‘The respect level is rising': IndyCar drivers validated by interest from F1, Europeans
INDIANAPOLIS – It’s been 14 years since F1 drivers rumbled over the blue and white curbs on the Brickyard’s European-style layout that essentially was built for the world’s biggest racing series.
But around the NTT IndyCar Series paddock this weekend, Indianapolis Motor Speedway has featured as much Formula One flair as when Gasoline Alley once was graced by a delightful mix of foreign accents chattering amid a cosmopolitan atmosphere of stainless steel coffee makers and skinny jeans.
Alex Albon, who drove full time in F1 for Red Bull last season and remains a reserve test driver with the team, made the rounds Friday for impromptu IndyCar seat fittings and informal talks with car owners about potential rides. Danish driver Christian Lundgaard, a F1 prospect who drives in F2 for the Alpine F1 team, qualified a stunning fourth for his IndyCar debut and is keeping his options open for future racing in America.
Meanwhile among the IndyCar regulars, Sweden’s Marcus Ericsson remained quick after his Nashville victory, budding Spaniard Alex Palou is leading the points standings, and rising Mexican star Pato O’Ward won the pole position – the second consecutive on the IMS road course for a driver with an international background after F1 veteran and IndyCar rookie Romain Grosjean turned heads with his first career pole and runner-up finish here in May.
After matching his career best with another second Saturday at the IMS road course, Grosjean said he still was following F1 but wasn’t missing the European scene nor in contact much with his competition from the past decade.
“It’s a very different paddock and you don’t get so much relationship than you do (in IndyCar),” said Grosjean, noting how unusual the friendly rivalries are that he texted Colton Herta after getting beaten for the pole in Nashville last week. “It’s an incredible paddock. I can’t explain it, but hopefully, it’s not changing because it’s beautiful.”
For American Conor Daly, who raced in Europe in the GP2 and GP3 series from 2011-13, it’s a culmination of long-overdue recognition and validation for IndyCar’s prestige.
“The one thing I think we as a series deserve is just more respect from over there,” Daly told NBC Sports. “When I was over in Europe, the respect for IndyCar was so low, really unjustifiably low. And it’s like, ‘Why?’ I don’t get it.
“You see the crossover and see guys like Grosjean and Ericsson over here, and I just feel like the respect level is rising now and getting to a place where a lot of Formula One teams used to send guys to the Super Formula Series or whatever, but what if they send them to IndyCar instead?
“Because this is without a doubt some of the best racing on the planet right now and one of the most competitive fields. We’ve got 28 cars here this weekend. Where else are we doing that with a top-level open-wheel series in the world? Nowhere.”
Along with Lundgaard and Albon, F1 veteran Daniil Kvyat and F2 driver Marcus Armstrong also have been linked to interest in IndyCar as it becomes a more viable option to both European-based drivers and teams.
The Alpine F1 Team, which fields Fernando Alonso and Esteban Ocon in F1, brokered the deal that put Lundgaard (who is under contract to Alpine) in a Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing ride this weekend.
“I don’t know why it took so long, and with those drivers come sponsors, because if you get more drivers from Europe, there’s more sponsors from Europe,” Palou told NBC Sports. “Then there’s more interest from fans in Europe, so I think it’s great for (IndyCar). It’s great for drivers that they see there’s more opportunities.
“I think at some point in Europe they get to where it’s either you get to Formula One or you need to stop driving. I think when they get to know IndyCar, they’re going to see it’s even better than F1. And Albon is going to say that. He’s going to be able to say how cool is IndyCar. I think it’s going to be good for us. It’s going to show the level we have in IndyCar. Years ago, it was viewed as a step down. As soon as we get more drivers, like Albon will be great if he comes here just because he’s been at the top. There are some people that say, ‘Oh, they don’t have such a big level, and that’s why some drivers succeed so much,’ but once they have to go wheel to wheel with Scott Dixon, I think they’re going to know.”
Rinus VeeKay, the 2020 IndyCar rookie of the year, made a conscious decision to leave Europe as a teenager and focus on the U.S. single-seater Mazda Road to Indy ladder series (which propelled him to the top level through championship scholarship funding).
The Dutchman, who raced against Lundgaard in go-karts, believes there’s an appeal to the “badass” form of flat-out IndyCar racing vs. European style that tends to value tire management and fuel conservation.
“Seeing Grosjean be successful and Marcus Ericsson, those guys are making people think,” VeeKay told NBC Sports. “Do you want to be in Formula E? Or do you want to smoke the tires and have an actual 2.4-liter turbocharged V6 under your butt? People want to win. You’ve really got an opportunity here. Of course, you’ve got to be with a good team, but every team has the same car, so you’re always close.
