Why Carlin's move to IndyCar is bad news for Formula 1
One of the worst-kept secrets from the IndyCar off-season was finally confirmed last week: British racing stalwarts Carlin will enter the American series in 2018 with a two-car effort.
It is excellent news for IndyCar, which also expects to add at least one full-time entry from Harding Racing and part-time programmes from Juncos and Michael Shank. This should add up to a minimum of 23 entrants at each race, rising as high as 26 at some events. That’s a healthy grid.
It is also richly deserved for Carlin, an outfit that belongs at the peak of international motorsport. From boss Trevor Carlin down, this is a team with winning in its DNA.
Yet there is something strange about Carlin’s move into the top tier of American single-seater racing.
After all, this is a British team that until 2015 raced almost exclusively in Europe. They have won at every level below F1 and helped to develop a clutch of grand prix stars.
Why then, is a team that should have been able to graduate to F1 several years ago now plotting its IndyCar debut?
Trevor Carlin (R) is a racer through and through (Pic: Sutton)
It’s worth repeating just how good Carlin are. Founded in 1996, they have since raced in just about every European single-seater championship of note. They first found success in British F3, winning the 2001 title with a young Takuma Sato, and eventually became the series’ dominant team. They’ve since clinched titles in Formula Renault 3.5, European F3 and GP3.
Carlin’s list of former drivers is a roll-call of talent. Four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel is the star graduate, while Nico Rosberg, Daniel Ricciardo and Robert Kubica have all raced for them at some stage in their careers.
They also ran a pair of future IndyCar champions in Will Power and Josef Newgarden, an Indy 500 winner in Sato, a Formula E title-winner in Sebastien Buemi, and a Le Mans 24 Hours victor in Brendon Hartley. Their latest star is Lando Norris, who claimed the European F3 title with Carlin this term and is all set to take F1 by storm in the coming years.
Lando Norris is one of Carlin's latest graduates (Pic: Sutton)
If Carlin did reunions, it would be well worth hanging around outside with your autograph book.
NO HOPE OF F1 GRADUATION
But their success came a decade or so too late. Had Carlin been hoovering up wins in the late eighties and early nineties, they could well have launched an F1 programme in the style of Eddie Jordan or Peter Sauber. Had they done so in the sixties or seventies there is simply no question that they would have put together an F1 squad.
But when the 21st century dawned Formula 1 simply wasn’t a viable option for a top-class junior team like Carlin. Without limitless funds, and knowing that a single wrong move could jeopardise his entire workforce, Carlin sensibly stuck to winning in the junior series.
Then, in 2015, the team headed to America. Like many of their former drivers, they were hoping to reach the big time on the other side of the pond.
Carlin’s relocation to the States was always planned as a path towards IndyCar. The team elected to spend a few years getting to grips with U.S. racing in the Indy Lights series, winning the title in just their second year. 2018 will therefore be a natural progression.
On the driver front it’s a double homecoming. Max Chilton – whose father Grahame is a co-owner of the team - won races for Carlin in F3 and GP2. He will be joined by Charlie Kimball, who finished as British F3 runner-up for the team.
Ex-F1 driver Max Chilton will drive for Carlin in IndyCar (Pic: Sutton)
There’s every reason to expect them to be competitive from the early rounds. Chilton and Kimball have considerable experience and should have no trouble gelling with their “new” team. They’re consistent performers, even if they’re not the outright fastest, making this as strong a two-car operation as a new outfit could hope for.
F1’S LOSS, AMERICA’S GAIN
This is all good news for IndyCar, but it also highlights a major failing for Formula 1.
Carlin is exactly the kind of team that should be encouraged to make the move into grand prix racing: young, hungry and successful. What’s more, they exist purely to race. They won’t walk away when it doesn’t suit them any more like a car manufacturer.
Look at Sauber: through thick and thin the team has persevered in F1. Of course the sport needs manufacturers, but it also needs a healthy band of privateers who will throw everything into racing and not walk away during hard times.
You could say the same about Carlin’s feeder series rivals – the likes of ART Grand Prix, Prema and DAMS. It’s fair to assume that every one of these teams wants to be in Formula 1. Some of them have even tried in the past, but the economics are stacked against them.
Discussing news of his team’s move to IndyCar, Trevor Carlin told Autosport that “it's physically impossible for any sort of junior independent team to get into F1 as the costs-to- enter barriers are just ridiculous.”
Admittedly IndyCar is a different beast, with spec chassis and two choices of customer engine. You don’t need to spend countless millions designing a car in the hope of scoring points once a season.
Carlin can and should be aiming to challenge for a podium finish by the end of 2018.
With this in mind it’s no surprise that Carlin took the IndyCar route – but that doesn’t let F1 off the hook.
If the sport is to thrive in the long run it needs new privateers to establish the kind of legend that Frank Williams did in the eighties and nineties. And it needs the kind of tenacity that Sauber have shown over the past quarter century.
With F1's costs there is no way Trevor Carlin can follow in the footsteps of the likes of Frank Williams and Patrick Head (Pic: Sutton)
If not, the sport is at the mercy of a few car manufacturers and an energy drinks firm. Hardly ideal ground for Liberty Media to build their new empire upon.
There is no simple answer for how the sport can change this situation. Every solution poses its own problems. But enticing in new teams that have developed as part of the F1 ladder system should be seen as a matter of priority.
In short, F2 should be looking for more than just the next Lewis Hamilton – it should be developing the next Frank Williams, too.