IndyCar Drivers Favor Continuity

With a little down-time on our hands recently, we have binge-watched the excellent Netflix series Formula 1: Drive to Survive. If you have not seen this, I highly recommend that you do. I once followed Formula One almost as closely as I did IndyCar. Somewhere along the way, I lost interest in the global series. I got turned off by the arrogance and the fact that only one or two drivers stood any chance of winning a race. The advanced technology was interesting, but that can only hold your attention for so long. I wanted to see competition, and I wasn’t getting it from Formula One.

I really haven’t paid a whole lot of attention to Formula One for the past fifteen or so years. But watching Formula 1: Drive to Survive has sort of renewed my interest in the sport. It is very well done and gives you a behind-the-scenes look at the sport – especially from the perspective of other teams besides Mercedes and Ferrari. I might actually watch a few races when the 2021 season kicks off in late March.

Most IndyCar fans are also fans of other types of racing. I would be willing to bet that most IndyCar fans are at least casual fans of Formula One. While we know that the cars and the series are very different – most mainstream sports fans don’t know the difference. They see a car with an open cockpit, exposed wheels and adorned with front and rear wings and cannot tell one from the other.

But as I said, the two series are very, very different.

There is the never-ending and pointless debate surrounding which series has the better drivers. Could Lewis Hamilton have the same amount of success in a Penske car, going up against Scott Dixon? How would Dixon do driving for Mercedes in F1? Since McLaren and Fernando Alonso got bumped from the 2019 Indianapolis 500, does that mean they are inferior to IndyCar? While these make for great topics of conversation over an adult beverage in the offseason, they are questions that are impossible to answer.

When the NTT IndyCar Series ran at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas in March of 2019, there were the inevitable and equally-pointless comparisons to the disparity in lap times between IndyCar and when Formula One ran there the previous fall. Of course lap times were quicker for F1. Their cars are lighter, more powerful and more nimble than the current Indy car. That doesn’t mean it takes less talent to drive in IndyCar.

But I do think there is a very fair comparison, when looking at the two very different series – the amount of time a driver spends with a team.

While watching the Netflix series, I was struck by the fact that in 2019, Red Bull Racing gave up on their new driver, Pierre Gasly, just a little more than halfway through his first season with the team – even though he had five Top-Six finishes in twelve starts. As we continued to watch through Season Two of the series, I kept cheating and checked the internet to find out where the drivers are to be in 2021. Few of them will be in the same spot as they were in 2019. I thought that was really strange. I haven’t seen a hook that quick for Gasly, since Chip Ganassi fired Nic Minassian after just seven races into the 2001 CART season.

Part of the allure of IndyCar is the brand that a driver builds over the years, not only with a sponsor, but with a team. It will be strange seeing Helio Castroneves driving for a team other than Team Penske this season. It will be the first time that has happened since he drove for the late Carl Hogan in the 1999 season. Scott Dixon has been driving for Chip Ganassi Racing since 2002, when his Pac West Racing team folded early that season.

Other drivers have been associated with their teams for so long, they seem joined at the hip. Ryan Hunter-Reay will be driving his twelfth season with Andretti Autosport, when the season starts in April. Likewise, Will Power will be entering his twelfth season with Team Penske. Graham Rahal will begin his ninth season with his father’s team.

The longest current tenure at Formula One is eight seasons with Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes. He will be starting his ninth season with the team, where he has won six of his seven world championships – including the last four in a row. Why would either of them seek a change? If it’s working, don’t mess with it. Who has the second longest tenure at the same team? Max Verstappen, who will be starting his sixth season at Red Bull. After that, it’s Valteri Bottas, who seems content being Hamilton’s teammate at Mercedes after four seasons so far. Beyond those three, there are no drivers heading into the 2021 season that have completed more than two seasons with their current team.

I did a little side-by-side comparison of IndyCar and Formula One and their respective 2021 driver lineups. Formula One has twenty fulltime drivers. IndyCar has twenty-four, but that is counting the four drivers that will not contest the ovals – Jimmie Johnson, Max Chilton (assumed, but not confirmed), Conor Daly and Romain Grosjean.

If you look at the amount of years a driver had with their 2021 team heading into the season not counting any earlier stints (like Hinchcliffe’s prior stint at Andretti Autosport) – there is a startling contrast.

In Formula One for the 2021 season, drivers will have an average of only 1.65 years associated with their current team. If you take away the three drivers with four to eight years, that average figure drops to .941 years. That’s seventeen drivers averaging less than one season with their current teams. It’s hard to build any following between team and driver that way. I realize that in F1, teams have just as big a following as drivers – but I would think it’s important to link both together. I always link Senna with McLaren and Schumacher with Ferrari, although they both drove for other teams. Hamilton and Mercedes will always be linked, but is there any other automatic current F1 driver-team connection that comes to mind? Maybe Verstappen and Red Bull, but that’s about it.

How does IndyCar compare? Well, at first glance – a lot better. Taking those twenty-four drivers into account, each driver averages 3.46 years of tenure with their current team heading into the 2021 season. That is more than double the figure for F1. That is also factoring in a lot of zeros for drivers with new teams, like James Hinchcliffe, Felix Rosenqvist, Alex Palou, Ed Jones, as well as newcomers Johnson, Grosjean and Scott McLaughlin.

But I took out the top three in current tenure in Formula One to show it was less than a season for the rest of the field. What happens when I eliminate Dixon (20 years), Power and Hunter-Reay (eleven each)? That still makes it an average of 1.71 years of service with their current team, for the rest of the IndyCar grid. That is still more than the entire F1 grid with the current tenures of Hamilton, Verstappen and Bottas included.

I do not normally have an analytical personality. In college, stat classes made me glaze over. But I found this interesting as it confirmed my suspicion that Formula One drivers jump around a lot more than IndyCar drivers.

This won’t be the last time I reference Formula 1: Drive to Survive. Chances are, I’ll refer to it again next week in a completely different context. If you are snowbound this weekend, this would be a good way to pass along the time. And if you are worried about your significant-other not wanting to watch it. Susan even got to where she was the one wanting to go on to the next episode. It’s that good.

George Phillips

5 Responses to “IndyCar Drivers Favor Continuity”

  1. Jack in Virginia Says:

    George, following your recommendation, I’ve gotten hooked on Formula One: Drive to Survive. I’m into Season Two now and thoroughly enjoying it. I hope they will go into more detail as to chassis and engine differences between the teams. I don’t know how many engine manufacturers they have – obviously Renault, Ferrari and Honda, and I assume Mercedes builds their own engines, but does each team have a different chassis? They all look pretty much the same.

    • billytheskink Says:

      Every Formula One team builds their own car, though some have design and manufacturing assistance and/or receive components from outside sources or even other F1 teams. For example, Dallara designs the Haas team’s cars.

      But yes, they do look fairly similar these days.

  2. Stopped following F1 closely about 20 years ago or so. Used to enjoy those battles in the mid to late 90s between Schumey at Benetton and Damon Hill at Williams.

    I would love it if IndyCar could trade their ugly aero screens for F1’s halos. So much better looking, and supposedly just as safe.

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