that the series is working very hard on trying to make that happen. It needs to obviously happen with enough time for a manufacturer to be able to kind of catch up in a way to Honda and Chevy.”

Last year’s Indy 500 champion, Takuma Sato, said that he feels it too and that this year’s season will be a difficult on track as ever before.

“Yeah, I think it’s extremely challenging, I would say,” the two-time Indy 500 champion told me. “I think anybody who participating in INDYCAR will realize and recognize how hard this series is.

“But one side is very good. I think that’s the name of the sport really. It’s very competitive field, very competitive cars and drivers and teams. Very attractive, how we say, environment we have. I think it’s all good thing.

“Once again, to be competitive all the season, every single weekend is extremely tough, but you have to be there. Somebody will win the championship. I think it’s nothing is impossible. All we need to do is try to focus on season, but focus on every weekend to be the best of our potential.”

Ganassi, Penske Expand Teams, Andretti Shrinks, RLL Stays The Same, How Drivers Feel About These Moves

Chip Ganassi Racing, Team Penske and Andretti Autosport have been the “Big 3″ for a while now. That’s why it wasn’t all that odd to see them dominate in 2020. We knew with the uncertain times of racing during a pandemic mixed with the Aeroscreen’s debut, it was assumed that the bigger teams would dominate in 2020. Boy did they ever. 14 races were run, 13 of them were won by the “Big 3.”

The only race that they didn’t win was the Indianapolis 500 which was won by Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan Racing. In fact, RLL put two cars on the podium that day. One could say that RLL is making this a “Big 4” anyways so it’s not shocking that these are the only four teams to have won in 2020.

Since the new car came out in 2018, the “Big 3” have won 40 of the 48 races run (82-percent). Penske has won 22 times with Ganassi (10) and Andretti (8). But, RLL is next best with four victories while no one else has more than three. Throw in RLL and you get 44 of 48 races won by these teams.

If you go back to 2016 though, that number stays the same. The “Big 3” have won 66 of 84 races run in that time frame. Throw in RLL and you get 73 of 84.

RLL’s ascension has seen them slowly catching Andretti Autosport.

Out of those four teams though, half are expanding. Penske adds Scott McLaughlin. Ganassi adds a fourth car for Tony Kanaan and Jimmie Johnson to share.

“I’m pretty excited about it,” Josef Newgarden said on the addition of a fourth car. “It’s good timing for us. We operate well as a three-car team. When I initially came to Team Penske, it was a four-car operation. I’ve seen both sides of it.

“I think at this time and place, I think a four-car team will give us more strengths than weaknesses at the moment. Like Jack had asked the question about limited time on race weekends, trying to show up as prepared as possible, which is so critical now. I think having an extra car, extra hand, extra set of data, extra engineer full-time, it’s all going to benefit what we’re doing. We’re already seeing that. We’re already seeing the benefit of it.

“Scott is a really smart, accomplished driver. He’s really good at what he does. He’s still learning INDYCAR. He’s not fully up to speed, I would say. He’s not going to struggle. He drives his car to a very high level. His engineer, Jonathan Diuguid, is a strong addition to our operation. I think it’s going to be a big benefit to us, to have a four-car operation. I’m excited from that standpoint.”

Will Power agrees in saying that it’s just more information and more quality people on the INDYCAR side for them.

“Obviously the sports car program went away and we took a lot of good people from that program,” said Power. “So yeah, just more engineering power and more information as far as drivers, setup info and all that sort of stuff.”

On the flip side of the coin, Andretti Autosport is going the other way. They’re downsizing. They’ll go from five cars to four cars in 2021. Was five cars too many in 2020? Colton Herta doesn’t thinks so.

“I think that’s always kind of like a concern, is when you start to get a lot of cars, are we spread too thin, which I don’t think was the case,” said the third year driver now. “I think there’s actually more than enough capable engineers and mechanics at Andretti to make it work. So I don’t feel any different about it.

