There are just 22 seats in Formula One available for 2017. With so many drivers still at the top of their game, so many young stars coming through the ranks and as well as a superlicence points system and new aerodynamic regulations coming in for next year, it would seem as if hearing names in the F1 silly season from outside of the F1 ladder would be pretty much inconceivable. That may not be the case however, as some big names in IndyCar have shown the speed, technological know-how and the PR skills required to be a driver at the highest level. And the Haas F1 team surely must be considering rapid Americans to take one of their cars for 2017 as well. Could a few names from Stateside really be in the frame for a F1 seat in 2017?
No driver has switched from American open-wheel racing into Formula One since Sebastien Bourdais back in 2008, off the back of his four consecutive Champ Car titles. Bourdais was somewhat unfortunate to be paired up with none other than eventual four-time World Champion Sebastian Vettel, and his F1 career did not last all that long and has since eventually returned to IndyCar, with mild success with a small team. That means that since reunification, no driver has headed to F1 directly from IndyCar. In fact, there have not been many IndyCar drivers who have since raced in F1 over the last 20 years since the famous split, with only Alex Zanardi, Christiano Da Matta, Tiago Monteiro and Juan Pablo Montoya joining Bourdais in jumping Stateside to F1 from 1996.
The current crop of IndyCar drivers is amongst the strongest it has ever seen. With multiple champions, Indy 500 winners as well as drivers who deserve to secure a championship all very much active, each of the full-time drivers seen in 2016 to date has been there certainly on merit as well as through their respective sponsorship deals. There are many differences between IndyCar and F1 currently, but given how versatile the IndyCar drivers need to be to tackle tight street courses, winding road courses, highly physical short ovals as well as the fearsome superspeedways, adapting to the circuits on the F1 calendar should not be all that problematic for drivers of that calibre.
One issue the IndyCar drivers will face if they have F1 aspirations is getting the required superlicence. For a series so close every season, it is somewhat harsh and short-sighted of the FIA to only award 40 points to the champion, and not to say the top four or five drivers. In addition, these tables do not take into account that drivers can have exceptional seasons with a really small team, yet finish behind an underperforming fourth driver in a big team such as Chip Ganassi Racing for example. Also, it ties with the LMP1 class of the World Endurance Championship and the FIA Formula 3 European championship for the way in which the points are distributed. Is winning the IndyCar series as difficult as winning those two? It is arguably more difficult. A baffling way to distribute the points, yes, but it is a system we will need to take into consideration.
So four names spring to mind straight away when thinking about who could be in the frame for a possible F1 seat next season, or perhaps even this season, who knows? The first of these is the runaway championship leader Simon Pagenaud. Pagenaud may be 32, but eventual champion Damon Hill didn’t make his F1 debut until he was 33. However, Pagenaud is finally fulfilling the potential he promised Team Penske, by dominating this season in a style so very rarely seen in IndyCar, and by really having the edge over his illustrious team mates Will Power, Helio Castroneves and Montoya. Fearsome in qualifying, absolutely fantastic in race pace, a tad patchy on restarts, but he has been towards the very top constantly this season, so it would be surprising if he was not at least being looked at by a F1 team. To secure the 40 points, he would need to secure this championship though.
The elder of three American drivers who could make the jump is one who continues to punch above his weight in a package which arguably should not be doing so. Graham Rahal is 27 and it may have taken him nine seasons to really put a championship campaign together, but he did it in a one-car team against the quartets of Ganassi and Team Penske. He was also using a Honda package, which was arguably not as strong as what Chevrolet provided last year. Results have been a bit patchier for Rahal this season, but he is still putting in some great drives. Could his Honda links help him in F1? He would need to finish at least second overall to secure the points required.
Next is the immensely popular Josef Newgarden, who really came of age in 2015 in the same way Rahal did. At 25, he is by no means old as of yet, and like Rahal he has had to work on his own before and has delivered some stunning performances. F1 could do with a figure like Newgarden, who plays the social media side of things incredibly well, and has shown that he is immensely talented. He would however need to secure the championship, which at this stage of the season appears unlikely.
Finally the final driver with a shout, arguably the most realistic shout of securing a F1 seat (possibly before the end of the year) is Alexander Rossi, who may have won a certain race last month. At 24, Rossi is the youngest of these drivers, has five F1 races under his belt and is currently the reserve driver for Manor Racing Team. He also already qualifies for F1, having finished second in the GP2 series in 2015. His chances of securing a F1 seat would be bolstered; having won said Indianapolis 500 which will undoubtedly improve his chances of finding even more sponsorship. However, as he has gradually warmed to IndyCar, would Rossi want to go back to the tough, unforgiving world of F1?
There are some drivers who automatically qualify for F1 as well such as Scott Dixon, Max Chilton, Power, Castroneves and Montoya, however in the case of all bar Chilton; they are arguably too old to make a major impact on F1 (again in Montoya’s situation). Chilton could be an option to a team looking for an experienced driver, but it would appear that he is happy enough to be racing in IndyCar for the time being.