Max Verstappen loves watching IndyCar’s drivers, teams but will pass on racing its ovals


Max Verstappen is enamored with the NTT IndyCar Series – its highly competitive races, its diversely appealing tracks and its “proper race car.”

But naturally, the Red Bull Racing driver and F1 championship contender draws the line – a circular one, in this case — on any thought of ever joining the ongoing parade of European drivers to America’s top single-seater open-cockpit series.

“I love to watch (IndyCar),” Verstappen told NBC Sports. “It’s of course a little bit different to F1, but I think that’s also nice and makes it very interesting to watch. And from my side, I’m of course happy to be in Formula One, because I’m not personally a big fan of ovals. The street tracks and road courses are good, but nah, I would not be a big fan of oval racing myself.

“It’s just the risk of a big crash is big, and of course I know in Formula One there also is risk of an impact, but when you hit a certain wall with 200-plus mph, it’s not enjoyable. And that risk is higher in IndyCar, and especially if you would hit someone else and you go into the fence, there are plenty of examples where it doesn’t end well or you end up being really hurt. So for me, I love to watch it. I have a lot of respect for the drivers who do it, but I’m happy where I am.”

As he should be, given the solid position to win his first world championship.

Verstappen, 24, peppered his remarks with a few knowing chuckles – the confidence of a 17-time career winner who leads Mercedes rival Lewis Hamilton by six points in the F1 title standings entering Sunday’s U.S. Grand Prix at Circuit of the Americas (the 17th of 22 races this season).

The dominance of Red Bull and Mercedes, which have combined to win 29 of the past 33 races, dampens the potential of winning opportunities for younger drivers in the ladder series. And then there’s the fact F1 already is ride-limited at 20 seats across 10 teams (compared to a projected full-time field in the mid- to high 20s for IndyCar in 2022).

That has triggered a surge of F1 veterans and prospects taking a hard look at IndyCar. Former Haas F1 driver Romain Grosjean made a part-time leap this year and will move full time with Andretti Autosport in 2022. He will be joined on the grid by F2 products and IndyCar newcomers Christian Lundgaard (who was announced Wednesday in the No. 30 Dallara-Honda of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing) and Callum Ilott.

Meanwhile, Nico Hulkenberg will be testing next week at Barber Motorsports Park for Arrow McLaren SP, which two years ago fielded the second of two Indy 500 starts for two-time F1 champion Fernando Alonso.

Of course, there are other European drivers who have decided to forego the European circuits entirely. Reigning series champion Alex Palou came directly to IndyCar from racing in Japan and has no designs on a transition to F1 (unlike fellow IndyCar rising stars Colton Herta and Pato O’Ward, who will be getting a spin in McLaren’s F1 car in the offseason).

Rinus VeeKay, 21, moved to America as a teenager to aim for rides in the Road to Indy ladder series so he could race in IndyCar.

Max Verstappen, an IndyCar fan, smiles during a Nov. 2, 2019 news conference for the United States Grand Prix at Circuit of the Americas, Formula One’s most recent visit to America. (Jerome Miron/USA TODAY Sports).

“I think it’s bit of a both,” Max Verstappen said of the European influx to IndyCar. “Some fully commit to being successful in America like Rinus did, for example. He just said, ‘OK, I’m going to focus on America, and I’m going to try to make it there.’ Because IndyCar is, of course, the F1 of America.

“So, it’s also a bit of having the opportunity sometimes to be in Formula One or not when there is not the right seat for you. IndyCar is a great alternative to go to because the level is super high. They race great tracks. They have great teams.

“So when you get an opportunity to drive for example in IndyCar over Formula E, I can fully understand because the speeds are higher, and it’s a proper race car. And I think that’s why some guys also who are in Formula 2, but they don’t see a direct path to Formula One, they go to IndyCar.”

Verstappen has his eye on VeeKay, a fellow Dutchman who won the 2020 IndyCar rookie of the year and scored his first victory last year. Because of a nearly three-year age difference, they never raced each other in the Netherlands junior ranks.

“I of course saw him driving, but we always missed each other in terms of categories,” Verstappen said. “I saw him growing up from being a little kid to being quite tall. Yeah, he started off the (2021) season of course really well in IndyCar and had some good moments, so let’s see what comes out of it.”

With the IndyCar season having wrapped up last month, Austin will be the U.S. center of attention for single-seater racing this weekend as F1 races at COTA for the first time in nearly two years amid a spike in American popularity.

