INSIGHT: Why IndyCar got onto the F1 driver radar

Travis Hinkle/Penske Entertainment

INSIGHT: Why IndyCar got onto the F1 driver radar

Insights & Analysis

INSIGHT: Why IndyCar got onto the F1 driver radar

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In quiet moments during the upcoming Formula 1 back-to-back weekends in Spain and Monaco, plenty of drivers will catch up with goings on at Indianapolis. Some will even toy with the idea of one day racing at The Brickyard, and when inevitably asked about it by the media, will enthusiastically say it’s on their bucket list. But for most, it will remain an unfulfilled fantasy.

Five of the 33 competing in next week’s Indy 500 have raced in F1: Romain Grosjean, Takuma Sato, Marcus Ericsson, Juan Pablo Montoya and Alexander Rossi – the latter only in a brief five-race stint for the struggling Marussia team in 2015. Only one driver contesting the Monaco Grand Prix on Memorial Day weekend has run the 500, Fernando Alonso – who competed in 2017 and ’20, with the famous Bump Day DNQ in between.

Alonso’s Indy 500 quest is very much the outlier in modern times. In 2017, he skipped Monaco to compete for Andretti Autosport as part of a joint venture with his F1 employer, McLaren. But these were unique circumstances. The reality is that it’s effectively impossible to take time out of F1 to contest the Indy 500, as even if the race itself doesn’t clash, qualifying weekend almost certainly will. And that’s just the problem of availability before you even consider the difficulty of finding a ride for the 500, the problem of clashing partners, contractual concerns and the myriad other stumbling blocks.

The more realistic way to get to The Brickyard is to make a wholesale switch to IndyCar. Again, there’s the problem of landing a drive, but on top of that there’s also the need to be committed to doing so and take seriously the challenge of adapting to a high-level series full of drivers with significant experience. It’s not to be taken lightly.

Usually, F1 drivers are laser-focused on grand prix racing. The majority started out in karting with that as their sole objective and, for many, the idea of racing in anything other than F1 simply wasn’t on the radar. And for those who did have to consider alternative directions, generally it was options closer to home that appealed – sportscars, for example. The same applies to many of those who drop out of F1. Those who strike out to the USA are in the minority, even though there have been plenty of success stories.

Ericsson spent five years in F1 from 2014-2019, first with the Caterham team then Sauber/Alfa Romeo. During that time, he admits to not paying much attention to IndyCar beyond a casual interest in the Indy 500. He only really considered the possibility of driving there when it became clear his F1 journey was coming to an end.

“For many years, even when I was in F1, it didn’t really feel like IndyCar was that natural a step,” says Ericsson. “It was quite far away from the European ladder and even for guys in F2, IndyCar was never in this sort of focus.

“But Max Chilton did the step a couple of years before me and went to Indy Lights [in 2015] and put a little focus on it. Then I took the gamble when I got out of my F1 seat and came here. It seems it has picked up ever since.

IndyCar was not on Grosjean’s horizon early on. When his F1 career stumbled at the end of 2009, he switched to sportscars for 2010 and raced a Ford GT1 for the Matech team. Jeff Bloxham/Motorsport Images

“Obviously Romain, with how big he became in F1, has put a lot of focus on it and Fernando as well when he did the 500. So I definitely feel like it’s getting more and more attention. And you see guys like Christian Lundgaard and Callum Ilott coming here.

“Drivers realize that you can come here, it’s super-competitive, it’s fun and you can make a career out of it, which is getting harder and harder in Europe unless you are in a proper junior ladder team, it is hard to get all the way. So it feels like it’s getting more and more attractive.”

Grosjean is a case in point. He once indicated he had little interest in IndyCar, but started to consider it when it became clear his time in F1 was coming to an end. He admitted that part of his change of heart was his earlier failing to realize that IndyCar was not dominated by oval races, effectively believing the current 12/5 split in favor of road and street courses was the other way round. And having arrived with Dale Coyne Racing last year on a non-oval deal, he fell in love with IndyCar and added the ovals to his schedule along with a move to Andretti Autosport.

Grosjean has been a phenomenal ambassador for IndyCar in Europe. The sheer enthusiasm with which he has embraced life Stateside, even moving his family over this year, has made clear the appeal of this form of racing. Ericsson achieved something similar in a more low-key way, and the Swede is also now based in the USA and part of a powerhouse team after joining Chip Ganassi Racing for his second season. And he’s a proven race-winner, something there’s every chance of Grosjean also becoming this year.

