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The Blog

The Last 5 Minutes of Qualification: Stefan Johansson Talks About 1995 Indy 500 Bump Day

Stefan Johansson

A Conversation with Patrick Karle

This week marks the 20th anniversary of Stefan Johansson’s 1995 Indianapolis 500 “Bump Day” run, which has to be remembered as undoubtedly one of the most interesting and exciting and perhaps, in retrospect, most bittersweet, moments in the history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Stefan Johansson, then a 38-year-old Swedish driver who made his mark in Formula 1, showed up in Gasoline Alley for looking for his third 500 start. With thick blond hair and boyish grin, he looked so much like an American cowboy that the reporters nicknamed him “Steven Johnson.” Although Stefan had participated in 103 Formula 1 Grands Prix 1980-1991, as the lone driver on Tony Bettenhausen’s Alumax Motorsports Team, few took him seriously; yet he would become the hero of that last great opera of speed.

Driving a one-year-old Reynard 94i/Ford XB V8t on Goodyear tires, Johansson bumped his way into the 31st position on the starting grid with a solid four-lap average of 225.547 m.p.h. only five minutes before the gun sounded the end of the qualifying period at 6 p.m.

Johansson’s run bumped two-time Indy 500 winner Emerson Fittipaldi from the field of 33 by a few tenths of a second, ending Team Penske’s chance to win a third Indianapolis 500 in a row.

Penske cars had won the 1993 and 1994 500s with Fittipaldi and Al Unser, Jr., respectively.  In fact, the Penske 23B, powered by the 209-cid Mercedes-Benz 500I purpose-built pushrod engine that author Jade Gurss nick-named “the Beast,” had so dominated the ’94 field that the United States Auto Club (USAC) had drastically reduced its horsepower advantage for ’95 and basically outlawed it for 1996.  Historians generally agree that without the Beast’s extreme horsepower, Unser and Fittipaldi struggled with Reynard and Lola chassis until the clock ran out.

Ironically, 1995 was the first time that Team Penske failed to field a car in the 500-mile race since 1969, and one of only 16 times in 78 years that the defending champion had failed to make the show.

I recently talked with driver Stefan Johansson and what it was like at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway that day--May 21--twenty years ago.

Patrick Karle: The rules for qualifying were far different from today. How did the qualifying process work?

Stefan Johansson: It was the car that qualified, not the driver, and each car got three attempts to qualify. No matter who was driving, it was the average of the four laps that got you into the race. The rule that only the 33 fastest cars made the show and the fact that there were more than 10 cars that weren’t fast enough to qualify made bump day like a wall that you had to climb over to make it into the field.

PK: And how did the rules affect the fan experience?

SJ: The fans loved it. When you figure we ran 18 days, the Indianapolis 500 was a month-long endurance race with something happening on the track almost every minute. Qualifying was a series of mad, four-lap dashes around the 2.5-mile track.

They packed the Speedway up to 200,000 strong even on Pole Day. When you walked out onto the line and looked up into the stands at all those people the rush was unbelievable.

PK: They came to see speed records set, and they weren’t disappointed. Arie Luyendyk set an unofficial one-lap record of 234.913 mph on the last day of practice. Scott Brayton grabbed the pole in a Menard with a run over 231, and a lot of drivers qualified with speeds over 227. But there were exceptions, right?

SJ: Yes, we soon found out that the Penske cars that year just didn’t work at all on the Speedway. There were only 3 of using the Penske chassis that year: Emerson, Al Jr and myself. Earlier in the year, Tony (Bettenhausen) bought two PC 24s, and there had been a joint tech committee between Alumax Racing and Team Penske. Between me and my engineer, Bernie Marcus, we always seemed to find a little more speed than the others, but it soon transpired that there was a basic design flaw with the chassis that affected the car more on the Speedway than seemed to be the case on the regular ovals and road courses earlier in the year. Both me and the Penske drivers used up all three attempts on each chassis the first weekend. The cars simply were not fast enough—no matter what we tried. So for the second weekend of qualifying Bettenhausen switched to a year-old Reynard, which in fact was Hiro Matsushita’s show car, but this meant we now had only one car and three chances to qualify. Penske did the same and found a Lola for Emerson and a Reynard for Al Jr.

PK: Qualifying took the full two weekends. The field wasn’t filled to 33 until Emmo made his second attempt, becoming 32nd fastest at 224.907. Minutes later Scott Sharp bumped the slowest car out, and, incredibly, Emerson Fittipaldi, two-time world driving champion and two-time Indy 500 winner, became the man on the bubble. How does this happen?

SJ: That’s racing and in this case it was culmination of everything that had transpired through the last two weeks.

PK: If the run for the pole required horsepower, bumping was more like a complicated tango of egos and equipment.

