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The 101st Running of the Indy 500 & the F1 Grand Prix of Monaco (Recap)

Eric Graciano

#SJblog 86

JT – The 101st running of the Indy 500 was another great race. Andretti Autosport’s Takuma Sato claimed victory after a 10-lap dice with Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves.

Takuma-Sato-indy500.jpeg

Andretti Autosport’s drivers and their Hondas looked good all day, occupying most of the top positions through the race but engine failures for Ryan Hunter Reay (leader of the most laps) and Fernando Alonso combined with pit-crew mistakes for Alexander Rossi and Marco Andretti took several bullets out of their gun. Ultimately Sato came through for the team, giving Andretti Autosport its second consecutive 500 win.

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Scott Dixon was one of the other Honda-powered drivers who ran at the front until lap 53 when Jay Howard’s Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports Honda hit the wall in Turn 2 and slid back across the track into Dixon’s path. Scott had nowhere to go and hit Howard’s car (Howard’s last IndyCar start was in 2011). The contact launched his Ganassi-Honda into the air and the catch-fence between Turns 1 and 2. The car also contacted the wall below the catch-fence before landing on its wheels on track.

It was a scary accident which Scott is fortunate to walk away from. Apparently, his left foot was has a compound fracture. How did he view the race and how’s he feeling?

SJ – Scott started the race with the car pretty trimmed out in preparation for the last 20 laps shoot out. That’s really what you have to prepare for and you’ve just got to hold onto the car for the rest of the race and get it as balanced and dialed in as you can for the gun fight at the end. I have no doubt he would have been right there.

He was very loose during the first stint and they took some downforce off the front wing at the first pit stop and the car started to get pretty decent. One more stop and a further tuning of the aero and I think he would have the car where he wanted it to be.

The accident was crazy and scary. Indy is always a dichotomy. It’s the hardest race to win and in some ways it’s also the easiest race to win. You can have speed all day long like Scott did a couple years ago and then a trash bag ends up in the radiator inlet with 10 laps to go and his engine just shuts down on him. Or you can come from seemingly nowhere all day and win if you’re on the right fuel strategy at the end, like Rossi showed last year.

I’m not saying Scott would have won this year but I think he would have definitely been in the mix at the end. I think Alonso would have been there too and for sure, Ryan (Hunter Reay) would have. There were a lot of strong cars up front and it would have been a mighty ending if Scott, Alonso, Rossi and Ryan had all been there together with Castro Neves and Sato in the last few laps.

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But coming back to the accident, unfortunately you’re always going to have a few guys in the field who really aren’t quite up to speed no matter what the category is. The lack of race craft some of these drivers have is a mystery, it’s like they lack all common sense.

If you’re not on the pace for whatever reason or you are already laps down it really isn’t that hard to just gently roll out of the throttle before you get to a corner? You lose a few tenths on a lap, maximum. You let the faster car go by and continue instead of charging into the corner and then end up fighting for a piece of real estate in the middle of a corner – and then blame someone else for pushing you up into the grey. He should have never put himself in that position to begin with, at that point he was already up the track in the grey and it ultimately it’s what caused his accident. All he would have had to do is roll out of the throttle by four or five MPH before he got to the corner and those guys would have gone past and it would have been fine.

If you’re already two laps down you have no business trying to meddle with the race leaders, as you have no chance of making up the lost time on speed, the only chance you have at that point is to hope for a yellow and use clever strategy to gain you laps back. As it were, Scott ended up being the front runner who got caught up this time, it could have been anyone who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

JT – There’s always excitement at Indy but it seemed to have even more energy this year with Alonso on hand, another huge crowd and lots of notable people there. What were your impressions?

SJ - Indy was tremendous as it always is. I think it’s getting better and better, it’s really starting to get the buzz back that it used to have in the days before the split. Few places in the world, if any, no matter where they are or what event they have, have the energy and electricity that Indy has. When you stand on the grid before the race it’s something really special.

Andretti’s probably the best team at the Indy 500 right now. They had six potential winners. Every one of their cars could win the race. No other team had anything close to that. Whatever it is they’ve done to their cars they definitely seem to have found the magic bullet for that track.
Alonso’s presence was great and added a lot of extra buzz and excitement from the F1 community also, hopefully it will open the eyes to a lot of his fellow drivers how great this event is and how good Indycar is in general.

JT – I think it was a unanimous view that Fernando Alonso did a great job at Indy and raced very well.

SJ – Yes, there’s no question he did very well. But to be honest, I didn’t expect anything else. I would have been surprised if he didn’t do a great job. I think he’s maybe the best driver in the world still, at least in terms of his race-craft. In the early stages of that race, everyone is fairly polite. But after the last pit stop – that’s when it starts to get a bit dicey. That’s when the racing really starts, it would have been great to see him duke it out with all the other guys at the end.

