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.
“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.”
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.”
A wild weekend in Dallas ✅ Austin, we're a-comin' 💪 #USGP 🇺🇸 pic.twitter.com/fJZUVJqwgP
— Red Bull Racing Honda (@redbullracing) October 18, 2021
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.
Quick job swap for the Bulls as we pay a visit to the ExxonMobil campus in Houston! 💪 Score out of 10 @Mobil1? 🤔 pic.twitter.com/8Ew7mWCoG5
— Red Bull Racing Honda (@redbullracing) October 19, 2021
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.”