Top 10 F1 to Indy car converts ranked

As Romain Grosjean becomes the latest former Formula 1 driver to make the switch to the NTT IndyCar Series with Dale Coyne Racing in 2021, Motorsport.com picks out the 10 converts who made the best impression Stateside.

Top 10 F1 to Indy car converts ranked

Romain Grosjean will follow in esteemed footsteps when he makes the switch to U.S. open-wheel racing this season, the well-trodden path from Formula 1 most recently traversed by Marcus Ericsson. But who is the greatest F1-to-Indy convert?

Drivers must first have competed in F1 to be eligible for our list, which rules out 1993 McLaren driver Michael Andretti and his 1978 world champion father Mario.

The 1988 series champion and 1985 Indianapolis 500 winner Danny Sullivan is also ineligible, his Indy car debut in 1982 coming one year before his single F1 season at Tyrrell, while Juan Pablo Montoya and Sebastien Bourdais each won Indy car titles before moving to F1 and subsequently returning Stateside.

When considering the order of the list, F1 achievement isn't factored in - it's purely down to how successfully the driver made the transition to Indy car. Making an instant impression is rewarded, and so too is longevity. On that basis, despite Fernando Alonso’s impressive debut in the 2017 Indianapolis 500, there isn’t a large enough sample size to consider him, nor 1966 Indy 500 winner Graham Hill.

Grosjean has said he won’t enter the Indy 500 or any races held on a superspeedway due to the elevated risk factor, but some of the greats featured in our list also have no Indy appearances to their name due to the split between CART and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1996, which resulted in the formation of the Indy Racing League.

Honorable mentions must go to former PacWest team-mates Mauricio Gugelmin and Mark Blundell, both standouts in the 1997 season, 1998 Indy 500 winner Eddie Cheever, three-time CART race winner Max Papis and famed 'supersub’ Roberto Moreno - who took the 2000 title down to the wire at Fontana before finishing third.

10. Takuma Sato

 

Photo by: Scott R LePage / Motorsport Images

F1 starts: 90
Best result: 3rd
Indy car wins: 6
Best Indianapolis 500 finish: 1st (2017, 2020)
Best Indy car ranking: 8th (2017)

Sato has blown hot and cold for much of his 10-year stint in the IndyCar Series, but his triumph over Scott Dixon to secure a second Indianapolis 500 victory last year was a timely reminder that he can beat the very best on his day.

Left without an F1 drive when Super Aguri folded four races into 2008, Sato’s Honda connections landed him an IndyCar drive for the Lotus-backed KV Racing Technology team in 2010. After a rocky start, he showed flashes of form in 2011 and led in the wet of Sao Paolo until poor pit strategy dropped him to eighth.

That near miss was nothing compared to the 2012 Indy 500, when Sato’s Rahal Letterman Lanigan machine crashed on the final lap trying to pass Dario Franchitti for the win. That stinging defeat made a lasting impression that Sato was determined to rectify come his RLL return in 2018.

A first win eventually arrived with AJ Foyt’s team at Long Beach in 2013, but it was a false dawn as a largely disappointing four-year spell featured only one more podium at Detroit in 2015.

His career was reinvigorated upon joining Andretti Autosport for 2017 and an inspired drive gave him a first Indy win over Helio Castroneves. He also recorded two pole positions in the same season (Detroit and Pocono) for the first time since 2011, and at last made the top 10 in points.

Since rejoining RLL for 2018, he has scored four wins, showing mental toughness to rebound from causing a multi-car accident at Pocono by winning the very next race at Gateway. That about sums up Sato. His never-say-die attitude means he’ll please spectators more than rivals, but he has earned his place among the IndyCar racing elite.

9. Teo Fabi

 

Photo by: Motorsport Images

F1 starts: 64
Best result: 3rd
Indy car wins: 5
Best Indianapolis 500 finish: 7 (1994)
Best Indy car ranking: 2nd (1983)

The enigmatic Italian had a nomadic career as he dotted between Europe and the US, but was never able to live up to the promise of his stellar 1983 rookie season in Indy car racing.