You have to get the car right to start with, and if you do that – I mean, I qualified 5th my first year (1993, Stefan out-qualified fellow rookie Nigel Mansell who started 8th) there in the old Bettenhausen car with a fairly stout grid. There’s no doubt that the Andretti cars were the class of the field so Alonso had a good car and he made the most of it in a situation where you really have to race.

I think Lewis Hamilton’s comments about Alonso were ill informed (Hamilton said of Alonso’s qualifying 5th … “A great driver, if he cannot win in Formula 1, will look for other races to win. But to see him fifth against drivers who are [in the series] all year is… interesting.”).

It just shows the ignorance and arrogance toward anything outside of Formula One that most people in the F1 paddock has unfortunately. They don’t even have a clue how hard some of these other championships are. In F1, if you’re in the right car, it’s easy. I can’t think of an easier championship to be good in. If you’re in the best car, you’re going to win – simple as that or at worst finish 2nd. And just because the top drivers in all these other categories of racing never made it to F1 doesn’t mean they’re not any good. A good indicator of this is when the F1 teams put some F3 kid in their cars for the end of season tests and within less that 30 laps they are doing lap times that are the same as the regular drivers who in some cases are world champions. The cars are simply too easy to drive and have too much engineering and technology for the drivers to make any real difference.

There’s never ever been a world champion who wasn’t in the best car. It’s the nature of the beast. Everyone in F1 builds their own cars so there will always be one or maybe two cars that are better than the rest. In IndyCar, nearly anyone can win at any race depending on how they play strategy and who gets it right on the day. At the end of the day, you have to become a specialist in every category you race in. It’s relatively easy to get to 95 percent but it’s that last five percent that makes the difference between being really good and winning.

JT – Interestingly, apart from Castroneves’ good performance in the race, Team Penske was off the pace all weekend.

SJ – Yes, I was surprised that Castroneves managed to pull himself up that far. Penske was struggling the whole time, really. It’s strange. Ganassi was a bit like that last year too, I think the Chevy package in it’s current format is very difficult to get right around there.

On the other hand, you have to admire Andretti Autosport. They’ve come a long way as a team in recent years and have turned into a very impressive organization. They have a good number of cars and sponsors. It’s impressive.

JT – The Monaco Grand Prix was, as usual, a largely boring procession. Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel won by staying on course longer than teammate Kimi Raikkonen and emerging from the sole pit stop in front. A similar scenario took place at Red Bull Racing where an early pitting Max Verstappen lost his position to teammate Daniel Ricciardo when the latter stayed on track longer. Why would anyone pit early and give up track position at a grand prix where track position is everything?

SJ – Yes, it was the usual Monaco snoozefest. The layout of the track is such that we know it’s never going to be any different unless it rains or something unexpected happens that the boffins behind the computer screens can’t plan for. The only interesting bit was that Ferrari and Red Bull got the strategy wrong for the drivers who should have had a choice of strategy – Raikkonen and Verstappen.

It’s clear that staying out longer before stopping was an advantage this time. It’s interesting to follow and it seems that there is less and less of the “seat of the pants” race strategy calls that we used to see from Ross Brawn and Schumacher for example where there used to be a constant dialogue and decision were made depending on the conditions as the race unfolded.  It would seem that none of the people doing the engineering today in F1 have that type of race experience or race-craft. They’re all brilliant and geniuses in their own way but when it comes to race strategy it’s all theoretical for them. And it seems that the drivers are simply following a set plan and have very little room to maneuver in terms of how the race is called. Only the driver can feel how the tires are holding up and how hard he can push, if the car feels good and you can go hard you want to stay out as long as possible, especially if you have a clear track and there’s no cars to lap in front of you, but it seems the strategy was already set and both Kimi and Verstappen came in on whatever lap was already determined before the race even started. In this case it lost them a win and a podium. I would have been pissed off too!

A couple years ago I was in the Ferrari pit with the radio headphones on during qualifying and what really surprised me was that the drivers don’t say one word when they return to the pits. The engineers are effectively telling them what the car is doing and what changes they plan to make next. I didn’t listen during the race but if I’m the driver in Monaco and the car still feels alright and the tires aren’t going off, and I’m still doing good lap times, I would say, “I’m staying out”.

If the tires are still performing that gives you way more leverage toward the end of the race and you can monitor what other people are doing. If no one’s going faster – they were all slowing down actually – you stay out. The only reason you would pit early there is if you were stuck in traffic. That’s all the more reason why Vettel and Ricciardo with a clear track after Raikkonen and Verstappen pitted went faster. Of course they would. The only danger is a full course caution if everyone else has pitted and you haven’t.

JT – Jenson Button substituted for Fernando Alonso with McLaren at Monaco and qualified well, starting 9th on the gird ahead of teammate Stoffel Vandoorne. He crashed out of the race attempting to overtake Sauber’s Pascal Wehrlein but adapted to the new car pretty quickly.

