Exciting outro fails to make up for wayward middle eight on Nashville's IndyCar return

Indycar Racing News

Nine cautions, several battered Dallaras and one confused winner – Nashville certainly provided drama, if not exactly hitting the entertainment sweetspot, on its IndyCar return

2021 IndyCar Nashville Music City Grand Prix

27 into one won't go: the "fiddly" sections of track struggled to accommodate a tightly packed field


When Marcus Ericsson’s Chip Ganassi Racing Dallara was pointing at the sky ahead of a lap-five restart on Sunday, it seemed the ex-Sauber Formula 1 driver’s impressive recent form had come to an embarrassing and all too sudden halt. He’d just smashed into the back of Sebastien Bourdais’ Foyt entry after misjudging when to accelerate, launched over the back of the Frenchman’s car and apparently ruined both their days at the inaugural Music City Grand Prix in downtown Nashville. Actually, he’d only destroyed Bourdais’ race. His own… well, somehow Ericsson went on to win in one of the most remarkable and unlikely comebacks we’ll ever see in a single-seater motor race. His front suspension had no right to survive the crash back to earth – but somehow it all held together to offer the best publicity for Dallara chassis strength the Italian company could ever wish for.

The performance capped a big weekend for IndyCar, the culmination of a highly anticipated first race on a new street circuit in the home of country music, away from the oval that has hosted races in Nashville in previous years. A bumper entry of 27 cars, the most this side of the Indianapolis 500, and fever-pitch fan excitement from the 70,000-strong crowd made this quite an occasion. And yet despite Ericsson’s remarkable feat, the race was a let-down as nine caution periods, meaning 33 of the 80 laps were run under yellows, made this a frustrating stop-start affair with no rhythm but plenty of blues. The race started late in the afternoon too, so doubts even crept in over whether bad light would stop play.

2021 IndyCar Nashville Music City Grand Prix bridge

Cars raced across the Korean War Veterans’ Bridge, crossing over the Cumberland River in an ambitious layout


The circuit had character thanks to its signature feature: the Korean War Veterans Memorial Bridge that spans the Cumberland River, over which the track streamed back and forth on both carriageways. At both ends ‘technical’ (motor sport speak for fiddly) sections linked the track together and were reminiscent of what we usually find in Formula E: too narrow, twisty and not conducive to good, clean motor racing. Let’s be clear, drivers were at fault for the high number of collisions and mistakes made on Sunday and they must take responsibility for that. Will Power stands out for triggering an 11-car pile-up and race stoppage when he clipped his own Penske team-mate Simon Pagenaud and sent him into the wall. But just as in Formula E, such experienced drivers who really should know better were made to look a little silly by a 2.17-mile circuit that wasn’t fit for purpose.

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It’s a tough one. Like all street circuit designers, Tony Cotman could only work with what he had on either side of the bridge, which made for a spectacular setting for the start. But it says much that it was the only realistic point to kick off the race even though it led into Turn 9 of 11. The run to the Turn 1 chicane was an impossibly tight funnel for a full pack of cars to stream into without chaos. The tightest bits need another look if this race is to match the hype and enthusiasm the locals are showing for it – but exactly what can be done within the confines of city limits remains to be seen.

The battle between Ericsson and Andretti Autosport’s Colton Herta went some way towards saving the day. Herta had been phenomenal all weekend, setting the pace in all sessions and claiming his second pole position of the season by some margin. In the race too he showed different class, making up for a strategy that lost him track position twice. And it must be said, he proved to the rest that clean overtaking was possible around here – although in Ericsson he finally met his match.

2021 IndyCar Nashville Music City Grand Prix crash

Nash crash: nine ‘cautions’ (including two red flags) didn’t help the flow of the race


Herta’s final stop, taken during the seventh caution period on lap 51, dropped him from the lead to ninth – but he was spectacular in how he carved his way back up to second, his pass on six-time champion Scott Dixon into the fast Turn 9 the stand-out manoeuvre of the bunch. People keep saying this 21-year-old is the future of IndyCar. He sure looked like it in Nashville – even if he ultimately dropped a clanger in his frustration over a futile chase to win back the lead.

Even Ericsson was a little confused how he went from flying into the air to victory. Significantly, he didn’t hang about after the early collision and made it back to the pits for repairs in haste, despite his front wing folding under the car at one point, lifting a wheel and threatening to leave him without steering. He was lucky the wing freed itself and broke away. The 30-year-old served a deserved stop-go penalty for the Bourdais assault and then on an off-set strategy benefited from a string of decent restarts during the subsequent safety car interruptions. When Herta lost his lead for the first time, stopping under caution ahead of a train of rivals who also came in on lap 31, it was Ericsson who assumed the lead – and track position always counts for a great deal at such circuits.

But if fortune saved Ericsson’s blushes, he deserves full credit for the way he drove in the closing stages, managing a “big number” on fuel saving and at the same time driving beautifully to keep out of Herta’s range. It was clear the Ganassi car was more slippery across the bridge, Ericsson opening up car lengths every time they crossed it. Also his red-walled ‘option’ tyres, seven laps older than Herta’s primes, appeared to give him the grip he needed to make clean and rapid exits from the slow stuff. No wonder Herta became frustrated, culminating in his crash at Turn 9 with six laps to go. He went in too hot and clobbered the tyre wall with force, luckily avoiding injury to his thumbs on the steering wheel. A huge disappointment and a case of one that got away – but would he have made it past Ericsson as the Swede became critical on fuel? We’ll never know.

2021 IndyCar NASH Marcus Ericsson

Not even Marcus Ericsson was sure how he’d won after crash-landing heavily early on


After the ninth and final safety car interlude, Ericsson completed a two-lap sprint to the flag to keep clear of Dixon, the pair delivering a great 1-2 for Ganassi, with James Hinchcliffe bringing some consolation to Andretti with his third-place podium – much needed for a driver who could be looking for a new ride next year, if speculation is on the mark.

So a great occasion, then, some great stories – but ultimately a frustrating race. IndyCar is on to something special in Nashville, but if it really wants to stay in tune in Music City next year the race will need a sharper melody and to be played with many fewer bum notes.