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IndyCar hopes competitive on-track racing captures audience as F1 season looks to be another snoozer

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — IndyCar finally snapped six months of dormancy with a Felix Rosenqvist-led spirited Friday practice session that Formula 1 wishes it could reproduce.

As the IndyCar season sets to begin Sunday on the downtown streets of St. Petersburg, the series has a very real opportunity to capitalize on the lack of competition and dysfunction in F1.

Max Verstappen has won eight consecutive races dating to last season, and Red Bull won all but one race all year. Verstappen's dominance continued Friday with a pole-winning run in Saudi Arabia, and he won the season-opener last week in Bahrain by more than 22 seconds. Most teams have already conceded he will win a fourth consecutive championship even though there's been only one race this year.

That lack of excitement has forced all the attention on the off-track dramas of the cutthroat racing series, and F1 has been engrossed in scandal for weeks as Red Bull has dealt with an internal investigation into team principal Christian Horner over accusations of improper conduct toward an employee. Horner was cleared, the employee this week was suspended, but the swirling gossip is nonstop.

“The racing is terrible. It's terrible,” IndyCar team owner Chip Ganassi said. “They've got nothing else to talk about but Christian Horner, OK?”

IndyCar has the opposite problem. The series had seven different winners over 17 races last season and the 27-car field on Friday was separated from first to last by 3.4172 seconds. The guy who was slowest? Sports car ace Colin Braun, who drove an Indy car for the first time in his life last week in a test at Sebring — a session that this week led him to be named Dale Coyne Racing's driver for the first two races of the season.

The margins are so tight that Zak Brown, the head of McLaren Racing, indicated he preferred the competition in IndyCar to what he sees in F1. McLaren competes in both series.

“IndyCar is the most competitive racing where there are more drivers who can win a race on any race weekend,” Brown said.

Indianapolis 500 winners Marcus Ericsson and Alexander Rossi, who both raced in F1, both said that between 12 to 15 drivers can win Sunday's opener. Ganassi and Team Penske are considered the top two teams in the paddock with eight cars between them. Andretti and McLaren are the next group with a combined six cars.

Michael Andretti, who is desperately trying to join F1 but had his application denied in January, said IndyCar's racing has always been better than F1 but the challenge is exposing it to a larger audience. F1 is a European-based series that races all over the world, while IndyCar is based in Indiana and a large section of its schedule is in Midwest states.

“I think we’ve had that good racing for years and years and years. What are we gonna do?” Andretti said.

The suggestion is to elevate the spectator experience and make an IndyCar event feel as glamorous as F1 does. While F1 races are celebrity studded — and extremely expensive — the events offer luxury experiences and have entertainment with DJ's in the paddock and on the grid, and post-race concerts.

“We need to raise our level of the way we go racing, the way it looks,” Andretti said. “A lot of it looks like you’re going to an SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) race, some of our podiums and things like that. It looks hokey on TV.”

Pato O'Ward is heavily pushing for IndyCar to elevate its cachet and become the hip and cool weekend event to attend. He was the first of multiple industry participants who complained about the quality of the podium celebrations, with the exception of the Indianapolis 500, which uses a lift to raise the winner and car to an elevated platform.

“It's a pretty big deal to win an Indy race so I think there should be something that makes you feel like you've done something that's a pretty big deal,” said O'Ward, who is also McLaren's reserve driver in F1. "Just compare what it feels like to be at a Formula 1 weekend and what it feels like to be at an IndyCar weekend.

“We want a ‘wow’ factor. What else are we offering? We want people to show off that they were at the IndyCar race,” he continued. “Like 60% of the people at a Formula 1 race have no idea what they are watching. They post, ‘I am at the F1 race.’ Why? Because it's cool. It's status now. But why? Why do people pay 30 grand for a three-day experience in Formula 1 and then complain about a $1,500 suite pass at IndyCar. There's something wrong because it ain't because the IndyCar racing is bad.”

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AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing