All eyes will turn – or at least they should for anyone with single-seater motor sport in their soul – to the St Petersburg street race in Florida this Sunday, as the IndyCar Series kicks off its season much earlier than usual. The first of 17 rounds that mix bare-knuckle street races with classic US road courses, plus the oh-so-specific challenge that is oval racing, IndyCar once again offers a season ripe with promise for what has blossomed into a golden era for North America’s premier open-wheel category.
Comparisons with Formula 1 are cheap and unnecessary – why bother when the series are just so different on every level. But in terms of bang-for-buck entertainment it must be said IndyCar stacks up well against anything in the motor sport world right now. Nine different race winners driving for six different teams, without a repeat winner until round eight last year, is a decent snapshot of how competitive and unpredictable IndyCar races tend to be. Hit the right set-up, pick the perfect strategy and add a sprinkling of the luck everyone needs at this level, and anyone from at least the top 15 drivers has a shot at victory on any given day. Marcus Ericsson was pointing at the sky after smashing into Sébastien Bourdais in the early stages in Nashville last year, but still won. It’s outrageous how fortune can swing.
IndyCar is fresh and enriching, lacking the stuffy dimensions that can make F1 so draining.
As for rising stars, what really makes more sense? Paying a few million dollars through the nose to race in Formula 2, only to find yourself more likely to be ignored by F1 than picked up – Guanyu Zhou accepted at Alfa Romeo – or head west to seek a life-changing experience in an arena where you might actually have a chance to win straight away, and get paid to race? F2 champion Oscar Piastri is banking on his patience paying off in the long-term by sitting on the sidelines this year as Alpine’s reserve – but guarantees in F1 don’t exist. He’d have a lot more fun and satisfaction if he was lining up on the grid in Florida this weekend.
What about Formula E, the other international non-F1 alternative for single-seater racers? Speak to its drivers and they will genuinely convince you they love the challenge of managing battery-electric energy on circuits that too often turn the series into a contact sport… But really, hand on heart, wouldn’t they prefer to be heading to Long Beach or Road America or Mid-Ohio or Laguna Seca, or really pushing themselves to extremes by taking on the high banking at Texas Motor Speedway? And that’s without even mentioning the unique buzz of race day at the Indianapolis 500. There’s nothing more electric than that.
Of course, it’s a significant stretch to suggest IndyCar is an alternative to F2 as a route into F1 – at least until someone actually manages it from this generation. Colton Herta got close until Michael Andretti’s bid to buy into Alfa Romeo/Sauber fell over – although as we’ve seen in the past week, Andretti’s F1 ambitions remain alive and excitingly active. Meanwhile, McLaren racing chief Zak Brown has made it clear to Pato O’Ward that his best chance of an F1 drive is to win the IndyCar title. It could happen for either in the next couple of years, then – and if it does and they make it stick in grand prix racing, the focus on IndyCar will hit another level, finally getting close to the boom it enjoyed in the 1990s.
But the best thing for me about IndyCar today is it doesn’t need some form of endorsement as an F1 proving ground to establish its credentials in the racing world. They are already cast-iron. Sure, the likes of Herta, O’Ward and reigning champion Alex Palou will harbour F1 ambitions – that’s only natural at their stage of life. But even if it doesn’t work out for them, IndyCar is a hallowed destination in itself. And as the likes of Scott Dixon, Helio Castroneves, Will Power, Simon Pagenaud and more who have thrived for so long in the US will tell you, life in IndyCar is nearly always fresh and enriching, within a racing scene that lacks the stuffy, uptight dimensions that can make F1 so draining. Just ask Ericsson, Romain Grosjean, Alex Rossi and Takuma Sato about that one. The smile on Grosjean’s face last year, in the midst of his first IndyCar experience with Dale Coyne’s team, spoke volumes. He even found himself socialising with rivals over an end-of-day BBQ at the track… and you’d have to go back a long way to hear of F1 drivers relaxing in that manner.
So what are likely to be the main IndyCar talking points this year? Grosjean’s first full campaign and step up into the Andretti team alongside Herta and Rossi is a pretty good place to start. The Frenchman has a lot to learn about ovals, having only chosen to sample Gateway last term. But he’ll relish a shot at the Indy 500, has brought over his engineer Olivier Boisson to the team and should at least become a race winner – for the first time in a single-seater since his GP2 days in 2011!
Over at Chip Ganassi Racing, it’s going to be fascinating to see how the remarkable Palou might now kick on as a defending champion in only his third IndyCar season. At 41, six-time champion Dixon is still too sharp to be written off in Palou’s shadow. The Kiwi still finished fourth last year, remember, even if he only added a single win to his glittering career tally. Then there’s Ericsson, sixth in the points with two victories in 2021, who’s riding high on a cushion of confidence that never got close to inflation in his Sauber days.
Can NASCAR hero Jimmie Johnson really get to grips with IndyCar for his first full campaign and Indy debut – at the age of 46? What a ballsy move it was last year for the Californian to join Ganassi and do all his learning on the road and street courses in the full public glare. Ego would prevent most top-line racing legends from attempting such a switch, but Johnson appears to have boundless humility. Massive respect to him for his spirit and perseverance.
Over at Penske, Power and Josef Newgarden will press on, the latter ending last year second in points after a subdued first half of the year for IndyCar’s famous old powerhouse. Then there’s Scott McLaughlin, the Aussie V8 sensation who made his own brave code switch last year. His best results came on the ovals – second in Texas, fourth at Gateway – which is a good sign. It seems only a matter of time before he regularly hooks it up week in, week out.
From a British perspective, Jack Harvey’s switch from Meyer Shank to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing could be just what he needs to turn all that speed and promise into something solid. Then again, has he jumped from a team on the rise? Meyer Shank won the Indy 500 with Castroneves last year and with Pagenaud stepping over from Penske, plus a technical alliance with Andretti, it’s a team with proper credentials.
As a new generation of stars come through the ranks, IndyCar enjoyed a brilliant season that was won by 24 year-old Álex Palou
Among the rookies, Britain’s Ferrari-affiliated Callum Ilott makes what could be the most significant career move of his life with a full-time commitment to Juncos Hollinger Racing, having dipped a toe last year. The 23-year-old will hope to outshine highly-rated reigning Indy Lights champion Kyle Kirkwood, who lines up at AJ Foyt Enterprises. But it’s Kirkwood who is expected to be one of the bright stories of the season.
On the technical front, 2022 marks the final season for IndyCar’s 2.2-litre V6 that has served it so well, before a new era begins next year with a 2.4-litre hybrid twin turbo that might (or might not) attract a third manufacturer supplier to join Honda and Chrevrolet. Technical diversity in the age of the spec formula is one of IndyCar’s few weak points.
But an undoubted strength is the quiet authority that Roger Penske continues to uphold, as both series boss and owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He must take the lion’s share of credit for leading IndyCar back into the sunny uplands. ‘The Captain’ turned 85 last weekend as Austin Cindric delivered his boss a memorable Daytona 500 victory as the perfect birthday present. Penske is everywhere, just as he has been for the past half-century. The only pity is he didn’t take over IndyCar years ago. Time is pressing: who else has it in them to keep IndyCar’s revival on the boil?