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 to top-level motorsport can differ. Although 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 the latest incarnation of the official USA open-wheel national championship that 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 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 2023 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, 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-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). The cars were supposed to run hybrid powertrains from the start of 2024, with hybrid systems added to the existing 2.2-litre engines, but the introduction has been delayed until the Mid-Ohio round in July. The series 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 60bhp of extra power. 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 IndyCar’s 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



I never knew Pirelli made wheels…

02/13/2016 - 14:14 |
0 | 2
Omar 1

I liked indycar more than f1 this year it’s much more unpredictable and you don’t know who is going to win unlike f1

02/13/2016 - 14:35 |
2 | 0
Americancarguy 2

In reply to by Omar 1

Yeah, that’s why I like it to. While there are two engine choices, and the aero is different, but it is so much more a contest of drivers. F1 is too much about who has the fastest car, not the fastest driver.

02/13/2016 - 15:39 |
0 | 0

It was really exciting since the winner wasn’t decided till the very last race and where everyone finished!

02/13/2016 - 16:34 |
0 | 0

To who the wrote this, a lot about the F1 was BS:

  • Engines rev to 15,000rpm, no the limiter is at 15k, they normally rev around 12k
  • Up to three exhaust pipes, nope, one exhaust pipe and one or two for the wastegate
  • Each driver gets four of each element(of the power unit), nope, they get five because of that there will be 21 races.
  • Highest speed recorded in 2015 was by Lewis Hamilton 360km/h, again wrong, it was by Maldonado in Mexico 366km/h
    (- A screen display for viewing information and data on the steering wheel, not all teams use the screen)

Whoever wrote this needs to get a better grip of F1, now I was able to correct these just from my memory, and I don’t consider myself a hardcore fan, so please do a little reading before writing……

Ps. This isn’t the first time the articles about F1 are bad, it happens a lot on this site.

02/13/2016 - 14:44 |
8 | 2

for this year onwards the wastegate will have a separated exhaust(in 2014 and 2015 the engine exhaust was shared with the wastegate which explain why f1 cars were so quiet) so it means f1 cars will be much louder this year even with the same engine from the previous 2 years

02/13/2016 - 15:52 |
4 | 0
Carlos Matas

Its stupid the 10 push x race “minigame” indies have, dont get me wrong f1 have those things too, but i find it ridiculous. They should be looking for max preformance within limitations, thats what makes motorsports exciting, or they will become soon in a real life Mario kart (with all my respects to that game)

02/13/2016 - 16:42 |
4 | 0

It works into race strategy which can be cool in some moments. I hated it for 2 years until I finally saw how it can be used in that manner.

02/16/2016 - 14:22 |
0 | 0

Hey, that’s my idea!
Great job for the article!

02/14/2016 - 00:41 |
0 | 0

Does anyone know the fast top speed Indycar 2015 “around 230mph (370km/h)” is the average lap speed not the top speed.

02/15/2016 - 05:00 |
0 | 0

Just for fun on top speed
PacWest Racing Group Indycar/CART Mauricio Gugelmin turned the fastest lap in Indycar history, probably racing history of 242.333 mph / 389.997 kph. He said on the stratights it was probably around 245-247 mph. Let that sink in!! By the way the Engine MB V8t.

02/15/2016 - 05:20 |
0 | 0

33 cars…

02/16/2016 - 23:13 |
0 | 0

In the recent past, that has not been the case however as late as 1965/1966 the Lotus that Jim Clark and Graham Hill won with were essentially F-1 cars. Sir Jack brought his Cooper Climax in 1961 and even further back Wilbur Shaw’s iconic Masarati 1940 winner were F-1 cars,,,,,,, it would have been nice to see them run around the Speedway in the right direction, when the US Grand Prix was at Indy…….but I don’t think Schuey could handle the speed

09/13/2016 - 23:59 |
0 | 0

Well I’m an indycar fan, but let me say this. If you take NASCAR stock car, cut the weight in half, the car would destroy either one. They hit about 207 ish at Indy. And are super heavy cars.

09/26/2016 - 23:02 |
0 | 0

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