Going from NASCAR to F1 would be no easy endeavor, considering the number of differences between the two racing series. Further, Formula 1 is regarded as the most expensive auto racing sport in the world, and so it’s fair to ask whether anyone has ever gone from NASCAR to F1.
2 NASCAR drivers have gone to F1: Mario Andretti and Mark Donohue. While Donohue started racing NASCAR-sanctioned pony cars before his F1 career, Mario Andretti is the only driver to have raced in the Cup Series before going to F1. Many drivers have gone from F1 to NASCAR.
Below, we will outline the key comparisons between NASCAR and F1. We will also explore Mario Andretti’s career in NASCAR and F1 before we explore F1 drivers who jumped to NASCAR.
Have Any NASCAR Drivers Gone To F1?
Only one driver has gone from the NASCAR Cup Series to F1 in that order, and that was Mario Andretti. Andretti had a successful career not only across NASCAR and F1, but also in IndyCar, where he won 4 world championships across a career spanning from 1964-1974 and then 1982-1994.
American Mark Donohue is perhaps best known for his Can-Am racing career, but he also briefly had a stint in NASCAR’s pony car racing series from 1968-1971, and then he began his F1 career.
He then raced in the NASCAR Cup Series in 1972, but this was after his F1 career started and so is not a true case of going from NASCAR to F1 in that order. He achieved one podium in F1 and one Cup Series win. He also achieved 3 IndyCar victories, including one Indy 500 win.
Before his F1 and even his NASCAR days, Mario Andretti and his brother, Aldo, started racing at the local Nazareth dirt track in a 1948 Hudson. While their parents were not pleased with the brothers racing, Mario did not let it phase him and he ended up winning 21 races between 1960 and 1961.
USAC & NASCAR
Andretti also raced in the open-wheel United States Automobile Club (USAC), on a part-time basis until 1983. He ran his first NASCAR race in 1966 at the old Riverside International Raceway, finishing a solid 16th in a car owned by former NASCAR driver Bondy Long.
He followed up that finish by placing 37th in a Smokey Yunick-owned car at the 1986 Daytona 500. Later that year, he competed in the summer race at Daytona, finishing 31st. Overall, Andretti competed in 14 races, in which he scored his first and only career win at the 1967 Daytona 500.
The win marked one of just two top ten finishes in Andretti’s NASCAR career, and he ran his final NASCAR race in 1969 at Riverside before he made the switch over to F1.
While Andretti’s F1 racing career began in 1968 at the United States Grand Prix, he was forced to retire early in the event. That trend continued until 1970, when he finished in third place at the 1970 Spanish Grand Prix. It would be his first of 19 career podiums.
His first win would come one season later at the 1971 South African Grand Prix. However, he finished just two more races that season. While Andretti had his moments, he remained inconsistent in F1 until 1976, when he scored one win and three podiums en route to a 6th place finish in the F1 World Championship.
1977 became one of Andretti’s most memorable years in which he scored four wins and a second-place finish. He would finish third in the World Championship that season before he scored six wins and seven podiums in 1978, finally winning the coveted World Championship.
Andretti’s F1 career faded after his championship season. He would land on the podium just two more times, once at the 1979 Spanish Grand Prix, and in his penultimate race at the 1982 Italian Grand Prix.
Andretti’s open wheel racing career began when he started racing in the USAC National Championship in 1964, a series known to many as IndyCar or Champ Car racing (IndyCar has had many names in its long history). He would dominate the circuit, winning the championship three times, once in 1965, and again in both 1966 and 1969.
Andretti was also known for competing annually in the Indianapolis 500 from 1965 until 1994. He would score three poles during his racing days at the 500, and he won the event in 1969. As his F1 career faded into the sunset, Andretti shifted his sights to the PPG Indy Car World Series, which marked his return to full-time Indy racing.
As in F1, Andretti’s Indy Car World Series career was successful, as he scored 19 wins and 61 podiums. In 1982, he became one of the series’ most dangerous drivers, finishing in third place in both 1982 and 1983 before he finally won the coveted 1984 championship, taking his total IndyCar tally up to 4.
FUN FACT: Mario Andretti is the driver to have scored the most podiums in IndyCar history, with 144 over his two-stint USAC and CART career.
In terms of auto racing, Mario Andretti is one of the best drivers to have ever gotten behind the wheel. He is the only driver in auto racing history to have won the Daytona 500, the Indianapolis 500, and the F1 World Championship. Clearly, in order to make the jump from NASCAR to F1, you need to be a pretty talented racing driver!
