Not many people know that the prestigious Indianapolis 500 has an interesting history of being a part of the Formula 1 world. The Indy 500 was a proper championship race in F1 from the 1950 season to 1960 – a decade that saw two of the most important motorsports categories in the world crossing paths.
The decision of including the Indy 500 in the Formula 1 calendar was made in the 1950 season by the FIA (Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile), at the time in its fourth year as governing body of the Championship. The basic idea was simple: the Indy 500 was considered an event of great relevance, worthy of being turned into a Grand Prix. Making it an integral part of the F1 calendar was FIA’s attempt at bringing the European and American fanbases together.
Unfortunately, the Indy 500 as a World Championship race in Formula 1 didn’t enjoy much success. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway was located at a considerable distance from continental Europe, making it difficult for European teams and drivers to take part in the event. Also, Indy 500 cars were very different from the ones used in Formula 1.
Rules and regulations of both series were also completely different, as were the points scoring systems. Having a Formula 1 car line up alongside IndyCar machinery in the 1950s was just as problematic as it would be to make a modern F1 compete against an all-Dallara field today. The differences between the two categories were significant.
In eleven years of the Indy 500 being featured on the Formula 1 calendar, very few drivers and teams put in the effort and actually took part in it. Alberto Ascari competed with Ferrari in the 1952 edition but it was a rather unsuccessful run for the Scuderia, with only one out of four cars managing to qualify for the race. Ascari himself was forced to retire due to a technical issue. In a similar fashion, Formula 1 legend Juan Manuel Fangio failed to qualify in 1958.
An ever-growing interest
Interestingly enough, it was after the Indy 500’s removal from the calendar that many Formula 1 drivers started showing interest towards it. In 1963 Colin Chapman and his Lotus team decided to enter the race, mainly because of the prize money at stake. The lightweight mid-engine car that Chapman and Lotus sported marked a turning point in Indy 500 history.
In its first appearance, with superstar Jim Clark behind the wheel, the Lotus finished in second place, showing the potential of F1 cars in a series dominated by front-engine machinery. Clark qualified on pole the following year and triumphed in 1965 with a commanding performance. In 1966 it was Graham Hill – 1962 Formula 1 World Champion – who conquered Indianapolis, driving a mid-engine Lotus-Ford.
Lotus’ innovative mid-engine philosophy radically changed the landscape of the Indy 500. By the end of the ’60s all front-engine cars had disappeared and been replaced by much more sophisticated, competitive, F1-inspired ones.
A few statistics
The crossover between Formula 1 and the Indy 500 has also produced some interesting stats. 158 American drivers have competed in it during that time – only six less than the total number of drivers who have represented the United Kingdom in the entire Formula 1 history (164).
Johnnie Parsons’ win of the 1950 edition helped him secure sixth place in the championship, despite not taking part in any of the European rounds. On the other hand, many Formula 1 world champions have managed to win the title without entering the Indy 500, which was just one of many events on the calendar during those years.
It’s a shame that many Formula 1 statisticians tend to overlook the era of F1 and Indy 500 crossing paths. That was a time when Formula 1 was trying to establish itself as a world-class motor racing category.
In the end, Formula 1 developed a unique identity: very different from that of American open-wheel car racing, but still influential on the latter’s evolution. It’s unlikely that such an event will ever happen again in modern motorsports, which makes those years an even more fascinating chapter in racing history.
Original article (Italian) – Imma Aurino
Translation – Claudio Scalia