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#SJblog (source page)

Reflections on the current state of Motorsports

Eric Graciano

#SJblog 89

JT – After several weeks off, the blog is back. Given the number of interesting motorsports stories that have made news over the last month, we’re going to focus on the racing world/industry in general in this installment.

We begin with last week’s admission by Liberty Media that not a single current F1 team has opted to buy shares which the sport’s new owner set aside for them. Liberty made 19 million shares of common stock available over a six month period but there were no takers. That’s obviously not a positive development for Liberty Media and something of a “no confidence vote” by the teams. Do you agree?

SJ – I don’t know enough about the “ins and outs” of it to really gauge what’s going on but at face value it tells me that none of the teams have enough faith in the business if they’re not willing to buy into it, or maybe the deal just wasn’t attractive enough.

When Champ Car did this (1998 CART/Champcar goes public on NYSE) it was different because at the time the teams were given X-amount of shares when the series did its IPO. A few of the team owners were smart enough to cash out after a short period. They all did very well and the rest used the stock to help keep their teams alive and eventually ran out of money when the series started to decline.

JT – As the embarrassing lack of performance by Honda and McLaren continues, it was recently revealed that the deal struck by Sauber F1’s ex-team principal Monisha Kaltenborn to run Honda power units in 2018 was canceled. Apparently, Sauber’s team owners called off any Sauber-Honda link following Kaltenborn’s departure from the team.

The reversal leaves McLaren as the only Honda-powered team. That casts further uncertainty into McLaren’s future with the Japanese manufacturer and the paddock as a whole. It’s perhaps likely McLaren will continue with Honda but not certain. Meanwhile, Fernando Alonso has said Honda must show improvement this year and real potential for 2018 if he is to remain with McLaren.

SJ – Again, it’s difficult to comment without knowing more details. You can be sure there’s more than meets the eye to this whole situation. It seems odd to me that an announcement was made by Sauber or Honda or jointly – it’s hard to say who announced it – but with that possibility now gone, it’s hard to know what to make of this. The dominoes will have to fall at some point for the teams and drivers.

But it looks difficult for anyone at the top end of the driver market to move much in the current situation. If Alonso were to leave McLaren, where would he go? I doubt neither Mercedes or Ferrari have a seat open for him, Red Bull is already full. In my opinion it would be better to stay patient one more year with McLaren as I still believe they will eventually get it right rather than go with any of the options that are left of which only Renault would make any sense. If McLaren were to ditch Honda and go with a different engine I think Hungary already showed that they will be a serious contender almost right away. Both Red Bull drivers are probably frustrated with their results and the reliability from their car, but they are both under contract, and again, where would they go. There are only two obvious teams for anyone who wants to move and the chances a seat will open in either of them are very small in my opinion.

JT – Mercedes would seem to be pretty set with their drivers currently. Valtteri Bottas may be on a one year contract but he’s done pretty darn well this year, winning in Russia and Austria and finishing on the podium regularly.

SJ – Yes, I don’t see any reason why they would want to change. I think Bottas has done a phenomenal job. He’s certainly keeping Lewis on his toes and there seems to be good harmony in the team. The love fest is still going on between the team and the drivers, which Lewis showed by doing the honorable thing in Hungary last weekend in letting Bottas by in the last corner which was agreed at some point in the middle of the race. I can’t for a moment think he would have done the same for Rosberg. That’s 3 points left on the table which could very well mean win or loose the championship at the end of the season.

JT – At the halfway point of the 2017 season, the Drivers championship battle between Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton has tightened with just a single point separating the pair. Ferrari and Mercedes are likewise locked in battle for the Manufacturers championship. What do you make of the contest?

SJ – As usual, the media is saying Ferrari is “finished” after one bad race. There’s a “crisis” and on and on. They’ve had one bad race (Silverstone) effectively. I don’t think the championship fight is over by any means which Ferrari also showed by totally dominating the Hungarian GP from qualifying to the race.

I’ve been saying since the first race of the season that thanks to Vettel doing extensive testing of Pirelli’s new tires for this year, Ferrari clearly had an early advantage. The team knew more about the tires than anyone else. It’s hard to believe they would not have learned things that others wouldn’t by being the only team with a regular driver doing all of the running.

Now that we’re halfway through the season it looks like Mercedes has caught up and understand their car and the tires much better than they did at the beginning of the season. But that doesn’t mean the battle is over by any means. I suspect it will go down to the wire.

