Be Careful What You Wish For

With a few IndyCar seats to be filled for the 2022 season, there seems to be a lot of buzz going around regarding a very tired and worn-out topic – Will [Driver X] leave IndyCar for the greener pastures of Formula One?

Currently, Driver X is either Pato O’Ward and/or Colton Herta – two young rising stars that combined for five wins and six poles in this past sixteen-race season.

Back in the nineties, it seemed like every offseason featured the annual wringing of hands over whether or not the top driver that year would go to Formula One. Back then, many of them did – with mixed results.

I remember when everyone was convinced that Al Unser, Jr. was going to leave Galles Racing for F1. It never happened.

In 1993, rumor became reality when 1991 CART champion Michael Andretti left the friendly confines of Newman/Haas as teammate to his famous father, to join McLaren in Formula One and become Ayrton Senna’s teammate. It did not go well, as Michael didn’t even last the full season. He rejoined the series in 1994 with Target Chip Ganassi, giving Ganassi his first win in a Reynard making its series debut – in the opening race of the season. Michael’s failure in F1, coupled with his success in IndyCar gave fuel to the fire that IndyCar was vastly inferior to Formula One and the talent it took to drive.

Jacques Villeneuve won the 1995 Indianapolis 500 and the 1995 CART championship in just his second season. By 1996, he was racing for Williams in F1, when he finished second. The following year, he won the Formula One championship – again in only his second year. But it all went terribly wrong the following year, Renault left F1 and engineer Adrian Newey moved to McLaren. Williams was saddled with the Mecachrome engines, which were essentially old and re-badged Renault engines – and the team was suddenly a shadow of its former self. Villeneuve moved on to Lucky Strike the following year and never won another Formula One race again.

Who did Williams tab to try and return them to their former glory? Alex Zanardi, who was coming off of two straight CART championships with Ganassi, and signed a three-year deal with Williams near the end of the 1998 season. It did not go well at all, and Zanardi and Williams parted ways after one dismal season.

Ganassi hired Williams Test Driver Juan Montoya to replace Zanardi in 1999. He proceeded to win the CART championship as a rookie and the 2000 Indianapolis 500 in his second year. By 2001, Montoya was lured back to Williams in Formula One. After four years and four wins with Williams, Montoya moved to McLaren in 2005 for a season and a half. His first season at McLaren produced three wins and a fourth-place finish in the championship. But 2006 was a disaster. When McLaren learned that Montoya had signed a deal to race for Chip Ganassi in NASCAR for the 2007, McLaren terminated his employment immediately.

Cristiano da Matta won seven races in 2002 for Newman/Haas, on his way to winning the CART championship that season. Like several champions before him, he was lured to the lucrative waters of Formula One in 2003. Like most of the others, the results were disappointing. Halfway through his second season, da Matta had made a few disparaging remarks about his Toyota, which did not set well. He was replaced with six races remaining in the 2004 season, and never raced in F1 again.

The last IndyCar refugee that I can think of that sought glory in Formula One is Sébastien Bourdais, who was hired by Newman/Haas to replace da Matta. Bourdais won the Champ Car championship in only his second year with Newman/Haas. He then proceeded to win the next three after that. From 2004-07, Sébastien Bourdais won the championship. By the end of his last championship season, Formula One came calling. In 2008, his first year with Scuderia Toro Rosso, Bourdais managed to score a total of four points for the season. Bourdais was released of his duties with Toro Rosso after nine races in the 2009 season.

The decade of the 2010s saw no IndyCar drivers attempt Formula One. Josef Newgarden was rumored to be in the running for a couple of F1 rides, but I’m not sure how serious those rumors were. But as we head into the offseason prior to the 2022 season; O’Ward and Herta are being mentioned for possible F1 rides in the not-so-distant future.

O’Ward is being mentioned because McLaren boss Zak Brown is fulfilling a promise he made to O’Ward for winning at Texas this past spring. He promised O’Ward a test in a McLaren F1 car this offseason. Most of us know that a test doesn’t mean all that much. Many drivers get a Formula One test that never materializes into anything. Still, it got the young driver to speak openly about F1 aspirations earlier this week by saying that “…any driver who claims they didn’t grow up dreaming about racing in Formula One is lying”.

Michael Andretti is reportedly in talks to buy Alfa Romeo Racing (Sauber). Many are connecting the dots that place Colton Herta in one of the seats at Sauber if Andretti goes through with the purchase.

I don’t know if O’Ward or Herta are really in the running for a future F1 seat, or if fans are simply jumping to conclusions and this is their perception. But somewhere along the way, perception became reality – and this thing has taken on a life of its own.

Looking back at all of the examples I gave of drivers chasing Formula One dreams, probably the most successful was Villeneuve, who won the F1 title in 1997 – but never won a race after that. Juan Montoya won seven Formula One races, but left in mid-season his final year.

Most disturbing is when those that came back to IndyCar after failing in F1, their performance was no longer there. Even Michael Andretti was not the dominant driver he was before leaving in 1993 and returning in 1994. Michael won twenty-seven IndyCar races in nine fulltime seasons, before heading to Formula One in 1993. He raced another nine fulltime seasons after his return in 1994, but “only” won fifteen races after his return. Most drivers would kill to win fifteen races in a career, but Andretti had a dominating standard to live up to.

