8 Biggest Disappointments From the 2021 NTT IndyCar Season

For someone who has covered IndyCar for nearly 40 years, the just-completed 2021 season will stand out in my personal memory bank as one of the best I’ve seen.

Of course, the biggest story—heart-warming, inspirational and emotional—was Helio Castroneves’ record-tying fourth career win in the Indianapolis 500. A close second to that was how the 500 essentially returned to normal, so to speak, with nearly 150,000 fans in attendance this past Memorial Day weekend, unlike the 2020 Greatest Spectacle In Racing that not only was first postponed and then contested in August (???!!!), but also without any fans in the stands due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But for as exciting, entertaining and action-packed the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series season was, it was also a season of disappointment and frustration for a number of teams and/or individual drivers.

To be clear, disappointment is a relative word. A team or driver can consistently put everything—their collective heart, soul, mind and body—into achieving success, but it just wound up not being in the cards. Choose your adjective: be it kismet, fate, luck—or lack thereof—or frequent mechanical failure or simply poor performance on a consistent basis, :but there are still a number of unhappy folks that will likely spend the six-month off-season trying to right a ship that went wrong.

We are going to touch on some of the bigger disappointments this season here. But to be fair, we’re not pointing fingers. Rather, we’re pointing out the obvious, and in some cases also offering suggestions on how things can just as easily turn around in 2022.

The following list is not chronological, and each entry is not weighted heavier or lighter than the others:

Even though he showed a few moments of his old self in the second half of the season, there’s no getting around that this was the worst of Rossi’s six seasons in IndyCar racing. He failed to win a race for the second consecutive season, he had a career-low one podium and finished 10th—after finishing ninth in 2020.

Even though Rossi has the security of a long-term contract with Andretti Autosport, if he struggles again in 2022, we almost have to wonder if he’ll be around in 2023.

In addition to Castroneves’ big win, Paretta Autosport at the Indy 500 was also one of the other feel-good stories of the month of May at Indianapolis. Paretta burst upon the scene with what appeared to be a solid game plan and her intended philosophy to build a successful organization with a female majority lineup. She received overwhelmingly positive media attention, and fans rallied to support her organization.

In turn, Paretta vowed at Indy that she would enter her team in more races in the second half of the season. Unfortunately, Paretta Autosport was one-and-done after Indy and its primary owner has never really explained what happened and why her team still hasn’t returned to the race track.

Autoweek reached out to Paretta several weeks ago to get an update on where her program is and what the future holds, but she declined to be interviewed. The status for Paretta and her team for the future is, at best, unknown. And that is disappointing, as she really appeared to have hit on something positive and sustainable. Hopefully, we haven’t seen the last of Paretta Autosport.

Granted, the son of team owner Michael Andretti competed in just one race in 2021, the Indy 500 (finished 19th). But the reason why Marco was disappointing is that the series really suffered a void without him.

IndyCar just doesn’t seem to be the same unless a member of the legendary Andretti racing family is racing in it. Marco went on to have success in the inaugural six-race Superstar Racing Experience, including winning a race, as well as trying his hand at other racing series. But hopefully he returns to IndyCar in 2022 because the sport and Andretti Autosport definitely need him.

Given that the team announced earlier this week that it has signed former F1 pilot Romain Grosjean to replace veteran driver Ryan Hunter-Reay (who finished 17th in his worst-ever IndyCar campaign), and James Hinchcliffe has announced that he was released from AA as well, could Marco potentially return to the team and fill Hinchcliffe’s spot next season? We can only hope.

When you’re a seven-time NASCAR Cup champion—tied with Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for most season titles—it would almost indicate you’re predestined for success in other racing series, if you’re so inclined to give them a try. But not for Johnson in his rookie season in IndyCar.

Even though Johnson did show incremental improvement, the stats don’t lie: Johnson’s best finish was 17th (twice, both in the season’s final two races). That’s a far cry from a guy who won 83 NASCAR Cup events.

