F1 Vs IndyCar: The Differences Explained

Here's all you need to know about the differences between two of the world's premier single-seater championships - Formula 1 and IndyCar
An IndyCar racer and an F1 car
An IndyCar racer and an F1 car

Comparing IndyCar and Formula 1 – two of the world's most renowned open-wheel racing series – gives an intriguing look at how approaches can differ in top-level motorsport. While both single-seater categories may look superficially similar, there are significant differences in areas like car design, race formats and history.

The IndyCar Series has been running since 1996, but it’s only the latest incarnation of the official USA open-wheel national championship, which dates all the way back to 1905. In contrast, the Formula 1 World Championship started in 1950, using rules standardised in 1946. Its roots can be traced back to various Grand Prix championships of the 1920s and 1930s.

For a while, the two worlds met; from 1950 to 1960, the Indy 500 – now the highlight of the IndyCar season – was part of the F1 World Driver’s Championship, which meant many of the top American drivers of the day appear in the annals of F1 history, even though most didn’t race in other Grands Prix.

Formula 1

The Formula 1 World Championship has been running uninterrupted since 1950.

For the 2024 season, 20 drivers from 10 teams line up for 24 scheduled races at tracks around the world. Most F1 tracks are purpose-built road courses, although there are also a handful of street tracks thrown in to spice things up.

Image via Mercedes Group Media
Image via Mercedes Group Media

The number of races per season has been creeping up in recent years; 2023 saw 22 races and was originally going to feature 25 events, but the Russian Grand Prix was cancelled due to the invasion of Ukraine, the Chinese GP was axed due to Covid worries and the Emilia Romagna GP was called off because of flooding. There will be 24 races in 2024 and 24 are scheduled for 2025, too.

The sport has grown in popularity in the USA in recent years, in part thanks to the success of the Netflix behind-the-scenes show Drive to Survive, and new races have been introduced in Miami and Las Vegas to attract more fans. There are now five races across North America.

Formula 1 rules generally have a big overhaul every few years to keep technology up-to-date and relevant. Since 2014 all F1 cars have used 1.6-litre V6 turbo units attached to a hybrid electrical system. Combined, the powertrain makes around 1000bhp. But in 2022 the latest big rule change focused on a radical revision of aerodynamics to promote closer racing and more overtaking.

F1 cars have very advanced and complex aero features on and below the car. This allows them to develop huge amounts of downforce and corner at tremendous speeds., but it can also create a lot of aerodynamic wash, or dirty air, behind them. In recent years, this has made it difficult for F1 cars to follow one another closely at high speed, often leading to criticism from fans.

In 2021, cars lost around 35 per cent of their downforce when within three car lengths of the car in front. The 2022 plans aimed to reduce this to well under 10 per cent, and demanded that teams reduce the complexity of the car’s aero. Rather than complex aero elements on top of the car, they were to focus more on ‘ground effect’, using tunnels under the car’s floor to create areas of low pressure and pulling the car down to create massive high-speed grip – a concept made popular during the '70s and '80s in F1.

Image via Daimler
Image via Daimler

Overhauled and simplified front and rear wings were mandated to avoid sending the airflow outwards from the car, but to narrow it instead. Wheel and tyre size has also dramatically increased from 13 to 18 inches, to more closely reflect road car tech.

F1’s Drag Reduction System (DRS), first introduced in 2011, has been retained. When a driver is within one second of the car in front, they can press a button that opens a slot in the rear wing, allowing it to travel faster in a straight line and making it easier to overtake.

The hope was that the 2022 rules would allow less reliance on DRS, but while the changes have made it possible for cars to follow each other more closely, the impact hasn’t been as dramatic as fans had hoped for, so DRS is still a key element in on-track overtakes. The 2026 regulations will see DRS replaced as a gap-conditional overtaking aid by an electrical power boost. DRS will instead be freely available on both the front and rear wings, with drivers able to switch between high- and low-downforce modes on the fly.

The F1 engines run on E10 fuel, which uses 10 per cent ethanol. New engine regulations arrive in 2026 and will require 100 per cent sustainable fuel in an effort to reduce the sport’s environmental impact. 