“Yeah, I guess the meetings will be a little bit shorter, and that will be nice. We won’t have (indiscernible) for the drivers. But, yeah, I think excited for everybody that’s coming. I’m excited for James to be back and joining us. We have a great recipe here. We have four really strong drivers. Again, very competitive cars at the moment.”

Ryan Hunter-Reay notes that he’s just happy the debriefs will be shorter now.

“Yeah, I mean, we’ll still have 14 cars at Indy. But, yes, I’m very happy with the fact we’re coming down and we’re focusing,” Hunter-Reay said “I mean, I’m going to miss Marco. I am. I’ve been his teammate since 2010. Great friend of mine. It feels the same still. I mean, we haven’t done a race without him. It still feels like the same large team, so to speak. (James Hinchcliffe) Hinch coming back is awesome. It’s like he’s coming home. He’s one of my good friends, one of my great teammates, great working relationship and all that stuff. Him coming back is a natural fit. It’s going to be awkward not to have Marco there.

“The team feels somewhat similar.”

For RLL, they’re staying put. They’re not adding a car nor diminishing one either. In a series where it’s hard to compete for wins in, have they maxed out what they can do and need a teammate to help? I mean Ganassi, Penske and Andretti each have four cars in their arsenal. RLL has have that fleet.

“I think obviously the consistency is the key,” Takuma Sato said. “To consistently be competitive in this series, extremely hard. Because, of course, we have short ovals, superspeedway, street course and road course, as you know. The field is so tight, like anyone can win the race basically. That’s a great part of the INDYCAR.

“To be able to become I think the champion, as a team, as a driver, I think you needs to be on top of the game all the time. Well, let’s say top five most of the race you need to be. If you have any opportunity to get on the podium, I think it’s just a scoring point and consistency is a key. That’s something we missed on the last few season. Also we achieved the single wins, which is extremely important, too.

“This year we will all try to be as competitive as possible for entire season.

“I think it’s beneficial to have multiple the teammates. I’ve been going through the experience with Andretti Autosport as you may know. Until then, the Foyt days was great, really like tight family feeling with A.J. and Larry. I loved that A.J. Foyt Racing team while I was there. But of course the teammates is always helping each other because we dividing the program for back-to-back. If you have two cars, if you have three cars, if you have five cars, with one session, you basically double the information.

“It is definitely valuable. But equally the quality control, the build spec, and I think to manage all the data and the engineers, all the things, is also become more comprehensive, too. As long as you have enough environment and resource to help solve this matter of the huge data, I’d love to have more teammates. But that’s something that the team make a decision. At the moment Graham and I working extremely close together to building the relationship and the consistency through the platform at Rahal become stronger and stronger.

“Hopefully we can do the continue of this good job. But to be better, I think we need to expand for sure.”

Graham Rahal said that adding a third car would be beneficial, but only if it adds to their program and not takes away from it.

“Yeah, I mean, it is if it’s beneficial,” Rahal said. “What I mean by that is it only works if all the guys are performing at their max level and you are getting a lot of data out of it.

“It does not work or it does not help, and it just becomes a distraction, if that third car is not giving back as much as it takes. That’s the hardest part of that thing.

“Even at Indy 500s before we’ve had where it’s been highly beneficial, we’ve had Indy 500s where it’s been nothing but a distraction, I think, for everybody.

“Honestly I’m not — I’ll say this: My focus this year is just so much on my car, just on the 15 car solely, that I’m really not concerned too much about if they want to run a third car. If the owners decide that’s what they want to do, fine, but it’s not really up to me.”

Andretti Autosport Hoping To Keep Momentum Going From End Of 2020 Into 2021, Herta A Title Contender

It’s no secret, the first nine races of the 2020 season were dismal for Andretti Autosport overall. Combined, they had just six top five finishes and one podium between them. Four of the six top fives belonged to Colton Herta. Alexander Rossi’s third place effort in Road America 2 was their lone podium through Aug. 30.