JT – A related subject in the overall picture of Formula One and other series now across racing is the unprecedented number of drivers who are effectively paying to race at the professional level. In June, Mercedes boss Toto Wolff said the following regarding Valtteri Bottas.

“Today the revenue model for some of the teams, for most of the teams, is also actually to generate income,” he said. “Even if we look at a Red Bull or a Mercedes, I would rather have a driver with some sponsorship than not. Even Valtteri for example, part of his value proposition for this year was that he came with a sponsor and clearly we would rather have the money than not.”

If one of the two drivers in what has been F1’s top team in recent years is bringing money with him to the team, what does that say about F1 and professional racing in general?

SJ – I’m not sure the money Bottas brought was tied to him getting the drive. I think it’s more that he just happened to have a sponsor who wanted to be involved and that’s obviously a bonus for the team no matter how you look at it.

But yes, things have changed in general. Outside of Formula One, even the drivers who are getting paid, the money they’re getting is almost equivalent to what drivers were getting paid in the 1980s with the exception of the guys up at the very top end in F1, who get paid ridiculous amounts. So the contrast between the very few guys at the top and the back end where so many drivers now have to bring financial backing of some sort is huge.

The fundamental problem in general for pretty much every level of racing is that technology has taken over. Everything is driven by technology. Every racing series is driven by the engineering side instead of the drivers and the sporting side. The cars are far too expensive to run. All of the electronics, all of the aerodynamic development, all of the extra stuff which has become part of the cars today makes them massively more expensive to operate. Then we have all the various methods of simulation which effectively have replaced on track testing, this again is driving up the costs as all this equipment is constantly evolving, and anything involving R&D is never cheap.
Not only are they more expensive as a whole, components are more expensive and the cars require three to four times the amount of people to run compared to what they used to. In the end, there’s nothing left over due to the costs. The money’s got to come from somewhere. Teams are operating more and more in survival mode, and as such they have to rely more and more on drivers bringing money.

There’s no real sponsorship in F1 anymore, not at the level it used to be at least, nowhere close. The dynamic has shifted for a number of reasons, one of them being the introduction of pay TV which means there are significantly fewer eyeballs than there used to be. On the flip side the series is making more money because of the pay per view but the overall number of viewers is obviously a lot less.

Sponsors obviously look at eyeballs as one of the main gauges for engagement. If the number of people watching is small, the rate card (for advertising) goes down of course. Hence the constant arguing now about what the distribution of money from F1 is for each team because that is now the main source of income for many of the teams. This never used to be mentioned before, as each team had a reasonable level of sponsorship and the F1 money was almost like the icing on the cake. In addition we have all the social media and other disruptive technologies pulling people in all sorts of directions and there is no longer a fixed medium to get your information or entertainment from.

I don’t envy Liberty trying to find the right way forward, I don’t think there’s anyone today that has the complete vision to see where this is heading and what the end result will be.  There is no doubt a number of very competent people capable to put their foot down and say, “Stop. Let’s rethink the whole thing.” But what is the answer? There are so many moving parts to every aspect of this, every person you speak to have their own view of how to go forward, each manufacturer have their ideas ( biased to suit their own agenda of course), the teams have their views (even more biased), The FIA another one, and on and on it goes. No wonder the Strategy Group can barely agree on where to have their next meeting let alone agree on anything constructive.

JT – As we’ve discussed previously, another contributor to the muddle racing is in is a strange kind of political correctness.

SJ – Yes I agree, now it’s permeating racing just as it is in every other aspect of life it seems.
I think we’re at the point where we can’t defend this whole argument that racing has to lead the technology for the road car industry. In fact, right now it’s the exact opposite. The road car industry is actually far more advanced today in many ways than the racing industry, especially in the electronics/powertrain side.

Race cars are made to go fast as they always have been. Nowadays the main emphasis seems to be that road cars are supposed to save the planet, whether that’s valid or not but that’s the argument. Racing and road cars ought to be heading in two completely separate directions, if there is anything to be learned from Racing that could benefit the road car industry, great, but I don’t think the focus should be on that.

Hybrid technology isn’t particularly good for a race car. And the race cars and series using it aren’t inventing anything, they are in fact forced to use it by the rules. So even if a team wanted to develop a different concept or technology they wouldn’t be able to. They’re basically borrowing the technology from the road car industry to apply to a race car.

The whole concept with this technology – the philosophy of what race cars are meant to be now - is going completely in the wrong direction in my opinion. This insanely complicated and expensive hybrid technology really doesn’t benefit anyone in racing. The development of the technology for road cars is already as advanced if not more than what we see in the F1 or LMP1 cars. So there’s really no gain. Then you can look at the whole aerodynamic thing on top of it – useless for a road car.