KEY POINTS• 2 drivers have started careers in NASCAR before then going to F1
• Mario Andretti is the only one to have gone from the NASCAR Cup Series to F1 in that order
• Andretti is one of the most successful racing drivers of all time
F1 Drivers That Have Gone To NASCAR
Juan Pablo Montoya
While Mario Andretti is the only known NASCAR driver to have raced in F1, several drivers have gone from F1 to NASCAR, with Juan Pablo Montoya being perhaps the most prominent. Montoya wound up winning two races in NASCAR, scoring a career-best eighth place finish in the points in 2009.
Kimi Räikkönen competed in two NASCAR events in 2011 after racing in F1 and winning the 2007 championship, with one in the Truck Series and another in the Xfinity Series, both racing for Kyle Busch Motorsports. He drove to a 27th place finish in his Xfinity race and to a 15th place finish in the Truck race. He also debuted in the Cup Series with Trackhouse Racing in August 2022 at Watkins Glen.
Jaques Villeneuve drove in F1 from 1996 until 2006, winning the World Championship in 1997. He then shifted gears over to NASCAR and ran his first race at the 2007 UAW-Ford 500 at Talladega, finishing 21st. He competed in four more races since, with his most recent coming in the 2022 Daytona 500, in which he finished 22nd.
Max Papis competed in just seven F1 events in 1995. He would go on to start 36 NASCAR Cup Series races between 2008 and 2013, driving mainly as a road course ringer.
One driver who deserves special recognition for his flip from F1 to NASCAR is Dan Gurney. Gurney competed in F1 between 1959 and 1970, with the majority of his races coming between 1959 and 1968. He scored four wins, 19 podiums, and three pole positions during his F1 days, but he really made his mark in NASCAR as one of the sport’s earliest road course ringers.
Gurney competed in just 15 career NASCAR events, starting in 1962. However, he finished with five wins, all of which occurred at Riverside International Raceway. Gurney also scored a fifth-place finish at the 1963 Daytona 500. He followed that accomplishment up with a 14th place finish at the 500 in 1964.
How NASCAR Compares To F1
At their core, NASCAR and F1 are both auto racing series. However, aside from the fact the cars have 4 wheels, there are not many other similarities between the two. While NASCAR has an international reach, its primary audience remains American while F1, which races at events around the world, enjoys an international fanbase.
While F1 has its backers in the US, it is not as large as NASCAR in the States. It does, however, have the largest auto racing fanbase in the world and it isn’t even close. So how big is F1’s fan base?
To put things into greater perspective, NASCAR is to American football what F1 is to Association football (soccer). Soccer is the world’s most popular game, just as F1 is the world’s most popular auto racing series. But NASCAR’s popularity in America supersedes F1, just as American football supersedes Association football in the US.
While NASCAR races on more road courses now than ever, the series still predominantly races on ovals. And even if NASCAR were to add more road courses to their schedule, it would be tough to see them giving up racing at venues like Daytona, Talladega, Atlanta, Darlington, Charlotte, and Bristol, to name a few.
NASCAR has also remained domestic regarding its points-paying races (for the Cup Series specifically), although they have in the past gone overseas to Australia and Japan to hold exhibition events. NASCAR has also historically stayed away from street races, although the Chicago street race changes that.
F1 races at different tracks worldwide in countries like Bahrain, Monaco, Azerbaijan, Singapore, and Australia. They also race exclusively on road courses, referred to as simply ‘tracks’ in F1, as there are no ovals. These can either be street circuits or closed racing circuits. F1 and NASCAR share just one track on their respective schedules, which is the Circuit of the Americas (COTA).
Perhaps the most obvious difference between NASCAR and F1 is the cars. NASCAR initially started out racing stock cars. And while the NASCAR acronym stands for the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, they do not use real stock cars since their teams build each car from the ground up and not on a production line.
F1 uses open-wheel cars that resemble those that Americans may be familiar with in IndyCar. And while F1 cars and IndyCars have plenty of differences as well, many fans new to auto racing would have a tough time spotting them. F1 cars and NASCAR cars also have different engines, they take different types of fuel, and they even travel at different speeds, with F1 cars easily beating a NASCAR car.