SJ – I think he did a great job. He qualified quicker than his teammate and in the circumstances he performed well. Unfortunately he had to start from the back and starting from the back at Monaco it’s near impossible to do well. You can be five seconds a lap quicker than the guy in front of you, literally, and there’s still no way to pass. The whole track curves the whole way around and there’s only one line so there’s almost nowhere to get a run on someone ahead – even on corner exit.

JT – Ferrari’s performance at Monaco showed their continuing improvement. Meanwhile, Mercedes GP struggled. Adapting to the 2017-spec Pirelli tires is an ongoing issue for Mercedes. Again, you point to Sebastian Vettel’s preseason tire testing as a big part of the difference in the two top teams’ performance.

SJ – It’s clear that it’s all down to the tires right now. Again, it boggles my mind that teams like Red Bull and Mercedes didn’t force their regular drivers to do all the tire testing. How can you put a junior test driver in a car to do just about the most important testing you do all year?

You are strictly limited on any test days to begin with and tires are the most critical component you have in terms of getting the car dialled in. You can simulate most of the engine and the chassis to a pretty accurate level these days but the tires is as much about feel as anything else and variables change all the time due to track surface and conditions.  What else could the regular drivers possibly have to do that’s so important that they can’t attend those less than 10 days total of testing?

There’s no doubt in my mind that whatever input Vettel gave Pirelli is directly translated into the tires on the Ferraris. Of course they’ll suit the Ferrari better because he’s the one who gave them input! How can you expect a 17-18 year old F3 driver to figure out what’s going on with a tire. It’s mind boggling and inexcusable in my opinion.

JT – As you mention, another element of Ferrari’s improvement in 2017 may be the return of Rory Byrne to the team last year and his input on the design of this season’s car.

SJ – Rory is one of the top designers ever in F1 history and he’s never received enough credit for what he’s done. He was responsible for every Ferrari Michael Schumacher won with. He designed the winning Benetton’s before that. Rory is a genius. I think his influence is a significant part of why Ferrari is doing so well again.

JT – With the injury to Sebastian Bourdais at Indy, Ganassi Racing has tabbed Tony Kanaan to replace him in the No. 68 Ford GT for the Le Mans 24 Hours. Given Kanaan’s experience and the fact that he raced the GT at Daytona earlier this year, he should have no problem being up to speed at Le Mans even though he hasn’t raced there before, correct?

SJ – He’ll be fine. I don’t think his preparation will be any problem with simulator time and by the time you get into the race you do a few double stint and that gets the rhythm going. Looking at the testing times from last weekend at Le Mans it looks like the Ford’s might have a battle on their hands for this year. The BoP (Balance of Performance) changes seems to have slowed them down significantly. I just wish there could be a different way to balance the cars than this BoP that will always benefit or slow down one car more than the others.

JT – The laptimes during the testing were the fastest we’ve ever seen around Le Mans until now, in all categories from LMP1 and especially the LMP2 cars who were almost 10 seconds faster than previous years.

SJ – Yes, the LMP2 cars in particular are now extremely fast, what was interesting is that they were actually faster than the LMP1 in straight line speed too. I’ve said it for some time now, it would be so much better if LMP2 became the main category and they just scrapped the LMP1, with only 2 teams competing for overall victory it’s become a bit flat. The ACO always seemed to want the fastest cars to be in the 3.30 min range, they seem to think that’s a safe zone somehow. I’m repeating myself again, but I don’t think it would be that hard to make even the GT cars do a high 3.30 if they took the restrictors off and gave them a little wider tires and some more aero. Get rid of the BoP and let every manufacturer make a car that is within the rules and that fits whatever they need to do win but without the BoP. In other words, may the best man win, period. We would see some incredibly cool looking cars, like the Ford GT, that would be offered to their respective road customer to fill the production to meet the homologation standards. I bet you every car from every manufacturer would be sold out before they start production, just as the Ford is.

JT – We also had the double header Indycar race in Detroit this last weekend. Graham Rahal scored a double win and is the first driver this year to win more than one race. Scott finished a gritty second in the first race and despite a fuel rig issue in the second race finished a good 6th. What do you make of the weekend?

SJ – I think it was a great weekend with some good hard and very competitive racing again. Graham was clearly hooked up the moment they rolled the car of the truck, quickest in nearly every session and walked away with both races. I think every driver dream of those days when your car is just perfect. He didn’t put a foot wrong all weekend and drove with a lot of confidence. Scott did an amazing job in the circumstances, to have a fractured foot and clearly in a lot of pain there is probably no worse track than Detroit to do a double header race. In the second race, had it not been for the fuel rig problem on his first pitstop it’s safe to assume he would have been 2nd in that race too as he was in front of Newgarden who was on the same strategy and eventually finished 2nd.

There are so many good teams and drivers in Indycar now, that it’s impossible to predict the outcome in any of these races before the weekend starts. Apart from Graham’s double win, there’s been 7 different winners so far, and Scott who is leading the Championship has yet to win a race.  I think that says it all as to how competitive this series is. I’ve said it many times before, but there is no other championship in the world that is close to the racing that Indycar produces. If they could only find a way to market this it would be huge.

