Durant: Looking Past a Useless Metric

2018 F1 race at Circuit Paul Ricard
For the first time in 13 years, Indy cars will race at the same track as F1 within a season. | Photo: Sergey Savrasov / Spacesuit Media

Plotting Formula One’s schedule on a world map, only two realistic possibilities for sharing between the planet’s premier open-wheel championship and that of North America are found.

The Verizon IndyCar Series is coming down from its Indianapolis 500 high as well as racing in Detroit and at Texas Motor Speedway as May becomes June. The stars of F1, meanwhile, head to Canada for their first North American race of the season at that point in the year.

Each Canadian Grand Prix for F1 builds upon a rich open-wheel history at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. Looking beyond the couple-dozen F1 races that have been held at the circuit since 1978, Champ Car — a predecessor to IndyCar in its modern form — had a home in Montreal from 2002 to 2006.

Cristiano de Matta won the pole for Champ Car’s first race at the Montreal track in August 2002 with a time of 1:18.959. In early June, Juan Pablo Montoya had set a 1:12.836 lap to beat Michael Schumacher to the pole for that year’s Canadian Grand Prix by 0.182 seconds.

That difference of more than six seconds was quickly calculated as the venue offered a direct comparison between the two variations of open-wheel racing. With Circuit of The Americas — a venue constructed to host F1 — landing on the 2019 IndyCar schedule, fans and members of the media will be quick to examine the performance difference between modern F1 and Indy car challengers when the Austin, Texas circuit hosts INDYCAR for its first time in March 2019.

While a series of venues have hosted both F1 and IndyCar, different layouts keep comparisons from being direct. After Montreal, COTA will be the new straight-up comparison — particularly in recent years.

But it doesn’t matter.

Thirteen years after Sebastien Bourdais won Champ Car’s fifth and final Molson Indy Montreal, INDYCAR will aim to outlast the half-decade run for its predecessor in Montreal with its new COTA tradition. The group behind IndyCar can be expected to regard its product as the only open-wheel championship that will visit COTA in 2019 and beyond — and not just to hide the fact that its cars are slower.

From Phoenix falling off the schedule to WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca returning as the finale and now COTA being added, tuned-in IndyCar fans have heard repeatedly in recent months about the difficulties of maintaining an IndyCar schedule, let alone adding new events. It’s this, the challenge of coming to terms with promoters and fitting proverbial puzzle pieces together, that has kept IndyCar away from COTA and any other venue it could race at, for that matter.

Regardless, when COTA and even the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve entered conversation about future IndyCar calendars, the point was often made that F1 and IndyCar can’t race at the same tracks because the North American series would be embarrassed to the tune of several seconds.

After this year’s Canadian Grand Prix, Graham Rahal tweeted that the series he competes in “needs to go back and race at Montreal.” As can be expected, one fan brought up the speed comparison:

INDYCAR could work with COTA to eliminate a direct comparison of its series and F1 by utilizing a different layout than the United States Grand Prix. Given the politics that underline modern-day motor sports, this would hardly be a surprising move despite it seriously dampening the excitement of IndyCar’s new event.

A member of the media directly asked Hulman & Company CEO Mark Miles plus COTA Founder and Chairman Bobby Epstein during a teleconference whether IndyCar would run the Grand Prix layout.

“There’s no plans to do a shortened course,” Epstein responded. “I think part of the beauty of what the guys want to drive is I think we have a winning formula in the track as it is. I don’t think it needs any changes.”

Though not stated by a member of INDYCAR, this is a new piece of evidence about how the sanctioning body views and wishes to portray itself, and it should overjoy fans.

Chilton races Claman De Melo at Road America
Though it’ll be down on overall pace compared to F1, IndyCar can be expected to put on an impressive show at COTA. | Photo: Andy Clary / Spacesuit Media

INDYCAR President of Competition and Operations Jay Frye has stated on more than one occasion that he and the series’ current management team believe IndyCar should be fast, loud and “in your face.” Altering this ethos even slightly could lead to IndyCar seeming spectacular on paper with a diverse schedule, all-star drivers and neat cars but ultimately being held back by sacrifices that leave fans wanting more.

From contracts with manufacturers keeping drivers from competing with teams that partner with “the other manufacturer” to the rise of spec racing, the presence of politics in motor sport has increased at almost the same rate as a focus on safety since Team Penske was just getting its start in the late 1960s. None of it serves the fans or even the competitors as roadblocks are created and sacrifices become evident.

No sacrifices are anticipated to surround the first IndyCar event at COTA — and why should there be? INDYCAR mimicked F1 in trying to create unique manufacturer aero kits from 2015 through 2017 but has since drawn the line and produced a bold, edgy universal aero kit that enhanced action at most tracks in 2018 and, like it or not, reeled the cars back in to match what IndyCar is in its current state: a spec series.

These are two distinct championships with different goals featuring cars that are similar only in that they lack fenders. Comparing what Lewis Hamilton can do in his Mercedes to what Scott Dixon will do in his Chip Ganassi Racing Honda is inessential and beside the point.

Hamilton, known to denigrate IndyCar, may cause a stir with a comment about his pace around COTA compared to IndyCar frontrunners but North American fans are proud of the real possibility that F1’s finest would be given a run for their money if Dixon were given a chance.

It’s unknown if sanctioning bodies truly care if their series is slower than another. The two street circuit races on the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship’s schedule are in fact headlined by IndyCar but direct lap time comparisons are never made. It’s possible that this is a talking point propagated by fans that never crosses the minds of groups like INDYCAR.

When Indy cars turn their first competitive laps at COTA during practice on March 22, I’ll keep an eye and ear out for the comparison of lap times between October’s United States Grand Prix and IndyCar’s first race in Texas of 2019. But I’ll be leaving the math to others.

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