SJ: True. Bumping involved a lot of strategy and it was almost like a game of chess. You had to pick the right moment and make your move. On the first run, we were quick enough to make it comfortably and then the pop off valve blew off so we had to abort that run. We then had to wait until later in the day when the track cooled down a little before we tried our second attempt. While I was waiting in the tech line to make my second attempt, Bernie said to go out and try to turn four consistent 224s. I went out and took the green flag, but the car was too tight and draggy in the corners and instead we turned three laps slightly below 224, and Tony waved off the run with a yellow flag.

Next, Marco Greco turned two laps just a tick over 222 and waved off. Defending champion, Al Unser, Jr., went out and after turning a lap at 224.101, he was waved off. It was Al’s last attempt on the car, and he walked back to the garages with only 24 minutes to six p.m.

PK: Jeff Ward, Marco Greco and Davey Hamilton made attempts to be waved off one, two, three. Then it was your last chance. There were only 12 minutes remaining on the USAC official clock!

SJ: Rather than stopping in our regular pit after the previous run I drove the car straight to the tech line in the hope we would get one more run before the pistol went off for the day. Tony and the rest of the team had pretty much thrown in the towel at this point, but I spoke to him and told him “I know I can do it.” I then told Bernie to take out all the downforce, which was a big step, like 5-6 times more than you would ever do in one change, and let’s just go for it! Both Tony and Bernie said no. “We don’t want to have peel you off the wall, you don’t have to do it.” At this point I was in a different zone and was so sure I could pull it off that there was not a question or doubt in my mind. So they took out enough wing front and rear to free it up as much as was possible with the adjustments we had left, and we pushed it through tech inspection. When USAC Tech Inspector leaned into the cockpit for the 9th time that month to tell me the rules for the qualifying run, I interrupted him and said I know the drill, just let me go!

PK: I was there that afternoon and I will never forget the scene: The shadow of the grand stands hung over the track like a tunnel, yet the air was hot with more than 200,000 fans breathing and sweating.  Far down the line we heard the first rousing of Stefan’s engine, then we saw the #16’s blue nose cone, wings and spindles of the wheel assembly through the crowd standing on the pit lane, the engine stuttering as it worked against inertia; we saw the blue and white Reynard passed the scoring pylon, and up the pit lane and onto the track itself.

SJ: The rules allowed two warm-up laps before you took the green and I worked it up to speed, shifting into sixth gear as I crossed the Yard of Bricks the first time around. I got the engine up to full song the second time around, then Duane Sweeney waved the green flags and I was on it.

PK: What was it like out there?

SJ: The car felt pretty comfortable in the warm up laps but I had no idea if it would stick going into Turn One for the first flying lap and I remember screaming at the top of my lungs, and I put my left foot on top of my throttle foot to make sure I wouldn’t lift. The car stuck and it had a pretty decent balance and at that point I had a good feeling it would be a quick run. I made some small adjustments to the roll bar which made the car even better for the following three laps.

PK: Your first lap was 224.826. Lap 2 was 255.739. Lap 3 was 225.921. The final lap was off a tick at 225.705. Your four-lap average was 225.547. When did you actually realize you’d qualified?

SJ: I knew it when I finished the run as I was able to calculate in my head that it was good enough, and I actually broke down completely on the in lap going down the back straight, I had made it, on my ninth attempt and the pressure from the whole month finally released and I just couldn’t control my emotions at that point.

PK: Stefan Johansson drove the #16 Alumax Reynard into the 1995 Indianapolis 500—with only five minutes left on the official USAC clock. You received a standing ovation on both sides of the 5/8s mile straight.

SJ: Yes, I did, and it was amazing, all the team members from all the different teams, including the Penske guys, were clapping their hands as I drove down pit-lane, I will never forget that!

PK: Bobby Unser liked to say “It just goes to show you the big teams don’t always win.” It was a long, hard month, and when the final gun went off, you were the last man who made it into the show.

SJ: This is what made the Indy 500 the greatest show on earth, I am forever grateful I had the opportunity to be part of that history. I will always remember that day and those four laps, because in so many ways it made me realize the person I am, and what my limitations are, and what you are capable of doing when the pressure is on. And it was true. All the work, strategy, and effort that went into just getting a car into 31st position—not even winning the race.

PK: A lot of things have changed at the speedway since then, including the widespread use of Facebook, Twitter, blogs and other social media, the new Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis and the new one-weekend qualifying format. You have a good relationship with the new generation of racers. You're still vitally involved there as manager of 2008 winner, Scott Dixon, who is a first-rate champion. Do you think the Indianapolis 500 is still the Greatest Spectacle in Racing?

SJ: There is nothing that comes close to the Indianapolis 500 in my opinion and the races now are every bit as good as they’ve ever been. We’ve had some fantastic races since 1995, including the years Scott, Helio, Tony Kanaan, Dan Wheldon, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Dario Franchitti and Kenny Brack won. Indianapolis will always be the biggest single race to win and it is without a doubt the best show in motor racing, if not in sports in general.