“It’s super high level in IndyCar. Once you don’t give it 101 percent, you’re not going to be in the top 10. Doesn’t matter who is going to drive here, no one is going to be dominant. For some reason, people in Europe and F1, they think America is not at the same level as Europe, but the level is just crazy, crazy high. I think because F1 is in their minds the highest, and IndyCar is just a bit slower because it doesn’t cost $500 million a year. It’s in their eyes like a step down. But NASCAR is slower than us, and if I’m going to drive a NASCAR right now, I guarantee I’m not going to be the fastest. I think people should not compare things and just enjoy everything on its own. Because everything is its own league.”
After leaving Formula E two years ago, Felix Rosenqvist became a first-time IndyCar winner last season, helping raise the series’ Scandinavian profile with fellow countryman Ericsson and creating a link to an American series “that was just so far away.
“It creates a lot of momentum in Sweden, and those kinds of things means a lot for young drivers and fans,” Rosenqvist told NBC Sports. “And we have Linus Lundqvist now in Indy Lights who is doing very well. For him to see we can be here and do well, it just motivates him and that’s going to motivate the next generation of drivers coming up. So yeah, we’re sort of the leaders of our sport now because we don’t have anyone in F1, and we’re here to prove to everyone back home you can have a career over here.
“There’s definitely a change in what’s going on between Europe and America with IndyCar and F1, and there seems to be a lot of interest in the series. I saw Alex Albon sneaking around the paddock. I saw Marcus Armstrong and Christian Lundgaard is now looking. Not only Indy Lights drivers trying to get in, but it’s like all the guys in F2 who think they can’t get into F1 for different reasons. It’s so difficult to get into F1. There’s so much politics and money, and those guys obviously want to have a career, and they start looking here now. A couple of years ago, no one really did that, but me and Marcus and now Romain, Alex Palou, we’ve proven that you can have a good career here, and that just creates a gateway for other drivers.”
Even reaching F1 can be a slog as Ericsson discovered in 97 starts and a career-best finish of eighth during five seasons from 2014-18.
“For sure, I feel like the people back in Europe, there’s more and more eyes on IndyCar for sure,” Ericsson, who was fastest in Saturday’s warmup, told NBC Sports. “I hear of guys like Albon and Kvyat also sniffing around for seats. So there is a lot of interest in the series, which I think is great. The talent level and the depth of the field in IndyCar is the best in the world. It’s such a competitive series. That’s why also a lot of drivers are going to come here and compete against all these great drivers.
“For me personally, it was tough in F1 to not get the chance to show what you can do. So I’m just loving that opportunity to be able to finally show my potential and what I can do.”
As a championship contender with two victories and a series-leading three pole positions this season, O’Ward’s stature has been elevated to being mentioned as an F1 candidate again (his Arrow McLaren SP team also fields cars in F1), but he also isn’t sure he now would want to leave IndyCar.
“I don’t think it’s been this competitive in decades and guys who have competed decades ago have said that,” O’Ward told NBC Sports. “It’s so tough, man.
“I’m super proud to be in IndyCar. I think it’s a very enjoyable series to race; I just think it’s very raw in terms of what the driver has to do with how you have to hustle the car. Everything is very raw, which I love. I feel at home here.
“I think you get something here in IndyCar that they don’t get anywhere else, which is an ability to win. You don’t have to be in the best team to be able to win a race because it’s so competitive, and the big guys can make a mistake and ultimately pass on the win to you. It sucks to be in Formula One with a non-winning championship car, and you don’t win in 10 years. Or for your whole career. I think that’s something that makes IndyCar so inviting.”
Another attractive factor for European road racers is the schedule. Of the 16 races in 2021, only four are on three oval tracks.
Grosjean initially committed only to road and street courses but will be making his oval debut next week at World Wide Technology Raceway. It’s a daunting task that Palou experienced last year when he plunged head-first into Texas Motor Speedway – the first oval race of his life – for his IndyCar debut.
Lundgaard called it a “tricky question” when asked this week if he would be interested in a full IndyCar season despite having no oval experience.
“I think the series right now with the lack of ovals seems more appealing to those guys,” Dixon said. “So it’ll be interesting to see how that plays. I don’t know how many of them will end up doing the ovals. That’s always been the sticking thing of ‘Oh yeah, I want to do the IndyCar racing, I’m not sure if I want to do ovals.’ ”
Last year’s introduction of the aeroscreen (which offers greater cockpit protection) might be changing that equation, though.
“They always put a stigma on the oval racing, but really the most dangerous one is Indy,” Dixon said. “And the other ones, from recent crashes that I’ve had on ovals, the cars are so much safer now. The impact is way less than it used to be.”
That could make IndyCar more of an option for Albon and Lundgaard, who seemed even more interested in IndyCar as “definitely” a possible career path after his showing Friday.
“To come here to do this race I think is a good thing for us for the future, to be able to decide,” he said. “I would say looking at the results and from the performance today, it probably looks bright for the future. But I’m not going to say it’s going to be this. There’s so many options. I’m here to explore.”