IndyCar emerges as an attractive mid-career option for Formula 1 drivers

INDIANAPOLIS – Marcus Ericsson considered competing in the NTT IndyCar Series in America even before his Formula 1 contract expired.

Fernando Alonso’s 2017 Indianapolis 500 debut intrigued the young Swedish driver, and when he started watching he saw a tight and entertaining set of open wheels where anyone could win.

So when Ericsson, 30, became a free agent, he switched from F1 to IndyCar for the 2019 season with Sam Schmidt’s team. He was not selected after McLaren became a partner, but landed at powerhouse Chip Ganassi Racing.

Today, Ericsson couldn’t be happier, and he’s seeing growing interest from other Europeans. Romain Grosjean switched to IndyCar this year. On his third start he won pole and finished second.

“I think Europe is more interested in this series with me, Alonso and Grosjean coming here,” Ericsson said. “More people are talking about it, watching it. There are still questions in the paddock about the ovals, but interest is definitely growing there. “

He also shows up at the races.

Chip Ganassi Racing driver Marcus Ericsson answers questions from a young fan during Indy 500 qualifying (Marc Lebryk / USA TODAY Sports).

Eight of the 33 Indianapolis 500 starters last weekend had F1 experience, including Ericsson (who recorded 97 overseas starts) and Simona de Silvestro, a former test driver. The roster also includes two-time Indy 500 winners Juan Pablo Montoya and Takuma Sato, 2016 racing champion Alexander Rossi and Pietro Fittipaldi, the grandson of two-time Indy 500 winner and two-time world champion Emerson Fittipaldi.

Young Fittipaldi first raced in IndyCar in 2018 when he started six times for Dale Coyne’s team. Fittipaldi spent the next two seasons working for Haas F1 alongside Grosjean and eventually replaced his injured teammate for the final two races of last season. So when Coyne offered Fittipaldi a chance to reunite with Grojsean and drive the IndyCar oval races this season in the No.51 car, Fittipaldi quickly signed up.

“It’s a very pure form of racing, a very raw race,” he said. “As you test Indy cars in the preseason, you have to find things in the suspension to do better, and there are so many different strategies, you just race.”

Grosjean also seems at home in the United States.

After taking pole at the Indy Grand Prix in early May, his first on a major circuit in 10 years, the French driver told reporters he was considering moving his family to the United States. The next day, Grosjean has his first big podium since 2015.

Interest in American open-wheel racing waned after the 1995 split between CART and IRL, with many believing that the two competing series had become watered-down versions of an already inferior racing product, despite the appeal of win Indy.

For most of the next quarter century, F1 drivers came to America because they had no more options.

No more.

“In my opinion, and you will never get a clear or satisfactory answer, but I think everyone – whether it’s F1, IndyCar or NASCAR – the best talent is the same,” said Josef Newgarden. , double IndyCar champion. “Yes, we practice different disciplines, but I think the level of talent is the same. “

Alonso’s results also helped change the image.

International racing fans weren’t surprised when the two-time world champion Spain qualified fifth in 2017 and fought for victory until engine failure knocked him out with 21 laps to do. Alonso then failed to qualify for the 2019 race and he finished 21st in last year’s race.

“I’m a runner and the Indy 500 is the biggest race in the world,” he said afterwards.

Yet his participation was a reminder of the long and rich tradition of pilots commuting between the two series.

From 1950 to 1960, the international governing body awarded points for the world championship based on their performance in Indy. Although many declined, Alberto Ascari and his Ferrari-powered entry in 1952 and five-time world champion Juan Manuel Fangio at Indy in 1958 emerged at the forefront of a new trend in Indy racing.

Over the next decade, F1 stars became a prominent feature every May.

Two-time F1 champion Sir Jack Brabham finished ninth in 1961. The march included Jim Clark, Graham Hill, Sir Jackie Stewart and Jochen Rindt – all world champions. Clark claimed victory in 1965, and Hill followed suit in 1966. Hill remains the only driver to win the triple crown of motor racing – the 500, Le Mans and the Monaco Grand Prix.

A new generation of attempts began in earnest after Fittipaldi’s Indy victory in 1989. Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell each made two starts between 1992 and 1994, and when Fittipaldi claimed his second Indy victory in 1993, Mansell, the 1992 F1 champion, finished third and was named Indy 500 Rookie of the Year.

Sometimes the migration went the other way.

Mario Andretti, winner of the 1969 Indy, made 131 F1 starts and won the 1978 world title. His son, Michael, made 13 starts with McLaren’s F1 team in 1993 before returning to cars full time. Indy the following season.

Other Americans who have competed in F1 include Dan Gurney, who is credited with starting the champagne celebration after spraying AJ Foyt after their victory at Le Mans in 1967; two-time Indy winner Rodger Ward and 1972 Indy winner Mark Donohue, Roger Penske’s first Indy winner; and 1985 Indy champion Danny Sullivan.

AUTO: MAY 22 INDYCAR - The 105th Indianapolis 500 Qualifying
Marcus Ericsson poses for a photo after qualifying ninth for the 105th Indianapolis 500 (Brian Spurlock / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images).

Alonso’s attempt to match Hill’s triple crown feat helped keep the IndyCar looking cool in Europe.

“I think when Fernando came by was when they started watching,” said Michael Andretti, owner of the IndyCar team. “I think they like what they see because when you’re a runner you know what a good race is. In F1 it is mostly about the car and if you are late it is difficult to catch up. But here you can be 25th one week and win the next. They see it.

Grosjean and Fittipaldi admitted they knew other F1 drivers who could make the jump.

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see more F1 drivers looking to come here,” Ericsson said. “I prefer to drive an Indy car. But if I had an empty track on a test day, I would prefer an F1 because the speeds in the corners are just crazy.

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