Watch the video here! 

Stefan Johansson chats with Jan Tegler: Bahrain GP, WEC & Scott Dixon's win at Long Beach

Stefan Johansson

Jan Tegler – The Bahrain Grand Prix was perhaps better than expected.

Stefan Johansson – Yes definitely, there was some good racing and some different strategies that played out in different ways towards the end of the race. Kimi’s strategy definitely worked this time. He had a great race and with a few more laps and a little bit more luck could have even won the race if the Mercedes guys both had the brake problems they claimed towards the end.

JT – You’re correct and following the race, Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff said this level of competition shows that F1 is healthy. I think that’s more than a bit of a stretch. What’s your view?

SJ - I think it’s important to put everything in perspective. F1 is still a mammoth sport, relative to other sports and certainly compared to any other form of motorsport it’s still getting massive viewership numbers. It’s always had an ebb and flow of interest when one team is dominating or when more than one team is competitive. But what is worrying is the health of nearly all the teams, except those with direct backing from manufacturers, is abysmal.

The current costs in F1 are completely unsustainable and I think everyone is finally realizing that it’s not possible to continue this way. Sponsorship in general isn’t what it used to be. It used to be measured in numbers of eyeballs but there are so many other factors now with all of the social media and other avenues of exposure. In many ways, I think it’s a lot harder to quantify what the actual return on investment is for a sponsor today. 

JT – As you’ve pointed out in previous blogs, racing doesn’t always adhere to the logic applied to business in general, particularly Formula One.

SJ – Yes, exactly. It’s one thing for the automotive manufacturers involved in F1 but the other sponsors who participate have changed. Tobacco used to be the other big source of sponsorship and alcohol to a degree. Not just in F1, but across the board in racing I’ve never known it to be this tough to generate money.

That’s in addition to the massively higher costs of operating a racing team today, and again, particularly in Formula One. The championship consists of let’s say three categories of teams. First we have the teams that have been there for decades or from the beginning. They are the pure racers. That’s their bread and butter, their passion, their livelihood. That’s Ferrari, McLaren and Williams and later on maybe also Sauber. They will always be around, or at least attempt to be around which may currently be the case for Sauber.

That’s four teams, then we have rest of the grid is made up of a combination of Manufacturers (Mercedes) and what I refer to as the ego based teams. Those are the teams that’s either owned or backed by a wealthy individual or a group of individuals that all fancy having a go at F1 but it’s not their livelihood or main business. These are Red Bull, Toro Rosso, Lotus, Force India and Manor. You’ve always had teams like that in F1, some more financially healthy than others. Red Bull has been an exception in that they’ve been extremely successful and have always had the financial muscle to stay on top.  For any one of the teams outside the four who’s main business it is to field a Formula One car it is only a board decision away from leaving F1 if it no longer suits their purpose or for whatever other reason they decide it’s not a good fit any longer.

If one drops out after they’ve burned through however many hundreds of millions of dollars, there always seems to be another right around the corner. But many of them don’t seem to realize that buying a Formula One team is the easiest part of the whole endeavor. And once they’ve got the tiger by the tail they better hold on because it’s going to be a wild ride. Some of these teams are now looking for buyers or new investors but the economic model is now so flawed that I can’t see who would entertain the idea of owning a Formula One team without a major support of a Manufacturer or another form of guaranteed income outside of the traditional sponsorship model. If it weren’t for the money they’re getting from Bernie none of them would be in business by now, and that never used to be the case but more the icing on the cake for most of them.

JT – On that note, there’s been a lot of rumors about VW now joining F1 since the resignation of Dr. Piech from the board of VW. It was commonly known that he was opposed to VW as a whole to become involved in F1.

SJ – I find it quite humorous that everyone in the F1 media is immediately jumping to conclusions as if this somehow was the main reason for his resignation. Somehow I think the VW group has bigger fish to fry than to worry about their involvement in F1. I have no doubt they are continuously monitoring the situation and there are continuing rumors about Audi doing something, but I don’t for a second believe that this would even feature on their agenda at the moment.

 JT – In racing terms, perhaps the most interesting facet of the Bahrain GP was the strategy employed by Ferrari to aide Kimi Räikkönen’s charge to second place.

SJ – No question, it was great to see Kimi finally put a whole race together without a drama of some sort. It’s clear that Ferrari is at least a bit of a threat this year. The car clearly suits both Kimi and Vettel very well.

It was quite interesting to see shots of the track from overhead during the broadcast. You could watch Kimi and Vettel taking the same corners using very different lines than most of the other guys. Most of them use the modern method if you like, squaring off the corners with a very late, fast and aggressive entry whereas Kimi and Sebastian turn in much earlier, carry speed to the apex and take that momentum through the corner more.

