It beguiles and bedevils them, or at least the idea of it does. The lure of Formula 1 is powerful for young American INDYCAR drivers, who at the apex of their opportunity in North America steal glances at what could be for them on a global stage. They see a test of all the faculties that brought them to this point, legacy, glory and, undoubtedly, the opportunity for massive financial gain for the precious few who thrive in the grinder of an unforgiving business.
But time and again since, they are rebuffed, if their inquiries even make it that far. Some have made it there and for different reasons fair or not, didn’t last long. Scott Speed, then the first American F1 participant since Michael Andretti in 1993, took the preferred path through a Red Bull developmental program to race his first of 28 F1 starts in 2006. He was fired by Scuderia Toro Rosso midway through the 2007 season. Alexander Rossi, who also schooled in European under series, made five starts for Manor Marussia in 2015 after several stints as a reserve driver before joining Andretti Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian for the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season.
Americans fantasize over the one shot, the one big break, almost as much as exploiting it. Nearly 40 years since Mario Andretti became the most recent American to win an F1 event, INDYCAR champion Josef Newgarden enters his title defense having also mused over aspirations that are discounted. This became apparent recently when Guenther Steiner, team principal for the Haas F1 Team that in 2016 became the first full-time U.S. Formula 1 team in three decades, said “There is nobody ready for Formula 1 in the United States in my opinion.".
There was outrage in the INDYCAR community. But the situation isn’t going to change for the foreseeable future no matter how much American drivers are offended, not under the current system of F1 driver development and ride-buying economy.
“Clearly, there is just no consideration,” said Dale Coyne Racing’s Sebastien Bourdais, who had a brief F1 career after winning four Champ Car titles. “They are in their little bubble on their own island. Either you play their game and are rated on their game or you are just not rated at all.
“I completely understand that the American drivers take it personal because it’s not fair, but since when is F1 fair? It’s never been fair.”
Though the Frenchman insists there is ample talent in the United States to compete in F1, he admits recent history has conspired to skew comparisons with INDYCAR.
“It took me three championships in the U.S and the Formula 3000 championship to finally get an opportunity. So yeah, and obviously, I really didn’t help the Americans because I failed,” Bourdais said, beginning to laugh as he referenced his 27 starts for Scuderia Toro Rosso without a podium in 2008 and ‘09. “So, you see the way people can perceive Indy car drivers and (Alex) Zanardi was before me and stuff like that and it didn’t turn into a fairytale.”
Such has not the case for some F1 expatriates and sojourners recently. Rossi won the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie in an unimaginable fuel-saving display. Last season, two-time F1 champion Fernando Alonso, amid a morose F1 season with McLaren, orchestrated a move to skip the Monaco Grand Prix and run a McLaren Andretti Honda in the 500. He started fifth and raced well despite never having contested an oval before, but was undone by an engine failure.
But F1’s comparative advantage in perception – at least Alonso’s – breaks down with closer examination, American driver Graham Rahal said.
“Everybody in Formula 1 repeatedly says Fernando Alonso is the best. You hear that a lot in that world,” he said. “So take that into consideration and bring him over here. Name me one rookie that ever got a full day of testing by themselves to go run around the Speedway. Never happens. Now put him in an Andretti car, which historically, the last five years, those have been the cars to beat, year in and year out. So now you’ve given a special talent in the best car with a lot of testing. …. Put those pieces together and you’re going to be successful.
“Bring (four-time and defending F1 champion Lewis) Hamilton over, he’ll do that, too. Bring (four-time champion Sebastian) Vettel over, he’ll do that, too. And Fernando, he’s awesome. I love the guy. His approach is all racer mentality. We need more of those guys in this world. But take Fernando and bring him to Belle Isle and give him no testing like the rest of us, different story than what you’ll see at the Indy 500.”
Rahal, who said he felt free to speak critically about Steiner’s comments because he no longer, at 29, aspires to an F1 career, said he no longer watches the series, but “that doesn’t really take anything away from it. I love it. I love the innovation and what Formula 1 stands for.”
The allure remains. And so will the frustrations, Bourdais said, even if INDYCAR drivers are inclined to feel "to hell with F1."
“You can’t deny that the pinnacle of open-wheel racing is F1,” Bourdais said. “And you can’t blame anyone for wanting a chance and wanting to try. But the problem is, just because you want to try doesn’t mean you get an opportunity.”