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Why IndyCar’s Feeder Series Is More Effective Than F1’s

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The F1 feeder series is the place young drivers go if they want to get into Formula 1 someday, but what are their chances?

They start in some version of Formula 4 most likely. A small number of those drivers progress to Formula 3. An even smaller number make it to Formula 2. Very few of them ever see the inside of a Formula 1 car.

That’s the name of the game, isn’t it? Formula 1 is the pinnacle of motorsport, after all. If it were easy to get into then it wouldn’t be Formula 1. However, it begs the question: Is the exclusivity of Formula 1 a marker of its prestige, or is it indicative of a widespread problem within the series?

Just look at Oscar Piastri: Consecutive rookie champion of Formula Renault Eurocup, Formula 3, and Formula 2. He has also been a member of Alpine’s Driver Academy since 2020. Piastri has performed about as well as any driver could throughout the Formula 1 feeder series, and yet is without a racing seat for 2022.

Recently IndyCar has had an influx of Formula 1 juniors coming to the American series when their Formula 1 hopes were dashed. Callum Ilott and Christian Lundgaard, both formerly Formula 2 drivers, are a part of IndyCar’s rookie class in 2022. In fact, Lundgaard currently leads the rookie standings!

Ilott and Lundgaard weren’t just any Formula 2 drivers either. They were both polesitters and race winners in the series. But more importantly, they both had connections with Formula 1 academies, Ilott with Ferrari and Lundgaard with Renault.

If Formula 1 wants to stop losing talented juniors like Ilott and Lundgaard to IndyCar, it needs to start looking at what the American series is doing right.

What’s Wrong with F1’s Feeder Series?

Even in the lower categories like the Formula 4 series, a seat could cost well over $100k. As a driver moves up towards the higher series, funding a seat becomes more and more expensive. By the time a driver gets to Formula 3 or Formula 2, they’re often paying upwards of $1 million just to be able to race in that category. 

That means that only two kinds of drivers have a realistic chance of making it to Formula 2: those with money or those with sponsors or affiliations to Formula 1. 

The total number of drivers who have had to leave the feeder series at different points due to financial issues is simply too many to count. In 2021 alone, six drivers had to drop out of the Formula 2 season at some point due to a lack of funding.

The problem carries over into Formula 1 as well. Teams that need money sign drivers that have the financial backing to support them, whatever their track record. Meanwhile, drivers with arguably more talent but less funding are continually overlooked.

When teams are choosing drivers based on the money they bring to the table instead of the talent, Formula 1 starts to lose its credibility as a racing series.

This problem is deeply rooted within Formula 1 and cannot be solved with a few minor changes. That being said, there are definitely ways that the feeder series system can work to support drivers with less funding.

Over in America, IndyCar’s junior categories are doing just that. The Road to Indy, the official feeder series for IndyCar, has a system that allows well-performing drivers to move up, regardless of funding.

How The Road To Indy Works

The official IndyCar feeder series consists of three categories: USF2000, Indy Pro 2000, and Indy Lights. Young drivers looking to make their way to IndyCar start in USF2000, much like F1 hopefuls start in some iteration of Formula 4 or Formula Regional.

Recently a new “entry” series was added, USF Juniors. The goal of this series was to make the rest of the Road to Indy more accessible for drivers. The champion of this category will receive a $300k scholarship towards a USF2000 seat.

The big advantage that the Road to Indy offers is prize money. The Cooper Tire Pole Award is presented to the fastest driver in qualifying for each series. The pole winner in USF2000 receives $1,000, the pole winner in Indy Pro 2000 receives $1,500, and the pole winner in Indy Lights receives $2,000.

Andretti’s Hunter McElrea, the first pole winner in the 2022 Indy Lights season (Image Credit: Ignite Media)

The champion of each series receives a scholarship bonus to help them progress up to the next rung of the ladder. The USF2000 champion receives over $400k towards an Indy Pro 2000 seat, and the Indy Pro 2000 champion receives over $600k towards an Indy Lights seat. 

The Indy Lights champion receives over $1 million towards an IndyCar seat. On top of that, they are guaranteed a spot in three IndyCar races the following season. Indy Lights has also instated a new prize in 2022 for the top four finishers of every race: the winner of each race gets $20,000. Prizes also go to those finishing second, third, and fourth.