It’s more of an older approach, but you’ve really got to have a car you can trust if you do that. You trail-brake to the apex of the corner basically but you have to have a solid, planted rear-end to do that otherwise you’re correcting all the way to the apex. 

JT – Lewis Hamilton was in good shape, starting from the pole and building a gap. But if Räikkönen had had a few more laps it looked as if he could have challenged for the win.

SJ – It appeared that both the Mercedes had brake problems toward the end of the race so I think there’s a good chance Kimi could have fought with them if the race was longer. I’m sure he wouldn’t have caught Nico [Rosberg] the way he did if Nico didn’t have a brake issue.

Lewis however seems to be on a different planet at the moment, I said it last time but it’s worth repeating, it’s rare when you get into the situation where he is now, where all the stars are lined up perfectly. When you have the best car, the best team and your driving is so effortless it’s almost flawless. He’s enjoying that at the moment and who knows how long it will last but it’s a rare occurrence and it may never happen again in his career but he’s certainly making the most of it while he can. I feel sorry for Nico, he’s only a fraction behind but it’s just enough to not being able to make an impact on Lewis program. He’s going to have to come up with something radical soon or it will be a walk in the park for Lewis to win the championship this year again. In some ways it’s similar to the Red Bull situation a few years back, Webber was very close in the beginning but lost out and the longer it went on the advantage for Vettel just grew bigger and bigger. Once you hit that trigger point mentally where you gradually give up the fight it’s all over.

JT – Williams finished behind Mercedes and Ferrari once again. They seem to qualify well enough but don’t have sufficient pace in the races. McLaren had another less than stellar outing with Jenson Button failing to start the race and Fernando Alonso finishing eleventh. What do you make of their respective performances?

SJ –Williams seems to have the same problems they had last year. Their execution is not there. They’re just not one hundred percent on top of things. There always seems to be some little glitch here or there that stops them maximizing their potential. As for McLaren well, it wasn’t great obviously. But I kind of have a feeling about them.

They have the resources, the equipment, the right manpower and definitely the desire… I think they might actually surprise a few people before the end of the season. Ok, Button didn’t start in Bahrain but at least Alonso was close to fighting for a championship point. That’s a huge improvement from where they were in Australia.

The early season points, especially in F1 today, are so valuable it’s ridiculous. The rate of technical development is so high that all of the mid to back-end teams – whatever points they were able to score these first three to four races will be worth gold at the end of the season. It gets much, much more difficult to score points as the season goes on. 

 

JT – Regarding McLaren, they made an announcement today about their new color scheme, which seems to be quite a big deal for them.

SJ – Yes, I did see that too. It’s still grey, albeit a bit darker than before, with a few day-glow red bits on it. There are still no sponsors of any significance on the car, and the only car that really matters what color it carries is Ferrari, the rest I don’t think anyone would care one iota over. Colors keep changing with sponsors and the only car that have always been the same color is Ferrari, if they were to change it would no doubt be a huge deal, for the rest, I don’t think it would matter to much.

JT – The Spanish Gand Prix is next on the calendar, the first of the European races. Do you expect significant jumps in performance from the teams?

SJ – I think you’ll find that it will be harder and harder for the mid-pack teams to score points. Development will start to get more serious and it’s likely that McLaren will make more progress and probably quite fast considering how far behind they started, so will Red Bull and probably also Toro Rosso, Lotus and Force India. I think the competition at the front will tighten up a bit but I think Mercedes still has some performance in their pocket.

 

JT – In related news it may be a bit premature to say that the World Endurance Championship (WEC) is stealing F1’s thunder in racing terms but many watchers of both series are commenting that the competition in the WEC is easily outclassing that in F1. That seems a fair statement after having seen the good racing at both Silverstone last month and Spa last weekend.

The technology fielded by Audi, Porsche and Toyota in the WEC now surpasses what we see on the F1 grid and lap times aren’t that much different between the F1 single-seaters and LMP1 prototypes. Commercially, sports car racing can’t begin to touch F1 but the current situation reminds me a bit of circumstances we saw in the 1980s with the World Sportscar Championship and F1. F1 drivers, including those currently competing like Nico Hulkenberg, are starting to cross over, looking at the WEC as a viable and attractive alternative. One wonders how much notice the powers in Formula One are taking?

SJ – Yes, the battle between Audi and Porsche at Silverstone in particular was great. What’s refreshing in the WEC is that you have racing that while still restricted does allow alternative options for employing technology. I think this is great and the way it should be. Porsche are using one concept (V4 Turbo, 8-megajoule Hybrid ERS), Audi is using another (V6 Turbodiesel, 4-megajoule Hybrid ERS), Toyota are doing their own thing (V8, 6-megajoule Hybrid ERS) and of course the Nissan which is completely different (V6 Turbo, undetermined-megajoule Hybrid ERS, front-wheel drive).

