Updated: Feb 28
Written by Morgan Holiday, Edited by Tanishka Vashee
Every young racing driver dreams of making it to the top.
Formula 1 and Indycar are two of the biggest series in all of motorsport, and as such they both attract a sizable number of young drivers looking to compete within them. Fortunately for those drivers, there are specific paths they can take to try to achieve that goal.
Both Formula 1 and Indycar have their own feeder series, a collection of different racing categories aimed at cultivating young talent and preparing them for the real deal. These series are seen as development programmes, as well as a ladder for the drivers to work their way up. The goal for these drivers is to reach the top of the respective series.
But there are times when questions arise about whether or not a feeder series is doing its job properly, namely when talented drivers on the verge of the top step of their ladder are left without a seat. This happened in FIA Formula 2 in 2021, and it almost happened in Indy Lights as well.
The 2021 Formula 2 champion Oscar Piastri was left without a racing seat in any category for 2022, despite winning the title comfortably his rookie year over many more experienced drivers. Even as a part of Alpine’s junior academy, there just wasn’t a spot for him in Formula 1. Somewhat similarly, the 2021 Indy Lights champion Kyle Kirkwood spent time unsure if he would have a full time Indycar seat for 2022, despite winning every single category in the Road to Indy as a rookie. He eventually signed a contract with A.J. Foyt Enterprises, one of the backmarker teams on the grid.
When extraordinary talent is being snubbed at the top rungs of the motorsport ladder, it has to be asked why that would happen, and what can be done to stop it happening in the future. While ultimately the problem lies not with the feeder series but with Formula 1 or Indycar themselves, it remains important for both of those series to ensure that their junior categories are working as effectively as possible to make sure the top talents are being recognized and rewarded.
Road to Indy
On paper, the Road to Indy has a brilliant system for shepherding young drivers into Indycar. Composed of three different categories, USF2000, Indy Pro 2000, and Indy Lights, the Road to Indy offers talented young drivers a competitive fight and assurance that if they perform well they’ll be able to keep climbing the ladder.
The big advantage it provides is prize money. In addition to the Cooper Tires Pole Award, a monetary prize for the fastest driver in qualifying for every race, the champion of each series receives a scholarship to race in the next category up. Even in the lower categories, the USF2000 champion receives $400,000 towards an Indy Pro 2000 seat, and the Indy Pro champion receives $600,000 towards an Indy Lights seat.
The Indy Lights champion receives a scholarship award of $1.25 million towards an Indycar seat, as well as a spot to race in three races of the following Indycar season, one of those being the Indy 500. This prize gives Indycar teams an incentive to sign the Indy Lights champion for a full time drive, but even if that doesn’t work out, the driver is still guaranteed some time at the top step of the Road to Indy ladder.
The Road to Indy also prepares their drivers very well for Indycar. The Indy Lights car may have different specifications from the Indycar car itself, but the gap between their performance is minimal, with Indy Lights drivers feeling comfortable in Indycar tests and getting up to speed quickly due to the similarities.
The main problem with the Road to Indy lies in its lack of exposure to the rest of the motorsport world. Even amongst the big Indycar teams, there’s a lack of desire to invest in teams and drivers in the lower categories. In fact, the only Indycar teams that currently also run Indy Lights teams are Andretti Autosport and Juncos Hollinger Racing. And as Indycar doesn’t currently have any form of junior programs, it’s harder for drivers to get connected with an Indycar team during their junior career.
Little involvement from Indycar teams, especially for Indy Lights, also means that the grid is smaller. In 2021 a total of only 15 drivers contested the Indy Lights championship, and only nine of those were full time. Recent seasons have been similar, with sometimes less than 15 total drivers competing in the series. As much as the Road to Indy wants to be taken seriously, it’s hard when the top category has so few drivers in its field.
The good news for the Road to Indy is that these problems are in the process of being solved. As of 2022, Penske Entertainment and Indycar are taking full control of the Indy Lights series, which will open it up to more teams and drivers, as well as integrate it more fully into the Indycar paddock. Already four new teams have joined the grid, and the 2022 season is set to have more drivers than it has in over a decade.
Penske and Indycar’s involvement in Indy Lights could be exactly what the Road to Indy needs to solve its biggest problem. If the grid continues to grow and new teams look to join, it will doubtless attract more attention from other Indycar teams, and hopefully lead to more interest in the series and the drivers.
F1 Feeder Series
Formula 1 hopefuls often begin their single seater careers in some version of Formula 4, although the exact path taken varies greatly. There are 11 different Formula 4 series that are certified by the FIA: F4 French Championship, F4 British Championship, F4 Chinese Championship, F4 German Championship, F4 Italian Championship, F4 Japanese Championship, F4 Nacam Championship, F4 Southeast Asia Championship, F4 Spanish Championship, F4 UAE Championship, and F4 United States Championship. If a driver is headed up the F1 feeder series ladder, they’ll likely compete in one of those 11 categories early on in their single seater career.
