In the first of a regular new series, top IndyCar journalist David Phillips casts an eye over topical racing issues Stateside
To steal a phrase from Bill Clinton, the folks in Formula One just don’t get it. ‘It’ is IndyCar racing.
Thanks to CART’s peculiar schedule which – saw the Phoenix and Long Beach races separated by two weeks in deference to Easter – I had the opportunity to take in the European Grand Prix at Donington Park. As you might expect, the real motivation behind travelling from Arizona to California via Leicestershire was to gauge the progress of one Michael Andretti coming to grips with Formula One at first hand, rather than via television.
But people wanted to talk about IndyCar racing and, of course, Nigel Mansell, who’d just done his level best to knock down the Turn One wall at Phoenix, as much as they did Michael Andretti. The other main topic at Phoenix was Paul Tracy’s utterly dominant performance, which ended in tears when he, too, crashed in Turn One, a miscue that ultimately led to 53 year-old Mario Andretti winning his first IndyCar race since mid-I988.
“Don’t get me wrong, I was glad to see the old boy win,” said one F1 entrant. “But what does that say about IndyCar racing? And who was it that finished second. . . Raul Boesel? I doubt if either one of them would even qualify for a Formula One race.”
It’s an oft-heard refrain and one that, frankly, misses the mark both in its knowledge of IndyCar racing facts and in a fundamental understanding of the dynamics of the sport.
First, the facts. Michael Andretti qualified within 0.6s of Ayrton Senna at Donington, despite getting virtually no time on the track in Thursday’s open session and Friday’s rain. So with a total of 35 practice and qualifying laps around a place he’d never seen before, Andretti was just over half a second slower than the man who, on race day, showed why he is not just the best racing driver in the world today, but one of the true giants in racing history.
True, Michael proceeded to deposit his McLaren in the sand trap on Sunday in a remarkable lapse of judgement, but that should not overshadow the fact that he can drive a race car quite quickly as is, and will likely get faster once he gains F1 experience.
Would Mario, Raul and some of the other IndyCar drivers be able to qualify for an F1 race? A rudimentary knowledge of recent IndyCar racing suggests they would, and perhaps a lot further up the grid than some might suspect.
Look at 1992’s statistics, for example. Yes, Michael Andretti won seven of 15 possible poles, but rarely by an overwhelming margin. Bobby Rahal – a man who just turned 40 – nipped Andretti for three poles last year while Emerson Fittipaldi, a charter member of F1 ‘s ‘over the hill’ gang, outqualified Andretti four times in ’92, five times in ’91 and seven times in ’90. Look too at Mario, who was generally within 0.5s of Michael in the past couple of years and, as he was quick to point out at Phoenix, probably would have won half a dozen races since 1989 but for the fact that he was finishing second to his son.
If Emerson Fittipaldi can outqualify Michael Andretti at Portland and Road America, why would he not be able to run at approximately the same speed as Michael in a McLaren MP4/8? And if Mario can run second to Michael at Toronto and Laguna Seca, why not at Donington and Monaco? And if Raul Boesel can finish 10th in the 1992 IndyCar standings with Simon Racing (a team roughly akin to Lotus or Jordan in CART’s pecking order), despite missing the first three races, what makes you think he couldn’t earn his share of World Championship points for a decent F1 team?
But a more fundamental mistake is made by those who discount IndyCar racing as a sport for old men rather than the hungry young lions who populate the F1 grids. The very nature of the IndyCar championship, which includes half a dozen or so oval track races each year, requires a completely different mindset than F1. When a third of the schedule consists of tracks where experience is everything and youthful enthusiasm is an outright liability, naturally the driver line-up will tend a little to the greyer end of the spectrum than a pure road racing series.