Things now are a bit similar to that period in the 1980s. I wish it was more like that. Back then I raced in Formula One, Group C and I even raced in F2 sometimes, all at the same time. That stopped when I got fully established in F1 and you weren’t allowed to do anything else but I think the fact the F1 drivers are trying sports car racing again is a good thing.

Take Scott [Dixon] for example. Chip [Ganassi] (Ganassi Racing) let’s his drivers race wherever they can fit it in as long as it doesn’t affect their main program of Indycars or NASCAR. Yes, for the most part they are Chip’s cars but because he competes in several categories, his drivers are able to race different types of cars. His IndyCar and NASCAR guys get to do sports car races. I think that’s a good thing. 

JT - Someone pointed out in Autosport recently that sadly, the best drivers in the world aren’t necessarily in F1 anymore, do you agree with that?

SJ - The sharp end in F1 is obviously very, very good there’s no doubt about that, maybe as good as it’s ever been in fact. But even guys like Nico Hulkenberg and Mark Webber soon realize that they have to work pretty hard to even stay on the same pace as the teammates they drive with in prototypes. In many ways the current F1 cars are the easiest cars to drive because they are so incredibly well engineered and the main purpose of all the technology aside from making the car as fast as possible of course, is to make it as easy as possible to drive as this also helps to get more speed and avoid as many mistakes as possible from the driver being on the limit.

Frankly, if I were a F1 team owner I’d let my drivers do as much as they could in Sports-cars in particular, and I think you’ll see more of it. You can sense the level of frustration when you talk to some of the guys in F1 now, they all complain because it’s just not pure racing anymore. All they do is maintain tire wear and drive to a certain speed determined by their engineers.

I think the more the drivers race the better they get, especially with as little racing as they do now in F1. There’s no better school for race-craft than sports car racing because you’re racing all the time. You have slower cars, faster cars, track conditions which change more and many other factors. And you’re racing on the limit the whole time with all of those variables. You learn to save fuel, learn to save tires, all the stuff you need. Every lap you do in a race car adds to your experience somehow.

The WEC is no threat to Formula One on any level except technically or its attractiveness in terms of driving and racing. They have few spectators and not too much TV exposure. Back in the day, IndyCar (CART) started gaining on F1 a bit and it didn’t take long before a certain someone the kibosh on that.

If the WEC attracted more manufacturers and had five or six of them with three-car teams then all of a sudden it’s a very serious proposition, especially if they’re all spending money on marketing as well as racing. Up to now, Porsche and Toyota have been fairly quiet in terms of their marketing. But Audi has done extremely well in that regard. Of course, it helps if you win before you start doing a lot of marketing.

JT – The racing at last weekend’s WEC round at Spa-Francorchamps was not as good as what took place at Silverstone but Audi and Porsche had a fairly interesting battle with Audi emerging victorious. It was curious that Audi decided to run two of its three cars in low-drag “Le Mans” configuration in preparation for the 24 Hours but Porsche and Toyota didn’t opt to do the same.

SJ – It seemed to be a good battle between Audi and Porsche but it looks like Toyota has lost their way a little bit this year for whatever reason. The new Audi looks quite impressive though. The aero they have is obviously working, and the car looks awesome.

It is strange that Porsche and Toyota didn’t run their Le Mans bodywork. You’d think Spa is really the only chance they will get to run with it before the 24 Hours. That would be where you’d put some effort in. The test day at Le Mans is only one day and the running is very sporadic. You don’t really get a lot of laps in, especially if you have to cycle three drivers through a car, added with the long laps at Le Mans they’ll be lucky for each driver to get 15 laps in anger over the course of one day.

JT – The IndyCar season has progressed since we last chatted, with Scott Dixon finally taking a win at the Long Beach Grand Prix – a race also remarkable for the uncharacteristic lack of caution flags this year. He was justifiably pleased and I think everyone can agree that he’s not just one of the best drivers in IndyCar – he could succeed anywhere including F1.

The following race at Barber Motorsports Park provided what has arguably been the best racing this year and a podium including Scott and two Americans – winner Josef Newgarden and runner-up Graham Rahal.

SJ – Yes, Scott is and always has been one of the best drivers I’ve seen period. I call him the “mailman”. If you give him a good car, he’ll deliver – simple as that, and it doesn’t matter what type of car, he will win in anything.

As you know, there are hundreds of fast guys but less than a handful in the entire world that can deliver a win when the car is capable of winning, or finish second when a car is not capable of winning. That’s how you win championships. I’m glad he got the Long Beach monkey off his back. He’s got St. Petersburg to deal with still. That’s the other bogey-track.