Getting ready for Indy 500 and the F1 Grand Prix of Monaco

Eric Graciano

- #SJblog 85 -

JT – In recent IndyCar events, Simon Pagenaud dominated at Phoenix, taking his first win on an oval. Really, Penske as a whole was strong as were the Chevrolet cars in general. Seven of the top ten finishers were in Chevys. Scott Dixon must have been fairly pleased to be the best of the Hondas with his 5th place finish.

More recently Scott finished 2nd in the Indianapolis Grand Prix, the prelude to the Indy 500. He was the best of the Honda finishers, bested only by Chevy-powered winner Will Power.

But the big news as we count the days until the Indy 500 is that Scott put in four fantastic laps at the Speedway to win his third Indy pole at 232.565 mph!

SJ – Getting the pole at Indy again is great obviously, and it was a mighty run from Scott for sure. Indy qualifying is not easy under any circumstance. But to go out cold without even one lap in practice all day – he went straight from qualifying on Saturday to qualifying on Sunday – in a car that you have no idea about in terms of how it will perform, that’s impressive. Everybody is trying to trim their cars to the absolute limit and I think Scott and his engineer Chris Simmons went all out this time. Scott said he had a small breather in turn 2 every lap just keep the front tight and he was still doing 232 laps so the car must have been extremely light on downforce. Typically, if you have to lift anywhere on the four lap run the time won’t hold up.

JT – Last weekend’s action at the Speedway proved again that nowhere else is qualifying for a race more dramatic than at Indianapolis.

SJ – Indy is fantastic, the whole format, the build up and the process, everything is just magic. It’s so exciting both for the fans and the competitors. There’s nothing that comes close to it really. It’s a very special place. It’s a pity there’s not enough cars for bumping as there used to be, that was almost more exciting than the fight for pole many times. But the format is great, and the crowd was fantastic this year, you could even hear the roar on the TV when the guys were posting the big laps. Great stuff!

With Alonso being there this year as well, I think a lot more people that normally would not tune in are going to realize again how incredibly exciting it is and how great IndyCar racing and the Indy 500, in particular, are. It’s an outstanding event and qualifying is really an event in itself, apart from the race.

Alonso also mentioned that he wants to be a “complete driver” which I think is fantastic coming from him. I think his involvement this year could start a trend. I’m sure he’s loved every minute of this experience so far.

Attendance for the race this year could well be the biggest yet. It will for sure be the biggest crowd Alonso has ever raced in front of. It’s the biggest crowd anyone ever races in front of period. The whole experience is totally exceptional.

I remember the first time I raced there, walking out onto the grid for the first time after having been there all month and it’s amazing. Qualifying has a pretty good crowd but when you walk out onto the grid on Sunday morning before the start you suddenly see this mountain of people in front of you. I get goosebumps just thinking about it. It’s an incredible experience.

JT – Does the massive crowd distract you during the race, as opposed to practice when the seats are basically empty?

SJ – It’s different. You get in the car on race day and there are all these people and you find that the track has suddenly shrunk. Your view peripherally is completely different. The track feels like it’s half the size compared to what it was when the stands were empty. It’s kind of bizarre and it takes a few laps to get used to. You just have to readjust. You have visual reference points and you just have to adjust them a bit.

If you’re running in the middle of the pack during the race - or in the last 500 I raced in where I started from the back row because I qualified on Bump Day and I bumped the Penske’s out of the race – when you’re behind all these other cars, and because they’re running on ethanol you literally can’t see anything the first three laps. Your eyes are watering so much, just dripping from the exhaust fumes. They’re so strong and the smell is just insane.

Then there’s the turbulence. The whole car is just dancing around all over the track. You’re basically hanging on for dear life before the field gets strung out a bit. And back then, going into Turn 1, you couldn’t even hold your head straight. We didn’t have the head rests they have now and your helmet was bouncing around all over the place which also prevented you from seeing a damn thing.

JT – Four of the five Andretti cars made the top nine with the fifth in the 10th starting position. Scott’s on pole with Tony Kanaan 7th for Ganassi. Only one of Team Penske’s drivers made it into the top nine, Will Power. This is a bit puzzling given Penske’s typical performance at the Speedway.

SJ – Yes, this is highly unlike Penske. They go for it big time in qualifying normally. I don’t know if they’re struggling to find speed or what their issues were. We’ll find out on Sunday. Qualifying is a different deal though, just because you can’t find the ultimate speed in Qualifying, that doesn’t mean you won’t have a quick race car. The other thing is that at Indy more than any other track the cars are very sensitive to any changes in track conditions. If the wind direction or speed changes or the temperature goes up it can very quickly go from a perfect car to one that is nearly undriveable in a matter of a few laps. This is why you often see someone that starts upfront going backwards very quickly. Every team is spending as much time as they can running in every possible condition during practice to gather as much data as possible for race day.