Fabi had endured a miserable rookie F1 campaign with Toleman in 1982, failing to qualify seven times and retiring on a further six occasions. Having raced in Can-Am for Newman/Haas in 1981, he returned to the USA for 1983 but few could have predicted the impact he’d make in a single-car Forsythe Racing March entry. He took pole at six of the 13 races – including for the Indy 500 – and won four times. But for the sake of five points, he would have beaten former Can-Am teammate Al Unser to the title.

That suggested a bright future in Indy cars, but his standout performances had attracted the attentions of the reigning F1 champion team Brabham, and Fabi attempted to contest both series simultaneously in 1984 – skipping three clashing grands prix where younger brother Corrado filled in. This unique arrangement wasn’t to last and Fabi decided to focus his attentions on Europe midway through a disappointing sophomore year that yielded only a single podium.

But despite showing his evident speed with three poles, the next three years for Toleman/Benetton were largely disappointing before he returned to Indy cars with the nascent March-Porsche project for 1988. A plane crash that claimed its driving force Al Holbert threatened to derail the program, but Derrick Walker kept the ship afloat and Fabi scored Porsche’s maiden win at Mid-Ohio in 1989.

Momentum was building towards a title challenge in 1990, but Porsche’s radical carbon chassis was blocked in a roundtable meeting of team owners. Fabi only mustered one podium at Meadowlands and a pole at Denver before Porsche pulled the plug.

After winning the 1991 World Sportscar Championship for Jaguar, Fabi’s third and final Indy car spell yielded one more podium – subbing for Mario Andretti at Newman/Haas in 1992, two years with Hall Racing and another season with Forsythe – yielded just one more podium.

8. Justin Wilson

 

Photo by: Adriano Manocchia

F1 starts: 16
Best result: 8th
Indy car wins: 7
Best Indianapolis 500 finish: 5 (2013)
Best Indy car ranking: 2nd (2006, 2007)

The lanky Brit’s death in a freak accident at Pocono in 2015 robbed the motorsport world of a well-liked figure whose fortunes were due for a long-awaited turn for the better.

Wilson’s experience of F1 was brief, a single season split between Minardi and Jaguar in 2003 being poor return for the promise he’d shown in winning the 2001 International Formula 3000 crown. But America promised better and Wilson exceeded expectations in his debut Champ Car season with Conquest in 2004. Second on the grid at Cleveland was a particular highlight, although an overzealous Alex Tagliani ensured he got no further than Turn 1.

He became a regular frontrunner upon switching to RuSPORT for 2005 and at Toronto finally scored the maiden victory he’d been denied by a rare engine failure at Portland. Wilson improved from third to second in 2006, but the Sebastien Bourdais-Newman/Haas combination remained frustratingly out of reach.

Champ Car’s move to a new spec car, the Panoz DP01 of 2007, promised to level the playing field, but did the exact opposite. Consistent scoring wasn’t enough to deny Bourdais as Wilson again finished second.

It was just Wilson’s luck that when he joined Newman/Haas to replace the F1-bound Bourdais in 2008, Champ Car merged with the IRL and all the transition teams faced a steep learning curve to make up the deficit. Victory at Detroit was a deserved reward for his efforts, but a sponsorship shortfall following the death of team co-founder Paul Newman meant Wilson had to find a berth with Dale Coyne Racing – another late-comer from Champ Car – for 2009. Rather than mope, he dug in and at Watkins Glen he gave the team its first win after 25 years of trying.

That ought to have been his ticket to a top ride, but Wilson spent the next five seasons punching above his weight in midfield cars – he should have won at Toronto for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing in 2010, and returned Coyne to victory lane with his first oval win at Texas in 2012.

Even amid the toil, Wilson never lost the respect of his peers and after landing a part-time deal with Andretti Autosport for 2015, a battling drive to second at Mid-Ohio looked set to have earned him a full-season program for 2016. Sadly, we never got the chance to find out how he would have fared in machinery worthy of his talent.

