For decades, in May, motorsports in the United States focused on an event: the Indianapolis 500, one of America’s most storied sporting traditions and the crown jewel of the North America-based IndyCar racing series.
But that usual script flipped this year as Formula 1 kicked off the month with its inaugural Miami Grand Prix, an outlandish spectacle that served as a global series’ coming-out party in the United States, drawing A-list celebrities and the highest American TV. Rating ever for a live Formula 1 race.
On the surface, IndyCar drivers welcomed Formula 1’s success. “If you love F1, then you will love IndyCar,” said Josef Newgarden, a two-time IndyCar champion, said on TwitterGeneral Chat Chat Lounge “Seeing the rise in popularity for the F1 side is such a positive for open-wheel racing as a whole.”
But could this really be a case of rising tides’ lifting all boats, or is Formula 1 threatening to steal some of the limelight – and fans – from IndyCar?
Drivers ahead of Sunday’s Indianapolis 500 were not sure.
“To be brutally honest, it could be a potential threat like that,” said Helio Castroneves, a Brazilian IndyCar driver who won his record-tying fourth Indianapolis 500 last year. But Castroneves, who attended the Miami Grand Prix along with several other IndyCar Drivers said he saw Formula 1’s momentum as a positive sign.
“I believe all the hype around Miami is contagious,” he said. “There are so many people telling me that they love Formula 1 and now want to come out to Indianapolis, so I don’t think this will jeopardize our fans. It will simply educate more people about racing. “
Formula 1 and IndyCar are both open-wheel-racing series, but there are key differences between them. In Formula 1, teams produce unique cars from the ground up based on strict specifications, with drivers competing on road courses and street circuits throughout the world. Big-money teams like Mercedes and Ferrari often dominate.
In IndyCar, competitors drive nearly identical cars, with races held on a mix of oval tracks, road courses and street circuits in the United States. Parity is a hallmark of the series.
Decades ago, IndyCar – then known as the Championship Auto Racing Teams – enjoyed notable drivers with mainstream success in the United States including American racer Mario Andretti and the Formula 1 world champions Emerson Fittipaldi and Nigel Mansell. In 1996, however, there was a ownership dispute over the series to splinter into two rival leagues, resulting in a sharp drop in interest and allowing NASCAR to ascend to its premier motorsport.
“That split was a lot of drama, and no one knew who to follow or where to watch the races,” said Juan Pablo Montoya, a Colombian driver who has won multiple races in both IndyCar and Formula 1. In 2008, the series reunited Under the IndyCar name and in 2020 was purchased by the entrepreneur and American racing magnate Roger Penske.
Montoya said the new ownership, combined with Formula 1’s growing popularity in the United States, had drivers feeling optimistic about IndyCar’s future.
“There is a lot of positive moment in IndyCar right now,” Montoya said. “And if you like Formula 1, the next closest thing in the US is IndyCar, where the racing is very competitive and anyone can win any given week. So I think everyone will benefit from F1’s success. “
Next year, Formula 1 will host races in three American metropolitan areas – Las Vegas; Austin, Texas; And Miami – the most of any country. Zak Brown, an American who is the chief executive of McLaren Racing, a British team that is one of the most storied in Formula 1, believes the added exposure will have a positive impact on all US motorsports.
“Imagine the amount of new people who have turned to racing through Formula 1,” Brown said, adding that the American market is now a prime focus for McLaren – so much so that the company is investing in an IndyCar team, Arrow McLaren. SP, in 2020.
“People have just been to the Miami Grand Prix, and they loved it,” Brown said. “Now, we have one of the biggest races in the world happening lately, so this is the only increasing visibility for the Indy 500 and IndyCar, not detecting from it.”
Some industry analysts are more skeptical. Jon Lewis, a sports media professor at Northeastern University and the founder of Sports Media Watch, a blog that analyzes weekly sports ratings, is not convinced that Formula 1’s success in the United States will translate to broader American interest in motorsports.
“I suspect a lot of Formula 1’s new viewers are racing so much as they are on the Netflix show,” Lewis said, referring to “Drive to Survive,” the streaming service’s documentary series about Formula 1 that has fueled the sport’s. popularity increase. “And F1 turns its races into these glittering events, packed with celebrities. With IndyCar, you don’t even necessarily know where they are racing from week to week. “
Dennis Deninger, a former ESPN producer and a sports communications professor at Syracuse University, said IndyCar and Formula 1 might eventually need to collaborate in order for both to find sustained growth. In particular, he noted that Formula 1 should consider adding an American IndyCar driver to further its US expansion while IndyCar could attract new viewers and popularity by inviting Formula 1 drivers to select IndyCar races when scheduling allowed.
“Just imagine if Charles Leclerc or Max Verstappen were running in the Indianapolis 500,” said Deninger, referring to this year’s two leading Formula 1 drivers entering Sunday’s race in Monaco. “It’s rare that you see two distinct series like that synergy, but that kind of cross promotion between the two would work to everyone’s advantage in the long run.”
As for Sunday’s Indianapolis 500, Castroneves is optimistic that it will attract significant attention, as it will be looking to make history by winning it for a record fifth time. And he hopes that new Formula 1 fans who enjoy the Miami Grand Prix will tune in to watch.
“I believe IndyCar has the best competition of any racing series,” he said. “There is some magic to the Indianapolis 500. The history and tradition – you simply can’t reproduce it.”