It may well be outrageous that every time there’s a new young IndyCar race winner, the question of a potential Formula 1 switch for them almost immediately pops up.
But in the case of Long Beach winner Kyle Kirkwood, the reasons why the F1 question would be asked are hard to ignore.
Though F1 has already added USA representation in Williams rookie Logan Sargeant, it hasn’t stopped at one USA-based F1 race so would presumably quite like more than one American F1 driver. And Kirkwood is racing for an Andretti team that is gunning for an F1 entry and has made it very clear it wants to bring American drivers to F1.
Team-mate Colton Herta has been at the centre of that so far. If Kirkwood can also start to beat Herta on a regular basis – especially at places like Long Beach, where Herta won from 14th on the grid in 2021 – it’s inevitable he will be linked with the move Herta has been mooted for.
Kirkwood’s best IndyCar finish entering the Long Beach weekend was 10th, scored in his 2022 rookie year with AJ Foyt Racing where he faced the almost impossible task of trying to lead a team with probably the smallest budget in the paddock. He made a few mistakes of his own along the way, retiring seven times after on-track incidents.
So it’s fair to say that Kirkwood’s feet are firmly on the ground when it comes to thinking about his future, because this is very, very early days.
Asked if F1 had crossed his mind on this week’s The Race IndyCar Podcast, Kirkwood replied: “It’s crossed my mind. It hasn’t been something that I put thought into.
“Of course there is potential of that.
“But I don’t feel like I’m in a position right now. Hopefully, if things go as they should, I will be in a position. But at the moment, I’m not, so I don’t really let myself fall into those thoughts.
“But it is an idea.”
There are a lot of barriers for Kirkwood, including getting a superlicence, as after this season he will only have 15 of the 40 points needed plus whatever he earns in the IndyCar championship. If he can stay in fifth place in the standings, he’d still be 17 points short.
But before even thinking about that, there’s the difficulty of switching from the US racing culture.
Kirkwood – who is arguably the most successful junior driver in US history as he won over 40 races and five championships, including all three of the IndyCar feeder series titles as a rookie – undoubtedly faced a shock when he arrived at Foyt and the midfield as he was used to controlling races from the front then went to fighting for 15th almost every week.
That’s a big shift, and while some drivers cope with it better than others, it easy to see how for Kirkwood, more than most, trying to perform at your best in those surroundings would not be ideal.
Given his years of success, he is also well aware of how entrenched he has become in racing Stateside and what that could mean for his chances of F1 success – and for other drivers from his country too.
“I have to say, it would be really tough for an American driver, like me, like Colton, like Josef [Newgarden], any American that a team would want to bring over there, it’d be really hard for them in a completely different car and a completely different tyre [from Firestone to Pirelli] with a completely different group of engineers in how they operate,” he continued.
“Team systems and tracks, I mean, there’s so many things that just keep going down the list that would be so hard for someone to learn. So it’s a tough situation.
“There’s so many challenges that I feel like people can overcome, but you’re kind of on the back foot with a lot of that stuff.
“I’ve put so much effort into IndyCar and US circuits and the way teams operate over here. I mean, my entire career has been this focus over here.
“Maybe when I was really young, I thought F1 was cool and I wanted to go there and whatnot, but I didn’t know what any of that stuff meant.
“Now that I’ve got into IndyCar I’ve realised that my entire focus has been this direction so to change it all and do a 180 and go towards that F1 mindset would be something that’s a huge challenge – and I’m not in the situation right now where I feel like I need to learn that process.
“I feel like I’m still learning here and I need to continue doing that before I have any thought of trying to go somewhere in that direction.”
For these reasons that Kirkwood describes, plus the fact that he had a very tough and questionable season in 2022, he is absolutely right not to be focusing on Formula 1 at the moment.
There aren’t offers on the table, and he still has so much to accomplish and prove in the States.
He certainly has the potential not only in terms of his pace, but in the way he approaches racing. He’s so mature for someone entering only their second IndyCar season.
He proved this in one sense when asked on the podcast this week whether it was difficult to put up with the pressure he was put under, given his unbelievable junior career and the difficulties he faced through his rookie season.
“Well, it’s difficult at times, because people don’t really understand the scenarios that we’re put in on a certain weekend because there’s things that you just don’t talk about to the media,” Kirkwood answered.
“But you can look at it in two different ways. You can look at it like, ‘OK these people are kind of just hating on me and they don’t really understand’.
“Or you can look at it as, ‘OK, they’re putting a lot of pressure on me and they’re disappointed in my performance because they know what I can’t do’. And that is something that I learned to accept.
“I would read some of the stuff that people were saying, mostly from the big writers like yourself, of having these high expectations.
“I look at it, I’m like, ‘they’re right, in a sense, in this stuff’. It might not be perfectly correct, but at the end of the day, they are right.
“I was able to accept a lot of that stuff and understand where a lot of people are coming from in certain situations from last year, of course. So I was being singled out, but for a good reason and I don’t feel like that’s a bad thing in a sense.”
Drivers rarely understand the nuances of the media in such a way and how Kirkwood turned the negative of the criticism into the positive of the expectation because people rate him highly is reflective of his mental strength as a young driver.
We recently ran a feature examining what the win meant for Kirkwood, suggesting that it is not a breakthrough because Kirkwood is so good, and it should have been seen as inevitable that he would win a race eventually.
The bigger breakthrough – and when he can start to think about things like F1 in a more serious way – will be when he manages to become more consistent than he has shown so far and cope better with midfield racing.
A lot of that comes down to the team and the people around him, too, and Andretti Autosport hasn’t been the most consistent squad in recent years.
But Kirkwood knows that making the best of bad days is the surefire way to become a title contender.
“To be honest, I don’t know if I feel like I’ve even had that breakthrough,” added Kirkwood. “I don’t know if I’ll ever feel like I ever do.
“Even though we’ve been fast all year, through testing and qualifying, we’ve been in both Fast Six and we’ve been starting at the front except for Texas, I still feel like I haven’t got a breakthrough.
“Even though we won at Long Beach, I still feel like I haven’t got a breakthrough moment where I’ve got consistency and I’ve got back to the ways of where I was when I was racing in Indy Lights or Indy Pro 2000 and whatnot.
“Long Beach was the only moment that I’ve had that. I need to continue that direction. Once we get consistent top finishes and we’re consistent in the championship, kind of solidifying ourselves as championship contenders, maybe that will be considered a breakthrough.
“But at the moment, hopefully it’s just a start of something.
“There was a lot of pressure on me last year, there was a lot of very high expectations based on what I’ve done in the past. So that also doesn’t help the situation, right?
“Because there’s so much expectation that people are like, ‘OK, yeah, he won a race, that was expected, now let’s go see him win a bunch more’.
“There’s a little bit of the pressure’s off, but a lot of the pressure is still there, to expect me to do the things that I did in my junior category, which I also put on myself.
“So after Long Beach, two days later, I’m like, ‘OK, what do we need to do to keep this going?’.
“I’ve kind of already reset where I’m at the mindset of, awesome, we won a race to OK, we need to keep this going.”
The mentality Kirkwood has shown in the aftermath of the victory, where as much of the narrative was about his 2022 shortcomings as it was about the win itself, shows how mature and collected he is as a person.
Adding the on-track consistency paints a scary picture of the juggernaut he could become, and if that’s the case, the F1 rumours will only intensify. And quickly.