Image via Mercedes-Benz Media
Image via Mercedes-Benz Media

The cars’ hybrid systems recover energy in two main ways, using two key elements – the MGU-K, and the MGU-H. The ‘K’ part stands for ‘kinetic’ and recovers energy that would otherwise be lost through braking, while the MGU-H (heat) draws thermal energy from the exhaust system. Along with the energy store (ES) and control electronics (CE), these make up the Energy Recovery System (ERS); add in the internal combustion engine (ICE) and the turbocharger (TC) and you have a complete F1 power unit. Theoretically, they’re allowed to rev as high as 15,000rpm, but restrictions on fuel flow, reliability concessions, and the general power curve of the unit mean that drivers usually change gear below 12k.

Each car may use a maximum of two energy stores or control electronics, and three each of the ICE, TC, MGU-K, or MGU-H elements. Any more than this and drivers will have to take grid penalties.

At the moment the 10 F1 teams are supplied by four different power unit manufacturers: Mercedes, Renault, Ferrari and Red Bull Powertrains. Red Bull took over the project after Honda left at the end of the 2021 season (although Honda – perennial ditherers when it comes to F1 involvement – has announced another return with Aston Martin from 2026). Development of the power units is being frozen in 2022 ahead of a new formula for 2026. So far, we know that the 2026 engines will have similar performance using high-revving V6 engines, but increase electrical power to 50 per cent and use 100 per cent sustainable fuel.

Image via Red Bull Content Pool
Image via Red Bull Content Pool

The gearbox comprises eight forward gears (with a fixed ratio across the whole season) and a mandatory reverse. They are of course semi-automatic and seamless shift, and must last for six consecutive events – if any are changed before that then yup, you’ve guessed it, grid penalty.

In an effort to level the playing field and prevent money from being the key factor in on-track success, F1 uses a cost cap system, which in 2024 is set at $135 million, although certain things such as driver salaries and marketing aren’t subject to the restrictions. There are also other development restrictions – the higher a team finishes in the championship, the less time they’re allowed to spend testing aerodynamics in the wind tunnel or through CFD simulations. This is all part of efforts to narrow the gap in performance between teams.

The total weight of the cars is mandated to be a minimum of 798kg (including the driver but not including fuel), a hefty increase from the 605kg cars of little more than a decade ago. Part of this is down to the increased mass of the larger new wheels, hybrid systems, but also improvements in safety, such as the Halo device, which extends over the cockpit and protects the driver’s head in a crash.

Image via Red Bull Content Pool
Image via Red Bull Content Pool

The steering wheels are very complicated with a considerable number of buttons, dials, thumb wheels, paddles and combinations that are used to adjust things like brake balance, differential settings, and engine modes, as well as a screen display for viewing information and data. Carbonfibre composite brake discs squeezed by conventional hydraulic calipers are used with the rear braking assisted by the ERS.

Tyres are supplied by Pirelli, with five dry-weather compounds available across the season. Three are available to use at any given race, depending on the circuit characteristics; Pirelli uses data from all the teams to decide which compounds to use where. There’s also an intermediate tyre for when the track surface gets a bit wet, and a wet-weather compound in case it’s really chucking it down.

Pit stops are mandatory during races and each driver needs to use at least two different dry compounds of tyre in a race. There’s no mid-race refuelling and as a result the pit stops have become blink-and-you’ll-miss-it fast – during the 2023 Qatar GP, McLaren managed to change all four tyres on Lando Norris’s car in just 1.80 seconds.


Image via Honda
Image via Honda

Unlike F1, the IndyCar grid runs the same chassis and aerodynamic kit, with power coming from one of two engine manufacturers – Honda or Chevrolet. In 2024, IndyCar is running 17 races in the USA and one in Canada, with double-header events in Iowa and Milwaukee featuring two races over one weekend. Grid sizes are a bit more fluid than in F1, with most races featuring 27 or 28 drivers, ballooning up to a field of 34 for the blue riband Indianapolis 500. Teams run anything from one to six cars and teammates don’t usually share the same livery. Some drivers even have a different colour scheme for each race.

The carbonfibre Dallara DW12 chassis is used by the entire field and has been since 2012. The cars run 2.2-litre twin-turbocharged V6 engines from Honda and Chevrolet and produce between 550bhp and 700bhp depending on the amount of boost used and the type of circuit being raced on (generally speaking there’s a lower power figure on ovals for reasons of durability and safety).

