Fernando Alonso's decision to contest this year's Indy 500 is a supreme PR coup for McLaren and Honda, but most of all for the IndyCar series which hosts the event. Many F1 fans had never seen a lap of an Indy 500 or IndyCar race until Alonso's highly-publicised test at the speedway last month. We at ESPN thought we would dispel some myths about IndyCar we've been hearing since Alonso's participation in the series was confirmed.
"It's just turning left..."
Dismissing an oval as "just turning left" does a massive disservice to the risk of a super-speedway event. As Sebastian Bourdais' horrible crash at the weekend demonstrated, the slightest mistake or loose moment can be punished in a big way. The Frenchman broke his hip and pelvis in the fiery shunt and will miss the rest of the season as a result. Speaking to ESPN last year, reigning Indy 500 champion Alexander Rossi called his first experience on an oval circuit in Pheonix a "weekend of terror" as he drove faster and faster alongside an unforgiving strip of concrete wall.
Pole position on ovals is measured on a four-lap average speed rather than lap time. Scott Dixon's average was 232.164 mph -- the quickest at the Indy 500 for 21 years. But that's just an average; last year, at the end of one qualifying lap, Carlos Munoz reached a staggering 239.795 mph. By comparison, the quickest speed trap time in Formula One last year was Valtteri Bottas' 231.48 mph at the Mexican Grand Prix. While F1 drivers reach those speeds fleetingly towards the end of straights, Dixon and his fellow qualifiers would have spent much of the 40-second lap at that speed and will likewise in the 200-lap race (while running in traffic). Unlike NASCAR races, which are known for also racing on ovals, these speeds coupled with the open-wheel element of IndyCar adds another huge danger. As Justin Wilson's death in 2015 proved, the threat of debris bouncing from one crash into the cockpit of another driver is a very real one on an oval and why IndyCar has also been considering cockpit protection in recent seasons.
Former world champion and Indy 500 winner Mario Andretti explained it best to ESPN, saying: "The argument will be forever, who's better and who's more technical. Of course road racing is always much more technical and much more tasking on a driver because of everything you have to do, accelerating, braking, right, left, quick corners, slow corners.
"But there's other challenges out there and the oval is another challenge. Nobody should say it's better, worse or whatever. It's a challenge. Are you willing to take it? The question forever is, oh we're better because we're road racers, or oh we're better because we're oval races. How about being a good road racer and a good oval racer? That makes you even better."
We're happy to take Mario's word on that one.
A series of ovals
One thing I've heard plenty of since Fernando Alonso has gone to Indianapolis is that the whole series is just left turns on ovals. But the make-up of the IndyCar calendar is as varied as they come; Ovals make up a third of the season's races, with the other two-thirds split between road courses and street courses. Included in this calendar is the superb Road America circuit, former F1 venue Watkins Glen and the season-ending duel on California's Sonoma Raceway. On top of that are daunting ovals at Phoenix and Pocono -- to win the IndyCar series, a driver must be competitive at all three types of circuit.
And when you hear street circuits in IndyCar -- don't make too many comparisons to those you're used to seeing in Formula One. When Alexander Rossi joined Andretti Autosport for his rookie campaign last year, he expected them to be his strongest circuits on the calendar given his junior experience in Europe. As he explained last year, he was wrong.
"The street circuits I'm used to are very well maintained and manicured... pretty much road courses, with walls," he said. "These are legit street tracks where the car is in the air a couple times a lap because it's so bumpy. I remember the first time I went out I came on the radio and said 'I think something is broken because I'm hitting so hard, like, I think I'm doing damage'. I came in, they looked and said 'no, everything's fine, that's just the way it is'. So I was a bit like... wow, OK!"
The competition has nothing on F1
One of the remarkable things about IndyCar is the quality of drivers at its disposal. Following F1, it can be easy to get into the habit of assuming those drivers are the undisputed best in the world, and several of them are. The likes of Scott Dixon, the now-retired Dario Franchitti and the late Dan Wheldon, great champions of the series' recent generation, could have easily been Formula One drivers if circumstances had been different earlier in their careers. Exciting younger stars include Penske's impressive Josef Newgarden and Alexander Rossi, the talent that got away for Formula One as it continues its search for a competitive U.S. driver to help its assault on the North American market.
Away from the quality of drivers, the quality of entertainment is also undeniable. The series has averaged nine different winners per season since 2012 -- there were 11 different winners in 2014 alone. Of course it is not unusual for a series with spec parts, such as the Dallara chassis, to be more competitive, but IndyCar's unpredictability is a huge selling point. Of the nine current teams in the series, eight of them have won a race since the introduction of the most recent aero kit. While 1.4s has split Mercedes and Ferrari from the rest at times in qualifying this season, that gap covered the whole grid in IndyCar for the first three races. IndyCar can be genuinely hard to predict, and that generates drama and interest Formula One has struggled to create in recent years.
It's a small series in North America
IndyCar is nowhere near the levels its predecessor, CART, reached before the hugely damaging 1996 IRL-CART split which almost destroyed North American racing for good. Before the split, CART had poached Nigel Mansell and even had Ayrton Senna test for Penske during his winter of discontent with McLaren in 1992. The road back to strength and credibility has been long -- for years, two series operated, Champ Car and IRL, before merging back to IndyCar in 2008. The dark days of the late 1990s and early 2000s are well and truly over and light is visible at the end of the tunnel.
Since 2013, it has recorded more viewership growth (55 per cent) than any other racing series and, unlike Formula One, is seeing year-on-year attendance increases at its event. IndyCar is starting from a much smaller base than NASCAR in the U.S. or F1 globally but growth that big is impressive regardless of the circumstances. Though its calendar is currently limited to the U.S., IndyCar has an ambitious plan to push beyond its current stature. There have been regular rumours of a race taking place outside of the United States and that seems to be the next logical step for the series.
Regardless of whether it stays in North America or not, it is a market big enough to sustain a large series and the interest in Alonso's participation in Indy shows there is a lot of potential to continue growing the product in the coming years. At a recent IndyCar presentation at McLaren, CEO Mark Miles called the series the "next movement in motorsports" -- and it's easy to see why.