Monday , 23 October 2017

Josef Newgarden deserves a shot at Formula 1

It has been a very long time since a driver who has tasted major national success in the United States has jumped ship to Formula 1. It is almost 10 years since Sebastien Bourdais lined up against Sebastian Vettel for the first time at Toro Rosso, in what became a brief F1 career for the four-time Champ Car champion. Since reunification, Indycar drivers have opted not to try their hands at F1, for whatever reason. Only Simona de Silvestro’s aborted attempt has come close. It seems to be more a trend of drivers from F1 heading over to the series – Max Chilton, Rubens Barrichello, Takuma Sato, Alexander Rossi, Esteban Gutierrez and of course – Fernando Alonso, than drivers heading over to F1 from Indycar racing. However, the IndyCar series’ newest champion – 26-year-old Josef Newgarden, would be a fine fit to the current F1 grid.

Newgarden’s rise to the top has been a long time coming, while his talent has rarely been questioned. He was strong in the entry-level Skip Barber class, losing out on the national championship to fellow IndyCar driver Conor Daly in 2008. He then went to pursue a F1 career, embarking on the road to that level on a limited budget. First came Formula Ford 1600 in the United Kingdom, finishing second in his first season at that level on a lot of tracks he had little prior knowledge of.

Then Newgarden made the rather substantial jump to GP3. It was a tricky season – again, on unfamiliar circuits. Driving for Carlin – a team expected to jump to IndyCar next year, Newgarden was bettered by team-mates more familiar with the circuits being used. A GP3 seat also proved expensive, and a second season was impossible to budget for.

However, an opportunity arose back in the US in 2011. Newgarden stepped into Indy Lights, the immediate level below IndyCar, and stormed to the championship at the first time of asking. Then came his big break – a full-time seat with Sarah Fisher Hartman racing. His first season was tough, but the breakthrough performances came in 2013 and 2014 at Houston and Iowa respectively. He missed out on the win on both occasions, but the speed was shown.

Fisher and Ed Carpenter merged teams for 2015, and Newgarden’s talent shone through. He won in Alabama, and followed that up with another win in Toronto, before taking his maiden pole in Milwaukee. He finished a strong seventh in the championship, before joining Carpenter’s team as the lead driver for 2016.

Newgarden’s form in 2016 would finally be enough to show the big teams that he was hot property. Weeks after a massive, hand-injuring crash between himself and Daly in Texas, Newgarden crushed the opposition to storm to (so far) his finest win, in Iowa. It was his only win of the season, but he finished fourth in the championship, ahead of the likes of Scott Dixon and Juan Pablo Montoya.

Then came the call from the great Roger Penske. Montoya was replaced by Newgarden, and unlike the slow starts to life at the team experienced by the Colombian and 2016 champion Simon Pagenaud, Newgarden’s results came almost instantly. Admittedly, his crew was not built from the ground up, but to slot in that way was very impressive. He inherited his first win, which came in Alabama, but his late-season form included three wins and two second places from the final six races, which was enough to overhaul his three illustrious team-mates as well as Dixon to take the title.

Newgarden has the potential to be fighting with the likes of Rossi over Indycar championships for at least another decade to come. But why stay there, when he should be in the shop windows for F1 teams?

Admittedly, on paper, a single IndyCar series title doesn’t look particularly impressive. Especially when Bourdais took four successive championships and flopped in F1. Alex Zanardi is another driver with masses of success in CART, but achieved very little during his F1 career. But that does not necessarily imply that Newgarden would be the same.

Firstly, Newgarden achieved this championship against some of Indycar’s greatest drivers. Dixon is a driver who requires little introduction, with four championships, a few near-misses (including 2017) and is one of the most successful Indycar drivers of all time. Two of Newgarden’s Penske team-mates are also champions – 2014 champion Will Power and 2016 champion Pagenaud. Other champions in the field include Bourdais, Tony Kanaan and Ryan Hunter-Reay. This is arguably the strongest field IndyCar has had since the CART-IRL split, so to come out on top is very impressive. Alonso claimed that the series is host to some of ‘the best drivers in the world’ and I think that says it all.

There appears to have been flirtation with F1 already, and perhaps that will become even more likely now that Newgarden has enough FIA Superlicence points to race in F1. It was revealed on NBCSN’s broadcast during the season finale that Gene Haas’s F1 team was looking at Newgarden as a possible driver. A future move would be perfect for the sport in America. There is a real desire for F1 to finally break America, and a home-grown talent such as Newgarden, with an American team, would be perfect for this.

But Newgarden should get there on talent, not through a PR stunt. He sure does have the talent, but as his IndyCar career has shown, he would need likely need a few seasons to find his feet – something very few in F1 get given the opportunity to have. However, there’s a lot in Newgarden’s armoury which he could bring to F1. Winning an IndyCar championship requires mastering all sorts of circuit – from road courses to street courses and of course, the short and superspeedway ovals. Newgarden has come within striking distance at the Indianapolis 500 before, but otherwise has won at least once on all type of circuit.

Just as Montoya did in his (disappointingly short) stint in F1, there’s a lot of feisty, aggressive, exciting things a driver such as Newgarden could bring to F1. And in an era where too many drivers are unbelievably bland in and out of the cockpit, Newgarden would bring something fresh.

Newgarden isn’t joining F1 for 2018 – that’s not difficult to work out. However, in what is already shaping up to be a truly exceptional driver market for 2019, there’s no reason why champions from high-level categories away from the F1 ladder should not be considered.

About Craig Woollard

Craig Woollard is an avid motor racing fan and freelance journalist and writer. A mathematics graduate from the University of Essex in 2013, Woollard has ambitions to work within motor racing. He is a member of Autosport's academy programme. In his spare time, he listens to music, sim races, wears hats and drinks cranberry juice.

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