Does IndyCar need a bitter rivalry?

During his time in Indianapolis Fernando Alonso made an astonishing – to him and the F1 community at least – discovery: the IndyCar paddock is a friendly place.

“The whole atmosphere is just different there. Everyone is more relaxed, is happy”, Alonso told NBCSN.

This was in stark contrast to his perspective on the F1 scene: “(in F1) everyone is trying to find some war or something you say or do that creates maybe a thing behind the news. There (IndyCar) it is just about 33 drivers doing the race and just enjoying the race.”

Vettel, Hamilton and that incident in Baku

Just over a month after Alonso’s epiphany, the F1 paddock was back doing what it does best: bringing out the worst in people. This time it was Sebastien Vettel, Lewis Hamilton and that incident in Baku.

For good or for bad, it got F1 more column inches and airtime between races than usual. The unconvincing Vettel/Hamilton ‘bromance’ was quickly replaced by anger, investigations and a burgeoning rivalry that is about to turn bitter.

If the old adage that ‘any publicity is good publicity’ still rings true, it left me asking a question: does IndyCar need its own bitter rivalry?

Does IndyCar need its own bitter rivalry?

American open wheel racing history is littered with rivalries that could have turned in to something nasty. But few really sparked in to life the way Lauda v Hunt, Prost v Senna, Hill v Schumacher or Hamilton v Rosberg did in F1.

AJ versus Mario was more akin to a cold war. Despite the former roaming the paddock like a prize-fighter, it all stayed on the right side of friendly. ChampCar’s Bourdais v Tracy was probably the closest we have come to a bitter rivalry in open wheel.

Paul Tracy Sebastien Bourdais ChampCar IndyCar
Tracy and Bourdais were not exactly best buds during their ChampCar years

So does IndyCar need its own Vettel v Hamilton?

There is little doubt IndyCar lacks column inches and air time across mainstream US media. The quality of racing is not the problem. More depressing is the fact that despite epic races over the past few years in particular, it has not been enough to change the situation. An intense, trash-talking, fight picking rivalry could change all that.

Deciding which pit lane punch up to cover

When it comes to NASCAR the media often has to decide which specific pit lane punch up or ‘payback’ wreck to run with. IndyCar by contrast struggles to offer up anything vaguely similar. Graham Rahal is outspoken and Will Power is no stranger to heated exchanges with IndyCar officials. But in terms of driver rivalries there is nothing worth writing about. Leaving the correspondents and journalists to talk about, well, the racing.

NASCAR brawl
Never mind who won the race, this is NASCAR…

Part of the allure of sport are the stories, the characters and the sub-plots. The lack of a bitter rivalry in IndyCar closes down a load of opportunities to promote the series, drivers and teams.

As a consequence IndyCar drivers are not particularly well known. Which explains the energy and gusto with which the series embraced Helio Castroneves and James Hinchcliffe appearing the TV show Dancing with the Stars.

Interest wanes between races

For those not fully addicted to or invested in the series, the lack of a rivalry to get your teeth in to  is a big disappointment. With no simmering tension, underhand tactics or tense wait for news of a  driver ban/disqualification to talk about between races, interest naturally wanes. In the case of IndyCar this is exacerbated by the stop-start-stop nature of the season schedule.

So does that mean it’s time to let the drivers off the chain a bit? Should IndyCar relax the rules on blocking and let drivers settle matters on track (or in the pitlane afterwards)? Absolutely not.

Undoubtedly IndyCar could benefit from a rivalry along the lines of Prost v Senna. But it is not IndyCar’s style. And that is something to be celebrated.

Honorable racing

Like the diversity of the skill set required to win in IndyCar, the hard but fair approach to racing is a hallmark of the championship. There is something old-fashioned and honorable in racing wheel-to-wheel, pushing the limit then getting out of the car, shaking hands and sharing a few beers together.

I have no interest in Scott Dixon punching Will Power post-race because the Aussie ran him off the road. I prefer they race hard, have a frank exchange of opinions after the race and go home. They don’t need to be best mates but I do not watch IndyCar to see the Ganassi and Penske crew brawling in the pit lane.

What about the racing?

Whilst an intense driver rivalry can bring attention to a championship, it mostly detracts from it. At times the post-race bust ups in NASCAR became ‘the story’. The race itself, the winner and individual performances faded into the background. No one was talking about that last lap move on the high side or the bump and run that won the race.

The Vettel/Hamilton clash in Baku has generated plenty of column inches and airtime for F1. But the epic race that took place has been all but lost in the noise. Most casual observers are unaware that Daniel Ricciardo drove from dead last to win. Or that Valtteri Bottas was a lap down after the first lap but managed to finish 2nd, pipping rookie Lance Stroll literally at the line.

All they know is that two drivers bumped wheels and one of them may or may not receive further punishment which may or may not be justified.

Bitter rivalry? No thanks

A bitter rivalry in IndyCar would – in the short term at least – boost its profile and prospects. Without a bit of needle between drivers and teams, the process of rebuilding the profile of the series will continue to be a slow one. But if that is the price to pay for the series steering clear of events like the one in Baku, I’m all for it.

Related article – Kohler Grand Prix ‘heroes and zeroes’

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