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IndyCar vs Formula 1: The 5 Main Differences

Formula 1 is perhaps the most famous open-wheel racing discipline in the world. However, another very popular sport, more so in the US, is IndyCar. They may look similar from the outside, but there are some big differences between the two. So, what are the differences between IndyCar and Formula 1?

The 5 main differences between IndyCar and Formula 1 are:

  1. The cars
  2. The tracks and locations
  3. The drivers and the teams
  4. The races themselves
  5. The rules and points systems

The two motorsports are brilliant to watch, and they make for some of the most exciting racing on the planet. Before we go into the differences between the two, let us first consider what the two motorsports have in common.

What Do Indycar And F1 Have In Common?

Open Wheel

The first main similarity, and perhaps the most obvious one, is the fact that both are open wheel motorsports. This is exactly what it sounds like, as the wheels on both an IndyCar and an F1 car are not covered by fenders. For this reason, the cars do look fairly similar. However, as we will see in the next section, there are some big differences between the two.

Both motorsports have fairly long seasons, running from March through to September for IndyCar and from March through to November for F1. They both have championships for both the drivers and the manufacturers, although in the case of IndyCar it is the engine manufacturer, rather than the team that wins, as it is in Formula 1.

High-Speed Action

Both are also high-speed motorsports, with IndyCar regularly involving speeds of around 230mph, and F1 involving speeds of more than 200mph too. IndyCar and F1 also involve a lot of money and are lucrative sports for sponsors. They also each attract a lot of fans and are watched worldwide by millions of people.

In some cases, the sports have even shared drivers, as was the case with Fernando Alonso and Juan Pablo Montoya who both raced in F1 and then gave IndyCar a try. Finally, both sports operate a similar flag system, with the yellow flag being the most common, used to designate the need for caution, causing the cars to slow down.

Now that we have gone through the similarities between IndyCar and F1, it’s time to think about the differences.

The 5 Main Differences Between IndyCar and Formula 1

1. The Cars

The first area we will look at involves the cars. As we said in the first section, they may look similar, but they vary in plenty of ways. The first of which is in the engine. Although both use V6s, the IndyCar engines are 2.2-liters and the F1 engines are 1.6-liters.

Single vs Twin Turbo

F1 engines are single turbocharger engines, while IndyCars use a twin turbocharger system. There is also a difference in horsepower between the two, with IndyCar engines capable of between 550-700BHP, and F1 engines putting out close to 1000BHP. They also run on different fuels, with IndyCar running on a more ethanol-heavy fuel than F1’s unleaded.

In Formula 1, there are four engine suppliers, while in IndyCar there are just two as of 2020. They are limited to 12,000RPM, with F1 engines limited to 15,000. Aside from the engine, the teams in F1 must design their own chassis, whereas in IndyCar the cars are all made to a set of specs, which means they only differ very slightly with things like the engine and the tuning.

The Brakes

The brakes are also very different between the two cars. Formula 1 brakes are made of carbon fiber as standard, while IndyCar brakes are made from steel for most of the races. The exceptions to this are the 2.5-mile speedways, which allow for the use of carbon fiber brakes. This means F1 cars stop quicker, which makes them faster on tracks with more turns.

The cars do have similar weights, but there are some other smaller differences that still have a large effect on the way the car drives. For example, IndyCar uses six forward gears, while F1 cars have eight forward gears. The IndyCar vehicles also have a windscreen, which provides similar safety features to the halo that is used on an F1 car cockpit.

The Money Involved

The final main difference between the two cars is the cost. IndyCar uses a spec system as we have said, and so the parts are all effectively mass produced. This brings the cost down, although it still costs several million dollars to build one. The high level of customization in F1, in order to get the edge over competitors, means teams spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year on two cars.

2. The Tracks And Locations

Oval Tracks

The tracks and locations also present a lot of differences between IndyCar and Formula 1, with the main one being the presence of oval tracks in IndyCar. These are tracks that are abundant in NASCAR, but also in IndyCar and are fully absent in F1 racing. These tracks allow for the very high speeds of IndyCar, reaching up to 230mph on the straights.

The Indy500

Perhaps the most famous oval track is found in Indianapolis. This is home to the famous Indy500, a 500-mile race that takes place over 200 laps of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. This also differs from F1 racing as it acts as a standalone competition within the larger IndyCar season, offering different qualifying conditions and some extra points to be gained as well.

There has been one circuit that has been part of both F1 and IndyCar, and that is the Circuit of the Americas. However, this is the only one they share, and it has not always been a part of either one. IndyCar takes place in America, with one race in Canada. However, there have been races in Japan, Australia and even Brazil as well, but these are not part of the regular season.

A More Global Affair

F1 by contrast is a global sport, with races taking place on 5 continents every year. There are 21 races on the regular calendar, compared to the 17 of the IndyCar season. It’s not just in number and location that the sets of tracks differ, but also in the shapes and lengths of each. Obviously, we have already touched on the lack of ovals in F1 racing, but their lengths differ substantially too.

In F1, there are limits as to what can constitute a race-worthy track, with the limits being from around 3km (1.9 miles) to around 7km (4.3 miles). IndyCar tracks however start at less than 1 mile, with the Iowa Speedway at around 0.8 miles in length. They go all the way to over 4 miles with the Road America track, but most are between 1 and 2 miles.

Different Shapes Too

They also differ in shape. Naturally, the tracks vary a lot in IndyCar due to the ovals, but they tend to offer more straights, or at least longer straights, than F1 circuits. This allows for the higher speeds that are achieved during the races. F1 tracks vary a lot, which means teams often find themselves with cars that handle some tracks better than others.

