Simon Pagenaud at Barber

The NTT INDYCAR SERIES is driving closer to the start of the 2021 season, and a private test Tuesday, Feb. 23 at Barber Motorsports Park – site of the season opener Sunday, April 18 – has us ready to go after getting a glimpse of what’s to come.

Five teams took on the natural road course in Birmingham, Alabama, to prepare for the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama presented by AmFirst, which can be seen live April 18 on NBC. Times and speeds aren’t released from private tests, but various reports and social media content offered us a quick glimpse at the work teams were putting in down on the 17-turn, 2.38-mile racetrack, allowing us to shift our minds into fifth gear to see what we can expect on the road ahead.

Here are five takeaways:

Romain has arrived

Formula One veteran Romain Grosjean’s first day on the job driving the No. 51 Dale Coyne Racing with RWR Honda was a success.

Grosjean, 34, told on Tuesday he was facing challenges from both the car and his hand, which was burned in a fiery crash at the Bahrain Grand Prix in November 2020. But he quickly noted they were good challenges as he transitioned to the daunting, 1,700-pound Indy car.

He went off course once due to the Formula One driving style engrained in his mind. His biceps were sore from muscling the power steering-less car. He had to learn new throttle-brake techniques and driving lines. And he loved it.

According to reports, Grosjean is a fast learner. He was just nine-tenths of a second behind the quickest driver of the day, Rinus VeeKay, despite having zero prior experience in an Indy car. Grosjean told media after the test he and his team experimented with several different setups so he could understand the feel of an Indy car.

Grosjean will certainly have a lot more learning to do this season as he takes on all 13 road-and-street courses, but it’s safe to say he’s off to a good start.

ECR stands tall

According to reports, 2020 NTT INDYCAR SERIES Rookie of the Year Rinus VeeKay was the quickest driver of the day at Barber Motorsports Park. Pair it with the fact VeeKay has yet to compete at Barber in an Indy car and his main goal was simply to get in laps at this course, and you should be very impressed with his drive Tuesday.

VeeKay showed impressive bursts of speed throughout the 2020 season, scoring a pole and podium finish in the No. 21 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet, and it looks like he and his team put in the right work over the offseason to continue that march toward the top of the podium.

Meanwhile, VeeKay’s teammate Conor Daly was right in his tire tracks Tuesday by posting a top-five lap time. Daly is entering year two of splitting the No. 20 Chevrolet with team owner Ed Carpenter, who will drive the car in the four oval races on the schedule while Daly takes on the road and street courses, and he said on Twitter after the test that his ECR team’s work has made him optimistic for the 2021 season.

As ECR brings back its same driver lineup for the second consecutive year, could this team have hit on something that will help it score its first win since Josef Newgarden drove the team to Victory Circle at Iowa Speedway in 2016?

The Bourdais effect

Four-time INDYCAR SERIES champion Sebastien Bourdais is back to a full-time NTT INDYCAR SERIES schedule with AJ Foyt Racing, a team that brought the veteran into the fold late last season with the hopes of putting it back on the right track after a lackluster past few seasons.

If earlier preseason testing and Tuesday’s test are any indication, Foyt might have struck gold.

Bourdais slotted in his No. 14 Chevrolet just behind VeeKay on the leaderboard, and he tweeted his car put down the fastest lap of the day with no push-to-pass assistance.

The day was an impressive continuation of the Frenchman’s performance for Foyt, which dates back to the end of 2020. Bourdais drove the final three races of 2020, scoring an impressive fourth-place finish in the season finale at St. Petersburg. Clearly, Bourdais has found speed at AJ Foyt Racing.

Sure, Barber was just a test. But this is not a test: Bourdais is ready.

Team Penske looks strong

Based on reports out of Barber, all four Team Penske Chevrolets followed VeeKay closely on the time sheet.

Will Power was the leader for the team, clocking in the fastest Penske lap and completing the most laps among the team’s quartet at the test, which he saw as vital for his team because of its proximity to the start of the season.

NTT INDYCAR SERIES rookie Scott McLaughlin appeared to be getting up to speed nicely. He was sandwiched between his teammates on the unofficial speed chart and told teammate Power he was very happy with his drive. McLaughlin’s learning curve is flattening in a hurry, which is remarkable considering he has one career INDYCAR start and has spent his entire career in touring cars.

Team Penske will start four drivers this season in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES, the first time it has done so consistently since 2015-17 as Josef Newgarden (No. 2), McLaughlin (No. 3), Power (No. 12) and Simon Pagenaud (No. 22) represent The Captain.

Coming up

Though Tuesday’s test was a private show, it was an important one. Unlike Sebring, where teams tested in late January and early February, Barber is on the INDYCAR schedule. Sure, it’s only testing, but teams that hit on something could get a strong start to the season April 18 in the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama.

A handful of teams are scheduled to test in the first 10 days of March, at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca and Barber. But none of those sessions will have as many cars as the 12 that turned laps Tuesday at Barber.

The next “big group” tests shift from left and right turns to just lefts. A private test is scheduled in late March at Texas Motor Speedway, with an official Open Test in early April at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Those two tests could give an early glimpse of favorites for the 105th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge on Sunday, May 30.

Sebring showed us who could be good on street courses, Barber showed us who we should watch for at the beginning of the season, and in just over a month, we might get a pretty good idea of who to watch come May.

Stay tuned.