Race Weekend Central

Inside IndyCar: American F1?

This is the start of a multi-week column that is designed to help explain the inner workings and technical aspects of IndyCar, the premier open wheel series based in North America.

We’ve designed this series to help familiarize new fans with the series and make it easy-to-understand. Diving right into IndyCar, even if you are a hardcore NASCAR fan, can be difficult due to just how unique it is.

For the first topic, I have to tackle one of the very first questions you get when you watch, cover or even compete in either series: what’s the difference between Formula 1 and IndyCar?

There are quite a number of very big differences, enough so that this topic on its own could dominate this column for the next few months.

But above anything, there are three basic but crucial differences between the two.

The Grid

The first to look at is structure. F1 has a field of 10 teams, with an entry and approval process more befitting a stick-and-ball sport than a typical racing series.

Each of these teams develop a unique race car from each other, albeit following strict guidelines set by the FIA, which serves as the governing body of the sporting aspects of the series.

These teams must operate at a very strict budget cap, this year being around $140 million. That is to say, a given team’s annual cost of operations is not to exceed $140 million. They also either produce or buy engines from one of four suppliers: Mercedes, Ferrari, Red Bull/Honda, and Renault.

Each team must enter two cars into each of the grands prix in a season, with each car scoring points and positions to both the team in the constructor standings and to the individual driver.

No prize money is awarded to the teams until the end of the season, in which it is largely awarded by their position in the constructor standings.

Additional payments are also awarded to certain teams based on various conditions; Ferrari and Williams both receive a heritage/historical payment, while Mercedes receives a bonus due to their eight-year streak of championships.

In 2020, the championship winning Mercedes team was reportedly paid $165 million after combining all of their winnings together. All-in-all, roughly $900 million is paid out to race teams at the conclusion of the season.

In IndyCar, teams do not face a strict approval process to enter a given race weekend. Cars are built to spec by Dallara, with teams using either Chevrolet engines or Honda engines.

There’s no budget cap, but the standardized chassis and body means a race team can only spend but so much. Each top team per-car is reportedly spending between $6 million and $8 million per year.

There are three main pools of income for IndyCar drivers from a standardized level, thus meaning before sponsorships or pay-driver income. Teams receive prize money per event, with the biggest pot being the Indianapolis 500.

Marcus Ericsson won $3.1 million for winning the big race last year, which is roughly $2 million more than the Daytona 500 winner typically receives. Outside of Indianapolis, however, most event purses are much smaller than most NASCAR races.

The second, like F1, comes from the points championship at the end of the season. Finally, IndyCar has a “Leader’s Circle Program”, in which IndyCar pays each full time car a little over $900K per year in exchange for them showing up to every race.

See also
The Pit Straight: Is Aston Martin For Real?

The Tracks

The schedule between the two series is significantly different. Although F1 is now holding a record three grands prix in the United States annually, the other 20 races on the calendar are spread out to 19 other countries.

IndyCar holds 16 of 17 races in the United States, with the Grand Prix of Toronto being the lone outlier in Canada.

Minor tangent time: grand prix racing as a whole is generally only referring to F1. IndyCar holds a number of races marketed as “Grand Prix,” and even NASCAR does with its Cup race at Circuit of the Americas, but these are not recognized as official grands prix by the FIA.

The FIA will recognize a total of 25 races this season as grands prix. In addition to the 23 F1 race weekends, the FIA also recognizes the New Zealand Grand Prix of the Formula Regional Oceania Championship and the rather infamous Macau Grand Prix as official.

Where was I? Oh yes, track types. F1 only races on road courses that have been tested rigorously using approximate rules and designated by the FIA as Grade One facilities – tracks which meet a strict criteria along lines of safety and other concerns.

IndyCar races on both road courses and ovals, with a main focus on road courses primarily as a safety precaution due to how fast the cars go on many ovals.

Each F1 race is held at a race distance of 305 kilometers, or 190 miles. Because of this standardization and to make pit road safer, F1 teams do not refuel during a race. IndyCar teams, due to the various lengths of their races, have to pit every 75 miles or so.

See also
F1 Midweek: Can Red Bull Run the Table?

The Cars

Finally, maybe the most radical difference between the two is the hardest to explain as a non-race car driver: how each car drives.

Romain Grosjean this past off-season did a very informative video above explaining more of the technical differences between the two cars. If you’re less of a gearhead, the key difference is cornering speed vs straight-line speed.

F1 cars have power steering and produce massive amounts of downforce, allowing drivers to go significantly faster in the corners than their IndyCar counterparts. IndyCar, by contrast, can attain higher speeds at Indianapolis than any other racing series. This is demonstrated through the top speeds reached in Indy 500 qualifying:

While prepping for this column, I popped in Forza Motorsport 7 and did a fast lap in both a 2019 IndyCar and the Renault R.S. 17 from 2017 at my favorite road course in North America, Watkins Glen. This obviously isn’t a super realistic experience, but I made a chart below of my turn speeds right at the apex between the two cars:

Track AreaIndyCarF1
Frontstretch Top Speed190 mph206 mph
Turn 1 Apex73 mph105 mph
Backstretch Top Speed211 mph213 mph
Bus Stop Middle Apex103 mph121 mph
Turn 5/”The Outer Loop” Apex117 mph169 mph
Turn 6 Apex120 mph160 mph
Turn 7 Apex95 mph133 mph
Final Time/Speed59.423 / 149.49 mph49.848 / 183.75 mph

Obviously the F1 car is faster in every area, but the IndyCar actually isn’t far off at all on the backstretch when it comes to top speed. Both cars had enough downforce to drive through the uphill Turns 2 and 3 without lifting, so the IndyCar had enough time to catch up speed-wise.

The part of the track where the F1 car really starts to drive away is following the Bus Stop chicane on the backstretch. The huge difference between both cars in the Outer Loop is relatively simple: the midfield Renault had the downforce to go through that sweeping right-hand corner without lifting, whereas the IndyCar did have to lift.

The scary thing is that the Renault R.S. 17 finished sixth in constructor standings six years ago. A more modern F1 car may well be below the 45 second mark if it were to make a competitive lap with a professional driver at the Glen.

Is this a completely accurate simulation? Again no, this is just somebody goofing around on an Xbox. But it’s a good illustration of the key differences between these two series.

And for the record, although F1 is the faster series, IndyCar is the closer one. F1 is an engineering challenge where the drivers can only do but so much, whereas in IndyCar both the driver and the setup play more of a factor. Which is the better series? That’s a matter of opinion; there is no wrong or right answer there.

About the author

Michael has watched NASCAR for 20 years and regularly covered the sport from 2013-2021, and also formerly covered the SRX series from 2021-2023. He now covers the FIA Formula 1 World Championship, the NASCAR Xfinity Series, and road course events in the NASCAR Cup Series.

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Paul Kirk

Good article, I’ve just signed up for more.
Many thanks.

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