Part of the problem is the PR the manufacturers produce. Their PR departments have an agenda and of course there’s the political side and that’s another agenda. There are all of these marketing efforts and the racing is just the tiny little bit at the bottom of it. Everything has to conform to all of the non-racing agendas.

From a PR point of view it may be great to talk about these amazing power unit that produce virtually zero emissions, the carbon footprint is almost nothing and so on. But all it is, at the end of the day is just that, a PR exercise. I asked someone just for fun to walk over to the parking lot at the British GP where the teams park all their transporters, there were 350 Diesel trucks there to service the 20 cars that were racing on Sunday afternoon. The top teams are using 9 trucks just to carry the Hospitality units and the equipment, which these days are essentially there to feed the journalists and team members as virtually no one else have access to the paddock area. I know this may be an irrelevant argument, but nevertheless it’s a sign of the general hypocrisy surrounding this subject.

The money being spent is crazy and that’s not sustainable. The ACO/WEC still seem insistent on having P1 and having some sort of hybrid formula for privateers. That makes even less sense than having the manufacturers do it. Why should a privateer want to run a hybrid car? There’s zero benefit to it unless it’s an open formula where that is one option of many others. But as it is, the rules are very strict and that is basically the only option which means that everyone will spend a lot of money for nothing as they will all run the same spec engine in the end.

On top of it, I was talking to a couple of the drivers in the P1 factory teams and they hate the cars. They’re just an engineering exercise. You have to memorize all of the hybrid system stuff instead of just driving the car fast and hard. You’re like an airline pilot on a passenger jet. You’re just constantly going through checklists.

In Formula One, the top teams employ 250 designers and engineers to design a car, this does not include the engine, there’s a massive amount of complexity, and costs obviously. There’s no real innovation in F1 at any level anymore, they’re not allowed to innovate anymore because the rules are so strict. So it’s just an endless refinement of what already exists, with all the teams, designers and engineers pigeon-holed into a tiny little box in which they can work.

It’s about optimizing every half-percent you can rather than coming up with something really new that while not completely developed, still gives you an advantage. That’s how the pioneering days of F1 used to be. We had Colin Chapman advancing winged F1 cars, six-wheelers (from Tyrell) and other new things and ideas tried.

Obviously, it’s harder to find really new ideas as the technology is far more advanced today but racing should always have a measure of that. And it shouldn’t have to get to the point where it is now when a top F1 team employs over 2,000 people in total.

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In a few more years, we’ll have some form of self-driving cars and where does that leave racing? Again that’s where road car technology and racing should go in totally different directions. The essence of racing should always be cars that are fast and spectacular to watch, driven by these exceptionally talented young guys that are putting it on the line.

I’m sure if you let all the clever engineers loose and give them some more freedom there will be a number of new and fresh ideas instead of them working within the narrow box they’re forced to work in now, just optimizing technologies that are already here. The entertainment side of racing comes more naturally when you make cars fast and challenging to drive, that everyone can immediately appreciate rather than having to explain what the technology is all about and a bunch of artificial rules to make the racing more exciting, like DRS and some guy in a blue FIA shirt sitting in a control tower watching a TV monitor determining when a driver has gone too far outside the track limit instead of the driver simply being out of the race because he either pushed to hard or screwed up somehow and simply went off.

Anyone, even a layman with no knowledge of racing, can appreciate the effort and skill of a driver wrestling a car to make it perform as well as possible at the limit. But a car that does almost everything for a driver, that’s stuck to the road on a track with so much run off area that is virtually impossible to hit anything if you try too hard and go off, that any driver with a small amount of skill can jump in and get within half a second of a three-times world champion - that doesn’t excite people. It doesn’t have the same appeal.

It’s now also been confirmed that the Halo head protection will be mandated. It was an inevitable decision in my opinion, once the knowledge is there and it’s for safety there’s no turning back. It’s a knee jerk reaction to something that should have never happened in the first place if any level of common sense had been applied at Suzuka when Jules Bianchi had his accident. But it happened, it was a freak accident and will in most likelihood never ever happen again, halo or no halo.

