F1 cars may look very similar to their IndyCar counterparts, but the two series differ quite a lot once you look under the surface of the machines. Here’s how different F1 and IndyCar really are…
To an untrained eye, the single-seater cars used in both F1 and IndyCar are quite similar in appearance. Low-slung, futuristic designs with front and rear wings and chunky tyres mean that, aesthetically, it’s not night and day differences between the two series.
However, once you start peeling back the layers of IndyCar, it’s clear that the philosophy of the American series is very different to that of F1.
For instance, one of the key differences between IndyCar and F1 is that IndyCar runs to a far lower budget – while F1 teams are ‘constructors’ in that they build their own chassis (or outsource it, in Haas’ case), IndyCar teams all use the same chassis, manufactured by Dallara.
While F1 focuses on development across a season, with teams introducing as many upgrades as they can afford to bring under the new budget cap, IndyCar machines stay broadly the same, with the focus being on each team understanding how best to set up the car for the demands of each individual track.
IndyCar’s focus is on a ‘level’ playing field, with the Dallara chassis mated to one of two engines: Honda or Chevrolet.
The tracks are also pretty different – F1 races on ‘road’ circuits specifically, using existing race tracks or custom-built street venues. IndyCar also uses road circuits, but sprinkles in ‘oval’ races throughout its calendar – a hugely different technical challenge that F1 teams simply do not have to concern themselves with.
F1 also focuses on uniformity across the field – there are 10 teams with two drivers each. The cars of each team must be presented in the same livery. In IndyCar, grid sizes can vary from around 20 to as many as 33 for the Indy 500. Teams can run single-car entries, to as many as six cars, and they don’t have to be presented in the same livery – making it more difficult to spot team-mates.
Which is quicker: F1 or IndyCar?
The fact that both series use differing track types means that the definition of which is ‘quicker’ is somewhat blurred.
Based solely on top speeds, then IndyCar wins out – Scott Dixon took pole for the 2022 Indy 500 with a 234mph run. The ‘usual’ top speed for a Formula 1 car is around 205mph, although Valtteri Bottas hit 231mph while slipstreaming at the high-altitude Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez in Mexico City in 2016.
While an F1 car is, in theory, capable of higher top speeds if set up to do so, the engineering focus of the cars means they wouldn’t be able to sustain it for as long as an IndyCar – it would only be a matter of time until something mechanical snaps, breaks, or fails.
F1’s focus in on downforce generation and cornering speeds – there is no road-going vehicle capable of faster outright lap times around most circuits than an F1 car. F1 cars accelerate faster, corner with far more agility and grip, while still being capable of incredible top speeds – where IndyCar wins out is at the very top end of the speedometer.
IndyCar raced at the Circuit of The Americas in 2019, a venue also used in Formula 1. This allowed for a direct comparison of lap times, with the pole time in IndyCar being a 1:46.0 set by Will Power at an average of 115mph. Later that year, Valtteri Bottas took pole for the F1 Grand Prix with a 1:32.0 – 14 seconds faster with an average speed of 133mph.
Which engines are more powerful: F1 or IndyCar?
There are two manufacturers of IndyCar engines: Chevrolet and Honda.
Both manufacturers build to the spec of 2.2 litre V6 twin-turbos and, according to Honda’s own figures, generate anywhere from between 550 to 700 horsepower, depending on the level of boost employed for each track.
Formula 1 moved to hybrid technology for its ‘power units’ back in 2014 – highly complex, and expensive, pieces of engineering excellence that mate a 1.6 litre V6 to a turbocharger and hybrid ancillaries such as motor generator units like the MGU-H and MGU-K.
There are four F1 engine manufacturers currently: Ferrari, Mercedes, Renault (supplying Alpine), and Honda (suppliers of engines to Red Bull and AlphaTauri).
While there are no confirmed power output figures for the latest F1 engines (which have been frozen in terms of performance development since the start of 2022), it’s a safe assumption that 1000 horsepower has been achieved by all four manufacturers – Renault confirmed a 1000 horsepower figure back in 2019.
Both series have engine usage limits in place. IndyCar has a four-engine rule in place for each car, with grid penalties to be served if additional engines are required. These four engines must last for the 17-round calendar in 2023.
F1 confirmed a 24-race calendar for 2023, dropping to 23 following the cancellation of the Chinese Grand Prix – the usage rules for F1 are a limit of three engines, as well as three of each component such as turbos and MGUs, plus two energy stores and control electronics.
What are the differences in qualifying formats between IndyCar and F1?
F1 uses a three-part qualifying session in order to determine the grid, known as Q1, Q2, and Q3. Q1 is 18 minutes long, and all 20 drivers head out to set their fastest lap time.
