Shifting Gears: The Crossover From Formula One To IndyCar

The leap from Formula One to IndyCar hasn’t always guaranteed success, but no one can deny the drive to win the Indianapolis 500.
News of Fernando Alonso skipping the Monaco Grand Prix in favor of running in the Indianapolis 500 sent shockwaves through the global racing community when it broke in April.

This is arguably the biggest Indianapolis 500 story since Nigel Mansell joined IndyCar (then CART) following his Formula One World Championship in 1992. Mansell would go on to be the only driver to hold the Formula One and CART championships at the same time (the ’93 Formula One season had not yet been completed, therefore he was still “defending” Formula One Champion).

While Mansell and Alonso are some of the biggest recent stories spanning Formula One and IndyCar, there is a long history of crossover between the two sports. There were many Formula One drivers in the ’50s and ’60s to run in the race. From 19501960, the Indianapolis 500 was part of the Formula One schedule.

Decades later, Formula One drivers are still taking their chance at the Brickyard.

After leaving Formula One and racing altogether in 1980, two-time Formula One World Champion Emerson Fittipaldi returned to racing by joining CART in 1984. In the ’84 season, Fittipaldi ran nine races for three different teams, including finishing 32nd in the 1984 Indianapolis 500 for H&R racing.

In 1985, Fittipaldi started a five-year stint with Patrick Racing, the team he had finished with in 1984. In 1989, his final season with Patrick, he had his most successful CART season. He won the CART championship behind five wins, including seven total podium finishes. He also clinched the first of his two Indianapolis 500 victories.

His final seven years in racing were with Team Penske. He was never able to match the success of his 1989 season, but did win his second Indianapolis 500 in 1993. He finished second in points for Team Penske in 1993 and 1994.

Turning back to Mansell: He came to CART to take over the seat vacated when Michael Andretti went to Formula One in 1993 and ran for Marlboro McLaren. Andretti partnered with Ayrton Senna in what would be Senna’s final full Formula One season before dying in an accident in Italy in May 1994. Michael did not see anything close to the success that his father, Mario, had in Formula One. He made seven starts in 1993, with only one podium. His best finish was third in Italy.

There is some controversy regarding Michael Andretti’s brief run in Formula One. His son, Marco, suggested in an interview with the Associated Press that his poor season was a result of sabotage rather than lack of skill or preparation. “They wanted him to fail,” Marco claimed in the interview. “The reality of it was, they had Mika Hakkinen ready to come in for a lot less than what my dad was getting paid, and that’s all it was. Right then and there, they had to make him look (bad).” Hakkinen went on to win the back-to-back world championships in 1998 and 1999.

There have been a few Formula One drivers to find success at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Jim Clark (1965), Graham Hill (1966), Mario Andretti (1969), Jacques Villeneuve (1995), and Juan Pablo Montoya (2000) have all won in Indy.

However, several drivers who joined IndyCar from Formula One who have not seen the success that one might expect from a former Formula One driver.

Takuma Sato, once seen as something of a menace on the Formula One grid, joined IndyCar in 2010 after losing his Formula One seat in 2009. He didn’t see much success in the series, but did have a podium finish in Formula One’s 2004 United States Grand Prix in Indianapolis. Since joining IndyCar, he has just one win and five podium finishes to his résumé.

Tomas Enge had a short stint in Formula One in 2001, his only season in the series. He looked largely disappointing in the three races he ran, finishing 12th and 14th in two of them and failing to finish the third. After racing sports cars in 2002 and 2003, he ran for parts of three seasons between 2004 and 2006 for Panther Racing and Cheever Racing. 2005 was his most “successful” year in IndyCar, but he still failed to finish better than fifth that season, ending up 16th in the point standings.

Alexander Rossi and Max Chilton are in their second seasons after leaving Formula One and joining IndyCar. While Rossi has seen the most success since joining IndyCar, his lone win being last year’s Indianapolis 500, Chilton saw more time in Formula One.

Rossi started five races in Formula One in 2015, including a 12th place finish in the United States Grand Prix in Austin, Texas.

He joined Andretti Herta Autosport in 2016 and won the Indianapolis 500. “It was the perfect situation for me to be in. The perfect situation for any rookie to be in, with that kind of racing knowledge available to you,” Rossi says about working with Michael Andretti and Bryan Herta.

Rossi admits that he doesn’t have much advice to offer to Alonso. “He’s (Alonso) more than capable, and I’m still looking for advice. I talked to him from my experience and things that took some time to adapt to.”
Rossi’s not getting caught up in “Alonso-mania,” though. “He’s another person to beat. Once you get drivers into cars and cars onto the course, you don’t really care who it is.”

Although he failed to podium in 35 Formula One races, Chilton finished in 32 of them, including being the only rookie to complete 19 straight races. After Marussia folded in 2014, Chilton joined Carlin Motorsport in Indy Lights for the 2015 season. Despite not running in three races, Chilton finished a respectable fifth in the standings including his first oval win in Iowa.

Chilton doesn’t believe that there is as much difference between driving Formula One and IndyCar that one might think. “I don’t feel like you drive differently,” says Chilton. “At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if you’re racing a Formula One car or an IndyCar, the process is the same. You want to focus on every little element, because it’s all about little gains here and there. You want a good reaction at the start. You want to be focused on the front and not behind,” he says.

Since joining IndyCar full time in 2016, Chilton admits that it’s still very jarring for him. “Some people think it’s a big jump back, and it was. But I didn’t know squat about driving on an oval. So why would I jump in a 240-mph machine around something like a concrete walled place without practicing? We won in Iowa, but it’s still eye-opening. I’ve been around here for maybe 15 days, but you still go around and think, ‘Wow, this is bloody fast.’ It just means the learning process is more gradual. It’s good fun, and the month of May is very unique.”

As Fernando Alonso comes to Indianapolis this month to compete in the Indianapolis 500, Chilton would express the same words of advice that a teammate gave him. Chilton says, “A bit of advice comes from Tony (Kanaan), my teammate. He always says this track picks the winner. Try your best and enjoy the moment, because sometimes you can put in all the effort, and it’s just not going to be your day. Just enjoy the ride.”