Race Weekend Central

F1 Drivers in IndyCar: Sagas or Slumps?

When the news broke in October 2020 that Romain Grosjean would be leaving the Haas F1 team at the end of the season, rumors that the Frenchman could be headed stateside to compete in the NTT IndyCar Series for 2021 were already in circulation. Grosjean’s time at Haas had been bittersweet, to say the least. While he collected a stunning sixth-place for the American team’s debut in the 2016 Australian Grand Prix, a lackluster run from 2017 to 2020 saw both Grosjean and teammate Kevin Magnussen released by Haas for 2021.

Following his miraculous escape from a fiery crash in the 2020 Bahrain GP, Grosjean is currently set to contest 13 rounds of the 2021 IndyCar Series season, making his race debut Sunday at Barber Motorsports Park just outside Birmingham, Ala. Following his Bahrain crash, Grosjean elected to avoid most of the ovals during his rookie season, with Haas reserve driver Pietro Fittipaldi taking over oval duties in Grosjean’s car unless the Frenchman decides to compete at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway.

Grosjean is not, however, the first F1 journeyman to make their way into IndyCar, or CART, for context. Since 1990, several established F1 drivers have taken their services overseas to contest in American open-wheel racing. So how big are the shoes Grosjean has to fill? To answer this question, let’s take a look at some of the names that have left F1 for IndyCar, or CART in some cases, in recent years and examine their success at the highest level of American open-wheel racing.

For consideration here, drivers must have seen success in IndyCar/CART/the IRL after a Formula 1 career spanning at least one cumulative season which has to have taken place before any level of IndyCar/CART/IRL competition. This disqualifies the likes of Juan Pablo Montoya and Jacques Villeneuve, as they transitioned from American open-wheel to F1, rather than the other way around.

Nigel Mansell

In 1992, Nigel Mansell put together a stellar season in the Formula 1 World Championship, winning nine of sixteen races, and never finishing worse than second unless he retired from the race. Prior to 1992, Mansell had already managed 47 podiums, 21 victories, and had been runner-up in the championship twice. At the end of 1992, Mansell secured a comfortable championship with a 52-point lead over teammate Riccardo Patrese — a large margin under the points system of the time (10-6-4-3-2-1).

Following extensive contractual disputes, and facing a likely tense reunion with former teammate Alain Prost at Williams for 1993, Mansell decided his services were best taken elsewhere. Mansell’s opportunity to contest a competitive season in ‘93 came with Newman/Haas Racing, as Michael Andretti left the Illinois-based outfit to contest the 1993 Formula 1 season with McLaren. Mansell found himself driving alongside Mario Andretti in what would prove to be the penultimate season of Andretti’s storied open-wheel career.

Mansell was a threat immediately. In his first race, he beat Emerson Fittipaldi to the pole position by three tenths of a second on the streets of Surfer’s Paradise in Australia and won by five seconds over the Brazilian, becoming the first rookie to win their first race in CART history. But more impressive than his debut win was Mansell’s ability on ovals.

Oval racing is a phenomenon almost exclusively unique to American motorsport, meaning F1 drivers often have little-to-no oval experience. This didn’t phase the 1992 F1 champion, who scored four of his five wins for the 1993 season on ovals. Mansell even led his first Indianapolis 500 with less than 20 laps to go, only to be overtaken by Fittipaldi and Arie Luyendyk on the penultimate restart. All-in-all, Mansell finished the 1993 CART season with five wins, only a single retirement, rookie of the year honors for the Indy 500, and the series championship, and that’s including missing the second race of the season at Phoenix due to a practice crash.

Mansell’s sophomore season with Newman/Haas was far less fruitful. Mansell went winless, only managing eighth in the drivers championship. Mansell’s fiery and confrontational personality also left him in poor regard with most of the CART garage, leading Mansell to agree to a deal where he would return to Williams to race on his off-weekends from CART mid-season.  After the season ended, Mansell continued to share the No. 2 Williams with David Coulthard, winning for the final time in the controversial Grand Prix of Australia at Adelaide. He intended to race full-time in F1 for McLaren in 1995, but ultimately retired after only a couple more races. Mario Andretti later remarked in an interview for Crash.net that his time as Mansell’s teammate was “the most miserable two years” of his career.

