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IndyCar emerges as an attractive midcareer destination for Formula One drivers

INDIANAPOLIS -- Marcus Ericsson considered racing the NTT IndyCar Series in America even before his Formula One contract expired.

The 2017 Indianapolis 500 debut of Fernando Alonso intrigued the young Swedish driver, and when he started watching, he saw a tight, entertaining open-wheel series where anyone could win.

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

Today, Ericsson couldn’t be happier, and he sees growing interest from other Europeans. Romain Grosjean moved to IndyCar this year. In his third start, he won the 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 some questions in the paddock about the ovals, but the interest is definitely growing over there.”

It’s showing up at the races, too.

IndyCar: Crown Royal Armed Forces Qualifying

May 22, 2021; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Chip Ganassi Racing driver Marcus Ericsson (8) answers interview questions from a young fan during the first day of qualifying for the 2021 Indianapolis 500 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

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

The younger 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 last season. So when Coyne offered Fittipaldi a chance to reunite with Grojsean and drive IndyCar’s oval races this season in the No. 51 car, Fittipaldi quickly signed up.

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

Grosjean seems right at home in the U.S., too.

After claiming the Indy Grand Prix pole in early May, his first on a major circuit in 10 years, the French driver told reporters he was thinking about moving his family to the U.S. The next day, Grosjean made his first major podium appearance since 2015.

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

For most of the next quarter-century, F1 drivers came to America because they were out of options.

Not anymore.

“In my opinion, and you’re never going to get a clear or satisfactory answer, but I think everybody - whether it’s F1, IndyCar or NASCAR - the top talent is the same,” two-time IndyCar champ Josef Newgarden said. “Yes, we do different disciplines, but I think the talent level is the same.”

Alonso’s results helped change the image, too.

International race fans weren’t surprised when the two-time world champ from Spain qualified fifth in 2017 and contended for the race win until an engine failure knocked him out with 21 laps to go. Alonso then failed to qualify for the 2019 race and he finished 21st in last year’s race.

“I am a racer, and the Indy 500 is the greatest race in the world,” he said afterward.

Still, his participation was a reminder of the long, rich tradition of drivers shuttling between the two series.

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

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

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

A new generation of attempts began in earnest after the elder Fittipaldi won at Indy in 1989. Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell each made two starts between 1992 and 1994, and when Fittipaldi picked up his second Indy win in 1993, Mansell, the 1992 F1 champ, finished third and was named the Indy 500 rookie of the year.

Occasionally, the migration has gone the other way.

Mario Andretti, the 1969 Indy winner, 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 full time to Indy cars the next season.

Other Americans who competed in F1 include Dan Gurney, who is credited with starting the champagne celebration after spraying A.J. Foyt following their win 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 champ Danny Sullivan.

AUTO: MAY 22 INDYCAR - The 105th Indianapolis 500 Qualifying

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 22: NTT Indy Car series driver Marcus Ericsson (8) poses for a photo after qualifying for the 105th running of the Indianapolis 500 on May 22, 2021 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Brian Spurlock/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Alonso’s attempt to match Hill’s triple-crown feat helped make IndyCar seem cool in Europe again.

“I think when Fernando came over was when they started watching,” IndyCar team owner Michael Andretti said. “I think they enjoy what they’re seeing because when you’re a racer, you know what good racing is. In F1, it’s mostly about the car and if you’re behind, it’s hard to catch up. But here you can be 25th one week and still win the next. They see that.”

Grosjean and Fittipaldi acknowledged they know of other F1 drivers who might make the jump.

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