I recall a conversation last year with Chip Ganassi, who had just released Eddie Cheever. At that time he had options on the services of Robby Gordon and Arie Luyendyk for 1993, not to mention a host of other hopefuls beating on his motorhome door. On the one hand, he could take a young man who showed every indication of being the most gifted driver to hit IndyCar racing in a decade (Paul Tracy included) and on the other, a man nearing his 40s with mixed road racing credentials but who is consistently quick on the ovals and who won the Indianapolis 500 in 1990 and might well have repeated that in 1991 but for a cracked spark plug.
“I don’t want to go to Indianapolis with my whole team riding on a rookie.” said Ganassi, who subsequently hired Luyendyk.
The fact that Gordon blew Luyendyk’s doors off at Surfers Paradise, Phoenix and Long Beach ultimately did not change the essential wisdom in Ganassi’s logic. While Gordon was magic at Phoenix, charging from 23rd to third, his lack of oval track experience eventually showed when he got caught out in lapped traffic and crashed. It was a point driven home again and again and again at Phoenix: you simply cannot over-drive a car on an oval for long.
On the other hand, Luyendyk fought an evil-handling car all day and eventually came home eighth. Hardly a finish to celebrate, but one which netted the team five championship points compared to the goose eggs recorded by Gordon and, for that matter, Mansell. And all Tracy got for his day’s work was a single point for leading the most laps before throwing it all away with a two-lap advantage on the field. One can only speculate how far Messrs Gordon. Mansell and Tracy would have gone in Arie’s diabolical Lola.
Or take the case of Canadian John Jones. Here was a successful TransAm driver who went IndyCar racing after a reasonable 1987 season in F3000. He had finished second at Pau, and while not necessarily hailed as the second coming of Gilles Villeneuve, was generally regarded by the European press as a worthy young driver.
Flashback to 1988 at Indy, where Jones put in close to 1500 miles of practice without a hint of going fast enough to make the field. True, his March 88C-Cosworth was by no means the equal of that year’s Penske PC17 or Lola T88/00-Chevrolets, but several others made the field in March-Cosworths. Although Jones eventually qualified for Indy in 1989, he was never seen as anything but a journeyman IndyCar driver because he was so clearly uncomfortable on the ovals. No shame in that, but it points out a basic difference between IndyCar racing and top-line European single-seater racing.
On the other hand, consider Rick Mears. In retrospect, I don’t think it’s saying too much to suggest Rick once had the potential to join the ranks of Senna, Fangio and Clark in the big picture of world motorsports. Of course, he never actually raced in Formula One and then suffered grievous ankle and foot injuries that compromised his road racing abilities more than he would ever let on. Nevertheless, his innate ability and acutely analytical mind made Mears perhaps the greatest speedway driver in history. He was the favorite at any IndyCar oval race throughout most of the 1980s and into the ’90s; the fact that his championship chances were steadily eroded by the increasing number of road course and street circuit races on the CART calendar did nothing to diminish his value to Penske Racing, nor his stature within the sport.
So what’s the point? Despite their similarities, there are fundamental differences between IndyCar racing and F1. As has been repeated ad nauseum of late, while F1 is (was?) a technological free-for-all, IndyCar racing places limits on technology. While F1 is pure racing (and if it proves to be entertaining, so much the better), the racing in IndyCars is inextricably mixed with the entertainment factor. But perhaps the biggest difference is that outright speed is valued above all in a Formula One driver – sometimes to the exclusion of patience and experience (just ask Riccardo Patrese or Martin Brundle). IndyCar racing’s blend of ovals and road courses, and the overwhelming importance of a single oval race – the Indianapolis 500 – places a greater weight on experience than does the Formula One calendar.
And that’s why Mario Andretti, Bobby Rahal, Emerson Fittipaldi, Arie Luyendyk and, yes, Raul Boesel, are valued performers in IndyCar racing. Put them in equal cars with Robby Gordon or Rubens Barrichello at Mid-Ohio or Donington Park and the senior citizens might struggle to beat the young lions. In equal cars at Phoenix or Indianapolis I’ll put my money on the old boys every time not only to win but to bring the car home in one piece. D P