The most common next category for drivers to compete in after Formula 4 is the Formula Regional championship, and again there are four different series within the Formula Regional category that are certified by the FIA: Formula Regional European Championship by Alpine, Formula Regional Americas Championship, Formula 3 Asian Championship, and Formula Regional Japanese Championship. From Formula Regional the drivers move up to Formula 3, and then Formula 2.
As confusing as the almost absurd number of championships is, it also provides a larger pool of drivers for teams higher up on the ladder to look at. And other feeder series teams aren’t the only people looking for talent, a number of Formula 1 teams have junior academies that house drivers anywhere from karting to Formula 2. Six of the ten current Formula 1 teams have active driver academies with at least one driver each. The goal of these young driver programmes is to claim drivers from a young age and help them progress through the feeder series, with the eventual goal of signing them to their Formula 1 team.
Unlike the Road to Indy, the F1 feeder series’ main problem is that success carries no guarantee of moving up the ladder, and money plays a much larger part. As none of these championships have any sort of monetary award, drivers have to rely fully on sponsors or their own money to fund their seats. And the further up the ladder you go, that gets harder and harder to do. By the time a driver gets to Formula 2 they’re paying upwards of €1 million for a spot at a team, and all that money is either coming from their own pocket, sponsors, or a Formula 1 team.
This problem has been rampant recently, especially in Formula 2. In 2021 six different drivers had to drop out at different points in the season due to a lack of funding, some of them race winners and podium scorers.
Even if a driver has the funding and the talent to make it to Formula 1, it still isn’t easy to get a seat. Formula 1 currently only has 20 seats, and the likelihood of new teams joining soon is looking slim. This being the case, it’s common for talented drivers to make their way up the feeder series only to discover that all the spots in Formula 1 are taken and there’s nowhere for them to go. This happened most recently in 2021, with Alpine junior driver Piastri, who won both Formula 3 and Formula 2 in his rookie season. Despite proving his ability to compete at the top level of motorsport, Alpine is set with their current lineup of Fernando Alonso and Esteban Ocon for the foreseeable future, and didn’t have anywhere to put the Formula 2 champion for 2022.
It’s a common frustration in the world of Formula 1, that sometimes very talented young drivers are left without a seat, either because of money issues or because there just isn’t a spot for them. Winning the top step of the feeder series doesn’t guarantee you a spot in Formula 1, even if you have connections to a Formula 1 team.
Which is more effective?
Of course, it’s important to note that it’s easier to get into Indycar than Formula 1, not only because Formula 1 is more prestigious but also because Indycar has a larger and more flexible grid. While Formula 1 has a set number of drivers per team, and the cost of creating a new team is impractically expensive, Indycar teams can run any number of cars throughout a season (though no one has ever run more than four in one season). Teams will run however many cars they have the budget for, and it’s not uncommon for that number to change from season to season. While the 2021 Formula 1 season had a total of 21 classified drivers in the championship, Indycar saw 43 different drivers take part in at least one race. Because of these numbers and the inherent regulations of each championship, it has to be noted that it’s more or less easier to get into Indycar than to get into Formula 1.
For the 2022 season, Formula 1 is adding just one rookie driver to their grid with Guanyu Zhou, who finished the 2021 season of FIA Formula 2 in third (his third season in the category), and is moving up with Alfa Romeo. In contrast, Indycar will have six rookies on the grid in 2022, three of them Indy Lights graduates. The 2021 champion Kirkwood is moving up with A.J. Foyt, the runner up David Malukas has a full time seat with Dale Coyne Racing, and Devlin DeFranceso signed with Andretti Autosport after finishing sixth in Indy Lights.
The Indy Lights 2021 top three finishers
Both the feeder series for Formula 1 and Indycar have their strengths and weaknesses. The Road to Indy has a clear cut rewards system aimed at pushing the best young drivers to the top and giving them a shot in Indycar, but a lack of funding and attention from Indycar teams has seen the series be widely unseen and underappreciated. The Formula 1 feeder series, on the other hand, has plenty of attention from the top Formula 1 teams and utilizes junior programmes to help drivers on their way up, but due to the expense of the feeder series as a whole many talented drivers get lost along the way, or make it to the top only to lose out on a Formula 1 seat anyway.
But in the spirit of making a conclusive decision, and looking at the improvements being made in Indy Lights with Penske’s involvement, it’s fair to say that overall the Road to Indy does a more effective job at being a feeder series, making sure talent gets duly rewarded, and ensuring the top young drivers have a chance in Indycar.
It’s fair to say both of these feeder series could learn a lot from the way the other one operates, and really ought to be looking to each other for new ways to evolve and become even more effective. The ultimate goal that both Indycar and Formula 1 should have for their feeder series is to create an environment that hosts exciting races and competition while also nurturing young drivers and giving them a fair opportunity to reach the top step.
Formula 2 2021 top three finishers
What other improvements could the F1 feeder series or the Road to Indy make to become more effective? Let us know in the comments!