7. Dan Gurney

 

Photo by: Indianapolis Motor Speedway

F1 starts: 86
Best result: 1st (4 wins)
Indy car wins: 7
Best Indianapolis 500 finish: 2nd (1968, 1969)
Best Indy car ranking: 4th (1969)

Tabbed by Enzo Ferrari to join his Formula 1 team in 1959, Gurney’s impressive performances in the world championship meant he already had a burgeoning reputation when he entered the 1962 Indianapolis 500 for his first of nine consecutive appearances in the great race.

Unlike fellow F1 ace Jim Clark, his Indy 500 teammate at Lotus between 1963 and 1965, Gurney never won the 500 but seven USAC Indy car wins from 19 starts underscored his obvious ability in U.S. open-wheel racing.

An accomplished all-rounder who won the inaugural USAC Road Racing championship in 1958 and embarrassed the NASCAR regulars by winning at Riverside five times in six years between 1963 and 1968, oval racing was perhaps for Gurney not the totally alien environment it might have been for most F1 drivers.

"Dan was the guy I really admired," said Mario Andretti, "because he raced everything: Formula 1, sportscars, stock cars, Indy cars. He really inspired me."

Gurney placed fourth in the USAC standings in 1969 despite contesting just nine of the 21 races. That he was driving an Eagle designed and built by his own All-American Racers outfit – with which he’d won four USAC races in the previous two years while an F1 full-timer – made the feat all the more remarkable.

Gurney achieved his best results at the Brickyard in his own cars. After making his bow in Mickey Thompson’s rear-engine Buick special in 1962, he was instrumental in convincing Colin Chapman to give Indy a try for 1963 and bringing Ford to the table, but his only finish in three attempts with Lotus was a delayed seventh after two unscheduled tire stops in 1963.

His car was withdrawn in 1964 due to blistering that had caused teammate Clark to retire, while in ’65, after qualifying on the front row alongside the Scot, Gurney was thwarted by engine trouble.

Gurney didn’t so much as lead a lap at Indy until 1967, his second attempt in a car of his own construction after crashing out in 1966. He finished second in 1968 to Bobby Unser (also in an Eagle) and again in 1969 behind Andretti, then finished third on his swansong appearance in 1970.

As with his F1 career, the stats don’t do justice to Gurney’s abilities in an Indy car.

6. Alexander Rossi

 

Photo by: Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images

F1 starts: 5
Best result: 20th
Indy car wins: 7
Best Indianapolis 500 finish: 1st (2016)
Best Indy car ranking: 2nd (2018)

When he started his IndyCar career in 2016, Rossi said that he would wait to see what opportunities opened up in F1 before committing his future to the U.S. scene. But after he took a shock Indianapolis 500 victory in his rookie year, and none of the top F1 teams opened their doors to him in the off-season, he started to realize that IndyCar was his future.

The Californian didn’t get much of an opportunity to stake a claim for an F1 future when he replaced Roberto Merhi at Manor in 2015 and when moneyed Rio Haryanto came knocking for 2016, Rossi was effectively squeezed out – although offered the olive branch of reserve driver with the ultimately doomed squad.

Landing at Andretti Autosport, he took time to build up. He only made the top 10 on the grid three times and, Indy aside, his best finish was fifth at Sonoma. His victory at the 500 relied on masterful application of an audacious fuel saving strategy, but Rossi proved in 2017 that he could run up front on merit by challenging James Hinchcliffe for the win at Long Beach until his engine blew and finishing second at Toronto before it all came right at Watkins Glen with pole and victory.

Rossi effectively led the Andretti pack over the next couple of years. Scott Dixon’s closest challenger in 2018, Rossi slipped to third in the points in 2019 but was the year’s standout driver as expert tactical calls at crucial moments gave Josef Newgarden the leg-up in the title race.

Rossi’s spirited battle with eventual victor Simon Pagenaud at Indy in 2019 is remembered as a modern classic and he again shone in 2020 until he crashed out following a 50/50 penalty call. The performance was a rare bright spot in a year that took an age to get going as street races  – normally the team’s forte – were erased from the pandemic-blighted schedule. But Rossi finished strong with podium finishes in four of the last five rounds.

This year he will face another strong intra-team battle with the exceptional Colton Herta, now in his third season, but Rossi has all the talents needed to become champion.

