ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — IndyCar stars gathered at Indianapolis Motor Speedway to celebrate an upcoming season of opportunity for the American open-wheel racing series to further solidify its legitimacy and expand its popularity .
The party marking the 100-day countdown to the Indianapolis 500 has skidded amid rumors that Michael Andretti was once again trying to acquire a Formula 1 team. Mario Andretti, the 1978 F1 world champion, wrote that Andretti Global had requested an expansion team launch in 2024 – very telling news of IndyCar’s particular dilemma.
IndyCar weathered the pandemic under Roger Penske, who had the misfortune to buy the series and IMS about two months before the global shutdown. Despite the challenges, Penske enters its third season at the top with all critical metrics up.
IndyCar’s growth can be attributed to a generation of young stars – a Dutch driver, a Mexican, a Spaniard and 21-year-old Colton Herta of California – who won races and new fans. IndyCar’s growth has made it a respectable and even desirable landing spot for the world’s top drivers, but the bright young lights of IndyCar’s resurgence all grew up dreaming of F1.
If Michael Andretti ever gets an F1 team, he’s almost certain to take Andretti Autosport’s Herta with him as the next American driver. Herta was a central figure in last year’s failed Andretti talks to buy Sauber, and as he prepares this Sunday to defend his victory in St Petersburg a year ago, he is again in the headlines. logs for the wrong series.
“It’s the same as I was with the Sauber stuff, it doesn’t really make a difference to me,” Herta told The Associated Press on Tuesday. “My main focus this year is IndyCar and that’s what I’m focusing on. If anything were to happen with Formula 1, I would have to look into it. But when I’m contracted to drive something, it’s This is where I put 95% of my energy.
Pato O’Ward, a 22-year-old Mexican, races for McLaren in IndyCar and already seems to have one foot out. He tested F1 for McLaren in December and could be the team’s reserve driver at some races in 2022.
Herta and O’Ward, teammates in January in a class win at the Rolex 24 at Daytona, have established themselves as motorsport’s new guard. Losing them to F1, the hottest property in motorsport right now, is weighing on an IndyCar community that is banking on all new faces to drive the series forward.
“I want people to like me in IndyCar, I want them to know what IndyCar has to offer, racing,” O’Ward said of the line he has to toe. “Every time I go to Formula 1, or if I ever go to Formula 1, enjoy it in IndyCar for now.”
That’s a lot of attention on a pair of drivers who failed to win the IndyCar championship and who are both still in the process of gathering the points required by the FIA to obtain an F1 driver’s license. And of all the rising stars, the one who finally dethroned six-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon last season was neither Herta nor O’Ward, but rather Alex Palou – Dixon’s Chip Ganassi Racing teammate.
Palou was new to Ganassi last season but in his second year of IndyCar, and the 24-year-old Spaniard has remarkable steely strength and a relentless thirst to understand every element of his craft. He won his first race with Ganassi last season, finished second to Helio Castroneves in the Indy 500 and bounced back from back-to-back DNFs to win at Portland and reclaim the championship lead for good with two races remaining.
With the attention still seemingly elsewhere, Palou’s season was somewhat under the radar.
“We didn’t surprise people last year, but they didn’t really talk about us either,” Palou said. “We need to be part of the conversation constantly so it’s clear to people that this team is real.”
COME BACK FOR MORE
Rinus VeeKay, who turned 21 last fall, was another early IndyCar winner and returns with Ed Carpenter Racing. The Dutchman’s on-track results weren’t the same after he broke his collarbone in a biking accident, and there’s a ton of young talent looking for IndyCar seats.
Some of IndyCar’s new faces have come from F1, as curiosity about the IndyCar series has been piqued since Alexander Rossi defected in 2016 and Fernando Alonso entered the Indy 500 three times.
Marcus Ericsson left F1 for IndyCar in 2019 and returns for a fourth season (third with Ganassi) after two wins last year. The fourth guy on Ganassi’s roster is seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson, returning for a second season and this time full-time with an Indianapolis 500 entry.
There is so much new talent that reigning Indy Lights champion Kyle Kirkwood, a 23-year-old American, was almost left without a seat. It was developed by Andretti Autosport but his career with this team forced Herta to move to F1; when Andretti failed to complete the deal with Sauber, Kirkwood became available to AJ Foyt Racing.
David Malukas, the 20-year-old Indy Lights finalist, moved with the support of his father in a Dale Coyne Racing race and the Chicago-area driver gives IndyCar two new Americans.
Devlin DeFrancesco, who races under the Canadian flag, joined Kirkwood and Malukas in putting three Road to Indy ladder system graduates in the big leagues. The trio enters IndyCar along with three completely new faces:
– Tatiana Calderon with Foyt will be IndyCar’s only full-time female driver; at 28, the Colombian will be the oldest rookie in the class.
– Christian Lundgaard spent the last two seasons driving Formula 2 before the Danish driver signed up with Rahal Letterman Lanigan.
– Callum Illot, F1 test driver for Alfo Romeo, was so inspired by Romain Grosjean’s renewed energy as an IndyCar rookie last year that he signed with new team Juncos Hollinger Racing, giving at IndyCar its largest entry list in a decade with 26 full-time cars.
Penske said it was increasing IndyCar’s guaranteed Leader’s Circle payout by 30% to the top 22 ranked teams, and expected the Indy 500 purse to be “higher than it was before.” . The purse for last year’s race was just under $9 million.
“The only thing we’re going to do is try to provide support to all of our teams in the leadership circle. We have good teams and we have to support them,” Penske told AP. “The lights are on and the stores are open.”
The series opens a new three-year deal with NBC Sports, which earned its highest IndyCar ratings last season since acquiring the property in 2019. A 14-race series this year will take place on the flagship broadcast network rather than cable. Telemundo Deportes has scheduled live Spanish-language coverage of three races beginning with Sunday’s opener at St. Pete, and IndyCar says it has deals in more than 200 countries and territories.
The search for a third manufacturer is ongoing and Penske said talks are most advanced with Toyota after the failed IndyCar courtship with Ferrari. If Toyota returns, it is believed to partner with Vasser Sullivan Racing.
“They haven’t said no or gone,” Penske said of Toyota. “I think what they’re trying to do is see how it fits into their own motorsport package globally. But there’s definitely interest out there and that would be a home run to have a third builder here, someone we might announce in the next season.
The competition is so good that Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud have turned down opportunities in other series because Meyer Shank Racing was willing to build around them in IndyCar.
Castroneves took a job with Shank after three seasons away from IndyCar driving for Penske in IMSA; Penske wanted Pagenaud to take a sports car job so the team could shrink to three IndyCar entries.
“The rules allow your talent to show,” Castroneves said. “IndyCar is where I wanted to be from the start.”
As for F1’s appeal to these young drivers, Penske driver Will Power said he understood the attraction Herta and O’Ward feel at the moment.
“Formula 1 is the pinnacle when you look at the level of money and TV coverage around the world,” he said. “If you are a young driver this is a place you would like to go.”
But it won’t be the same experience as in IndyCar, on or off the track.
“There’s no other open wheel series in the world like IndyCar,” Power said. “You just have to look at the training sheets and the qualifying times. You can calculate that yourself mathematically, that IndyCar is more competitive than Formula 1.
“I’m not saying IndyCar drivers are better. I’m just saying our formula is more competitive, and I think our formula is better for the fans, honestly, because you never know who’s going to win.
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