Mansell and CART’s relationship was bittersweet, to say the least. The story of a defending world champion leaving F1 to race in CART brought major publicity to American open-wheel racing, while Mansell also enjoyed a unique prestige of being the only driver to ever hold the World Championship as well as the CART series title, as the 1993 CART season concluded before the F1 season. Despite his initial, sensational success, F1 ultimately proved a better fit for the driver from Upton-upon-Severn.

Alex Zanardi

While Alex Zanardi’s career may be remembered primarily for his accomplishments in CART, the Italian had 24 F1 starts with Jordan, Minardi and Lotus under his belt before his arrival at Chip Ganassi Racing in late 1995. Zanardi enjoyed little success in his first go at Formula 1, however, only managing one points finish and compiling a long list of retirements and failures to qualify.

Zanardi’s debut CART season in 1996 got off to an inconsistent start, but the rookie quickly found his feet and managed six podiums, including three wins by season’s end. Zanardi capped off his rookie season by finishing third in the driver’s championship, collecting rookie of the year honors and pulling off his legendary “Pass” on Bryan Herta for the win in the final round at Laguna Seca.

Zanardi dominated CART over the next two seasons, scoring back-to-back championships and a combined 12 wins out of 35 races. In 1997 Zanardi pocketed five wins, clearing Gil de Ferran for the title with 195 points to de Ferran’s 162. Zanardi’s form improved the following year, scoring seven wins, including four in a row, and securing his second CART title in a row.

By the summer of 1998, an opportunity arose for Zanardi to return to F1 with the Williams team, and that autumn it was made public that Zanardi would contest the 1999 Formula 1 season with Williams alongside Ralf Schumacher. Zanardi’s 1999 season was abysmal, retiring in 11 of 16 rounds and only managing a best finish of seventh at Monza. Following this morbid comeback season, Zanardi’s contract was terminated at a price tag of $4 million.

Following his better-left-unsaid 1999 endeavors, Zanardi took the 2000 season to examine his prospects, and following a test for the Mo Nunn team that summer, Zanardi arranged for a 2001 return to CART. Through the first 14 rounds of the season, Zanardi’s performance was underwhelming. For the 2001 American Memorial at the Lausitzring in Germany, Zanardi found himself leading with only 13 laps to go, before a spin during his exit from the pits resulted in the now infamous crash that resulted in the amputation of both of Zanardi’s legs.

In 2003, Zanardi returned to Lausitz along with CART and ceremoniously completed the 13 laps that he never finished in the 2001 race. Using a modified 2002 car equipped with hand controls, Zanardi operated the throttle with his left thumb, the clutch with his right hand, and used his prosthetic right leg to command the throttle, and successfully completed his last 13 CART laps, at very competitive speed.  Afterwards, Zanardi returned to racing in the FIA World Touring Car Championship, beginning a long relationship with BMW in the process in parallel with a successful career as a handbike racer.

Alex Zanardi’s popularity and acclaim through American motorsport is beyond question. Zanardi’s performance through the mid to late 90s alone was enough to cement his legacy as one of CART’s best. Unfortunately, it remains up to speculation as to what further successes Zanardi may have enjoyed in CART in the years following 2001.

Takuma Sato

Takuma Sato’s racing career as a whole has been nothing short of anomalous. Sato did not begin his karting career until the age of 19, but he quickly climbed the ranks and proved his speed. Sato won the 2001 Macau Grand Prix on the way to his debut Formula 1 season in 2002 with Eddie Jordan’s team. From the get-go, Sato’s wild driving style was evident, but none could deny his raw speed. Sato collected one podium at the 2004 United States Grand Prix, where he dragged his BAR through the field to an impressive third-place finish in only the second F1 podium finish by a Japanese driver.

After racing for Super Aguri F1 for a few seasons, Sato competed for a 2009 race seat with Scuderia Toro Rosso as well as reserve driver duties with Red Bull Racing. Neither of these pursuits came to pass, leaving Sato without a drive for 2009.

Following a visit to the 2009 Indianapolis 500, Sato elected to pursue a race seat in the IndyCar Series from 2010 on. Sato managed two poles in his sophomore season and nearly claimed the 2012 Indianapolis 500 before crashing on the final lap while attempting to overtake eventual winner Dario Franchitti for the lead. Sato collected his first win at the 2013 Grand Prix of Long Beach for AJ Foyt Enterprises, and nearly followed that up with a win in Sao Paulo the next week.