5. Jim Clark

 

Photo by: Dave Friedman / Motorsport Images

F1 starts: 72
Best result: 1st (25 wins)
Indy car wins: 2
Best Indianapolis 500 finish: 1st (1965)
Best Indy car ranking: 6th (1963)

The question of what would have happened had Clark not been killed in a Formula 2 race at Hockenheim in 1968 has been asked many times over. But while one cannot say with total certainty that the Scotsman would have continued racking up F1 titles for Lotus given his growing desire for independence from Colin Chapman, Clark almost certainly could have added more victories to his tally at the Indy 500.

From five starts, he finished in the top two three times and only once failed to lead laps – and all this despite having no previous oval racing experience.

Second behind Parnelli Jones’s roadster on his debut in 1963 – Chapman had lobbied for Jones to be black-flagged for leaking oil, but was unsuccessful in his protests – Clark had pole in 1964 before retiring with suspension failure caused by vibrations from high tire wear. Then he utterly dominated in 1965 to become the first non-American winner since 1916 and the first rear-engine winner. Skipping the Monaco Grand Prix to make the race, he led 190 laps – his 95% the fourth-highest tally in the race’s 104 editions.

Clark led the second most laps (66) in 1966 and might have won for a second year in a row without two spins – although he remarkably didn’t hit anything either time. Indeed, he may well have actually won, and there remains a debate to this day over whether his manual lap scorer missed one of his laps, thereby placing him behind declared winner Graham Hill.

But he was never in the running in 1967, retiring after just 35 laps with engine trouble.

Clark wasn’t just an Indy specialist though – in select USAC appearances, he underlined that he could have been a serious contender for titles if he’d been a regular. He took pole in his two additional ’63 appearances at Milwaukee and Trenton, leading the former from start to finish, and the second for the first 49 laps until an oil line failure.

Then in ’67, he drove the Vollstedt at the season finale on Riverside road course, qualifying alongside polesitter Gurney, and leading briefly until a missed gear bent a valve.

To many Clark is the best there ever was, and he paved the way for many more European talents to try their hand at the Brickyard.

4. Bobby Rahal

 

Photo by: Dan R. Boyd

F1 starts: 2
Best result: 12th
Indy car wins: 24
Best Indianapolis 500 finish: 1st (1986)
Indy car titles: 3 (1986, 1987, 1992)

Rahal’s two-race Formula 1 cameo with Wolf in 1978 is a footnote in the three-time Indy car champion’s glittering career, which now counts two Indianapolis 500 victories as an owner in addition to his own triumph from 1986.

Runner-up to Gilles Villeneuve in the 1977 Formula Atlantic championship, Rahal made his F1 debut with Wolf in the two North American races of 1978 after impressing in European F3. But hopes of a fulltime drive in 1979 were dashed by new arrival James Hunt’s insistence on a one-car operation and when Peter Warr overlooked Rahal to replace a demotivated Hunt mid-year, he returned to the U.S. to race sportscars until motel mogul Jim Trueman approached him to set up an Indy car team.

Despite a lack of oval experience, Rahal and the new Truesports team proved quick learners and finished second in the 1982 standings, winning on only their fourth start at Cleveland. Over the next 16 years, he’d score at least one podium in every season and, while he perhaps had less adapting to do than other ex-F1 hands on this list who spent the bulk of their careers in Europe, he certainly had the talent to succeed in F1.

Rahal remained loyal to Truesports despite lucrative offers from Pat Patrick and Roger Penske and, after two years with young March engineer Adrian Newey calling the shots that yielded wins but not the championship, his faith was finally rewarded in 1986. A rollercoaster year in which Trueman succumbed to cancer and the team’s future was plunged into doubt, Rahal scored an emotional Indy 500 victory with a late pass on Kevin Cogan and beat Kraco’s new Michael Andretti-Newey axis to secure a maiden title.

