For a short spell on Sunday, instead of joining A.J. Foyt, Al Unser Sr and Rick Mears on four Indianapolis 500 victories, Helio Castroneves could have been joined by Takuma Sato on three.
Sato was attempting an audacious final stint, trying to make his tank of fuel last for 43 laps when nobody had gone beyond 37 all day. In reality, he needed a yellow but he managed to rise to lead before admitting defeat seven laps short given the pace he needed to run to stay clear of the chasing pack.
That two drivers well into their forties – one who has never raced in Formula 1, the other who has just one grand prix podium to his name – are rising to the top of such an iconic list as that of multiple Indy 500 winners might seem a bit odd to the casual F1 fan. It might even cause them to question the quality in the field or just how tough the 500-mile race is to win. But I think it should do the complete opposite.
Formula 1 clouds our opinions and impressions of drivers. So quickly we can forget what went before or what they’re really capable of, once they start racing in F1.
Grosjean’s P2 earlier this season showed his true ability after years at Haas in F1
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If we take the Monaco Grand Prix, Le Mans 24 Hours and Indy 500 as the Triple Crown and look at them from a sporting point of view, two of them have a particular thing in common: a degree of regulatory freedom.
When all three races first rose to prominence that was the case for them all, but as time has gone on and IndyCar evolved following a tumultuous spell, the top category in American racing converged to the point there’s now just the two engine manufacturers and one standard aero kit for both.
So when you’re dealing with what is now essentially a spec series, you’re getting much more of a true reflection of driver skill. How well a driver can set-up the car, manage the traffic, hit fuel numbers – they have so much more of an influence on the comparative level of competitiveness, whereas in both Formula 1 and to a similar extent the top class of the World Endurance Championship, the machinery itself needs to be added to that list in big, bold letters.
“There’s a slight misconception that Grosjean was given a chance almost because of his crash in Bahrain, but it was actually in spite of it”
And for that reason, I think we need to look at what drivers do in the IndyCar Series more closely, and the Indy 500 is the gateway to that.
I get that oval racing is a somewhat unique discipline, but when Marcus Ericsson qualifies in the Fast Nine and fancies his chances of a win, or Sato once again leads, maybe it’s a reminder that we need to stop judging a driver’s abilities solely on their spell spent racing F1 cars.
Ericsson had 97 starts for Caterham and Sauber and never set the world on fire, but then was he ever going to in those teams who were in such financial difficulty? What if we went back further to the developing talent that managed to secure an F1 seat in the first place and we’ll find a racing record that boasts the Japanese F3 Championship and wins in the GP2 Series.
For Sato, the stats that precede his spell racing for Jordan, BAR and Super Aguri are even more impressive – specifically the 2001 season that launched him into F1 with a dominant British F3 Championship win, added to by success at Macau.
Sato came close to adding another Indy victory to an impressive resume
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Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying these guys were ever going to go on and achieve multiple world championship titles – they pretty much got the opportunities they deserved – but I think we can be guilty of allowing their relative lack of performance in F1 machinery to then completely define who they are.
It was actually a driver who wasn’t racing in the Indy 500 who triggered this whole thought process. Steve Shunck – the man who looks after the iconic Borg-Warner Trophy asked me about Romain Grosjean’s absence from the 500 and how the dramatic end to his time in F1 had then led to him racing in IndyCar.
There’s a slight misconception that Grosjean was given a chance almost because of his crash in Bahrain, but it was actually in spite of it. He was already in talks with Dale Coyne Racing and set to do the whole season, but the accident saw the plans reconsidered and in the end, it was finalised as a deal for the road and street courses only.
For Grosjean to then take pole position in just his third race raised the question in the US of how good he really is, because every headline in the past few years in F1 have revolved around his all-too-frequent mistakes and radio complaints in a struggling Haas.