3. The Drivers And The Teams

The Competition Structure

The structure of the competition of each motorsport is also very different, and this has a lot to do with the history of each one. IndyCar in its current form has only been around since 1994, with the current series founded in 1996. This is in contrast to F1’s long heritage, hailing back to around 1950. However, IndyCar has been around in various other forms for longer than just 26 years.

The Indy500 has been holding races since 1911, which is why it is such a prestigious event. It is part of the Triple Crown of Motorsport, a role it shares with F1’s Monaco Grand Prix and the 24 Hours of Le Mans. But in terms of the drivers and the teams that have arrived out of this rich history in each motorsport, there are plenty of similarities as well as differences.

Fitness Required

Both sports require a high level of fitness, due to the extreme conditions inside the car and the strong forces that both sets of drivers are exposed to. But there are more drivers on the track in IndyCar than in F1, with 33 starting each race. In Formula 1, there are only 20 drivers on the grid, although this has been larger in some years, but never as many as 33.

More Teams In Indycar

These 33 drivers come from a larger number of teams in IndyCar, with around 13 full-time teams and a few part-time teams as well. In Formula 1, there are 10 different teams, and they each put forward two drivers. Some teams in IndyCar have as many as six drivers, and some only put forward one driver.

4. The Races Themselves

Race Duration

The races in a Formula 1 season are strictly limited to two hours, no matter how many laps have been driven. IndyCar races can go on longer, with the Indy500 regularly taking around three hours or more. The pit stops are different too, with F1 pit stops taking around 2-3 seconds, while IndyCar stops may take between 6 and 10 seconds, due to the need to refuel the car as well.

Differences In Qualifying

However, the real differences appear in the qualifying before the races. F1 qualifying is a 3-stage process, set up with Q1, Q2 and Q3. Q1 sets the positions of 16-20th on the grid for the race, with the top 15 drivers progressing to Q2. This sets the positions of 11-15. The top 10 drivers go through to Q3 and compete to set the fastest times to set their positions for the grid on race day.

IndyCar qualifying is dependent on the type of race. The road courses take a similar format to F1 qualifying, being split into three segments where the fastest laps take the better starting positions on the grid. The difference being that the cars are split into two groups for segment 1, and then the fastest six from each group go into segment 2, with a total of 12 drivers in this segment.

Different For The Ovals

The fastest six cars then go through to segment 3. Then, the top six cars try to get the fastest times in order to set positions 1-6, in a similar fashion to Q3 in F1. However, this changes for the oval races. For these, there is a reverse order system using the points standings, with those in last place going out first and those nearer the top of the table going out last.

These sessions are made up of two warm up laps, and then two hot laps, one car at a time. The total of these two times is called the aggregate, and it is this time that is used to set the grid positions for the race. This again changes for the Indy500, which uses a similar format but instead the order is determined by blind draw and the aggregate is taken using four hot laps instead of two.

5. The Rules And Points Systems

Plenty Of Similarities

A lot of the rules in IndyCar are similar to F1, such as the flag system used as we discussed in the first section. The penalty systems are also similar, but there are some subtle differences. IndyCar uses a fine system for its generic “Hazardous Conditions” rule, whereas F1 usually only reserves fines for more serious offences, such as illegal car parts being used.

Both sports do implement similar penalties but for various different things, with IndyCar favoring the drive-through and stop and hold penalties, which slow the driver down dramatically. F1 on the other hand favors the time penalty system, with the 5-second penalty being the most commonly used, with drive-through penalties being much rarer.

The Points Systems

The points system of F1 is also different to that of IndyCar. In Formula 1, there are constructor and driver championships, and this is similar in IndyCar. However, the way the points are given out differs quite a lot. In an F1 race, only the top 10 drivers can score points both for themselves in the Drivers’ Championship and for their teams in the Constructor’s Championship.

The winner gets 25 points, with second place getting 18 points, and so on in a scaled fashion down to 10th place which receives 1 point. The driver that sets the fastest lap time gets a bonus point, but only if they place in the top 10. This means positions 11-20 never receive any points, putting more importance on the qualifying sessions alongside the race itself.

The IndyCar System

In IndyCar however, every driver receives points, even those in last place. The winner gets 50 points, with second receiving 40, third getting 35 and so on in a similar scaled fashion to F1. The bottom 9 drivers each receive 5 points, which reduces the importance on the lower-placing drivers to push themselves if they are too far off the pace of those placing in the late 20s.

There are is also a bonus point for those who take pole position in qualifying, as well as those that lead at least one lap. The driver who leads the most laps of the race receives 2 extra bonus points. Then, there is a different points system used once again for the Indy500, with extra points on offer for those qualifying in positions one through nine.

The Manufacturers

The constructors in F1 earn points based on the combined total of their two drivers. Then, the team with the most at the end of the season wins the Championship. In IndyCar, the points for the engine manufacturers are only made up of the combined totals of the top two drivers who race the full season, and there are various manufacturer bonuses concerning the Indy500 and engine usage.

Final Thoughts

There are lots of differences between IndyCar and Formula 1, with the majority of them being present in the cars and the tracks used. Although both involve extremely fast driving, there are plenty of visible and more hidden differences between the two sets of vehicles. Where IndyCar uses spec cars, with everyone essentially driving the same car, F1 requires the teams to build their own chassis.

The tracks differ in shape and size between IndyCar and F1, with the main difference being the presence of oval tracks in the former. There are also differences in the qualifying systems of each sport, and with the races themselves. The points systems vary substantially as well, but regardless of their differences, they both represent the pinnacle of motorsport at its fastest.