TV ratings are booming in the wake of the third season in the “Drive to Survive” F1 docuseries on Netflix (which has elevated the storylines of personable drivers such as Pierre Gasly), and the largest crowd in the Austin race’s nine-year history is expected this weekend.

“It’s a bit difficult to say where it exactly comes from,” Verstappen said of the U.S. audience expansion. “For sure, Netflix helped quite a bit to get a bit of a general understanding. But it’s good. The owners of course want to push it more in America. We’re getting more races in America, which from my side is a good thing. (Before) you find quite a big difference from people really into (F1) or people really not knowing a lot about it. You see that gap is becoming smaller, which I think is a great thing to see.”

F1 Grand Prix of Turkey
Red Bull Racing teammates Max Verstappen (second) and Sergio Perez (third) celebrated podium finishes Oct. 10 in the F1 Grand Prix of Turkey (Mark Thompson/Getty Images).

Verstappen’s teammate, Sergio Perez, created buzz with a recent demonstration run of a Red Bull F1 car in Manhattan and drew a crowd of thousands in Dallas for a similar event last week.

“It was really, really impressive,” Perez told NBC Sports. “I wasn’t expecting to see so many people. It was really nice. It’s great to see that Formula One as a sport is growing a lot in the U.S. That was very nice and a lot of, obviously, Latin people and Mexicans turned up to the show. I think we had a great time there.

“You go on the streets and probably not many people recognize you like in other places in Europe or in Mexico, but it’s definitely getting more and more. Obviously if you are in Austin and there is a race there, lot of people and a lot of Americans are into Formula One. But I just kind of feel like the fans are just enjoying more the sport, and they get more into it.”

With a second annual U.S. race having been announced for the Miami area in 2022, both drivers believe there would be room to add a third race because “it’s such a big country that you can definitely host a few races here,” Verstappen said.

“For me, it would be better because more races in America is a bit closer to home,” said Perez, a native of Guadalajara, Mexico. “I can come and visit family while we’re racing over here when I spend most of the year away from home. So I definitely would like to have more races in America. NASCAR is very popular in the U.S., but I feel like definitely we can see that Formula One is growing quite a bit, and that’s something nice.”

Perez, whose brother once competed in the NASCAR Mexico Series, also is a fan of Mexican driver Daniel Suarez in the Cup Series.

Though the Red Bull drivers often miss watching NASCAR races live because of intercontinental time differences (“their races are a bit later in the day, so I’m most of the time already in bed,” Verstappen said), they got a taste of stock-car competition Tuesday.

Verstappen and Perez faced off against Stewart-Haas Racing drivers Kevin Harvick and Aric Almirola during a mock pit stop contest at the Houston, Texas, campus of ExxonMobil. (The company is both a sponsor and technical partner for Red Bull, which uses Exxon Synergy Race Fuel and also employs Mobil 1 racing lubricants for engine efficiency and power just as Stewart-Haas does in NASCAR).

Verstappen also has another connection to NASCAR: His girlfriend, Kelly Piquet, is the older sister of Julia Piquet, who is Daniel Suarez’s girlfriend.

“So you get naturally a bit more of an update,” Verstappen said with a laugh about following NASCAR. “And so yeah, (NASCAR is) really cool. It’s very different of course from what we do, but it’s very exciting.”

NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E and Ian James set to race ahead of electric motorsports’ curve

James McLaren Formula E
NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team

As Formula E enters their ninth season and McLaren Racing is set to compete in last year’s championship winning car, Ian James is passionate about pushing electric motorsports forward at a critical stage as race technology begins surpassing that of the street cars.

Midseason, McLaren acquired the assets of the Mercedes-EQ team as they were already on their way to winning a second consecutive championship. With those assets in place and coming off a successful debut in the Extreme E series, James is set to usher in a new era in electric car racing.

Last week’s announcement that Jake Hughes will join Rene Rast behind the wheel of the NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team was the last piece of the puzzle.

McLaren’s electric portfolio is building with the Formula E team coming one year after they entered the Extreme E rally series in 2022 with Tanner Foust and Emma Gilmour. There were a lot of lessons to learn in that series with growing pains during the first three of five rounds. Rounds 4 and 5 were a completely different matter with the team crossing the finish line first in Chile before being assessed a time penalty.

In the final round in Uruguay, they scored an elusive podium.

“McLaren kicked off the season in Extreme E at the beginning of this year, so our first [electric] race took place Neom, actually out in Saudi,” NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team Principal James told NBC Sports. “At the time, we were in very early discussions about opportunities with the Formula E team. I actually went out there to meet with Zak [Brown, CEO McLaren Racing] and that was my first taste of Extreme E.