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The reality is that the only fatal accidents in F1 since the early 1980’s have all been a freak accident of some sort, as such it’s impossible to predict what will happen next time. In general terms though, I could probably mention at least 10 sports, maybe even more that are far more dangerous and have more serious injuries and fatalities per participant than motor racing and F1 in particular today. The general perception that racing drivers are these dare devils risking their lives every time they step in a car is more or less just a myth today, there is zero bravery or bravado involved in being a fast driver today and I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s made that observation. Fans are not stupid, they want to see their favorites wrestling their machines on the ragged edge, that’s what motor racing has and should always be about. Like all sports, it’s the heroes that make the fans come and watch, not the boffin in the back of the garage, or in the case of football or any other sport, the coordination trainer in the back of the changing room.
Ironically, the only level of motor racing where the danger is still a concern that’s on the back of anyone’s mind is probably Indycar, and the drivers there probably get less credit for what they do than pretty much any other series out there. When you watch the pack racing at some of the ovals it really makes you appreciate what these guys do.

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This is a very touchy subject of course, but I am convinced that every single driver worth his salt would still be out there if the tracks where more punishing if you made a mistake, the cars were far more difficult to drive, with much higher top speeds and less grip.

All drivers in the past, even those that complained the most about the safety, still kept racing and lost friends almost every weekend, for virtually no money. Today, we have a situation where other people are deciding what is safe for us. So instead we now have drivers racing cars that are ridiculously easy to drive in comparison, almost totally safe and make $40M a year. This is of no fault of the drivers but merely a reflection of society in general today.

JT – That kind of challenge – the kind which makes racing appealing broadly could return. As we’ve discussed many times, aerodynamics have had a very corrosive effect on racing. But the possibility exists that technology applied to other aspects of vehicle performance could restore the spectacle, correct?

SJ – Yes, it will take a while but I’m convinced that with a shift of development focused on better tire and power plant technology in particular, better suspension technology and better materials - all these factors – you could gain back amazing performance. The performance lost by eliminating a large portion of the aerodynamics could be found through these other areas to produce cars capable of amazing speeds and lap times. If they are worried about the lap times being much slower by taking away a good portion of the downforce, don’t forget that every modern F1 track today is built the way they are simply to slow the cars down, hence we have a bunch of Go Kart tracks on big parking lot tracks with 1st and 2nd gear corners and chicanes with only the odd high speed section that are still not very challenging for a modern F1 car. We could easily solve that problem by going back to a layout with more high speed and flowing corners, where a combination of great car control and big balls will determine the lap time. If your cornering speed is maybe 2/3 of what it currently is, but the driver has 1200-1300HP that he’s balancing on the edge in a 4th or 5th gear corner anyone can certainly appreciate that.

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They would be spectacular to watch and they would weed out the really good drivers from those who don’t have the same level of talent. You might see the rise again of all the really fast guys who disappear these days before they even get to F2 in many cases. Any average driver can be quick today in an aero car.

This is a complex subject of course and everyone has their own views on how it should be done. There’s no strict formula but that’s where I think we should head. I don’t want to sound like some old nostalgic yearning for the “good old days” because that’s not the case at all, but I really believe it’s time for a complete recalibration on nearly every level of motor racing, certainly in single seaters and prototype cars. Aerodynamics was a great idea when it was first invented, but I think everyone except maybe the engineers agree that it’s ruining the racing at every level, at an astronomical cost to everyone involved. We need to be clever and come up with a better alternative.

JT – IndyCar and sports car racing have made news as well lately in both separate and related ways. IndyCar debuted their new universal aero kit to positive reviews from teams and drivers. Juan Pablo Montoya and Oriol Servia did the first test of the new oval kit at Indianapolis and were comfortable going fast almost immediately.

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On the sports car side, the long awaited announcement was made that Team Penske would field Acura-powered DPis in IMSA. Another announcement which came as something of a surprise was made when Mazda revealed that it would end its relationship with Speed Source and withdraw from IMSA competition for the remainder of the 2017 season. In 2018, famed sports car team Joest will become the Mazda factory team.

The announcements add some momentum on the American sports car side for the DPi prototype formula and show the way for coming years in IndyCar.

SJ – Estethically the new car certainly looks a lot better than the previous ones, it would have been nearly impossible to design one that could look any worse though. I guess this also fixes the disparity between the Chevy and Honda aero but what a pointless exercise the manufacturer aero kits were.

As we’ve discussed before, the total cost of this very bad experiment must have been somewhere in the range of 30 million dollars cumulatively. Imagine if they had spent that money of marketing instead. They already had and still have a Championship with the best racing out there, but sadly it seems they are still incapable of getting the message out there to the general masses. IndyCar can fiddle with the cars till they’re blue in the face but it won’t matter if there’s only a relative handful of people watching. The die hard fans are always going to have a point of view and they’ll also turn up no matter what. Consider for a moment the reception of the new car design compared to the first test Alonso did for the Indy 500 this year, where more than 2,5 million were watching the live stream online. This should tell you everything, and if the penny hasn’t dropped that maybe it’s not new car designs we need, but instead a much bigger focus on the drivers, who are the heroes that people want to watch. The value of Fernando Alonso racing at Indy this year is probably the best marketing IndyCar has had for the last 20 years.