JT – Getting back to the Indianapolis Grand Prix and the race at Phoenix, what did you make of those two?

SJ – I think Scott did extremely well to finish in 2nd in the Indy Grand Prix. I think the differences in the Honda and Chevy aero kits definitely gave the Chevys an advantage drag-wise in both those races, but then Honda clearly have an advantage at the Speedway so one outweighs the other I guess.

Whatever the intent was when IndyCar set out to have manufacturer-specific aero kits, I think it’s really kind of backfired. For the Indianapolis Grand Prix, Chevy had the edge. For the 500, it’s obvious that Honda has an advantage. Then again, the Chevys have a big advantage at Phoenix and other short ovals.

So the performance is not really equal for one or the other manufacturer depending on where you go. Chevy and Honda had to submit a finalized aero kit at a certain date in the past and that’s it. They’re both stuck with what they have. That’s not really a proper way to determine a championship or even the outcome of an individual race. So whatever IndyCar’s intent was, it hasn’t worked out to be what they envisioned.

I think you have the manufacturers do the engines and you have a spec car or you free up the rules and let the designers and teams do what they want to do. It’s so hard to regulate these things fairly, which is what will happen from 2018 onwards, and how it was before this latest aero experiment with different body kits for each manufacturer.

It’s the same with all these BoP (Balance of Performance) formulas and with driver ratings we have to deal with in Sportscar Racing. Trying to regulate these things rarely works out well. I still firmly believe that it should be an open competition and may the best man win.

We kind of knew Phoenix would be a problem for the Hondas since before the season started. I think Scott’s happy with his finish – you know, best in class and good points for the season (Dixon is now 2nd in points behind Pagenaud) – there’s not much more he could have hoped for there.

JT – The Spanish Grand Prix at Barcelona was the most recent F1 contest. Again, it wasn’t the most scintillating race. In summation, it seemed that Sebastian Vettel won the race at the start going into the first corner and then Ferrari’s pit strategy lost the race, allowing winner Lewis Hamilton to gain massively on Vettel. Further aid came when Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas held Vettel up behind him.

When Stoffel Vandoorne collided with Felipe Massa in Turn 1 on the 34th lap, a Virtual Safety Car period ensued. Mercedes pitted Hamilton for soft tires but Ferrari left Vettel out. That seemed to be a tactical mistake. Do you agree?

SJ – Yes, I would agree with you. It boggles my mind why Ferrari didn’t stop when there was a VSC. That’s race strategy-101. If you have a virtual safety period and you’re in a pit stop window, you have to stop.

I am not 100% clear if the pits were closed during the safety car period or not, in which case maybe Vettel passed the pits as the track went green and Hamilton being 8 seconds behind was able to duck in just as Vettel passed the green flag.

It’s fantastic that the championship is so close and we now have two teams fighting for the title. And it’s great that Ferrari is one of them. Kimi had bad luck at the beginning, getting taken out on the first lap when he was nudged by Bottas into Verstappen. I think Verstappen’s move trying to go three wide on the outside was a pretty low percentage move. The chances of pulling that off were pretty small but I can also understand him trying as that would be his only chance of passing the guys in front as it’s virtually impossible to pass anywhere on that track under normal racing conditions.

JT – The Russian Grand Prix had a somewhat surprising result. Mercedes GP’s Valtteri Bottas won with Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen finishing 2nd and 3rd. Lewis Hamilton finished off the podium, having struggled all weekend. Bottas had a terrific start from third position on the grid, passing both Vettel and Raikkonen to take the lead into the first corners.

He led the rest of the way and drove well. His only test came from Vettel who closed on him in the final laps. But Vettel was never close enough to challenge Bottas. Otherwise, there was almost no overtaking in this processional race. What did you make of it?

SJ – The race was more or less what we’re used to seeing but I thought Bottas did a terrific job. He had a great start and was under a fair bit of pressure at the end and stayed cool and calm to win his first GP.

There wasn’t any passing but it’s the same thing we’ve been talking about for a long time now. More downforce never makes racing better and unless there are some sort of freak circumstances this won’t change until they either change the philosophy on the car designs or re design the tracks to make them more challenging so that drivers will occasionally make a mistake or simply make it possible for a more skilled driver to take a corner faster and by doing so being able to pass.

JT – Ferrari locked out the front row after qualifying in Russia and now seems able to match or exceed Mercedes’ pace over a lap depending on conditions. It’s a marked improvement for them.

SJ – I really think one of the key ingredients there is what I’ve said for months now. Vettel made the effort to be an integral part of Pirelli’s tire testing and development program for 2017. None of the other top guys made that commitment. The other teams can say what they want about the testing being done with an old and different car but it doesn’t matter. It’s the feel of the tire that matters as much as the grip for most drivers.