“Since the transition, I joined them in Chile in Atacama Desert, and then Uruguay last weekend. [The second-place finish was] a lovely way to round out the season. The fact that they got that podium. It was very well deserved. It’s a great team and a great series actually. It’s just so very different from anything else. The team’s done a great job in getting set up, and it’s nice now to, we’re trying to use that momentum that we’ve got from Uruguay to get us into next season when it kicks off next year, which will be great. I think we’re mid-March is looking like the first race, so a little bit of time to get things prepped for that.”


James McLaren Formula E
The NEOM Mclaren Racing Formula E Team was created through the acquisition of last year’s championship team from Mercedes-EQ. – NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team

Synergies exist between the single seater and rally series. Lessons learned about battery power and sustainability in the electric SUV carry over so long as one is mindful of keeping focus on the individual needs and nuances of each series.

Especially now that electric racing technology has caught up, and is ready to surpass, the existing technology that has gone into building street cars.

When internal combustion engines gained the upper hand soon after automobiles were invented, racing paced alongside. The pressure of competition pushed the development of their commercial equivalents. The same has not necessarily been true of electric cars. Street cars were not designed to undergo the same stress as racecars – and that vulnerability showed up on the racetrack.

“Formula E has come along a long way,” James said. “I think one of the most notable developments is in the battery technology. In Gen 1, you had the drivers jumping from one car to another car midrace because the battery technology and capacity simply wasn’t where it needed to be to do the full distance. That obviously changed in Gen 2 and we saw a power increase as well to the 250 kilowatts.

“Now going to Gen 3, we have 350 kilowatts in a smaller battery. But that means that we’re relying on the regeneration of energy and for that reason, we’ve got also the opportunity to regenerate on the front axle as well as the rear axle now. So, there’s all sorts of things that are developing in the right direction.

“In terms of throttle response, actually, we’re now in a situation with electric racing and the motors that it’s instantaneous. And one of the advantages of electric over combustion engine is that the torque is instantaneous as well, so that gives you a lot more room to play with.”

No matter the power source, racing has always been about resource management. Drivers and teams select tire strategies they believe produce the fastest elapsed time and fuel conservation comes into play.

On one hand, electric racing is the same, but there is a critical difference. With the battery as both the power source and an integral part of the engine, there are multiple reasons to manage it.

In electric racing, the brain of the car is the software – and that is where James sees the greatest room for advancement.

“As we are working with our drivers and engineers – and start to look at functionality to improve our efficiency and our performance, that’s something we’ll continue to push because that development is open throughout the season,” James said. “That’s going to be our focus going forward and provides enough of a challenge for us to get our teeth into.

“What’s going to be fascinating is as Formula E continues, is to really look at which areas of development on the car are going to be the most relevant and ensuring that we can focus on those together with the manufacturers so we continue and use the series as a platform for technical development that can then feed back into the road car side of things as well.

“At the end of the day, that’s what motorsports always been, a very powerful tool for, and I see Formula E as no exception.”

James McLaren Formula E
Jake Hughes and Rene Rast were chosen for their ability to drive fast and execute the necessary strategy for energy management. – NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team

Selecting Rast and Hughes as McLaren’s Formula E drivers was not simply because they know how to drive fast. James believes both drivers have the mental aptitude to execute energy management strategies throughout the race and squeeze maximum performance.

“As with many other motorsports, you’ve got a certain amount of energy that you’re able to deploy during the race and the management of that energy is absolutely crucial,” James said. “What we’re seeing typically in electric motorsports now is the hardware side of things. The efficiencies that we’re seeing in the powertrain as a whole, they’re getting up to the sort of 96%, 97%, 98% efficiency, so the gains that you get through that further and further become more marginal.”

With much more room for improvement, software is a different matter. To make the best decisions, the drivers need data, and that is where James believes McLaren Formula E will make their greatest impact.

“And then you really switch that focus to the software and that’s where you’re going to see the most the most improvement and the most gains,” James continued. “It’s then using that software to ensure that you’re deploying the energy in the most efficient manner during race, and thereby giving the driver the most performance. And that’s something which is incredibly complicated, but I find it a fascinating area to work in.

“The benefit of being involved in racing is you can really push the envelope in a way that you can’t do on road cars. And I think that that’s where that value comes in. It means that you accelerate the development a lot quicker. We will get ahead of the curve – and we are getting ahead of the curve now – and that will mean that the electric motorsports remain part of the overall development process.

“The key to that is also making sure that the racing’s exciting and fun for the fans. If we can, we can tick both of those boxes, then it’s got a very bright future ahead of it.”