The Difference Between IndyCar And Formula 1: Money, Lots Of It!


As they do every year, both IndyCar and Formula One are having their premier races of the year this weekend. IndyCar is in Indianapolis, where it all began in 1911. Formula One is on the streets of Monaco, which hosted its first race in 1929. Both series feature open wheel, open cockpit race cars. So what’s the difference?


Differences Between F1 and Indy

Formula One infographic

Both use V-6 internal combustion engines. IndyCar engines are 2.2 liter units that run on E85 ethanol. In contrast, the 1.6 liter Formula One’s advanced hybrid power units engines run on unleaded fuel blends based on the chemicals found in pump gas.

IndyCars have a top speed of 240 mph in race ad qualifying trim. Formula One cars top can out at about 225 mph, but rarely see speeds above 200 mph.

A Formula One car can sprint to 60 mph is a shade over 2 seconds. An IndyCar needs 3 seconds. The IndyCar weighs 1545 pounds. A Formula One car is a little lighter at 1415 pounds.

Here’s the most crucial difference, though: Money.

An IndyCar complete with chassis, engine, transmission, brakes, and tires costs about $3,000,000. A top tier Formula One car can cost as much as 50 times more. Formula One teams never disclose their actual costs, but numbers north of $200,000,000 have been bandied about in the sport for years.

If that surprises you, what should be even more surprising is that the teams have been complaining loud and long about how expensive Formula One is for decades. The teams are now forbidden to test their cars more than a few days a year to cut costs. Time spent in the wind tunnel is severely restricted to cut costs. And yet costs go up and up and up every year.

What makes a Formula One car so expensive? IndyCar uses parts that are basically off the shelf components — you can get your engine from either Honda or Chevrolet. The chassis are all made by Dallara and are all the same.

There are different aerodynamic packages for different tracks — low downforce for places like Indianapolis where top speed is critical, high downforce for road courses. But they are the same for everybody.¬†For IndyCar, the emphasis is on the drivers, not the cars.

Formula One is just the opposite. It is all about the cars. From the team’s perspective, drivers are just components to be rented. The one item that drives up costs more than anything is aerodynamics. Formula One cars are basically inverted airplanes.

The shape of the car is designed to suck the car down onto the track surface. At top speed, as much as 5,000 lbs of downforce can be added to the cars. It is often said that if you could get a Formula One car upside down in a tunnel at speed, it would stick to the ceiling.

Teams spend cubic dollars to improve aerodynamic downforce. Since their time in wind tunnels is restricted by the rules, they use computational flow dynamics software to simulate real world testing. Each team chews through petabytes of data every year looking for any advantage that might make their car a tenth of a second per lap faster on track.

Three years ago, Formula One elected to “green” its public image. Even though it puts millions of pounds of carbon emissions into the atmosphere each year flying to races around the world — each team brings up to 600 tons of equipment to each race, including elaborate mobile hospitality suites for sponsors and local muckety mucks — the decision was made to adopt an all new hybrid powertrain to fool the public into thinking the sport is actually concerned about global warming.

The engines are good for about 750 horsepower. Another 150 horsepower or so comes from an electric motor powered by a battery, regenerative braking, and a device that makes electricity from the heat of the engine. The combination requires insanely complex computer software to manage the whole process. Now in its third season, the new powertrain is rumored to have cost Mercedes Benz a half billion dollars to develop. So much for saving money!

So what’s behind the difference between IndyCar and Formula One?

There is a megalomaniacal focus on the car, the car, the car in F1. Often, the attitude of race organizers seems to be “the fans be damned!”, and it shows. Formula One viewer ratings have been plummeting in recent years, but the sport continues its single minded march to oblivion, leaving dollar bills swirling in its wake.

So, a Formula 1 car costs 50 times more than an IndyCar. Is the racing 50 times better because of it? In my opinion: No, it is not. Not by a long shot.


Image Source: Jalopnik. Editorial comments by Steve Hanley.

About the Author

I have been a car nut since the days when Rob Walker and Henry N. Manney, III graced the pages of Road & Track. Today, I use my trusty Miata for TSD rallies and occasional track days at Lime Rock and Watkins Glen. If it moves on wheels, I’m interested in it. Please follow me on Google + and Twitter.

  • Darin

    Saying the car costs over $100 million is a bit misleading. The development of the car costs that much, not the actual parts themselves. If a Formula One car is destroyed in a crash, it isn’t a loss of over $100 million. The R&D is already in place to create a duplicate.

