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DCM Feature: The Resurrection of IndyCar

Despite its troubles, Formula One remains the pinnacle of motorsport. In recent years however, more and more of its driver pool has leaked into the IndyCar Series as a Stateside alternative. Can America’s top-level single-seater series really go toe-to-toe with F1? We’ve been investigating.

When Juan-Pablo Montoya clinched the 1999 CART Series title in his rookie year, the stage was set for the love-or-hate Colombian to take on Formula One’s finest. Montoya didn’t just take on F1, at times he blew it away, with a flourish of Latin flare leaving the likes of Michael Schumacher and Mika Hakkinen without reply, and fans around the world championing their new hero.

Montoya’s success should have helped U.S. single-seater racing shine internationally. What actually happened was a steep decline. With the Champ Car World Series and the Indy Racing League (IRL) both struggling for identity and recognition, numbers dropped on the grid, in teams’ chequebooks, and among those watching at home and from the stands.

In recent times however, the clout of U.S. single-seater racing has returned in the form of the Verizon IndyCar Series. No longer a graveyard for washed up Formula One personalities and nearly-men, the series boasts a paddock brimming with excitement and appeal. Old and new. Legend and promise.

Take last month’s Phoenix Grand Prix for example. The esteemed likes of Montoya, Helios Castroneves, Michael Andretti and AJ Foyt rubbed shoulders with the promising likes of Simon Pagenaud, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Alexander Rossi, both on and off the track, and all stars in their own right.

So what’s brought IndyCar’s rise about? Well, one finger can be fired straight towards the continued unrest in and around Formula One. Escalating costs, dwindling fan figures, and a paddock tearing itself a part in the press mean that the holy grail isn’t quite what it once was. In that sense, F1’s loss is IndyCar’s gain, with no less than five ex-F1 race drivers taking to the oval at Phoenix last weekend, and a further six sprouting from F1’s feeder series, GP2 and GP3.

“IndyCar is definitely growing in popularity as being an alternative to Formula 1 for up-and-coming drivers, and drivers who have raced in F1 can also stand out more in IndyCar,” points out NBC F1 Journalist, Luke Smith.

“The likes of Conor Daly, Alexander Rossi and Max Chilton struggled to make too much of a splash on the F1 scene in tests and, in the case of the latter duo, their race outings. However, all three enjoyed strong performances at St. Petersburg in March, and to see any of them win a race would not be all that surprising.”

Of course it would be unfair on IndyCar to cite its recent success as only a result of F1’s decline. A new spec car, the Dallara DW12, was introduced following the tragic death of Dan Wheldon at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in 2011, followed by a complete series rebrand, a tighter calendar (as to not clash with America’s darling NFL season), and more recently a revision of the once complex sporting regulations. Such changes mean that IndyCar is now one of the safest, closest, most-watched and entertaining race series on the planet.

Compared to F1, the perks of competing are remarkably cheap, too. Figures gathered by Formula Money show that the annual budget of a top F1 team (Mercedes, Ferrari, etc) bounces around $470 million. As for a top level Indy team? $15 million.

“I think the two biggest things that have helped it are cost and opportunity,” adds the editor of MotorSportsTalk on NBC Sports, Tony DiZinno. “By that I mean, even though generally speaking you might need a bit of budget to make it to either, you need significantly less to make it to IndyCar than you do to F1.”

“Opportunity exists in that it doesn’t really matter which team you’re with: you have a chance to win at nearly every team. In F1, you only have four or five drivers that can really win based on the car at hand. In IndyCar, there’s about 15 or 18 drivers that can realistically win out of 20.”

With IndyCar now once again a hotspot across the pond for fast European exiles, greater squeeze is being put on North America’s own upcoming talent, most of which finds itself rising the Mazda Road to Indy (MRTI) ladder. Made up of the USF2000, Pro Mazda and Indy Lights (contested this season by DCM’s Felix Serralles), the package allows for a natural progression towards IndyCar – something exemplified by 2015 Indy Lights champion and 2016 IndyCar driver, Spencer Pigot.

Despite the success of MRTI however, the majority of this season’s IndyCar pack consists of ex-European-based racers. Is such an influx of talent damaging for U.S. motorsport?

“I think it’s more good than bad,” DiZinno says. “Having F1/GP2 drivers who come over to IndyCar add international prestige and are generally more widely known on a worldwide stage than guys who come up the traditional route through the North American open-wheel ladder system.”

“That being said, while one or two isn’t a bad thing, I don’t want to see drivers who’ve plied their trade here for years be passed over for guys that come over for a year or two and then leave.”

As much must be a concern. After all, let’s not forget the baron years of the early ‘00s that followed CART’s heyday in the ‘90s. It remains to be seen whether or not history repeats itself and IndyCar outgrows itself in years to come. Smith at least, sees the series’ upwards trend continuing in the long-term.

“As more and more drivers ‘hit the ceiling’ towards reaching F1 and the pool of talent becomes more saturated, IndyCar will definitely become a more popular option. A number of big seats will be on offer in the coming years, offering a great opportunity for some to make the move across. If success is what drivers want, then they are better stationed in IndyCar to make it happen.”

Henry James, DCM’s VP of Talent, sees others capitalising on the growing strength of America’s single-seater motorsports.

“As talent managers, we have been attracted to the growing level of competition and excitement surrounding the Verizon IndyCar Series, which is why we have contributed to the movement of young talents from East to West in the form of Felix Serralles and Raoul Owens in MRTI last year. And it’s not just drivers on their way to IndyCar, but also foreign teams such as Carlin – a highly regarded British team that has nurtured several of today’s F1 drivers – which intends to run competitively in IndyCar in the not so distant future. For now, their route to market has got off to a flying start in Indy Lights with a number of wins in their debut season in the U.S.”

IndyCar is in a good place, if not a great place compared to F1, and its current success comes from years of restructuring, hard work and great racing. Last weekend’s race in Phoenix was IndyCar’s first at the venue since 2005. An apt venue for a series that has well and truly risen from its darker days.

Feature by Joe Diamond, Media Reporter at DCM.

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