We touched a little on some differences between NASCAR and F1 from a scheduling standpoint regarding types of tracks and racing locations. But they even differ in the number of races each respective series takes part in. While their respective season lengths are similar, with NASCAR racing between February and November and F1 racing (usually) March to November, NASCAR holds more events.
In 2022, F1 held 22 events, dubbed Grands Prix for plural and Grand Prix for singular. F1’s events are not always held from week to week as NASCAR events are. There are sometimes double or triple headers, with back-to-back racing weekends, but given the traveling involved, these are rare.
As for NASCAR, they run 36 points-paying races and the sanctioning body rarely takes a week off. NASCAR also runs money races in February, dubbed the Clash, and in May, which they call the All-Star Race. NASCAR also holds a race called the NASCAR Open for drivers who are not previous champions, winners from previous seasons or the current season, or past Cup Series winners.
F1 Qualifying Format
NASCAR’s qualifying formats have changed dramatically in recent years, but it still differs substantially from F1. While the F1 qualifying format looks rather complicated at first glance, it really is simple once you get to know it.
It starts with Q1, which lasts 18 minutes. Once the time runs out, the five slowest of the 20 drivers are eliminated and will comprise the back of the starting grid. Of the five slowest drivers, the one with the fastest lap time will start 16th while the four slower drivers will start between 17th and 20th.
The top 15 advance to Q2, which lasts for 15 minutes. And once again, the five slowest drivers will be eliminated while the remaining drivers advance to Q3. Just as in Q1, the driver with the fastest lap time that did not advance to Q3 will start 11th, with spots 12 through 15 going to the four cars that posted slower lap times.
Q3 lasts for 12 minutes, which will set the rest of the starting grid, with the driver who recorded the fastest lap getting pole position. The pole position can either be located on the inside or the outside of the starting grid, depending on which position has the greater advantage.
NOTE: If there is a Sprint race weekend, the above knockout format is used on the Friday instead of the usual Saturday, and it sets the grid for a 30-minute race on the Saturday. The results from this race set the grid for Sunday’s Grand Prix.
NASCAR Qualifying Format
NASCAR’s qualifying format as of 2022 depends on whether they are racing on ovals, superspeedways, road courses or dirt. For oval races, all entered cars separate into two groups and they run one lap. The five fastest drivers advance to the final round and once again, they run one lap apiece, with the fastest driver winning the pole.
Note that at Bristol, Martinsville, Dover, and Richmond, drivers run two laps. This format does change at Bristol for the dirt race. Here, four heat races will take place, dividing drivers into groups of nine. They base the lineup for the heat races on random draw, and teams get points based on their passing and finishing positions. Owner points break any potential tie.
For road courses, the cars are divided into two groups and each car runs a 15-minute timed session. The top five from each session moves to the final round, where they will run a 10-minute timed session. The driver who qualifies the fastest wins the pole.
And finally, superspeedways comprise each car running a single, timed lap. The 10 fastest cars move to the final round, and the driver who clocks the fastest lap wins the pole.
Race And Grand Prix Format
And finally, we have the race and Grand Prix format, and you will notice the difference between NASCAR and F1 straight away. In F1, they run what is called a formation lap before the cars stop in front of five red lights in their grid positions set by qualifying. This is called a standing start, and once all five lights go out, the race begins.
Most events last for at least 305 km (190 miles), but they must also remain under a two-hour time limit (in terms of the racing, as sometimes delays happen and the total event time can be up to 3 hours in length). One race, the Monaco Grand Prix, runs for just 260 km (162 miles).
NASCAR races can vary drastically in length. Some races, like the 250-lap dirt race, last for 133 miles (214 km), while others, like the Charlotte 600, last for 600 miles (966 km). There is also no real time limit on a NASCAR race, though officials can call a race if they deem track conditions unsafe and if the race is over halfway complete.
NASCAR races also comprise a select number of parade laps in which the drivers may not pass one another. Following the parade laps, the pace car, or safety car for F1 fans, leaves the track and the drivers take the green flag without slowing down or stopping beforehand. This is called a rolling start.
KEY POINTS• There are many differences between NASCAR and F1
• The two motorsports use different cars, race formats, and tracks
• It’s therefore difficult to compare drivers from the two series
Mario Andretti is the only driver to have gone from the NASCAR Cup Series to F1. While Mark Donohue began racing in the NASCAR-sanctioned pony car division before moving to F1, Andretti is the only one to have gone from the top level of NASCAR to Formula 1, where he won the 1978 world championship.