Haas Formula 1 development driver Santino Ferrucci will make his IndyCar debut this weekend, substituting as part of the driver reshuffle at Dale Coyne Racing for the double-header at Detroit.
His development programme with Haas and current Formula 2 commitments with Trident mean that he remains on a path to F1. However, in an era in which seats at the pinnacle are as hotly contested as ever, getting a foot in the door at an IndyCar team could be hugely valuable.
Ferrucci’s chance arose when Pietro Fittipaldi broke both his legs in an accident during qualifying for the World Endurance Championship season-opener at Spa. Fittipaldi has been sharing the second seat at DCR with fellow series rookie Zachary Claman de Melo this year.
De Melo has a 10-race deal. He was supposed to compete in Detroit but was instead called up to replace Pietro in the IndyCar Grand Prix and Indy 500. That meant that de Melo’s seat for the two-race Dual in Detroit event was available.
“It’s just between Monaco and Paul Ricard for me in the F1 and F2 schedule, so I thought it would be a great opportunity and I am very happy that we could get something done,” Ferrucci said when speaking in an interview with US publication RACER.
An IndyCar chance at this point is invaluable, as the series is building momentum. Four new teams have entered the category this season, while new TV deals have been signed and the new for 2018 universal aerokit deemed a success in enhancing the quality of the racing.
With NBCSN having reported at the start of the season that viewership of IndyCar events has increased by 78 percent in the past four years, these enhancements only add to the trend.
As a result, it is a great time to be an IndyCar driver. Increased exposure and increased competition are of benefit to any racer.
Alexander Rossi is the most obvious case study of a driver who has found success Stateside after first being on an exclusively European path. Rossi won championships in Formula BMW before finishing third in Formula Renault 3.5. He then spent three years in GP2.
In 2015, Rossi earned his first opportunity in an F1 race seat. Replacing Roberto Merhi at Manor, Rossi started five grand prix with a best finish of 12th. He seemed destined to be given a full season at the team in 2016, but negotiations broke down.
An impromptu contingency plan found him heading back to the USA and embarking on an IndyCar adventure with Andretti Autosports. An Indy 500 win as a rookie has been followed by victories at Watkins Glen in 2017 and Long Beach earlier this year.
Rossi is a championship contender and now part of the furniture in IndyCar with the prospect of a long-term career-defining battle against the similarly talented 2017 champion Josef Newgarden.
Ferrucci finds himself in a very similar position to where Rossi was when competing in GP2. He is paired with an F1 team, in the primary feeder series and with the prospect of reaching the summit of single-seater racing in a few years time.
He does, however, have an advantage in the fact that he will have an experience of IndyCar alongside his F2 commitments – an acclimatisation that Rossi did not have the benefit of.
The opportunity to compete in the Dual in Detroit opens up an avenue for Ferrucci to pursue, should his career stall in Europe.
At this point in his career, there is unquestionable value in being open-minded towards other series – particularly in the case of one which has the potential to spawn the type of career that IndyCar can foster.
If he is able to impress and tame what will be a steep learning curve, he gives himself critical options in an era when F1 seats are difficult to come by and so many promising drivers find their careers stalling.
“I’m not trying to impress anybody,” Ferrucci said. “To be honest, I’m just doing this for me.
“In Europe, they always look at you and are consistently looking at you. To come [to the US] it’s a nice relief. You get to be yourself through the weekend because everything is so restricted over there [in Europe] and you get a chance to play with the big dogs over here.
“I’m a racer, I want to win – you’re not a racer if you don’t want to win – so, I’m going to give my heart to try and do my best for the team but I’m just doing it for me.”
A refreshing attitude to fit the refreshing tone and openness of modern-day IndyCar. Ferrucci will still chase his F1 dream. If, however, he falls short at the final hurdle as so many promising drivers do, he might well look back on Detroit as the chance that spawned a dream career.