Before its demise in the mid 90's the American open wheeled championship was providing a serious rival to Formula 1 in terms of TV viewing figures and corporate sales. When the CART series split in 1996 Bernie Ecclestone and senior FIA members must have felt an overwhelming feeling of alleviation, for years the American market appeared impenetrable, now Formula 1 had a chance of coming to prominence in the richest world market.
Prior to its split the CART championship was not only hugely popular in the U.S, it was also of particular interest to the Japanese market and was growing in popularity within Europe. It was genuinely viewed as a satisfactory alternative to Formula 1, providing a serious thorn in Bernie Ecclestone's foot. Since the American series split into two however the popularity of open wheeled racing in the U.S has shrunk greatly. Fans did not have the patience to follow two American based series leading to a rift between the Indycar Series and Champ Car World Series. The result being open wheeled motorsport in the U.S became of little interest in to the public. While this removed a serious competitor from the global market it did not however pave the way to new horizons for Formula 1.
Formula 1 has never really been a hit to the American market; they have numerous American based franchises in their own country, what would attract them to following a global series? Furthermore since the times of Mario Andretti in the 70's there has been no great American driver in Formula 1. Had there been a leading American driver in Formula 1 things today may have been different and the sport may have the open wheeled racing monopoly in America. This however did not turn out to be the case.
At the beginning of 2008 the Indycar and Champ Car franchises chose to re- unite in a bid to attract larger TV audiences, not just in the U.S but also on a global scale. The sports management hopes to one day rival Formula 1 once again, six months on however and progress seems to be slow, this prompts the question, will a newly revamped Indy Racing League ever challenge Formula 1?
Fans of the IRL argue that racing in American based series is far more exciting than that of Formula 1. The field for example is more closely packed than that of a traditional Formula 1 race. Furthermore there are numerous drivers in fairly evenly matched cars challenging for the championship, indeed the lead can change numerous times in an IndyCar race. Formula 1 on the other hand is often far more predictable, even in today’s new age.
On the other hand however the Americans seem to be the only race of people interested in seeing cars turn left. The IndyCar calendar consists of eight oval circuits, while oval racing remains a separate skill to circuit racing many worldwide audiences find it hard to enjoy watching cars quite literally go round in circles for hundreds of laps. Formula 1 is on the up. The sports popularity is at its highest for years with racing becoming more and more exciting and less and less predictable.
At the same time Formula 1 is oozing with young drivers vying to become world champions. Compare that to the IRL where the average age of the leading three drivers in this year’s championship is over 30, the leading three Formula 1 drivers on the other hand average a youthful 26. The drivers in the IRL are all accomplished drivers with little more to achieve. Drivers such as Scott Dixon, Dan Wheldon, Tony Kanaan and Scott Dixon have already won the championship, some more than once, what more do they have to aim for as they grow older? In Formula 1 however there are only two world champions on the grid, Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso. Every driver has something to push for and something to achieve.
Because of this Formula 1 is once again growing as a sport, for as long as this happens it is difficult to see the IRL challenging F1 for global audiences anytime soon. Given a few years to develop and a little more investment perhaps the franchise will be able to attract some young, big name drivers and once again mount a challenge to Formula 1's viewing figures.