In July 2024 IndyCar introduced hybrid systems, which unlike F1's hybrids have been added on to the existing engines. Honda and Chevrolet worked together, and with third party suppliers, to develop the bolt-on technology. The system uses supercapacitors to store kinetic energy, attached to a motor generator unit (MGU) that harvests kinetic energy and sends that reclaimed power back to the wheels.

While the hybrid system adds an extra 105lbs (48kg) to each car, it also adds extra horsepower for IndyCar's push to pass system (more on that shortly). It also lets drivers restart the car if they stall – previously the cars needed external starters.

IndyCar had planned to introduce new 2.4-litre engines alongside the hybrid tech, but those plans were dropped at the end of 2022.

Image via Honda
Image via Honda

The gearboxes are Xtrac six-speed, semi-automatic paddle shifts with a reverse gear. Tyres are supplied by Firestone and, like F1, feature different dry-weather compounds. There are also wet tyres available for road and street courses, with no wet running at all allowed on oval circuits. Each driver must use two tyre compounds in every race.

All cars have used PFC brake components since 2018; prior to that, some cars used Brembo setups. PFC discs, pads and disc bells are all made by PFC, although teams can choose Brembo or Alcon master cylinders.

Just because the cars all have the same chassis and aero kits it doesn’t mean the cars are all identical. Teams are allowed to build and develop their own parts such as the brake ducts and certain suspension components, with the dampers being a particularly key area of potential improvement.

This is critical when you see the type of circuits that IndyCar races on a wide range of circuits, with drivers having to master undulating road courses, bumpy rough-and-ready street courses, and high-speed ovals across the course of a season. For each of these, the specification of car is different - so the amount of power, the brakes, the aero kits and weight all change, as will suspension setups and ride height. This is to react to the unique characteristics and demands placed on the cars.

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Like F1, IndyCar has an overtaking aid - the push-to-pass system (again, only on road and street courses), where drivers can press a button on the steering wheel to get around 120bhp of extra power (up from 60bhp since the introduction of the hybrid tech). However, unlike F1, its usage is much less restricted. Drivers can use it to attack or defend, on any part of the circuit they want to, and for as little or as long as they want to (up to a maximum of 15 or 20 seconds in one push, depending on the track). The only limitation is the number of seconds they’re allowed to use it in a race, which changes from circuit to circuit but is normally around the 200 mark.

Drivers also have to be wary of how much fuel they’re using because refuelling is a key strategy element in IndyCar. Drivers will usually have to make two or three stops for fuel during a race and, depending on the frequency and timing of a caution period, fuel-saving is a key weapon in the driver’s armoury. Because of the need to refuel and a limit on the number of people allowed to be involved in a stop, a normal pit stop in IndyCar can range anywhere from six to 10 seconds.

As in F1, IndyCar also recently introduced cockpit safety measures, although the American series decided against the halo and instead introduced the Red Bull-developed aeroscreen in 2020. This fighter jet-style screen, made from polycarbonate and titanium, is designed to deflect debris away from the driver’s head at speed. The design has been slightly tweaked since its introduction, with upgrades including adjustments to improve visibility in the wet and reduce misting inside the screen.

Image via Honda
Image via Honda

Although an IndyCar is around 40cm shorter than an F1 car and significantly lighter, the simpler aero means they’re much slower around a typical track. For comparison, at the Circuit of the Americas in Texas, the quickest IndyCar lap in 2019 (the last time the series visited) was a 1:46.018. In 2022, the F1 United States Grand Prix at the same track saw Carlos Sainz hit a pole position time of 1:34.356. F1 cars top speeds are limited by the circuits and draggy aero, meaning the highest speed you’ll see in a season these days is generally around 220mph with the assistance of slipstream and DRS, while an IndyCar in superspeedway setup will nudge 240mph in clean air, despite just having a smidge over half the horsepower.

Another key difference between the two is that F1 cars have power steering, whereas IndyCars don’t, making for a more physical driving experience – something that former F1 drivers making the switch to IndyCar have been quick to comment on.