But, once we got to Mid-Ohio though in September, everything had since changed. Herta scored a win in the second race of the weekend and was ninth in the other. Rossi, had dual podiums with Hunter-Reay being fifth and third respectively himself to give AA a 1-2-3 effort in Race 2.

At Indy, it was more strength. Herta was fourth and second respectively and Rossi second and third himself.

One podium in nine races followed by seven in four races after. St. Pete was looking good until the final laps. Hinchcliffe, Herta and Rossi were all battling for podiums. Then all hell broke loose.

Still, the momentum shifted from Mid-Ohio on. How do they build on that for 2021?

“We just need to be more consistent as a team,” said Hunter-Reay. “We look at, like I was saying, Mid-Ohio should have been two podiums, and one should have been contending for a race win. We can all talk about the things that we missed. The 2016 Indy 500 says “the one I should have won” next to it, things like that.

“You know what it takes to win. I do. We do. We know what we need to do to execute. Those parameters are there. We need to operate within that. Very simple.”

Colton Herta is another one to watch. This is his third season in the sport and one that he feels like he can win a championship in.

“I believe I can,” said the California native. “I think we showed it last year of what could have been. If I didn’t have that slipup at Iowa, mess that up for us, we could have been really good in the championship hunt going into the last round.

“The biggest setback is that we need to win more races. Can’t be winning one or two races a year and winning a championship. You need to be winning three or four races. That’s kind of my goal is to try to get to that number. That’s been the trend the last few years for guys that have won the championship, is they’re winning four race as year. When they’re not winning, they’re finishing on the podium.

“I have full faith in myself and in the team that we can do it, but it’s going to take a lot of effort from everybody.”

He’s improved from his rookie year to 2020. Can he do so from 2020 to 2021?

“I like to see progress every year in myself, more so on the championship side of things,” Herta continued on Thursday. “I’d like to make a true championship run down to the wire, have the ability to truly win it. That’s my goal. That’s the team’s goal.

“Obviously alongside with that, winning the Indy 500 and putting a lot of resources and time towards that at the same time. But kind of cutting out the mistakes, changing kind of those top fives, fourth and fifth places that we had last year, we had a bunch of them, into podiums, and some of those podiums we had into wins. We need to win a little bit more and we need a little bit more podiums, a tiny bit more consistency to really make a true championship run.”

As to what areas that he can close that gap from top fives to get onto the podium, Herta said there’s a few that stand out.

“I think there was a few places that some guys — really just (Alexander) Rossi that I was comparing to, there were two rounds in particular that he was able to get a little bit better fuel mileage without being too much slower than I was,” he said. “He was able to go a lap longer at some of the places. That’s kind of like the key for me this year.

“Obviously I think everybody understands how important pit stop cycles are in INDYCAR, and strategy, it makes or breaks the race. Being able to save that little bit more fuel, still be in touch with the leaders, can open a whole new array of strategy options for you during the race.”

Herta, will also shift from the Steinbrenner/Harding banner to the Andretti umbrella. He moves from the No. 88 Honda to the No. 26 Honda. In turn, the 88 team as well as the 98 team goes away on a full time basis. That means his dad, Bryan Herta, moves over to his pit box. This is the first time that the father-son combo have worked together before.

“What’s kind of been nice, now my dad is actually my strategist, which I don’t think — a lot of people didn’t know that,” said Herta. “It’s very unknown in the media. Yeah, I’m looking forward to that.

“Obviously I lost George and Mike. I’m very grateful for what they did for me to get me into INDYCAR. But looking forward this year, working with the whole Andretti crew, also my dad, which is going to be a big change for me.

“Never talked to him on the radio until we were testing wintertime. It’s been very different. I don’t think he’s ever heard me talk on the radio before. He’s always kind of put me in the best position for people that are very smart to work around me and help me with that. I think for most teenagers growing up, the last thing they want to hear is their parents nag them and tell them what to do.

“I understand that he’s right, but that is the last thing I wanted to hear.”

