With Rubens Barrichello now all but confirmed as an IndyCar driver for 2012 we got to thinking: which other ousted F1 racers have made a successful switch to American open-wheel racing? The Badgerometer investigates (and for the purposes of doing so we’re lumping the Indy Racing League, Champ Car, CART, USAC et al under one giant motor racing umbrella).
When Mark Blundell gone and realised that the F1 weren’t not no good for him no more he done gone and booked himself a ticket on a plane to America – what is, in fairness, abroad from England – and done gone to do some racing over there, specifically, if you is wondering, for the PacWest team, what done raced in CART (what also was known as Champ Car, IndyCar and other things).
Mark done found himself very good at this, particularly in his second season (1997) when he only gone and won three races and finished sixth in the championship, what is very impressive for someone what had, in fairness, only previously been to America to visit Orlando, Florida, what is a mecca for English tourists.
Then in 1998 Mark wasn’t as good and in ’99 he done had a very nasty accident what done broken his legs, which is the second most important limb for driving, and he never done recovered fully. 2000 was also a bit rubbish and then he left CART to take on the big world of telly, which would eventually beat him too.
Mark’s team-mate for this time was another former F1 driver, Brazilian Mauricio Gugelmin. We could have gone and made him number five instead, what would have been fair given that he beat Mark in the 1997 standings, but that would have meant writing this like a normal person, what would, in fairness, have gone and done been far less fun.*
After a nightmare first year in F1 (seven DNQs from 14 attempts) Teo Fabi nipped over to America in 1983 to try his hand at IndyCar. He was a sensation, winning four times and ending the season just shy of title winner (and genuine U.S legend) Al Unser. This also involved beating the likes of Michael Andretti, Bobby Rahal and Rick Mears, and thus marked Fabi out as the series’ new star.
But unfortunately he couldn’t get F1 out of his mind and continued trying to crack grand prix racing, even when it cost him his IndyCar seat and meant racking up more air miles than Biggles. What do you mean you don’t know who Biggles is?
Things didn’t work out for Fabi in F1 and his IndyCar form never returned. He took just one more win in the States and had what was, at best, an unremarkable stint in grand prix racing.
Since shaving off his facial hair Nigel Mansell spends a fair bit of time reminiscing about his stint in the land of the moustache: America. His version of events differs slightly from reality (Our Nige claims to have discovered the American continent whilst trying to find a passage to India) but the truth of the matter is he isn’t far off Chris Columbus (the explorer, not the Harry Potter director) as he conquered the States quite convincingly.
Joing IndyCar in ’93 Mansell won first time out, grabbed a few more podiums, took third at Indy and then won in Milwaukee. Further triumphs in Michigan, New Hampshire and Nazareth saw him capture the title from another former F1 man in the shape of Emerson Fittipaldi.
What’s most impressive about Our Nige’s title triumph is that four of his five race wins in ’93 were on ovals. Take heart, Rubens – even an old dog can learn new tricks.
You’ve won two world titles and then thrown your F1 career down the pan by joining your brother in trying to set up a new team. What do you do next? Why, you conquer America of course. In 1984, a full four years after leaving F1, Emerson Fittipaldi rocked up in IndyCar. By ’85 he was a race winner and in 1989 he took a storming title win – and the Indy 500. He would finish as runner-up in ’93 and ’94, taking his second 500 in the former, to earn as much respect in America as he did in F1 circles.
If ever a man could tame the sheer animal power of a mid-nineties Champ Car it was Alex Zanardi. His manhandling of those Honda-powered Reynards was as close to artistry as one could get in such a beefy machine. It was like watching a man wrestle a bear – and somehow win every time.
After a troubled and at times injury affected stint in F1 Zanardi decamped to the U.S in 1996, signing for Chip Ganassi. After picking up his maiden win that season he’d follow up with two dominant titles in ’97 and ’98, landing him a drive with Williams (which would be a disaster, but we’re not here to talk about that).
What counts is that Zanardi won two Champ Car titles at a time when the series was packed with top-line drivers who rightly counted themselves as stars – and Alex shone brighter than the lot. His return to the series in 2001 would end in tragedy when he suffered the infamous accident that cost him both legs but, in the intervening decade, Zanardi has shown incredible spirit to not only return to motor sport but also succeed in a new discipline, hand-cycling. He is, ladies and gentlemen, a bona fide legend.
* I am indebted to the brilliant Sniff Petrol and their seminal work D.I Blundell for the style of this piece, what I have done gone and copied a bit in a way (though I like to think of it as a homage).