He successfully defended his crown in 1987 after switching from March to Lola, but Truesports’ decision to go with Judd rather than Ilmor-Chevrolet engines for 1988 proved a mistake, and Rahal was the only driver to win with them all year. He duly joined Kraco, which initiated a merger with the Galles team in order to get the all-important engine, and although Rahal was winless for the first time in his IndyCar career in 1990, he pushed Andretti all the way in 1991 until an engine failure at the Laguna Seca finale.

Perhaps Rahal’s greatest accomplishment came in 1992, when he won his third title driving for his own team. Seeking more control over his future, Rahal and partner Carl Hogan purchased Pat Patrick’s assets, did a deal with Ilmor and sensationally edged Andretti to the crown.

But his victory at Nazareth would be his last in Indy car racing as his nostalgia-fueled decision to take over the Truesports assets – including its Don Halliday-penned chassis for 1993 – was a recipe for disaster. In the essentially rehashed 1991 car, Rahal failed to qualify at Indy and quickly shelved the project.

Rahal had lobbied Honda to enter as an engine supplier for several years and finally got his wish in 1994, but that too was problematic – requiring a switch to a rented Penske-Ilmor to avoid another Indy DNQ – and although a mini-boon with Mercedes power in 1995 yielded third in points, the end of Rahal’s driving career was in sight. He bowed out at the end of 1998, but his team has remained a strong force.

3. Alex Zanardi

Alex Zanardi, Chip Ganassi Racing Reynard Honda

Alex Zanardi, Chip Ganassi Racing Reynard Honda

Photo by: Sutton Images

F1 starts: 41
Best result: 6th
IndyCar wins: 15
Best Indianapolis 500 finish: N/A
Indy car titles: 2 (1997, 1998)

Zanardi’s F1 career with Jordan, Minardi and Lotus was a classic case of promise unfulfilled. His stunning performances in the Il Barone Rampante F3000 Reynard in 1991 marked him out as future world champion material, but as a largely under-utilized Benetton tester in ’92, he wasn’t fully race fit when called up to replace an injured Christian Fittipaldi at Minardi. A huge shunt at Spa, caused by a Lotus active suspension failure, not only ended his ’93 season prematurely but also compromised his 1994 campaign in the dying cash-strapped Lotus team.

Fortunately, Reynard agent Rick Gorne was a fan from his F3000 days and his recommendation to Chip Ganassi that he replace the out of favor Bryan Herta with Zanardi resurrected his career. It also gave Indy car racing one of its most exciting talents of the past 30 years, capable of swashbuckling comeback drives and brazen overtaking moves that have gone down in folklore. That and his trademark victory donuts and easy humor made him a fan favorite.

True, he had access to the all-conquering Reynard-Honda-Firestone combination, but Zanardi made good on his chance in 1996. Denied wins at Rio and Michigan by poor strategy and engine failure respectively, he broke through for a maiden win in mixed weather at Portland and never looked back. He ended the year with a run of four straight poles and an unforgettable final-lap lunge on Herta at Laguna Seca, then built on these foundations to claim back-to-back titles.

Zanardi’s 1997 campaign was scrappy in places – tangling with Herta while trying to unlap himself at Vancouver and the mysterious practice shunt that forced him to miss the Fontana finale – and he was only fifth in the standings when he arrived at Cleveland. But a victory he would later describe as the race of his life – after two penalties had dropped him back to 22nd – would spur him on to an unstoppable run of form that included his first oval win at Michigan.

His 1998 season was even better, despite not once starting from pole. Seven breathtaking wins, including a classic comeback from a lap down to pass Herta late on at Long Beach and a run of four in a row later in the year, was supplemented by eight other podium finishes that underlined his dominance.

After a forgettable F1 foray with Williams in 1999, Zanardi returned to CART for 2001 but the horrendous accident at Lausitzring ended his single-seater career and meant he never got the chance to start an Indy 500.

2. Emerson Fittipaldi

 

Photo by: IndyCar Series

F1 starts: 144
Best result: 1st (14 wins)
Indy car wins: 22
Best Indianapolis 500 finish: 1st (1989, 1993)
Indy car titles: 1 (1989)

Fittipaldi’s Indy car career was a fruitful Indian summer for the double world champion, who had called time on his racing career after retiring from F1 in 1980, aged just 33. A strong showing on his comeback in an IMSA GTP race showed he still had what it took and he agreed a deal to drive Pepe Romero’s year-old WIT Racing March in 1984, placing fifth on his debut at Long Beach.