Johnson is expected to take part in October’s big team test at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and then reach a decision whether he’ll attempt to do the full season in 2022, or if he’ll do the same thing he did in 2021: racing solely on road and street course tracks, but not ovals. If that’s the case, that means no Indy 500 (one of Johnson’s long-held goals) and, potentially, a similar overall showing in performance and the final standings. If that happens, and with him turning 46 two weeks ago, it’s not a stretch to think Johnson might not be back for a third IndyCar season in 2023.

One of the most storied organizations in American open-wheel racing just never seemed like it could collectively get on track. Granted, two-time champion Josef Newgarden had a good season on paper, finishing second to champion Alex Palou, but there just seemed to be a lot of the old Team Penske magic and a one-for-all-and-all-for-one cohesiveness missing from its four drivers.

Will Power had a rough season, including crashing into a number of his teammates in several instances, Simon Pagenaud’s contract was not renewed for 2022 (although he will have a new home, joining Castroneves at Meyer Shank Racing), and Scott McLaughlin won Rookie of the Year honors.

But it was also an understandable struggle at times for McLaughlin when it came to learning and being comfortable with American open-wheel racing, especially since he was coming off three consecutive championships (2018-2020) in Supercars in his native land down under.

Expectations were so high for the New Zealand racing legend heading into the season. He was coming off his sixth championship in 2020 and was considered by many as a favorite, if not a near-lock, to win title No. 7 and tie A.J. Foyt in 2021. There also was the expectation that he’d win several races and pass Mario Andretti for No. 2 on the all-time IndyCar career wins list (Andretti has 52 wins, Dixon 51).

Unfortunately, none of that happened for Dixon. For a guy who won three championships in the previous six seasons, 2021 was a definite un-Dixon-like season, as he earned just one win and five podiums, eventually finishing fourth in the final standings. Even worse, he wasn’t even able to compete for the championship in the final race of the year this past Sunday at Long Beach, as he was eliminated from contention the week before at Laguna Seca.

Yes, Dixon is now 41 years old, and perhaps he’s starting to slow down with age, but for as rough as 2021 was, we still feel very confident he has the potential to be the comeback driver of the year in 2022 and capture that elusive seventh championship, tying him with the legendary Foyt for most IndyCar titles.

For the second straight year, IndyCar racing north of the border was non-existent due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the closed border between the U.S. and Canada. Not only did the series and the very cosmopolitan city suffer, countless businesses that have come to rely upon the annual July event also suffered immeasurably from an economic standpoint.

Losing Toronto two years in a row was—admittedly it’s extrapolated—but almost like taking the 500 away from Indianapolis. Them Canadians, they love IndyCar racing, there’s no question about it. If there is a plus side to Toronto being twice-postponed, it’s that it was the only race on the schedule that fell by the way this season, unlike last year’s piecemeal patchwork of cancellations, relocated venues, etc.

There’s also one other good thing that hopefully will come out of Toronto being off the schedule the last two seasons: when it does return in 2022, the Toronto GP has the potential to be one of the most well-attended races—not to mention one of the biggest parties—on the circuit.

One of the more popular drivers in the sport, Sato endured one of his worst seasons in IndyCar. After winning the Indianapolis 500 for the second time in four years in 2020, Sato failed to win a race in 2021, had zero podiums and also zero poles.

Rumors continue to abound that Sato’s future will be announced any day now. There are some that believe the oldest full-time driver (44 years old) in the sport will return to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, while others believe he will be released and potentially replaced by Jack Harvey, formerly of Meyer Shank Racing. Some rumors we’ve also heard have Sato potentially going to Dale Coyne Racing for 2022 if he loses his RLL ride).

Other rumors have Sato potentially just saying “sayonara” to IndyCar after a long and successful run, and just returning to his native Land of the Rising Sun and a well-deserved retirement. Here’s hoping Sato gets a chance to come back strong in 2022.

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