Sato moved to Andretti Autosport for the 2017 season and broke through to win his first Indy 500 that year, following an intense battle with three-time Indy winner Helio Castroneves. Sato followed this performance with multiple pole positions throughout the remainder of the year. However, despite this comparatively fantastic season for the journeyman from Tokyo, he elected to move to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing for 2018 following Andretti Autosport’s engine supply uncertainty ahead of 2018.

Performance-wise, Sato’s 2018 season was similar to his 2017 campaign, though he did drop four places in the points standings. Sato ended 2018 on a high-note with a win in IndyCar’s return to Portland following an unorthodox strategy call that left him leading Ryan Hunter-Reay at the race’s conclusion. Sato managed two more wins in 2019, though he came under intense scrutiny, deserved or otherwise, for dangerous driving which included heavily striking a crew member on pit road at Texas and being perceived as the cause of an accident on the opening lap of the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway that left Sato upside down and sent Felix Rosenqvist into the catchfence.

In 2020, Sato’s form improved further, netting a career-best seventh-place points finish. Sato also bested Scott Dixon to victory in a postponed Indianapolis 500, despite the then five-time champion’s repeated attempts to overtake. At 43-years-old, Sato became the 20th driver to have multiple Indy 500 victories, already being the first non-caucasian driver to win the event.

For 2021, Sato remains contracted to drive for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing for his fourth season as teammate to Graham Rahal.

Alexander Rossi

Alexander Rossi joined the Caterham F1 team as a test driver in 2012, following multiple seasons in Formula Renault 3.5. Rossi’s 3 years as a Formula 1 test/reserve driver were comparable to a roller coaster ride, especially through the 2014 and 2015 seasons. Following his departure from Caterham in summer 2014, Rossi joined Marussia F1 as a reserve driver for the remainder of the season.

Rossi was originally set to make his race debut at Spa in 2014, replacing Max Chilton, who was in the middle of contractual uncertainties. Marussia, however, eventually reversed this decision and held the seat in Belgium for Chilton. Later, Rossi was set to debut in Sochi, Russia following Jules Bianchi’s horrible crash at Suzuka, which would prove fatal months later. Marussia again reversed their decision, opting to leave their second car in the garage for the Russian Grand Prix.

Rossi stayed onboard through the rebranding of Marussia and retained his reserve title at Manor Marussia, finally making his race debut in late 2015 at Singapore. Over the course of his five race starts in 2015, Rossi proved to be one of the most successful drivers the team had ever fielded as he gave the team their best finish of the season, a 12th at his home race in Austin.

Rossi made the switch to IndyCar after being passed over for a Manor race seat in 2016. Because the deal for Rossi to drive for Andretti Autosport was made on such short notice, Rossi missed all but one pre-season testing session. However, the rookie made up for this lack of seat time by winning the Indianapolis 500 in his first attempt through an impressive display of fuel management and strategy.

Rossi went winless for most of 2017, only collecting one win at Watkins Glen. In 2018, the Californian would find his footing and become a serious championship contender. Rossi’s 2018 season included three wins and a championship battle with Scott Dixon that came down to the very last race of the season in Sonoma, where Dixon secured the championship by finishing second, while Rossi could only manage seventh.

Rossi managed two wins in 2019, but dropped to third in the final standings, before experiencing a notable dip in performance for 2020. Though Rossi managed five podium finishes through the COVID-shortened season, he went winless for the first time in his IndyCar career and finished ninth in points, his worst season result since 2016.

All this said, Rossi’s race-winning ability has not yet come under serious scrutiny. The 29-year-old remains contracted to continue his career with Andretti Autosport for 2021 and he will most likely remain a favorite to win the Indianapolis 500, having been a contender in every running of the event since 2016.

Eddie Cheever

Eddie Cheever’s Formula 1 career spanned 11 seasons. Competing in 1978 and 1980-1989, Cheever managed nine podiums and a total of 70 career points. Cheever’s F1 success peaked in 1983, where he partnered Alain Prost at Renault. Initially considered championship favorites, neither driver would secure the title and both drivers were released from the team at the end of the 1983 season.

Cheever spent the following six seasons in uncompetitive cars, eventually finishing off his career with the Arrows team in 1989. Cheever collected his final podium in his home race at the United States Grand Prix, held on a street circuit winding through downtown Phoenix, Ariz. His F1 career ended winless in 132 race starts.

Cheever made quick work of making his way back to the US for the 1990 season, securing a ride with Chip Ganassi Racing’s then-brand new team. Cheever finished eighth in his first Indianapolis 500 and secured rookie of the year honors for the 500 and CART at large. Through six seasons in CART, Cheever never managed a victory, though he did manage a best finish of 2nd at Phoenix in 1992.