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The racing is still the best in the world as far as I’m concerned. The formula works as it is – in fact, it’s one of the few that works in all of auto racing. Stop tinkering with something that works and try to market it to the biggest audience you can. That would help teams attract more sponsors which would allow them to hire more high profile drivers. If I were Indycar I would do everything possible to lure Alonso over to the series for 2018. Look at what happened when Mansell moved from F1 to Indycar in the 90’s, in one year it catapulted the series and it was actually a minor threat to F1 until the split came which of course killed it immediately. If Alonso would come over to Indycar, he would soon be followed by other F1 guys who are equally frustrated by the current cars in F1 and the lack of real racing and real race tracks.

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With the sports car end of things, the DPi is a great concept which I think any manufacturer could embrace. With both Penske and Joest now joining it will give IMSA a huge boost without a doubt. It would be great if the ACO would accept it too, if they did you could have a global prototype formula that could be affordable enough for both manufacturers and privateers with privateers able to buy the same cars the factory teams used. It would be brilliant and you’d have a natural feeder system.

JT – Porsche confirmed what most expected at the end of last week when they formally announced that they would be leaving the World Endurance Championship at the end of the season. This obviously is a significant blow to the WEC and could spell the end of the LMP1 Hybrid category for now. The question hanging in the air is whether Toyota will return for 2018. It’s hard to see any incentive for their continuing.

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SJ – I can’t see the WEC surviving. If Toyota follows Porsche what is there? What they should do is a pan-American/European championship of some kind. They should create some kind of hybrid series that brings IMSA and the ELMS together, spanning both continents.

And get rid of the LMP1 and LMP2 categories. Simplify it and make it one category. You don’t need both. Teams that are serious will hire the best drivers they can and for drivers that will pay to drive there will always be a team that will take them. And this will be at a reasonably affordable level unlike the P1 Hybrid class.

Look at Le Mans this year. The race was almost won by an LMP2 car at almost exactly 100 times less than the budget of the P1 teams – 100 times less! That should tell you something. Sports car racing has to be much more reasonable in terms of the costs. Look at the LMP3 class.

They’re fantastic cars and you can run them for a full season for about $700-800,000. The grids are full. And if you unrestricted the engines or put different engines in them they could be 10 seconds per lap quicker than a GT car in no time. The cars could handle that easily. It’s do-able if they try.

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JT – The other racing force looming on the horizon is Formula E. Manufacturers from Audi, Renault and BMW to now Mercedes and Porsche are jumping into the series. This despite the fact that recent reports in a number of financial publications reveal that Formula has a total net loss of $110.5 million currently.

SJ – Formula E definitely has momentum. With the latest announcement from Mercedes and Porsche not only joining but also pulling out of the other major series they were competing in before this, following Audi’s decision to do the same earlier in the year, it definitely looks like the series is set to grow significantly in the next 3-5 years. I think the budgets will probably triple in the next three years, maybe even more. You know that the manufacturers are going to spend a fortune coming into the series. Once they’re committed to any series all bets are off and the technology will improve drastically in the next three to four years.

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The battery specifications are fixed which is kind of strange because that’s the only thing you can gain significant performance from. But there are some interesting developments in the drivetrains otherwise.

Obviously, there are a number of reasons why the racing format is the way it is now in Formula E but having been to a few races now, the racing is tight with plenty of action. The cars are relatively slow but there are some tough battles on track and because the tracks are small so it doesn’t look that slow. It’s possibly the only series in the world where not one driver is bringing any money to race, every driver on the grid gets paid and the level of the drivers is very high.

It is extraordinary how far the series has come in just a few years. Alejandro Agag and his team have done an amazing job so far to get it where it is today, and they have great momentum now. In a way, Formula E is everything that Formula 1 is trying to be right now, in terms of being with the times and doing the right thing for the environment etc. Maybe this is the opportunity F1 need, to leave Formula E, the Manufacturers and the FIA with the political agenda to save the planet and instead go back to basics with brutally fast, noisy and spectacular cars and tracks, not worrying so much about the political side of things. Wouldn’t that be something!

 

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.

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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.