Veteran Formula One driver Romain Grosjean is joining a relatively short list of Grand Prix drivers who, over the past 50 years, have transitioned from an F1 career to the NTT INDYCAR SERIES on a full-time basis.
Some have done it with extraordinary success, led by World Champions Emerson Fittipaldi and Nigel Mansell. Eddie Cheever and Takuma Sato also compiled hefty F1 resumes before coming to the U.S. and winning races, highlighted by Indianapolis 500 victories for each (two by Sato).
Alex Zanardi had made 25 F1 starts before Chip Ganassi tabbed him for a CART seat in 1997. The Italian adapted quickly, winning 15 races over two championship seasons.
Danny Sullivan is included in this list with an asterisk. He started three INDYCAR races for Gerry Forsythe’s team, including the 1982 “500,” before getting a full-time F1 ride with Tyrrell for the 1983 season. Sullivan returned to the U.S. the next year and went on to win the “500” in 1985 and CART’s championship in 1988. Justin Wilson similarly had one F1 season, with Minardi and Jaguar, before coming to INDYCAR and winning seven races.
Other F1 veterans to make the full-time move to INDYCAR since 1970 include Derek Daly, Roberto Guerrero, Stefan Johansson, Mauricio Gugelmin, Christian Fittipaldi, Mark Blundell, Eliseo Salazar, Shinji Nakano, Tora Takagi, Enrique Bernoldi and Rubens Barrichello.
Grosjean, who will drive in road- and street-course races for Dale Coyne Racing in 2021, will be part of INDYCAR’s current crop of former F1 regulars: Sato, Max Chilton and Marcus Ericsson. Alexander Rossi was certainly on the path to becoming an F1 regular – he made five starts in 2015 – before joining INDYCAR.
A look at five drivers who have made the transition:
The Brazilian stands among the most influential drivers as far as increasing the international flavor of the Indianapolis 500. What became known as a “second” career,” Fittipaldi scored 22 wins while in the U.S. from 1984-96, including a pair of “500” victories. He also won a CART season championship as he paved the way for the many South American and European drivers to follow.
Fittipaldi was a two-time Formula One World Champion (1972, 1974) – and then the youngest champion in history -- and 14-time race winner when he debuted at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1983. A year later, he joined Patrick Racing as a replacement for the injured Chip Ganassi.
Fittipaldi’s interest in INDYCAR stemmed from a two-day test at IMS in the fall of 1974. He drove Johnny Rutherford’s 500-winning McLaren as both drivers were employed by the manufacturer. It is also notable that Fittipaldi was instrumental in introducing Philip Morris and its Marlboro brand to INDYCAR. Marlboro sponsored Fittipaldi both at Patrick (from 1985-89) and Penske Racing (1990-96).
Fittpaldi’s “500” wins came with two different teams. The first, in his 1989 championship season, was with co-owners Pat Patrick and Chip Ganassi. The second win, in ’93, was for Roger Penske. Fittipaldi was positioned to win a third “500,” in ’94, before crashing on Lap 184 while trying to lap the second-place car driven by teammate Al Unser Jr. Fittipaldi had led 145 laps in that race and another 128 as the pole sitter in 1990 when he finished third.
There haven’t been many INDYCAR SERIES seasons more interesting than 1993, when Mansell arrived on the heels of becoming a Formula One World Champion with Williams.
In 1992, Mansell won nine of the 16 F1 races, starting from the pole 14 times. His decision to switch to CART was as big of a story as racing had in the 1990s, and “Mansell Mania” was particularly intense when the Englishman arrived at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the ’93 Indianapolis 500.
Mansell delivered from the moment he stepped into a Newman/Haas car for a preseason test at Phoenix’s Firebird International Raceway. He won the season’s first race, in Surfers Paradise, Australia, from the pole and was again the top qualifier for the Long Beach Grand Prix, where he returned to the podium by finishing third.
Mansell qualified eighth for his first “500,” but he led 34 laps and finished third. He might have won with a better late restart – former winners Fittipaldi and Arie Luyendyk overhauled him on the front straightaway – and with eight laps left he brushed the Turn 2 wall. Otherwise, it was a stellar month.
Mansell only ran two seasons in CART, but that first one was magical: Five wins, six poles, a strong run at Indy, 222 laps led at Michigan, another 155 laps in front at Nazareth, and the championship thanks to a 6.3 average finish.
The popular Italian is the only driver in history to go from racing in F1 to INDYCAR to F1 and back to INDYCAR.
Zanardi totaled 41 starts in his F1 career, with Jordan, Minardi, Lotus and Williams, but scored only a single point (for a sixth-place finish at the Interlagos circuit in Brazil in 1993). He had significantly more success on this side of the sport, winning CART season titles in 1997 and 1998 for Target Chip Ganassi Racing, which had a four-year championship run with Jimmy Vasser (1996) and Juan Pablo Montoya (1999).
Of Zanardi’s 15 wins, 13 came on road courses or street circuits, but his two oval-track victories suggest he would have fared well at IMS had he received the chance. (Ganassi didn’t compete in the “500” in the late 1990s.)
Zanardi impressively won the 1997 U.S. 500 at Michigan International Speedway, lapping all but Mark Blundell, who trailed him to the finish line by 31.7 seconds. Zanardi’s other oval win came at World Wide Technology Raceway, then known as Gateway.
For years, Sato’s shining moment at Indianapolis Motor Speedway was a podium finish – alongside the Ferraris of Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello – in the 2004 U.S. Grand Prix. The third place tied the best result by a Japanese driver in F1 history.
Sato’s F1 career spanned seven seasons with Jordan, British American Racing and Super Aguri but garnered just the one podium. Still, he finished a respectable eighth in the standings in 2004.
Sato joined the INDYCAR SERIES in 2010 and has twice as many starts as he did in F1, and, of course, his results are significantly better. He has won six races with three different teams, and he has won the Indy 500 with Andretti Autosport (2017) and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (2020). He also has 10 poles.
Sato is one of only four drivers to have won a race in each of the past four seasons – Scott Dixon, Josef Newgarden and Will Power are the others -- and in his career he has won on a superspeedway (Indy twice), a short oval (World Wide Technology Raceway), two permanent road courses (Portland International Raceway and Barber Motorsports Park) and a street circuit (Long Beach). Only a few INDYCAR drivers have done that.
Cheever still stands as the U.S.-born driver with the most starts in F1 history, 132, and that mark along with his 1998 Indianapolis 500 victory earns him the fifth spot in this list.
Cheever was an F1 regular for nine of his 11 seasons in the series, and he finished a career-best seventh in the 1983 standings. That season with Renault saw Cheever record one of his two best finishes – a second place in the Canadian Grand Prix.
Cheever also finished second in Detroit in 1982. He had nine podiums in all.
Cheever won the “500” in 1998 driving for his own INDYCAR team. He had a run of five consecutive seasons with one win (two wins at Walt Disney World Speedway and one each at IMS, Pikes Peak International Raceway and Kansas Speedway).
The 2021 NTT INDYCAR SERIES opens with the Honda Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park on April 18. The 105th Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge is set for May 30.