If you can influence that feel from the tire to get it to where you’re comfortable with it, that makes an enormous difference. The tires are the one area where you can gain or lose a massive amount of performance. Vettel has helped Ferrari get the car dialed in with the tires. And that’s where Mercedes and maybe even more Red Bull is struggling at the moment. They didn’t test the new tires with their regular guys as much and that’s in my opinion why they’re now struggling to make the car work.

JT – In other F1 news, Force India continues to impress, holding fourth in the championship behind the big three teams with double the points of Williams F1, their closest mid-pack rival. Meanwhile, Haas Ferrari has been struggling, suffering brake problems and a car which alternately suits one driver or the other but not both.

At the absolute bottom of the grid are McLaren Honda and Sauber Ferrari. Neither team has scored a point yet and McLaren has had only one finish over the opening four rounds of the championship. Ironically, the two are now linked with the recent announcement that Sauber will use Honda engines in 2018. What are your thoughts about these developments?

SJ – Force India has been quite impressive. They’re definitely punching above their weight so far, similar to how they performed last year. Haas keeps having brake problems. It’s a bit mysterious but on the other hand the braking systems today are so complicated it’s not too hard to imagine.
Sauber switching to Honda is interesting. I guess it’s a financial matter as much as anything. I personally think Honda will eventually get their engines right. It’s just a matter of when and how. If the engine formula remains essentially the same and they have enough time, there’s no doubt they’ll fix their problems and become a factor again.

And at this point it’s far better for McLaren to have another team running Honda engines to share the development load. Plus, Sauber isn’t exactly going to be a threat to McLaren. McLaren’s agreement with Honda did prevent Honda from supplying other teams and that hasn’t been helpful but I guess you could say that no one expected Honda to be as far off as they have been either.

JT –Up next for F1 is the Monaco GP. In contrast to Indy where both qualifying and the race are important, qualifying is perhaps more important than the actual race at Monaco.

SJ – Qualifying is definitely the thing that really matters at Monaco. Unless there are freak circumstances during the race with rain or something like that and there are strategy calls they can’t plan for comes into play, not too much changes after qualifying positions are established.
Otherwise, we’ll see the usual procession we are used to. The race is pretty much over after the first corner all things being equal. Even with the Formula E race there a couple weeks ago which uses only half the track, it was virtually impossible to pass. There’s really only one line around the entire track. Even if you get a run on someone coming out of a corner there’s really nowhere to go. You follow one line which applies to the entire track. There just isn’t one single spot which is really an overtaking place.

F1 Chinese GP, Fernando Alonso gears up for Indy 500 & the Grand Prix of Long Beach

Eric Graciano

- #SJblog 84 -

JT – We haven’t had a chance to chat since before the 2017 Formula One season begin with the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne in late March. As always, the first race of the season offered opportunity for those willing seize it.

Ferrari did just that, showing pace on par with Mercedes and taking the initiative with pit strategy during the race. Sebastian Vettel got away from the grid well, just behind pole-sitter Lewis Hamilton. He then trailed Hamilton closely, forcing the Mercedes driver to use his tires hard. Hamilton pitted on lap 17 but Vettel remained on track until Lap 22.

Hamilton emerged from the pits behind Max Verstappen and was unable to pass the Red Bull Racing driver despite being on newer tires. The delay allowed Vettel to build a gap which saw him emerge from the pits well clear of Hamilton and he remained in front until the checkered flag.

The result was a widely applauded surprise and a hopeful sign for the championship. Ferrari has certainly closed most of the performance gap to Mercedes. However, on-track passing was at a premium throughout the field. Very few passes were made even during the opening laps. What did you think of the Australian Grand Prix?

SJ – Ferrari has certainly improved significantly over the winter and they proved it. Mercedes didn’t get their strategy quite right and they paid for it.

More than that, Ferrari’s pace doesn’t seem to be a flash in the pan. They were quick in pre-season testing and they backed up the promise from the tests by being right on the pace when they arrived in Melbourne. If anything, it looks like their tire management may be the best in the field at the moment, at least with Vettel.

That goes back to a conversation we had in the blog last year. At the time I said I’d bet that Ferrari would gain an advantage from Vettel’s willingness to be an integral part of all the tire testing Pirelli did in preparation for the new tire rule for 2017. He was the only driver to put aside the time to do that. I said at the time that I guarantee this would pay dividends for him going into 2017 and it certainly looks like it has.

I can’t understand why no other driver was willing to do that. If there’s one simple way to gain an advantage, it’s in understanding the tires and even better if you can have an influence on how they are built. That was one of the main reasons why Michael Schumacher was so successful. He spent every day he could pounding around Fiorano when Ferrari was using Bridgestone and they came out with a tire absolutely tailor-made for his driving style. Hardly anyone else could make the tire work but it suited him perfectly.

Every tire company always develop a kind of philosophy on how they build their tires for a certain type of car or series and if you can have an influence on that philosophy – if you can affect and learn the nuances of the construction they use – it makes a huge difference. You gain just that little bit more confidence in being able attack a fraction harder on corner entry. That affects the performance through the whole corner, the way you set the car up and everything. It might be minuscule gains but that can be all the difference you need to win.