These two are perhaps the true standard bearers, even more so than Alonso. His interest in IndyCar was largely restricted to the desire to conquer the Indy 500 and while his assault on the race in 2017 created arguably the closest thing to the ‘Mansellmania’ of 1993, it was always part of a very different plan. It was the Triple Crown Alonso coveted, with the Indy 500 now the missing piece given he’s ticked off the other two parts of it.

While the Triple Crown is still an objective, it’s on the backburner while he remains in F1. In the unlikely event he doesn’t sign a new deal to remain with Alpine in 2023, perhaps he could return to The Brickyard soon, but it seems unlikely. And there’s little sign he covets a full-time ride in IndyCar – although who knows what might happen once F1 really is done and dusted for him.

Alonso is a one-off, but it’s the examples of Ericsson and Grosjean that resonate more with those currently in and around F1. Indeed, Grosjean consulted old rival Ericsson when he started considering the move. More recently, when Alex Albon was on the F1 sidelines as Red Bull reserve last year prior to landing a Williams drive for 2022, he also took a look at IndyCar, visiting the Indy road course race in August and speaking to Grosjean and others about the appeals of IndyCar.

Of course, IndyCar is not for everyone. Nico Hulkenberg tested an Arrow McLaren SP car at Barber Motorsports Park last October and there was the chance to pursue further running. But the 34-year-old rejected the idea, citing personal reasons and preferring to remain in Europe. Whether the car itself or the prospect of spending so much time in the U.S. – or many of the other possible factors – was his reasoning is unclear. But there was at least an opportunity there. It’s to Hulkenberg’s credit that he recognized there were reasons not to do it rather than just assuming he could wing it.

The F1-to-IndyCar transition took some time for Ericsson, but the Swede has found his stride with Chip Ganassi Racing. Penske Entertainment

IndyCar demands commitment. Ericsson had a stuttering start in IndyCar with what was then simply Schmidt Peterson Motorsports in 2019, with second in Detroit and a couple of seventh places his only top-10 results. Things improved when he moved to Ganassi the following year, but it was only really midway through his third season in 2021 that he hit his stride and emerged as both a race-winner and title threat. That long game has paid off and he’s now well-established.

“When I came over, the first year was pretty poor – I didn’t get one podium,” says Ericsson. “I didn’t underestimate it, but it was definitely tougher than I expected.

“But when I got some experience on these tracks and with these cars and in a very good team with Chip Ganassi Racing, I definitely feel like I found my feet and then started winning races and running up front. That’s been really fun.

“But definitely, it’s easy for people in Europe to underestimate how tough it is here, especially going up against guys like Dixon, Power – these guys have been racing on these tracks in these cars for over 20 years. So to come here and think you can beat them straight away is not really realistic.”

Realism is the other essential. Privately, F1 driver opinions differ on the challenge and appeal of IndyCar, but it demands respect. When Alonso ran Indy in 2017 – leading the race and being on course at least to be in the mix in the final battle when his Honda engine let go – he became a student of the art. In the mornings prior to practice, he would be in the simulator and studied every aspect of what he had to do. And that allowed him to look completely at home come race day.

Mansell took a similar approach back in 1993, albeit one tailored to the times. He studied video footage of races to get the measures of his opposition, which helped him take on and beat a field containing some legendary names. And this was in an era when it simply wasn’t a case of logging into YouTube. Like Alonso, he became a student of IndyCar racing.

It’s the nature of the beast in the 21st century that professional racing drivers at the top level are generally tied to one category. There are exceptions, but even racing polyglots like Kyle Larson are restricted to broadly their own racing ecosystem. As Larson said when visiting the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix last season of the possibility of trying F1, “if it was somehow more realistic, I would entertain it”.

The days of Mario Andretti attempting to run an IndyCar race and a grand prix on the same day are long gone, as are those when F1 stars like Jackie Stewart, Graham Hill and Jack Brabham could take on Indy. But the impact made recently by Alonso, Ericsson and, in particular, Grosjean, has led to a shift in the mindset of F1 drivers – both race drivers and those on the periphery.

IndyCar is seen as an alternative to be considered – and taken – seriously. That doesn’t mean there will be a deluge of such drivers, but it is another sign of IndyCar’s resurgence in the minds of those who might once only have had eyes for F1.

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