IndyCar — On rookie winners and Formula 1 drivers

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Alexander Rossi’s victory at the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race was a stunner for sure, but it is certainly not the first time that a rookie has won the 500, nor is it the first time that a former Formula 1 driver has won. Before going into the history, let me clarify that while Rossi’s victory was a surprise, that is not to say that he didn’t have pace all month long. He was by far the quickest rookie in the field, qualifying in 11th, and he was among the quick drivers during all of the practice sessions as well. It was just that for most of the race, he was never contending for the lead, and although many may have expected a good result, I think only Todd (hear about the Twitter storm he created on the most recent FBC Podcast) had the intuition to realize that he had a real shot at the win.

Rookie drivers as winners

Over the 100 500 Mile Races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, there have been a total of nine rookie winners, including the inaugural win by Ray Harroun. It should not be surprising that over half of the rookie winners came within the first 15 runnings of the event. Winning the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race is a difficult and daunting task that even some of the most skilled drivers in history have been unsuccessful at accomplishing. This includes such legendary names as Dan Gurney, Michael Andretti, Eddie Sachs, Sir Jackie Stewart, Nigel Mansell, and the great Lloyd Ruby. To win in your first attempt at Indianapolis, and for many, including Rossi, their first at a super speedway, is a tremendous feat.

Rookie Winners of the Indianapolis 500
Year Driver
1911 Ray Harroun
1913 Jules Goux
1914 René Thomas
1926 Frank Lockhart
1927 George Souders
1966 Graham Hill
1995 Jacques Villeneuve
2000 Juan Pablo Montoya
2001 Hélio Castroneves
2016 Alexander Rossi

Formula 1 drivers as winners

In the beginning of the Formula World Championship, the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race was included as part of the championship schedule, even if many European teams chose not to compete in the American event. It wouldn’t be until Jim Clark in 1965 that a Formula 1 driver would win the Indianapolis 500, starting the mid-engine revolution at Indianapolis. Jim Clark also won the Formula 1 World Drivers’ Championship in 1965 making him the only driver in history to win both the Formula 1 title and the Indianapolis 500 in the same year. No front-engined car would win at Indianapolis after Clark’s victory in his Lotus 38. Graham Hill would continue the Formula 1 and mid-engine domination at the Speedway, claiming victory in 1966.

In 1969, the first of three future Formula 1 drivers would drink the milk. The legendary Mario Andretti took his one and only win at the Speedway in 1969 for Andy Granatelli’s STP-sponsored race team. Andretti also would become one of five drivers to win both the Indianapolis 500 and the Formula 1 World Drivers’ Championship. Mark Donahue would be the next 500 winner, in 1972, that would later pursue a career in Formula 1. Mark and Mario would eventually be joined by Jacques Villeneuve, winner of the controversial 1995 race, and the always passionate and controversial Juan Pablo Montoya, winner in 2000. Montoya would go on to become the only driver to win the 500, go on to race in Formula 1, and then return to Indy car racing and win the 500 after his Formula 1 career.

Formula 1 Winners of the Indianapolis 500
Year Driver
1965 Jim Clark†‡
1966 Graham Hill†‡
1969 Mario Andretti*‡
1972 Mark Donahue*
1986 Danny Sullivan
1989 Emerson Fittipaldi‡
1993 Emerson Fittipaldi‡
1995 Jacques Villeneuve*‡
1998 Eddie Cheever, Jr
2000 Juan Pablo Montoya*
2015 Juan Pablo Montoya
2016 Alexander Rossi

† — Denotes current Formula 1 driver at the time
* — Denotes future Formula 1 driver at the time
‡ — Denotes a Formula 1 World Drivers’ Champion
No notation denotes a former Formula 1 driver

The convergence

Since George Sounders’ victory in 1927, there have been only four rookie winners of the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race, and three of those were either current, former, or future Formula 1 drivers. These include Graham Hill, Juan Pablo Montoya, and now Alexander Rossi. Since the formation of Formula 1, only one rookie winner of the 500, Helio Castroneves, has not been, or was destined to be, a Formula 1 Driver. This places Rossi is some pretty exclusive company!

When you look at Rossi’s victory this past Sunday, it really is nothing more than remarkable. He’s a proven driver, finishing 2nd in the 2015 FIA GP2 Championship Series and tying Roberto Merhi’s 12th place finish for the best result for Marussia F1 during the 2015 season’s United States Grand Prix at the Circuit of the Americas. Some will say he got lucky, but anyone who has competed in motorsports, or any competitive endeavor, long enough understands that what many call luck is simply the convergence of preparation and opportunity. Being off strategy presented Rossi the opportunity to claim the victory, but only in part. If not for his strong pace all race long, and the preparation of his race strategist, Bryan Herta, that opportunity would have gone unfulfilled. Rossi did not get lucky. He drove a great race, orchestrated brilliantly by Bryan Herta, and flawlessly supported by his Andretti Autosport crew. He deserves all the accolades due him as the winner of the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race, and if Formula 1 isn’t interested in his talents, I’d bet dollars to donuts that there are a few IndyCar teams that would love to have him as their driver.

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Coji
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Also surprising and remarkable to me is the fact that this was JPM’s fourth attempt, having won 2 of three. I didn’t know that going into this weekend. What other drivers with four or ore starts have a 50% win ratio?

J. Doug Patterson
Editor

I don’t know for sure, but I think JPM has the record in this regard. Racing for Ganassi and then for Penske at IMS is a huge help in toward this.