Good for Vettel and shame on everybody else for not committing to that testing.

JT – Mercedes and Ferrari were again the main story at last weekend’s Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai. This time Mercedes gained the upper hand with Lewis Hamilton dominating the weekend, earning pole position and leading from the start without ever being challenged. Meanwhile Sebastian Vettel had to fight his way to a second place finish. The race began on a damp track with nearly all of the field on wet weather tires. Vettel gambled, pitting for slicks on Lap 2 during a virtual safety car period. Leaders Hamilton, Valterri Bottas, Daniel Ricciardo, Kimi Raikkonen and Max Verstappen remained on track. They reaped a reward on Lap 5 when Sauber’s Antonio Giovanazzi crashed exiting the final corner, bringing out a safety car.

The leaders then pitted and emerged in front of Vettel. Mired in sixth place Vettel worked for several laps to pass Ferrari teammate Kimi Raikkonen. Then he tracked down and passed Ricciardo, going outside the Red Bull Racing driver in Turn 6. Verstappen fell to Vettel’s charge on lap 28 after locking up entering Turn 14.

Vettel’s climb back to second provided some drama as did the performance of the Red Bulls on supersoft Pirellis early on. There was more passing at Shanghai - mostly on its long straights with DRS enabling some competitors to blow by those ahead. But the most interesting passing was pulled off in the corners. What did you think of the Chinese Grand Prix?

SJ – The race showed again that there isn’t much between Mercedes and Ferrari. So far the battle between the two is shaping up to be pretty good. Hopefully Raikkonen and Bottas will step it up and be able to challenge for wins too as we get further into the season.

No one really challenged Lewis at any point in China. There was more passing than we saw in Melbourne and it’s interesting because most of the really good passes were almost all two-lane overtakes. That’s something we touched on before the season began. I mentioned that one possibility resulting from the increased grip of the 2017 cars might be the capability to run more than one line through corners.

That seems to be what happened at Shanghai. In the double right-hander that follows the start/finish line there was passing on the outside and the same in Turn 6. The pass that Vettel made on Ricciardo was spectacular and good fun to watch.

But that can only happen at a track where you have extremely long corners, where you’re loading up the car for a long period of time. You’re not going to be able to do that in a traditional corner or a 90-degree corner. At the next race at Bahrain there just aren’t the type of corners that will encourage that kind of passing because one corner follows another pretty quickly. It’s unlikely.

JT – What do you think of the performance of Valterri Bottas and Kimi Raikkonen so far?

SJ – Bottas made a mistake in China, no question. But in fairness anyone can do that at some stage, they were tricky circumstances. He’s on the pace or very close it seems, the only difference is that Ferrari is much closer this year, hence the split on grid positions instead of the usual Mercedes 1-2. He certainly did a good job in Melbourne. I’m sure he’ll improve as the season goes on. I don’t think he’ll beat Lewis but I think he’ll be very close.

It’s harder to say how Kimi will do. It seems difficult for him to have everything come together at once in recent years. He’s quick and then when it really matters there’s always some little thing that trips him up, sometimes it’s just bad luck but it seems to happen to him more than it does with Vettel for sure. Time will tell.

JT – While Ferrari and Mercedes top the field, Red Bull Racing falls into a gap some distance behind them but well ahead of the rest of the teams. What do you make of their situation?

SJ – It’s a bit disappointing - for them at least. I think everyone expected more from Red Bull with the changes in the rules. They’ve obviously missed the mark somewhere. They clearly don’t have the speed or downforce to match the Ferrari or the Mercedes on a consistent basis at least. I don’t think the Renault engine is that far behind now but they seem to be lacking some performance in their overall package.

Ricciardo and Verstappen are very close in terms of speed and they’re pushing but the car’s just not there yet. However, with the crazy development curve in F1 I am sure they will eventually be on the same pace as the Mercedes and Ferrari. The Spanish GP seems to be the first race where all the big updates show up, so let’s see what happens after that.

JT – Meanwhile the best of the rest of the teams are anywhere from 1 to 1.5 seconds off the pace of Mercedes and Ferrari, and the gap expands quickly as you go further into the field. If you’re not racing with Mercedes, Ferrari or possibly Red Bull, you’re miles off the pace.

SJ – That was to be expected. Every time you have a significant rules change the teams without big resources are going to fall further back than they were before the changes took place.

The way F1 is today it’s very difficult to come up with a great and different idea. The development on these cars pretty much comes down to cubic dollars, the more you spend the faster you will go. Every now and then someone gets lucky and get it right straight out of the box, but in the big picture it will take the mid-fielders and the back-markers probably another year or two before they’re able to claw back some time to the front runners. Then the gap will be around a second between those teams and the leaders. This happens every time we have a major rule change.