After Chip Ganassi was injured in a terrible crash at Michigan, Fittipaldi stepped in to fill the breach at Patrick Racing, beginning a fruitful partnership that would yield 11 victories over the next five years. It was the arrival of engineer Morris Nunn and Patrick’s switch from March to Lola in 1988 that turned Emmo into a real title contender. When the Brazilian got his hands on Nigel Bennett’s Penske PC-18 the following year, he delivered five victories, one being at Indy after a forceful move in the closing laps sent Al Unser Jr. of Galles Racing into the wall.

Switching to Team Penske for 1990, Fittipaldi won only once and another Indy win went begging due to tire blistering. He became a regular winner again in 1992 and the following year Fittipaldi mounted a strong challenge for the title, adding another Indy 500 victory to his tally. But he finished runner-up to rookie Nigel Mansell in the standings, left to rue a missed victory at Phoenix – a race Mansell had been unable to start – when the team decided against a precautionary tire change despite his one-lap lead and he crashed out with a puncture shortly afterwards.

He threw away a certain victory at Indy in 1994 having led for 145 laps, crashing while trying to put a lap on teammate Unser Jr., and again finished the year second, before his form dipped in 1995 with the tricky PC-24 that neither he nor Unser could qualify at Indy.

Although Fittipaldi maintained his record of winning in every full season with victory at Nazareth after Eddie Cheever ran out of fuel, he was shuffled into Carl Hogan’s satellite team for 1996 and was forced to retire following a back-breaking shunt at Michigan – his supreme fitness credited with saving him from a more serious injury.

1. Nigel Mansell

 

Photo by: Indianapolis Motor Speedway

F1 starts: 187
Best result: 1st (31 wins)
Indy car wins: 5
Best Indianapolis 500 finish: 3rd (1993)
Indy car titles: 1 (1993)

Mansell tops our list because of the way he adapted instantly to Indy car racing by winning the title as a rookie in 1993, bringing the formula to global attention in doing so. He had won the 1992 world championship at a canter in the superior FW14B, but couldn’t agree on a new contract with Frank Williams and accepted Carl Haas’ offer of a fresh challenge in Indy car with Newman/Haas Racing.

Without any oval racing experience, and having experienced only one circuit – Long Beach – over a decade earlier, Mansell had a steep learning curve ahead of him but sensationally took pole for his debut at Surfers Paradise and became the first rookie Indy car winner since 1966.

Although a heavy practice crash next time out at Phoenix forced him to miss the race – leaving him with fluid in his back that had to be regularly drained – he battled on in gutsy fashion to take third at Long Beach, a result he repeated on his first oval start at Indianapolis. But thereafter he was undefeated on ovals in 1993, taking victories at Milwaukee, Michigan, New Hampshire and Nazareth – the latter sealing the title with one race to spare.

The first of those, passing Raul Boesel then holding him off at a late restart, showed he had learned from a sluggish restart at Indy that cost him victory to Fittipaldi, and his triumph in the Michigan 500-miler – despite a bout of flu that left him severely dehydrated and needing to be helped from the car at the finish – underlined that he could win on all types of circuit.

His 1994 season was rather disappointing by comparison, even taking into account the dominance of the trio of Penske PC23s. He slumped to eighth in points with only two second places to his name. Matters weren’t helped by a bizarre exit from the Indy 500 when the hapless Dennis Vitolo launched over John Andretti under caution and landed on top of Mansell’s car, or tangling with teammate Mario Andretti while lapping him at New Hampshire.

There were still three pole positions at Surfers, Detroit and Michigan, where only engine failure denied him a repeat win, but a tally of just 16 points from the final eight races as he eyed a return to F1 with Williams was a disappointing way for Mansell’s Indy car journey to end.

Still, he had won over a lot of critics along the way and proven that a driver with talent, bravery and nous could make the switch a success.

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Author James Newbold
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