It was also great to see nice, clean driving at Long Beach, especially given what went on at NOLA (New Orleans Grand Prix) the week before. That was just embarrassing to watch. That looked like the Formula Ford festival or something. It wasn’t the standard of driving you expect from a series like IndyCar.

The Chevrolets still seem to have an advantage over the Hondas on the road and street courses but there isn’t too much Honda can do now because they’ve submitted their spec package and I don’t think they can change it much. The changes made to the Chevys (IndyCar banned the use of one of their front wing elements) didn’t seem to affect their downforce that badly.

All of the teams were also supposed to beef up the aerodynamic pieces on the cars to stop all the debris flying around the track after the St Petersburg debacle, but you can strengthen them all you want. If you hit someone or something, something has to give. You’re better off having the little dive planes or devices fail than having the whole main-plane on the front wing. That gets expensive very quickly.

I just followed the race at Barber online. From what I understand it was very much a fuel conservation race and had a lot to do with tire management. But it was an exciting race, especially the finish.

JT – Last Sunday marked the first time IndyCar teams have been back on the Indianapolis oval since last May. They ran with their respective Chevrolet and Honda speedway aero-kits for the first time as well. The cars already seem to be quicker with the Team Penske drivers posting laps in the high 226 mph-range. The cars also look a little less odd.

SJ – Yes, I think they want to get up above 230 mph at least and I think they’ll be there. I talked with Scott [Dixon] this morning and the team is pretty happy with the car. They’re running the Chevrolet with a kind of draggy, high-downforce setup at the moment so there’s probably a lot more to come speed-wise.

The cars look quite good with the speedway aero kits. But then the previous version of the car didn’t look bad either.

 

JT – When you were racing at Indy in CART (1993-1995) the cars were quite a bit different, running with more power and less downforce than the current cars. What kind of speed was being posted for pole position?

SJ – I can’t remember exactly what they were but we were up around the 230 mph mark as well. We ran mostly Penske chassis there. These new cars probably do have more downforce than what we ran with. But the engines have far less power than what we had. We had close to 900 horsepower back then.

It’s always been the same though. You want the car right on the limit at Indianapolis, being able to go flat but not more. If you’re too comfortable, the car will be too draggy down the straights.

JT – On the domestic sports car racing front, the Tudor United Sports Car Series has looked comparatively meager since the regular season got underway, particularly at Long Beach where only two classes – prototype and GTLM ran. Only 17 cars started the race and within a couple of laps only 16 were running. Mazda’s prototypes finished three laps back behind most of the GTLM cars.

The field at last weekend’s round at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca was larger as the PC and GTD classes also ran but it still looked uneven and ragged. At least both races featured little in the way of caution flags and the racing was better at the front in the prototype class at Laguna Seca.

SJ – Yes, what can you say? The racing overall is occasionally good but it is uneven and with only around 10-11 cars in each of the four categories it makes it difficult to get too excited.

IMSA seems to be a championship more for the participants these days. Obviously, sports car racing has always had a mixture of manufacturers and rich guys so there’s never been a huge level of sponsorship. It’s racing mostly for die-hard fans, not the general public. The race at Laguna Seca had almost no promotion anywhere beforehand. The crowd was very small. I remember when we ran Champ Car there. The hills were black with people. The place was full.

 

JT – On a positive note, the No. 63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari seemed to have a decent weekend at Laguna Seca. Townsend Bell and Bill Sweedler finished fourth. I suppose the team has to be somewhat satisfied with the result.

SJ – It was a decent weekend with good points in the circumstances. The BoP certainly hasn’t been in our favor since Daytona which we really had a shot to win if we hadn’t had a clutch issue. The team did a terrific job in the pits with good strategy and quick stops. We’re third in the championship but it’s very close now.

Stefan Johansson chats with Jan Tegler: Vettel brings joy to Ferrari fans, an unfortunate crash at Nurburgring & WEC bans grid girls

Stefan Johansson

Vettel-Ferrari-Malaysian-win

Jan Tegler – The Malaysian Grand Prix proved to be a pleasant surprise for most fans. Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari stole victory from Mercedes with good race pace and terrific tactics. Given Mercedes domination to this point, Ferrari’s performance must give the team hope.

Stefan Johansson – Yes, Ferrari beat Mercedes fair and square. Everybody faced the same circumstances. There were no mechanical failures and no external drama that allowed Ferrari to pick up the pieces if you will. It was a great win.

I wouldn’t say yet that Ferrari will have that kind of performance in all the races ahead. I think the stars lined up perfectly for them in Malaysia with the high temperatures and other conditions and there’s no question they picked the right strategy. Staying out and getting to the front when Hamilton pitted was a good call. It was the obvious and in some ways easy thing to do because it’s always tougher when you’re leading - as Mercedes was - to make the right decision.

