My love of racing was born out of Formula One. It’s a global phenomenon with a rich and fascinating history, and the international mystique is part of what drew me in. Watching F1, you’ll see fans from around the world attend each race in droves, cheering on their favorite driver and manufacturer with more fervor than a Philadelphian at an Eagles game.
Lately, though, I’ve felt my interests shift away from Formula One towards IndyCar. IndyCar often gets a bad rap amongst Formula One fans as being a ‘wannabe’ open-wheel racing series. Most often, I’ll hear F1 fans criticize IndyCar for racing on not just road courses but also ovals (though no one can cut down the intensity of the Indy 500).
But I think that, if anything, racing on ovals makes IndyCar drivers more admirable as it requires them to master two completely different styles of racing. So often you’ll see drivers and their teams that excel at one but can’t keep pace in the other. To succeed in IndyCar, you need to be able to abruptly change your mentality, driving style, and strategy, usually on back-to-back weekends.
Furthermore, IndyCar recently has become much more competitive than Formula One. F1 is more of an engineering challenge, with each team required to build their cars entirely from scratch to meet the FIA regulations. This is an expensive process, to the tune of tens of millions of dollars per car. Since the cost of entry is so high, only teams with a serious bankroll can afford to actually be competitive.
All this is good and well if you’re trying to make the fastest cars possible, but is it really worth the money? IndyCar takes a different approach to control costs for the teams. Instead of making the teams design their own cars to spec from the ground up, IndyCar teams purchase a common, standard chassis, and run with an engine from a limited number of pre-determined manufacturers. This leaves the teams responsible for tuning their car, but relieves the upfront costs required to engineer, design, build, and test most of the major parts. While an IndyCar might be slower around a track, IndyCar teams are able to race for costs that are orders of magnitude lower than F1.
But it doesn’t really matter which is cheaper if it isn’t the fastest, right? Not necessarily, because every racing series fundamentally requires enough spectators and fans to support the costs. If competition within the series is limited to a handful of deep-pocketed teams, race results become predictable and fans become disinterested.
Over the past decade, F1 has seen viewership decrease – a concerning trend that F1’s new owners, Liberty Media, are trying to correct. While it’s speculated that there are several factors contributing to their viewership decrease, most agree that one of those contributors is lack of competition.
For example, in F1 from 2010 to 2013 team Red Bull won the Constructors’ Championship all four years, with Sebastian Vettel the winning driver. Then, from 2014 to 2018 Mercedes won the Constructors’ Championship all five years, with Lewis Hamilton being the winning driver for four of those five years. This year it’s more of the same – Mercedes has yet to lose a race. It doesn’t take long before the outcome is a foregone conclusion and fans (myself included) give up watching.
Comparatively, over that same timeframe IndyCar saw three different teams and six different drivers win the championship. IndyCar teams aren’t restricted to just two drivers like in F1, so while a few teams may dominate there will still be several drivers in contention.
And, IndyCar is working to ensure that competitive racing continues within the series. Recognizing that increased aerodynamic downforce in the most recent spec of IndyCars caused drivers to further separate and decreased competition, IndyCar actually reduced the amount of downforce in the cars for the 2018 season. That type of change would be unheard of in F1, since it would cause the cars to be slightly slower on some tracks, not faster.
All of this adds up to IndyCar, for now, seeming to be the better racing series. The fans are enjoying it more, and the drivers and teams seem happier. I know I’ve greatly enjoyed watching IndyCar these last couple seasons, as there is actual racing happening during the races (go figure).
Regardless, I sincerely hope that F1 pulls it together and makes the series competitive again. Just this week Lewis Hamilton, the driver that is currently way, way in the lead in the F1 Driver Standings, held the FIA’s feet to the fire, blaming them for how boring F1 has become. He also provided them with a five point plan for how to save F1. While I can’t speak to whether or not his plan is sufficient, I think it’s positive that the drivers and their teams are getting involved in righting the sinking ship.
Given the history of Formula One, it would be an absolute tragedy to lose the series altogether. While the series is probably not at risk of that happening quite yet, the sole focus of the F1 bosses going forward should be on preventing that from ever becoming a potential outcome. But, until it gets better, I know what I’ll be watching…