    • Steve Hanley

      I concede your point. However, IndyCar hasn’t spent $100,000,000 in developments for the entire series in the last decade (so far as I know, that is.) Teams like Ferrari and Red Bull, McLaren and Mercedes spent that every year and that’s for each team. Ferrari has long been rumored to spend more than twice that on its cars.

      So to say the actual car doesn’t cost that much? OK. Agreed. But in a larger sense, each car is the product of $100 million or more in development costs.

      One way or another, it cost far more to compete in Formula One than it does in IndyCar, which is why IndyCar has full grids and F1 does not.

      Thanks for your comment.

    • Arthur Burnside

      He actually quoted $200, not $100 million. As to how much per car that equates to, one cannot simply divide the total cost by the number of cars raced. And if a company races only two cars (regardless of whether one gets replaced due to destruction), it is still the case that it cost the company $100
      (at least) for each car on the track.

  • tanasinn

    You might want to cite the source of your image. As much as I dislike Gawker Media, it’s a little distasteful.

    • Editor here. Hadn’t seen the original post- a quick Google Image search later and it was there. Added link to image and source reference to the bottom of the page. Also corrected a misleading factoid about F1 cars running on pump gasoline.

      Thanks for the heads-up!

    • Steve Hanley

      Got caught out by the fact that my wife was standing over my shoulder making grumpy noises while I was finishing this post. The car was packed and we were ready to leave for a Memorial Day holiday.

      I am usually careful about giving credit where credit is due but failed to do so this time. Mea culpa.

  • Garrick Staples

    That’s amazing Steve. I had no idea the difference was so great. Thanks for shedding light in it.

    • Steve Hanley

      Appreciate the feedback, Garrick. The amount of money expended on Formula One is staggering from any perspective. The sport says it wants to attract new teams but refuses to share income with any team that doesn’t score championship points. That makes it really tough for new competitors to get a toe hold in the sport.

      By contrast, NASCAR pays prize money to every car that starts a race. Not much for the 52nd car but at least something to help defray the costs of competition. The solons who run Formula One are highly skilled at talking out of both sides of their mouth at the same time.

      • GregS

        They need to change the points system to where the top 15 cars (or more) are awarded points instead of the top 10.

  • Don D

    With all the money F1 spends, IndyCar is still SO much better. How well would Hamilton or Rossberg do driving for Manor? It’s all about money and the best car. In IndyCar it’s much more about the driver. I’d be willing to bet Hamilton or Rossberg would be in for a shock driving in IndyCar after they realized how good the driver line up is.

    Congrats to Alex Rossi! The 500 was fantastic as usual.

    • Steve Hanley

      I agree.

    • NoLongerJustAGuest

      Most F1 drivers were champions in the other lower tiers of racing that were more like IndyCar before moving to F1 where the car makes such a big difference. I don’t think the talent would blow them away, but it would be cool to see some drivers crossover for one off races.

      • Steve Hanley

        There was a time when drivers regularly competed in several series. The Indy 500 was even part of the Formula One championship for a brief period. Colin Chapman and Jim Clarke stood the world of Indy racing on its head when they won with a tiny Chapman designed rear engine car. Up to that point, all Indy cars were powered by great big cars powered by supercharged Offenhauser engines mounted in front.

        The golden age of international racing may have been when drivers from every corner of the world competed in CanAm competition. CanAm is where Bruce McLaren rose to prominence and where Jim Hall of Texas introduced the world to aerodynamics.

        If you ever find the DVD about CanAm narrated by Sam Posey, stop what you are doing, shut of the phone, and watch it. It is one of the great motor racing videos of all time. : – )

    • GregS

      Yeah but racing in circles is boring to watch.
      F1 could be more exciting if they would use the rules to make the cars closer instead of more far apart.

      • Tiies

        I think oval racing can be more exiting than road racing. Ovals are like street courses but a lot faster, there is always the outside wall waiting for a single mistake. All that with a thightly packed field. Road racing can be exiting as well of course and Oval races can get boring, but I like the fact that ovals often challenge the driver more than the car.

  • Dan S

    I’d like to see a comparison of braking time/distance form 200 mph to 50 mph. I’d also like to see lap time comparisons on road circuits.

    I like the international flavor of F1 (not just drivers/teams but venues). They are shooting themselves in the foot with top heavy cash reward. They seem to like to keep their top teams at the top. Ferrari always gets special consideration. That’s wrong. Every team should have to earn everything but they fear losing the Ferrari fans. The Ferrrai fans seem to have stuck around for the Ferrari’s struggles the last few years.