If you’re behind you can roll the dice, especially if you don’t think you’re going to win. It’s easier to gamble and hope things will fall in your lap. Running up front was the obvious thing for Ferrari because they didn’t have to deal with traffic. I think that - more than anything else - hurt Mercedes.

A, they’re not used to that and B, you saw how dirty the track was offline. If you had to deviate even two feet away from the racing line in some places you’d pick up so much rubber that it would take you a good four or five laps to clean the tires, or they might not ever get cleaned properly.

Stefan Johansson - F1 - Ferrari 1985

JT – When you were racing in Formula One there were periods during which multiple tire suppliers were in the series. Was spent-rubber just offline as much of a problem then?

SJ – Yes, it was bad. That was as big a factor then as it is today.

JT – While Vettel triumphed for Ferrari Kimi Räikkönen looked very quick as well, coming from the back of the pack after being hit by Sauber’s Felipe Nasr to finish fourth. Had he not suffered contact Kimi certainly looked as if he could have challenged for the podium.

SJ – Yes, Kimi would have been a threat as well no doubt. Even in Australia he was extremely unlucky. In both races he got clobbered by Nasr who was extremely lucky to get away with it in Australia. Of course he destroyed his own race in Malaysia basically (finished 12th) with the contact.

That’s two races in a row with contact in the first few laps for him. That’s not very impressive. But as is often the case the true quality of a driver will illustrate itself over a season. It helps to be young and up-and-coming because nothing’s expected of you. Had he been in a Ferrari or a McLaren for example and had the same two incidents, people would have been all over him.

Marcus Ericsson’s off looked like over-exuberance more than anything. He got a blinding start and picked up a couple spots immediately but he was probably so eager to do well it just caught him out. There was plenty of racing left and I think he was just very keen to do well and full of confidence after a great qualifying performance.

Checo Perez - Malayaisan GP - F1

JT – You were surprised that the collision of Lotus’ Romain Grosjean and Force India’s Sergio Perez resulted in a penalty for Perez, right?

SJ – Yes, I can’t believe Perez got a penalty. Anytime you try to make a pass on the outside, as Grosjean was, you have to consider it a low-percentage move. In that particular corner at Sepang you have no choice but to rely on the guy you’re passing to give you enough room to make the pass stick. And no matter if you’re on the inside or the outside, you need all the room you can get in that corner even as a single car, let alone with two cars abreast.

I can’t see how it could possibly have been Perez’s fault that he drove into the side of Grosjean. Where was he supposed to go? When they turned into the corner Perez was ahead so by default he owns the corner. At best it was a racing incident. If anyone should have been penalized it should have been Grosjean in my opinion. Besides, Perez tires were completely shot, so all Grosjean would have to do is wait for two more corners and he would have had a straight shot under braking for the next turn. He would have lost a second at the most.

JT – Looking at the big picture, the FIA, Bernie Ecclestone and everyone in Formula One, aside from Mercedes perhaps, has to be happy with the result at Sepang. F1 needed a different winner like it needs air.

SJ – Absolutely, anybody beating Mercedes would have been great but there’s nothing like Ferrari winning. Everything gets magnified. Whatever anyone says, Ferrari is critical to F1. They have the most loyal and biggest fan-base worldwide. So their victory is a shot-in-the-arm for the Championship, no question.

JT – Really, even Mercedes may be not so disappointed. They can now claim they have someone to fight against.

SJ – Yes, I think they may be slightly worried about Ferrari but at the same time, they’ve got plenty of powder left in their bag before they need to be too concerned. But at least if Mercedes do have problems you know that Ferrari will be there to keep them on their toes. That’s what Ricciardo and Red Bull did last year. Also, this will effectively mean that all the complaining and moaning by some of the teams that Mercedes need to be slowed down and there needs to be more parity among the teams will have to stop as they have now been beaten fair and square by one of their competitors. Time for the rest to get back to the drawing board or to have done their homework better in the first place.

Ferrari has a good momentum now and there’s no question the car is good. It was quick right from the moment they rolled it off the truck in winter testing. The car’s obviously a lot easier to drive and the drivers are comfortable with it, which is very important. Typically, if a car is easy to drive and the lap-times come relatively quickly it generally means it has a big window of performance. Even if a car is quick in race situations, when it’s peaky any change in conditions or the wrong tire will throw its performance off. But if you have a larger window you can maintain good pace in changing conditions even if the set-up is not absolutely spot-on. That looks to me to be one of the strengths of the Ferrari at the moment.

Ferrari win at Malaysian GP - F1

JT – As has been mentioned elsewhere, the 2015 Ferrari’s improvements are in no small measure due to the work of Marco Mattiacci who led the team between April and November 2014 when work on this new car had begun in earnest. Maurizio Arrivabene, the new team director, and the team have certainly benefitted from the work Mattiacci did and the changes he made.

