I see that IndyCar star Ryan Hunter-Reay is saying that IndyCar drivers can be taken seriously as candidates for F1 and that IndyCar deserves to once again be considered a path to Grand Prix racing. This is two very different questions which should be examined separately.
Firstly, should we look at IndyCar drivers and believe that they could jump in a modern F1 car and instantly be quick? A fast driver is a fast driver and history will tell you that Mario Andretti used to pop backwards and forwards and did well in both series. That was 40 years ago so one needs to be careful to say that the same is true today. What we have seen since then were F1 drivers going to the US and doing well, notably Nigel Mansell in 1993, while the same year Michael Andretti (who was a very good racing driver) failed to get a foothold in F1. We did see Jacques Villeneuve and Juan Pablo Montoya turn up after that and do well in F1, but there were some very specific circumstances there. Both men went into top cars at a time when F1 drivers were allowed to test a great deal. And there have been some failures too: notably Alex Zanardi and Sébastien Bourdais, who seemed unable to translate their success in the US into success in F1.
I think it is very important these days for any driver to have a great deal of experience in European racing before trying to survive in F1. Racing is different in Europe and this is why the best youngsters from all over the world come to Europe to hone their skills. It is not just about driving, its about developing in the right way, having the right focus, and understanding and feeling comfortable in the European environment. Scott Speed and Alex Rossi, the last two Americans to drive F1 cars both spent a lot of time in Europe and I am sure it helped them. For a lot of youngsters the first season in European racing is a very eye-opening experience. It’s tough. So, I don’t believe that any old driver can simply turn up and be quick, particularly without testing. Yes, there are simulators that teach drivers a lot but there are lots of other elements involved that can influence performance, not least a sense of feeling at home and confident. That is difficult in a world where there are a lot of different cultures and languages. It takes time to assimilate and be comfortable.
As to the other question, does IndyCar deserve to be seen as a route to F1? Well, perhaps, but we would need to see someone try it. Most of the top stars in IndyCar are getting quite old these days. The title was won last year by 35-year-old New Zealander Scott Dixon. For most of the season the championship was led by Juan Pablo Montoya (40), who won the Indy 500, but ended up as the championship runner-up, ahead of his Penske team-mate Will Power (34). Other top drivers include Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan both 40, Sebastien Bourdais 36, Hunter-Reay 35 and even Marco Andretti is 28. The good news was that Graham Rahal 26 and Josef Newgarden 24 are showing that there is a good new young generation as well.
Personally, I would love to see some IndyCar drivers getting into F1, but I am a little wary of them trying, if they are not properly prepared…