Ryan Hunter-Reay believes the IndyCar Series deserves to be considered a reputable stepping stone towards Formula 1 again, describing it as 'the most competitive it has ever been'.
The American-based open-wheel series enjoyed a global reputation for nurturing new talent and attracting high calibre drivers from F1 at its peak – most famously Nigel Mansell -, with the likes of Jacques Villeneuve and Juan Pablo Montoya emerging as its most notable graduates.
However, following the reunification of IndyCar and the now-defunct CART World Series in 2008, not a single driver that debuted in the American series first has gone on to start an F1 race.
It is a fact that Hunter-Reay, an Indy 500 winner and 2012 IndyCar Series champion, feels is a shame, rating the competition of the series after a few 'weak' years as being deserving of consideration by teams once more.
“I think it is really about a fork in the road very early in your career,” he told Sky Sports F1
. “If you want to be in Formula 1 you have to come up through the Formula 1 ladder which is in Europe and if you want to be an IndyCar driver you come up through the American ladder and that is just the way it is
“Once upon a time there was a road to Formula 1 through IndyCar success and I just think that after a few weak years by IndyCar that kind of went away. Now IndyCar's championship is as strong as ever, I think it is the best and most competitive it has ever been, and I'm not just saying that because I am in it. We demonstrate that week in, week out with the product on track.”
With the United States Grand Prix at the Circuit of Americas under threat following a cut of funding and no word yet on whether Alexander Rossi – who last year became the first American to start an F1 race for eight years – will stay with Manor Racing this season, Hunter-Reay admits F1 has to try harder if it is to secure a slice of the competitive American sports' audience.
"It is so hard to crack the sporting market in the United States because it is so saturated,” he continued. “We have football, basketball, baseball - there are so many options you have to capture the fans' attention,"
"I think Formula 1 racing in general can do it, but it is going to take more of a presence in the United States other than just a team that calls itself 'USF1' even though it is based in the UK, which it has to be I think
Hopefully we can get some more races over there, I'm not sure what the solution is, but I'm a fan of any success of motorsport in the United States."
Ever since the Indy Racing League series was created in 1996 following the split with what would become the Champ Car series, not a single champion has gone on to start an F1 race. By contrast, CART champions Villeneuve, Montoya, Alex Zanardi, Cristiano da Matta and Sebastien Bourdais all went on to compete in F1.