As to how this relationship will work when other drivers like Marco and Michael Andretti or Bobby and Graham Rahal didn’t work, Herta says that their calm demeanors help.

“I think you can tell by now that we’re both pretty mellow,” he said. “We don’t get excited and we don’t get upset or very sad. We stay pretty even. Our emotions don’t really get the better of us.

“I think in that aspect, I think the other personalities will get heated at each other, where I don’t think it would happen with us because of how mellow we are.”

Young Brazilian Back In The Series

One of the big announcements to come out of the opening day of Media availabilities was the return of Pietro Fittipaldi. The youngster was supposed to do a larger program a few years ago for Dale Coyne Racing, but an injury suffered overseas kept that to a minimum. Now, he’s back.

Fittipaldi, will drive the No. 51 Honda on the ovals (Texas, Indy, World Wide Technology Raceway) in a shared seat with Romain Grosjean.

“I’m very excited with the opportunity,” Fittipaldi said. “I want to thank Dale Coyne, Rick Ware for the trust. I’ll be doing the ovals, including the Indy 500, which is a dream come true after not being able to do it in 2018, to come back and have the chance to race in it, I’m very happy.

“The deal came through. I mean, I’ve been speaking to Dale for a while. As you know, I raced with him in 2018. I’ve always been in touch with Dale. He told me Romain had signed to do the road courses. He called me one day, We’re looking for someone to do the ovals. For sure, I said, I would love to do it.

“I love INDYCAR. I love oval racing as well. My first championship that I won was a late model championship at Hickory in a short track oval. That was in North Carolina. To be racing on ovals in INDYCAR, yeah, I’m very pleased with it. I’m happy.”

Fittipaldi, said he’d like to be full-time in either IndyCar or F1 someday.

“I have two ultimate goals in my mind,” said Fittipaldi. “One is getting a full-time ride in INDYCAR. That’s one of my ultimate goals. Obviously one day winning races or winning the championship. The other one could be Formula 1, as well. One doesn’t hinder the other. The program that I had to race on the ovals with Dale, there’s no real conflicts. I’ll be going to the Formula 1 races, then flying back with enough time to do the oval races.

“But for me, either it’s Formula 1 or INDYCAR. If I can get a full-time ride in INDYCAR, for example, I would be extremely happy. It’s very difficult nowadays. The opportunities are very limited. So to get something like a full-time ride in INDYCAR, that’s a big goal for me. But the Formula 1 dream and stuff is still there as well. I have both of them. I’m lucky to be able to work with both series.”

Other popular Brazilian drivers hope to see him stay here too. See, INDYCAR has always had a pipeline from Brazil to the United States. Several talented drivers came north to compete in the major open wheel series and have had a lot of success in doing so. Unfortunately, that line has somewhat stalled. Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan are each no longer full time anymore. They’ll be around in some races, but not all.

So, for someone like Fittipaldi to come back this direction, their hopes is this is just the start of the next wave of young Brazilian drivers coming here to race.

“Great question. Tony and I have been carrying the Brazilian flag for a long time, like all the Brazilians 25 years ago did, Gil de Ferran, André Ribeiro, Fittipaldi. We had so many,” Helio Castroneves told me. “So for me, seeing Pietro coming into the series hopefully is an opportunity for him to show his talent, even if it’s just a few races and the ovals only. Still we do have a new generation coming, not only as a Brazilian but a bunch of other new generations coming, making a very good statement.

“We hope that Brazil one day will produce, like Pietro is probably a light at the end of the tunnel that people create interest again instead of going to stockcar in Brazil or trying at Formula 1, which there is no Brazilian at the moment, but trying to create that spark again like we used to have 20 years ago.

“I think new the new broadcast in Brazil, people are going to be again excited. Tony and I will be able to show out there and succeed so that we can inspire the young generations to come back and keep it going.”

Castroneves said that while he and Fittipaldi will be on different teams in 2021, the door is always open if the younger driver needed help or a mentor to lean on.