Cheever was among the inaugural class of CART drivers to make the jump to the newly formed Indy Racing League (IRL) and found most of the success in his career here. His first victory came in 1997 at Walt Disney World Speedway, inheriting the lead from a crashing Tony Stewart only three laps before the race was called short due to uncooperative weather. The rest of Cheever’s season was sporadic in terms of results, though he managed a third-place points finish.

Cheever’s highest moment came in 1998, when he led 76 of 200 laps to win the Indianapolis 500. Cheever netted one more podium for 1998 and finished ninth in points, owing to four finishes of 20th or worse. Over five more seasons, Cheever collected three more wins and another third-place points result in 2000.

Cheever took up broadcasting duties from 2008 until 2018, providing television commentary for the IndyCar Series on ABC. His son, Eddie Cheever III, currently competes in the Fanatec GT World Challenge Europe Powered by AWS Endurance Cup, partnering Chis Froggatt and Johnathon Hui at Sky-Tempesta Racing.

Honorable Mentions

Justin Wilson

Justin Wilson’s Formula 1 career spanned only one full season, when he contested the 2003 season for Minardi and Jaguar. This campaign bore little success, leading him to turn his attention to Champ Car in 2004 before arriving in the newly reunified IndyCar Series in 2008. Wilson collected four Champ Car wins from 2004-2007 and finished runner-up in points for both 2006 and 2007. His IndyCar career included singular wins in 2008, 2009, and 2012. Wilson tragically lost his life at Pocono in 2015 after being struck by debris from the Chip Ganassi Racing car of Sage Karam. Wilson was 37 years old.

Rubens Barrichello

Some may call Valtteri Bottas a modern-day Rubens Barrichello. The Brazilian spent a good bit of his career playing a clear support role to Michael Schumacher at Ferrari, often running defense to ensure Schumacher’s dominance continued. While Barrichello’s time at Ferrari saw him collect nine race wins, his status as the team’s second driver was made clear. In the 2002 Austrian Grand Prix, Ferrari even ordered Barrichello to pull aside and be passed by Schumacher on the final straight in order to ensure a good points day for the German. Barrichello later won two more races driving for Brawn GP in 2009, the team’s only season.

After being replaced by Bruno Senna at Williams F1 following the 2011 season, Barrichello joined Tony Kanaan and EJ Viso at KV Racing Technology for the 2012 IndyCar season. He secured rookie of the year honors for the Indianapolis 500 with an 11th-place finish and scored a season-best finish of fourth at Sonoma. Barrichello ultimately returned to his native Brazil to pursue a stock car career the following year.

Max Chilton

Chilton’s Formula 1 career only lasted two seasons, both of which were spent with the uncompetitive Marussia F1 Team. Chilton proved himself reliable, however. He finished every race of his rookie season, a feat yet to be repeated, and only retired three times throughout his short F1 career. Though Chilton never scored points in F1, he managed two 13th-place finishes in 2013, which was respectable given the speed of the Marussia Team. Chilton was left without a drive when Marussia closed down, leading Chilton to contest Indy Lights in 2015 and to move to IndyCar full-time in 2016.

Chilton’s most memorable IndyCar performance came at the 2017 Indianapolis 500, where he led 50 of the 200 laps, only losing the lead to Castroneves with eight laps to go, eventually coming home to finish a very respectable fourth. Chilton has stayed with IndyCar through the 2021 season, though he has elected to not race on ovals since 2019 except at Indianapolis.

Overall, F1 drivers have done rather well for themselves in IndyCar competition. Some, like Mansell, have found that their true potential remained in F1 despite their ventures into IndyCar. Others, like Zanardi and Rossi, have found success in IndyCar that their Formula 1 careers left far out of reach. And drivers like Chilton have yet to find much success at either levels. The Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama kicks off 2021 this weekend at Barber Motorsports Park, and Grosjean will begin writing his own chapter in the book of F1 to IndyCar crossovers. How will history read that chapter?

About the author

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Alex is the IndyCar Content Director at Frontstretch, having initially joined as an entry-level contributor in 2021. He also serves as Managing Director of The Asia Cable, a publication focused on the international affairs and politics of the Asia-Pacific region which he co-founded in 2023. With previous experience in China, Japan and Poland, Alex is particularly passionate about the international realm of motorsport and the politics that make the wheels turn - literally - behind the scenes.

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