JT – With rules stability costs should also fall a bit. This time around however one wonders whether the mid-field and back-marking teams can hang on financially until the situation stabilizes? There is work going on behind the scenes by the Liberty Media group to try to get teams to agree to reduce costs and spread F1 resources more equitably but will it actually happen?

SJ – There’s been a lot of talk for a while now about cost reduction and how the money will be distributed among the teams going forward. I don’t think anyone really know how to go about the cost reduction issue at the moment, mainly because there are so many opinions on how to do this and to a large degree it comes back to what I’ve been saying for some time now. If you try to accomplish this in a democratic way, there will never be a good solution, a well thought out plan has to come from the top down and if the teams want to play they will have to follow these rules. As it is currently the teams can’t even decide where to have their meetings let alone come forward with any meaningful proposal on how to accomplish any form of cost reduction.

The distribution of funds is another can of worms that could cause some serious problems going forward. I am sure the teams that are benefiting the most will not be willing to give up those benefits freely. This may end up being one of the biggest challenges for the new owners to untangle.

JT – McLaren continues to have a pretty disastrous start to their 2017 season, having failed to finish with either car at Australia or China. Honda’s underdeveloped power unit is the biggest issue for them and it’s costing Fernando Alonso as he languishes in another uncompetitive car for yet another year.

The upside is that there’s a silver lining for IndyCar and its fans. It was announced today that Alonso will skip the Monaco Grand Prix this year, choosing instead to drive one of Andretti Autosport’s Hondas in the 101st running of the Indy 500. This is big news for IndyCar and should be a massive boon for them.

SJ – Yes, this is the best thing that could happen to IndyCar in my opinion. It’s funny, you and I have been talking about this in the blog over the last couple years – that IndyCar really needed to try and get one of the top guys in Formula One to come over and we always mentioned Alonso as a perfect example.

This is really great news and I personally can’t wait to see him go around the Speedway, I’m very excited.

It’s worked out that he’s the driver most likely to want to do this because he’s in an uncompetitive car again. It’s marketing gold and a huge shot in the arm for IndyCar.

JT – That news must have been filtering through the paddock at the Grand Prix of Long Beach last weekend. It was another great event with some good racing, some foul luck for front-runners like Ryan Hunter Reay and Alexander Rossi, and another big dose of frustration for Scott Dixon.

On the other hand, James Hinchcliffe managed to pull off a win for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, one of the smaller teams in the series. He was followed home by Sebastian Bourdais in second place – the winner of the season-opener in St. Petersburg for Dale Coyne Racing - another of the series’ smallest outfits. Meanwhile Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden finished third.
Scott finished fourth and it was obvious that he could have topped the podium if the team’s strategy had been different. They switched to a three-stop pit strategy during the race.

SJ - Scott really should have won, again. He was far quicker than anyone else most of the weekend, just as he was at St. Petersburg. The team chose to go to a three-stop strategy because of the way they thought the yellow flag was going to fall early in the race. The yellow never came and it screwed his strategy completely.

But as frustrating as IndyCar can be with their closed-pit rule during cautions, the racing is still very exciting and I still claim it’s the best racing out there of any major Championship, certainly better than anything else in single seater racing. The first two races show that almost everyone in the series has a chance of winning and the gap between the top teams and the smaller ones is very tight. It was frustrating for Scott to be on the wrong end of the stick again but that stuff usually evens out over the season.

JT – You raced in the Grand Prix of Long Beach in CART from 1993-1996. What are your memories of racing there?

SJ – I always enjoyed racing at Long Beach. The first race I did there, I think I qualified on the second row. But it didn’t turn out to be a particularly fond memory in the race because Mario Andretti put me into the wall at the hairpin before I even got to the start-finish line!

They waved the green flag, we hit each other coming out of the hairpin and it was over before I even got to the flag!

But Long Beach is a great event and it seems to get bigger each year, the crowd is great and the atmosphere is terrific.

JT – Scuderia Corsa has a good finish in Saturday’s IMSA Sports Car Grand Prix at Long Beach. Christina Nielsen and Alessandro Balzan drove their Ferrari 488 GT3 to third place.

SJ – Everybody did a great job. Christina did a great job starting the race and had a good stint. Balzan was very spectacular in his stint and showed some really good race craft. He passed a lot of cars toward the end of the race. He was driving hard and it was a good finish. And the team did their usual brilliant job on the strategy, we gained something like 5 places with the pit strategy we used. We have one of the best teams out there on the scoring stand.

JT – In other news it appears that Felix Rosenqvist will make his debut at the 24 Hours of Le Mans this year with DragonSpeed Racing in their LMP2 Oreca 07 Gibson. He’ll share the car with Ben Hanley and Henrik Hedman.

SJ – Yes, he tested the car for the first time this week in England and he really liked it. It will be a great experience for him to do Le Mans also. It’s a track every driver should experience, along with the Indianapolis Speedway. They are both iconic race tracks and still as difficult and dangerous to master as they have ever been.