Image via Honda
Image via Honda

Although they may look similar, IndyCars and F1 cars are very different beasts, designed with differing priorities in mind. IndyCar races on a wider range of tracks and the cars can change significantly depending on the circuit. F1 is much more standardised race-by-race, but the innovation and development of the cars create more diversity among the teams and, around a typical race track, makes them the fastest racing cars in the world. Both series produce phenomenal racing and at the end of the day, that’s what matters the most.

Now read: 4 Ridiculous Stats From The 2023 Austrian Grand Prix Track Limits Debacle



Why hasnt anyone ever did a f1 vs indycar track test? (Honda since you make engines for both im looking at you)

02/13/2016 - 10:42 |
70 | 0

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

I’m afraid McLaren-Honda wouldn’t manage to make a full lap so the test’d be failed

02/13/2016 - 10:49 |
104 | 0

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Wouldn’t really be much of a race, the F1 would absolutely annihilate the indy car.

02/13/2016 - 13:27 |
4 | 0
Graeme Campbell

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Stole this from another article comparing lmp1 to F1 speeds…

“The last modern comparison of note is F1 and Indy car. The most recent road course to host both series was Montreal’s Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in 2006. Sebastien Bourdais’ pole time of 1:20.005 in his Lola-Ford/Cosworth Champ Car was impressive, but the 1:14.726 delivered by Fernando Alonso in his Renault RS26 was especially remarkable, given how F1 moved from volatile 900 hp V10s to torque-less V8s in ‘06.”

It would be good to see a three lap race between a few of the top race cars like lmp1, f1 and Indy. Like a race of champions but for the cars!

02/13/2016 - 13:49 |
22 | 0
Derek Miller

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Bernie doesn’t want to know how the much-cheaper-to-run Indycar stands up to F1.

Exhibit A: When F1 committed to coming to the Circuit of the Americas part of the deal was Indycar couldn’t even TEST there, let alone race there. Bernie is a bit nervous about how close they could be for how cheap they are (relative to F1).

02/13/2016 - 14:03 |
14 | 0

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

the last circuit I recall both cars running in the same configuration and direction was canada a few years ago (and may still be today - I’ve no clue or inclination to research). anyhoo, the F1 cars were about 8 seconds a lap quicker - considering a F1 teams’s budget of $200M+ to the Indy team’s budget of $10M (back then) it wasn’t too surprising.

02/13/2016 - 14:24 |
2 | 0
Dat Boi

Great article
Really informative

02/13/2016 - 10:44 |
16 | 0

Thanks! Much appreciated. More of these kind of articles coming soon!

02/13/2016 - 11:10 |
6 | 0
ramses rizal

I wonder if bernie makes a race event between F1 vs Indy car who would win?

02/13/2016 - 10:53 |
0 | 0

On an oval, assuming the F1 car was given the appropriate aero setup, the F1 would win by a small margin. On a road course, the Indycar wouldn’t see which way the F1 car went.

02/13/2016 - 11:06 |
2 | 2
Mohammed Ali

Actually, fastest speed recorded in F1 2015 was Maldonado at Mexico doing 366 km/h.

02/13/2016 - 11:29 |
10 | 0

They only consider if you have the 4 wheels on ground, flying after a crash doesn’t count

02/13/2016 - 14:17 |
20 | 0
Nissan 420sx

Damn I should start watching IndyCar

02/13/2016 - 11:30 |
2 | 0

You should! It’s a great series

02/13/2016 - 11:50 |
2 | 0

how much difference is there in downforce and L/D ratio?

02/13/2016 - 11:41 |
2 | 0

In reply to by lafars

This guy asks the real questions.

02/13/2016 - 19:23 |
0 | 0

Information I never knew I needed to know. Now I know.

02/13/2016 - 12:05 |
0 | 0

Indy500 have 33 cars, not 34
and.. GO MONTOYAAA!!!!

02/13/2016 - 12:40 |
4 | 0
H5SKB4RU (Returned to CT)

Why not a comparative sheet and an actual duel?

02/13/2016 - 12:55 |
0 | 0
Apex Predator

Top gear actually did a really interesting article this month on f1 vs world endurance in their magazine.

02/13/2016 - 14:05 |
2 | 0

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