“Absolutely,” Castroneves continued. “One of the things even with my teammate Jack Harvey, look, I work with a lot of teammates. Again, I been around the block. I learn so much with Rick Mears. Rick never come to me and say, You got to do this or that. But he always make himself available. Every time we talk, it was like half an hour conversation, which was great. Especially me, I want to understand.

“He was able to always with few words direct and guide me to the right way. If I can be that kind of assistance to not only Brazilian but any other young driver, I’m always open for it. I been there one day. 20-plus years ago I was one of the guys asking questions as well (smiling). I would never close the door to a young driver asking for information.”

For now, Fittipaldi is just going to have a very busy schedule in trying to get here or even F1 full time.

“Not that I’m not used to it. It’s going to be very busy this year,” he continued. “I’ll be going to most of the Formula 1 races. At the moment I’ll be going to, like, 17, 18 Formula 1 races out of the 23 in the calendar. I’ll be going to Bahrain, which is the first race. After Bahrain, I’ll be flying back, then doing the test at Texas. It’s going to be busy. There’s also some other announcements that are going to come at the end of this week, which I’m excited as well. It’s going to be a very busy schedule. I’m looking forward to it. The busier, the better.”

In terms of his INDYCAR opportunities in 2021, he’s excited and thinks that he can do well in them.

“When I signed the deal to race with Dale in 2018, I was supposed seven races and tests, and we were testing a lot before the races,” he said. “We were always very competitive in the tests. Yeah, we were sometimes top five, top 10 in some of the testing. I went to Phoenix my first race, and we qualified 10th. We were going to have some good races.

“Before the Indy 500, I had that World Endurance Championship race two weeks before the 500. The car had a failure, went straight in the wall, broke both my legs, compound fracture. I was gutted. The day after the surgery, the doctor came to me and told me, You’re going to stay one year without driving a race car. For me I couldn’t accept that because I know how racing works in terms of you have opportunities that year, but the following year, if you don’t maximize the opportunities, those opportunities are going to be gone.

“I flew to Indianapolis a week after my surgery. I lived in a motor home with my mom here inside the Speedway, inside Indianapolis for two and a half months did all my rehab, worked with Dr. Trammell, all the INDYCAR doctors. They built a carbon fiber brace for my legs for me to be able to drive. Two and a half months later I was back racing, not at 100%, but I knew I had to get back to maximize my opportunities.

“We still had great results. I finished 11th at Gateway, ninth in Portland. I still wasn’t at my max. I still had the feeling like I didn’t get the opportunity to continue in INDYCAR in 2019. I had that feeling I need to come back, really show people what I can do. Broken legs, we had some really good results. Before that in the testing we were really strong. To have this opportunity now, it’s a long time coming, so I’m happy.”

Bourdais Looking To Build Off Of Solid Ending To 2020

Sebastien Bourdais was surprisingly pushed aside in 2020. He felt like he’d be back in his No. 18 Honda with Vasser Sullivan/Dale Coyne Racing. He unfortunately wasn’t. That led him to sports cars and some select opportunities with AJ Foyt Racing. Then, COVID hit.

Bourdais’ INDYCAR opportunities were few and far between. Then, the team elected to bring him in late in the season to help not only push the No. 14 Chevrolet solidly into the Leaders Circle money, but to also get this team started for more success in 2021.

“Well, I mean, it’s really big,” Bourdais said of his three starts at the end of last year. “Obviously you don’t know that you’re going to get a second chance when you get the boot. It’s really good that things worked out and we can try to just bring the name A.J. Foyt Racing back to the front. That’s what we all are working towards.

“On a personal level, for sure it’s a big satisfaction. To be entrusted to be the guy who is going to kind of spearhead the effort. Yeah, just really thankful and grateful to Larry and everybody involved for trusting me with that project.”

Bourdais was pleased with how strong they were in the finale at St. Pete and how much progress they’ve even made in testing this offseason.

“We seem to be in the mix,” he said.