IndyCar has made it clear that they have a vested interest in young drivers by giving them the means to reasonably achieve a spot in their series.

The Benefit of Prize Money

What these prizes ensure is that top drivers in each series can keep progressing. When a young driver wins any championship, teams higher up will look to sign them.

The only hesitation with signing a well-performing driver is funding. The Road to Indy takes away that hesitation for drivers who don’t have the resources to fund a seat. Furthermore, it gives teams an incentive to sign young champions.

Even generational talents, like Kyle Kirkwood, know they have to keep winning to continue racing. 

Kirkwood, now driving in IndyCar with A.J. Foyt Racing, was the first driver to win each step of the Road to Indy ladder. Not only that, but he took all three titles consecutively (F1 fans: sound like someone you know?).

Kyle Kirkwood after his 25th Road to Indy win (Image Credit: Gavin Baker)

But Kirkwood acknowledged in an interview with Indy Fanatics that without the benefits that come with taking junior titles, he might not have made it all the way.

“Ultimately I didn’t have to bring a lot of funding. It kind of forced me to be in this position where I needed to win to move on, and it really was a fast track all the way to Indycar, from the point where I won the F4 championship and just moved straight through all the ladders consecutively every single year. But if I didn’t win one of those championships, and I finished second and I didn’t get the scholarship, I might not be in this position. So even though it was fast it was very necessary.”

How F1 Could Implement a New Strategy

Ultimately, it’s always going to be difficult to get a Formula 1 seat. In IndyCar, teams can join with relative ease and run as many cars as they have the funding for. But Formula 1 is set at ten teams (at least for now), and each team runs no more or less than two drivers. With only 20 seats available for any given season, there won’t always be space for all the up and coming young drivers, no matter how good they are.

But there are things that the Formula 1 feeder series can do to better foster young talent and ensure that the best drivers are consistently able to move up the ladder. It’s hard to watch Oscar Piastri stuck on the sidelines. But the goal should be to have as many drivers like him as possible in the position to get a Formula 1 seat should one be available. The feeder series doesn’t lack talent at all, but much of that talent lacks the necessary funding to progress.

Implementing something like the Road to Indy’s scholarships for championship winners could be vital for young drivers. Drivers with talent that don’t have the means to fund a Formula 2 or Formula 3 seat could actually have a chance at showcasing their talent in higher categories. 

It’s in Formula 1’s best interests to have the best young drivers competing at the top of their junior categories. Drivers like Ilott and Lundgaard have already made the move to IndyCar. Even Formula 2’s Logan Sargeant almost made the switch before the Williams Driver Academy signed him.

Why is this so important?

Formula 1 is the pinnacle of motorsport, or so it claims. In order to retain that title, it has to be taken seriously. In order to be taken seriously, Formula 1 needs to take itself seriously. To do this, Formula 1 needs to invest in young drivers and take care of them. While talented drivers are being overlooked in favour of drivers with more funding, Formula 1 risks being taken less seriously.

It’s no secret in Formula 1 that money talks. It has been apparent in many aspects of the series for years now. But even more so recently, the feeder series has been a glaring example of that fact.

Even drivers that are involved with Formula 1 academies often fail to land a seat at the top step of motorsport. If those drivers don’t have a chance, what chance do non-academy drivers have?

The top three drivers of the Formula 2 Feature Race in Jeddah (Image Credit: Getty Images)

The CEO of F2 and F3 Bruno Michel recently commented on the impressive performances of drivers like Felipe Drugovich and Richard Verschoor, despite them not being affiliated with a Formula 1 academy. He made it clear that “you don’t need to be a part of an academy to shine.” 

But Drugovich and Verschoor, both very much in the fight for the Formula 2 championship, have little chance of making it to Formula 1. Even if one of them were to win the championship, it wouldn’t be enough for them to make it.

For the sake of these young drivers, not just in Formula 2 but all throughout the feeder series, Formula 1 needs to make a change.How many more talented drivers will fall by the wayside due to funding issues before action is taken?

Feature Image Credit: José Mário Dias

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