    I do love how wicked fast the F1 cars can navigate a course. I’d love to see indy cars on more dedicated road circuits but city tracks seem to be the marketing strategy. They are my least favorite F1 circuits…except of course for Monaco.

    • Steve Hanley

      I share your love of road circuits. The only time I watch NASCAR is when they run on a road course. It’s great to watch those relatively big, heavy cars turning left AND right!

      You are right about the top teams in F1 hogging all the glory — and money. Ferrari even has a special veto awarded to it by Bernie Ecclestone. Can you imagine NASCAR doing that for one team? Ferrari, McLaren, Red Bull, and Mercedes rule the roost, with WIlliams not far behind.

      The other teams? The big dogs let them race just so there will be enough cars on track to make it interesting. They pretend they want new teams to join the series, but set things up so they can’t possibly win.

      For instance, new teams are supposed to get a one time $10,000,000 pay out from Bernie to help them get started. Bernie decided on his own he would not pay that money to Haas because it asked to join, Formula One did not invite it first.

      Ecclestone may be the greediest, most tight fisted person in history. He is the Silas Marner of motorsport. Comparisons to Ebeneezer Scrooge would be warranted. He has used his position to amass a fortune that is beyond calculation. Most of that money could have gone to promote competition over the years, but has gone into Bernie’s pocket instead.

      How can that be, you ask? Why do the teams put up with being ripped off? The answer is hidden in the murky depths of Formula One’s basement. Remember, this is a sport where a team owner engineered a sadomasochistic orgy for one of its highest leaders and then released a video of the event surreptitiously.

      Things do not get more nasty or Byzantine than the inner workings of Formula One. When all is said and done, these are not nice people. The history of the sport is riddled with cheats, liars, con men, and criminals, a tradition that continues right up to the present day.

      Sadly, the most important events in the sport often happen far from the racing venues.

    • GregS

      The F1 cars are doing over 5Gs under braking, I doubt the Indy cars are anywhere near that.

    • Tiies

      I liked (!) road cirquits in F1 as well. Then Ecclestone etc. were on this hilarious safety trip continuing today where they started to add f@!&ing parking lots on the outside of almost every corner. I understand that some safety measurements are required. These energy absorbent barriers are awesome, as well as the overall safer cars and more space between track and barrier. But I hate the fact that you can make a mistake by running off-track and even get an advantage out of it. Having grass directly next to the white line punishes a mistake without directly ruining your race. My favourite road courses? VIR, Nordschleife, Bathurst, Cirquit de la Sarthe, Zandvoort. Realise something?
      Look at eg. Monza, the last corner. How many cars could park there possibly? Yeah a lot. In my opinion this destroys the characteristc of a track.

  • Jaques Villeneuve was 1997 WDC, and did spectacularly well in his rookie season at Williams. Going the other way, Barrichello didn’t seem to do spectacularly well in an IndyCar, and both Kimi and Scott Speed stepped from F1 cars into NASCAR stockers without much- if any!- success.

  • Steve Hanley

    You are correct. I made a typo and hit a 5 when I should have hit a 7. Thanks for noticing. Although I don’t think it changes the point of the story very much

  • GoBolts

    I have to disagree that F1 is not environmental. Yes they are running on gas but a hell of a lot less than they use to and pushing hybrid technology on the track will lead to the roads and make road cars more efficient. Racing quality though IndyCar > F1.

    • Tiies

      Yes, this is correct. But it is also fact that F1 has a lot more emissions by traveling all over the world for the GPs + the amount of what they “need” at each track.
      Road car technology is not and (nearly never) coming from F1. The technoloy comes from endurance racing. Look at how long LMP1s at Le Mans have been using hybrid technology. And in my opinion this technology as well as ERS systems are only useful in endurance races that are between 6 and 24 hours long. F1 like races are for me about going as fast as possible without having to give a f&@! about fuel. Only exeption of course is saving one stop in the pits.

      • GoBolts

        Yes endurance racing is also pushing forward road technology but F1 and any endurance series total carbon footprint is irrelevant compared to the hundreds of millions of cars if not billions that are ran around the world any given day so I could care less about the little harm moving racing equipment causes.

        • Tiies

          Yes, that’s true.

    • Metal

      If Indy/Nascar is all about the driver then why Ford GT Chip Ganassi only had 1 American driver against 5 Euro drivers at the LeMans?