Juan Montoya had a mediocre NASCAR career, but he did win four more IndyCar races when he returned in 2014, including an Indianapolis 500.

Others were not so fortunate. When Alex Zanardi won his second consecutive CART championship for Ganassi in 1998, he won seven of nineteen races and scored eight more podiums. When he returned in 2001, with Mo Nunn Racing – his average finish was 17.33, before he had the terrible accident that cost him his legs.

Cristiano da Matta left Newman/Haas to pursue his F1 dreams that fizzled quickly. When he returned, he drove for PKV, Dale Coyne and RuSport – winning at Portland in 2005 for PKV. But nothing came close to matching the seven wins he had in 2002, just before going to F1.

Sébastien Bourdais won four consecutive Champ Car championships before moving on to Formula One. He never came close to a win for Toro Rosso. Since returning to IndyCar, he has run for teams like Dale Coyne, Dragon, KV and Foyt. Somehow, he managed to scratch out six wins for those teams that are, or were, not considered front-runners.

What is the moral of the story here? There are enough cautionary tales out there to dissuade IndyCar drivers from chasing the glory (and money) of Formula One. Over the decades, it has become painfully apparent that no matter how much talent a driver has – unless you are with one of the top teams – you are going to be a backmarker, and you are going to be on a very short leash. Patience is not a trait for most F1 teams. Drivers are usually the scapegoat when things go wrong. It’s a lot easier to change drivers than all of the other personnel.

Pato O’Ward and Colton Herta weren’t even alive, when several of those drivers chased their F1 dreams. Herta was probably in third grade by the time Bourdais left for F1 in 2008, so he and O’Ward really have nothing to personally relate to. Herta could heed the advice of his dad, but he may be convinced that young Colton could be the next Senna or Schumacher. I’m sure Pato O’Ward has several people in his ear telling him the same thing. Who knows? They both may be.

I am hopeful that someone will pull these two young men aside and let them know that signing with the wrong team in Formula One could permanently derail a promising career. I’m not saying they shouldn’t jump at the chance, but they need to approach such a decision with wisdom and maturity. Everyone should have dreams, but when something appears to be a dream come true – all angles should be considered. Sometimes you’d better be careful what you wish for – you just might get it.

George Phillips

6 Responses to “Be Careful What You Wish For”

  1. Matthew Lawrenson Says:

    F1, especially at the “lesser” teams, has a tendency to chew up drivers and spit them out, no matter where they come from. Every season you see some drivers leave after a season or two to replaced by the next hot young thing from a manufacturer’s academy with a few million dollars worth of “support” and cheap engines in their back pocket. You know full well most of them will, after a couple of years, be relegated to simulator work with a sports car or DTM drive on the side.

    I can see Herta or O’Ward working in F1 if they get 5 years guaranteed while Andretti develops the team from its current 9th place to somewhere near the pointy end of the grid. Whether that would happen, or Mikey would end up accepting the sack of cash and goodies that would come with a Ferrari or Red Bull development driver after a couple of years, who knows?

  2. billytheskink Says:

    One thing working against Indycar drivers who move to F1 (and which works against plenty of guys who do find their way into F1’s lower tier teams) is not simply that competitive seats open up so rarely, but also that the teams that hold these seats have their future drivers in mind and being groomed years in advance of them actually driving the F1 car. The classic case of overperforming on a backmarker team and working your way up the ladder of teams to a competitive ride by beating expectations (and your teammate) regularly at progressively more competitive stops seems to be quite rare these days, and most of the handful of drivers who do appear to do this have actually been in the development orbit of a top team for some time.

    I do think Indycar is in a more stable position than it was when pretty much all of the split-era Indy-to-F1 examples made the move, which could or should make any move back to Indycar by a driver getting washed out of F1 much easier… less Sebastien Bourdais-like and more Michael Andretti-like. It was hard for Bourdais/daMatta/Zanardi (and would have been hard for Villeneuve) to find consistent and competitive seats when they came back to Indycar’s cash-strapped teams. I think it would be a bit easier today as non-returning F1 washouts have found competitive rides on several occasions in the last 5 years alone.

  3. In 2014 Simona left to be a Sauber test driver with an eye toward a full time seat for 2015. After they ran through the few million she had available Sauber claimed they had “no choice” but to kick her to the curb. She has been trying to get her career back on track ever since. Had she stayed in IndyCar I believe she could have won some races.

  4. James T Suel Says:

    Unless your with one of the top 3 teams, you will be a back marker in F1. Technically F1 has been more advanced , but not a superior series in my opinion. With F1 2022 new rules they are are coming back toward Indycar. Nascar it’s new Gen car is going the way of Indycar. No longer will the teams build there own chassis. I think Herta and Oward will someday pursue f1 , but it won’t be 2022.

  5. Google says the mid-range F1 yearly salary is ~10X Indycar.
    that would satisfy a lot of dreams regardless of performance.

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