At the chequered flag, the five slowest drivers are eliminated, with the remaining 15 heading into Q2. The times are wiped, and the 15 drivers do the same thing again – the bottom five being knocked out at the chequered flag.
The top 10 move on into Q3, with the fastest times determining starting position for the race.
However, F1 introduced ‘Sprint Qualifying’ at select Grands Prix in 2021. While the qualifying format above is used as well, on a sprint weekend, following changes introduced for the 2023 Azerbaijan GP, while it is still used to determine the starting order for the Grand Prix, a trimmed down version is used on the Saturday to decide the sprint starting grid.
As of the 2023 Formula 1 campaign, the number of sprint weekends increased to six for the season.
IndyCar qualifying varies, and depends on the event. For road and street races, the drivers are divided into two groups. For the first segment, the six fastest drivers from each group goes through into the next part of qualifying, with the rest taking the positions of 13th and downwards.
The fastest 12 have 10 minutes to set a lap with the fastest six then going on to the Fast Six shootout while the remaining drivers slot into 12th to seventh. The final six have six minutes to set the fastest lap and achieve pole position.
For oval events, drivers go out one at a time, with the average of their two timed runs making up their qualifying time.
For the unique Indy 500, qualifying is split into three days, with every driver setting a time from the average of four laps on the first day. Those who are in the top nine go on to repeat the process in the Fast Nine Shootout, and those below 30th in the Last Row Shootout to decide the final grid.
What are the differences in race formats between IndyCar and F1?
F1’s race format is quite simple: the race is set up to take in 190 miles of action, or two hours – whichever comes first. The only exception to this is at the Monaco Grand Prix – the exceptionally slow average speeds (by F1 standards) mean the 78-lap race takes in just 160 miles while still taking up the best part of two hours.
In IndyCar oval races, there is no time limit and races run to a pre-determined distance (for instance, 500 miles at the Indy 500), while road and street course races usually run to a two-hour limit.
While F1 races around the world in Asia, Europe, the Middle East, the Americas, and Australia, IndyCar stays Stateside for pretty much the entirety of its calendar – Canada being the only scheduled trip outside of the USA in 2023.
What are the other key differences between an F1 car and an IndyCar?
While each F1 car is a bespoke design as interpreted by each team’s technical department, IndyCars are essentially ‘spec’ machines as the chassis and aero kits are purchased from Dallara.
While visually similar to an F1 car, one key difference is around the cockpit – IndyCar having chosen to go a different route to F1 when it comes to cockpit protection.
With IndyCar and the FIA looking into options for cockpit protection, F1 pursued the ‘Halo’ option that was introduced at the start of the 2018 season.
F1 had evaluated a ‘Shield’ device, with Sebastian Vettel trying it out on his Ferrari at the 2017 British GP, but the FIA turned away from this option after Vettel complained of distorted and blurred vision while driving.
However, IndyCar pursued this option and introduced it as the ‘Aeroscreen’. This device was developed and manufactured by Red Bull Technologies, a subsidiary of Red Bull Racing.
On the tyre front, Firestone provide IndyCar with 15-inch compounds while, in F1, Pirelli are the sole supplier of the 18-inch tyres.
In IndyCar, refuelling is a key component of a team’s strategic approach to a race while, in F1, refuelling has been banned since 2010 – meaning the cars start the race with enough fuel to reach the chequered flag. This means that, in F1, pit stops are extremely fast – tyre changes are regularly achieved in about two seconds from the car being lifted from the ground to accelerating out of its pit box.
Another key difference between the two series is in the area of physicality. While F1 is quicker and more demanding on a drivers’ neck due to extreme G-forces, IndyCar’s lower cornering speeds mean this is less of a concern for its drivers. However, IndyCars don’t use power steering – meaning the drivers develop greater upper body strength as they wrestle their less wieldy cars around the track.
For overtaking aids, F1 uses the Drag Reduction System (DRS) which allows drivers to drop a flap on their rear wings to reduce drag and increase top speed. This is only used within pre-determined DRS zones on track, with the attacking driver using the system when within one second of the car in front.
F1 drivers also have the ability to deploy their limited hybrid energy as they see fit, meaning fascinating battles can develop as drivers engage in harvesting and deployment of this energy.
This can also be seen in the form of ‘Push to Pass’ in IndyCar, where drivers can press a button on the steering wheel to get a 60-horsepower boost of power. In contrast to F1, its usage is much less restricted.
Drivers can use it to attack or defend, on any part of the circuit they want to, and for as little or as long as they want to (up to a maximum of 15 seconds in one push). The only limitation is the number of seconds they’re allowed to use it in a race, which is usually set at around 200 seconds per race.