Now, Bourdais expects more of this for 2021 and the more they continue to grow, the more confidence that they get as the days get closer to the season opener.

“I think there is a very good atmosphere,” Bourdais continued. “Everybody is enjoying that perspective. The fact that there is seemingly something to go to the track and fight for, it doesn’t take much to get a positive dynamic. It doesn’t take much to break it down either.

“Hopefully we can just keep that dynamic and get the results to back it up because obviously it doesn’t matter how promising the thing is. If you get to the races and you don’t perform, the enthusiasm inevitably goes down. I’m just happy to see everybody kind of, like, pulling together, putting a lot of hours.

“The guys were at the shaker yesterday, they’re at the shaker again today. We’re going to the simulator. There’s really a lot of ground covered. That’s refreshing both because we have enough people to do it, we have enough resources to go and get after it, thanks to Chevy trusting us to go to the simulator and stuff like that.

“Honestly, everywhere I’ve been before ever since I’ve come back to the U.S. in ’12, there was something missing. It seemed like it was always a bit of a struggle. There were some really good guys with Craig and Olivier, but there wasn’t enough of them, we were short on money, something was happening. It just feels like the team is right enough right now to be able to have something well-rounded.

“I really enjoy that. Hopefully it works out.”

Bourdais said that getting that extra million dollars to be in the leaders circle certainly didn’t hurt and that it’s a pretty significant number difference going one way or the other. But, he also couldn’t control the circumstances either with only racing three times in the series a year ago too.

“You can’t always control what’s going on, so we just try to prepare the season the best we could, the 2021, that was really the goal, kick-start 2021 in 2020,” said the Frenchman. “It just so happens that everything works out. We both got to the leader’s circle. A good result at the end. Then kind of teeing things off the best possible way for this season.

“Obviously a lot of very positive things. Yeah, I mean, I really tried not to think too much about it because it was pretty stressful.”

Bourdais says that they’re hoping for a top 10 result in the final standings, but knows that the entry list is strong and that won’t be an easy task. He hopes that they can do that but also show some glimpses of success too.

“If we could win a race, it would be awesome. If we could get a couple podiums. But there’s no guarantee. All we can do, like I said, it’s just give it our best shot and see where we land.”

Of Notes:

  • Will Power admitted that he’s in a contract year for 2021.
  • Colton Herta will have his dad, Bryan Herta, as his race strategist in 2021.

Best Look

Top Quote

“Roger brought sanity, I think, to a year in which there was really none,” said Graham Rahal. “He brought support and he brought stability to a series that needed it so desperately.

“I think to everybody here in INDYCAR, racing at INDYCAR, at IMS, is grateful for what he did. Bud Denker, Bud is the man, and seeing Bud run around and make all this possible, too, we’re fortunate that that played out the way that it did.

“What can he do going forward is all the little Penske touches. I think that Roger has got a grand plan, Greg, who I have tremendous respect for, Greg is going to continue to take this thing forward and improve. I think that we’re going to see it. There’s some opportunities ahead.

“I mean, I’m not saying it’s Roger specifically, but what is it, nine network races on NBC? Pretty damned good. Does NASCAR get nine NBC races? Probably not.

“There’s things like that that are starting to move in our direction that I think he can help push that envelope. The third manufacturer, nobody is going to listen to anybody — no manufacturer is going to listen to one single person like they would Roger Penske.

“While the Ferrari thing didn’t come through, I think it was a pipe dream for that to come through anyway, there’s other opportunities on the horizon, and Roger has got the power to make it happen and the leadership to make it happen.

“I think it’s going to be great. It will be great. It’ll be interesting to see what he does. I think it’ll be fascinating to see what he does.”

Next Best Quote

“More than that,” Romain Grosjean said on if this was his best chance to win in the last 6 years. “10 years. I mean, last time I got really the chance to have the same tool as the other was 2011 in GP2. I was close to win a few times in Formula 1, but I was also in the era with Raikkonen and Vettel who dominate everything. I was close few times, but not on an every-race basis.”

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