SJ – I really feel for Mattiacci because the improvements are not something that happened in the last few months. Quite impressively for a guy who hadn’t any great experience in racing, Mattiacci put together a very good package. He orchestrated the whole Vettel deal and he put faith in [James] Allison (Ferrari technical director). Had he been around he would have been a hero now, it’s funny how life works sometimes. That’s not to take anything away from Arrivabene, he’s clearly done a great job getting the motivation back in the team and it seems they are moving forward as one unit. It will be interesting to see if they can continue to rattle the Mercedes guys as the season goes on.

JT – The team from which Sebastian Vettel jumped – Red Bull Racing – continues to have drama with its engine-supplier, Renault. There’s a very public split with Red Bull complaining that Renault has actually taken a step backward from 2014 with their power unit. Meanwhile Renault has intimated that Red Bull’s desire for them to shortcut development in pursuit of performance is the reason they are now so far behind.

SJ – You can see extreme frustration and shock on both sides in the realization that they’re probably less competitive than they were last year.

But I find it comical in F1 in general that everything is aired in the open these days via the media. Nothing seems to happen behind closed doors anymore. You hear Force India complaining that they needed a hand-out before the Australian GP and now this with Renault and Red Bull.

I can’t see how it helps anyone. In Force India’s case, I’m sure they’re having conversations with Bernie. Why does the media need to know this?

I also find it amusing that Cyril Abiteboul (Renault F1 managing director) doesn’t back down from anyone, calling Adrian Newey a liar.

Red Bull Racing Renault - F1 2015

JT – Abiteboul has also said that Renault has never been given enough credit for Red Bull Racing’s success.

SJ – That’s true. Every time Red Bull won the championship it was all about how good the team is but Renault barely got a mention. But I also think that is to a large degree their own fault for not being more active in promoting this. Cosworth used to be the same, does anyone know it was not that long ago they were the most successful Engine builder in F1 history, and it was only at the end of the Schumacher era with Ferrari that they managed to pass them.

JT – As poorly as things have developed for Red Bull, McLaren continues to be the biggest under-achiever in F1. Neither Fernando Alonso nor Jenson Button could get their Honda-powered machines to the finish in Malaysia. Despite the retirements, team principal Ron Dennis said he was impressed with the team’s performance.

SJ – I guess if all else fails, lower your standards. Obviously, there’s no way a team like McLaren can be satisfied with where they are. Maybe they can be satisfied with the progress they’ve made since the previous outing. There were massive improvements from most of the teams last year between every race so McLaren-Honda will probably experience the same thing.

But I can’t see how you could be impressed with the outcome in Malaysia. And with all of the turbulence that teams are experiencing - apart from Mercedes and Ferrari maybe – I don’t think there’s ever been an easier time to score points in F1 than at the moment. Even Red Bull isn’t a lock in for scoring points. Toro Rosso is almost better at the moment. Whomever has their act together the first half of this season should be able to score a lot of very valuable points, that no doubt will come in handy for next year as more and more of the teams are now relying on Bernie’s handout to keep them afloat.

JT – Interestingly, if you consider Honda’s performance across the major series in which they race globally right now, things don’t look so good. Their F1 power unit isn’t reliable let alone powerful even after a year in which they could freely develop it. In endurance racing, their HPD ARX-04b LMP2 coupes are so flawed they have been withdrawn from competition. And as mentioned, the Honda aero-kit looks inferior to the Chevrolet package in IndyCar thus far.

SJ – Yes, it’s amazing really. They’ve had several efforts over the last years that haven’t gone so well. It’s hard to understand why their P2 cars are performing so poorly given that the regulations in that class are very tight and pretty straightforward.

The Zytek (Z11SN) which is a 14 year old design now is still winning! It won Le Mans last year. (Jota Sport won the LMP2 category of the 24 Hours of Le Mans with a Z11SN)

JT - You’ve been on the road for the last couple weeks, traveling first to Sebring to be with Scuderia Corsa at the 12 Hours then in St. Petersburg for the opening round of the 2015 IndyCar season and the second round of the 2015 Pirelli World Challenge (PWC).

The IndyCar race featured the debut of the busy-looking aero-kits from Chevrolet and Honda - new for 2015 with greatly improved downforce. Juan Pablo Montoya won for Team Penske but the race turned into something of a caution-festival with multiple yellow flags resulting from bodywork littering the track after quite a few instances of contact between cars. What did you make of it?

SJ – It’s not unusual for street circuit races to have contact but I think it’s evident that this new generation of cars are not helping to reduce the number of cautions. There are so many appendages hanging off of them that even the slightest touch just covers the track in debris.

I think that will be an issue for most of the season. The drivers are going to have to be very cautious about contact. As for how they look, it took me a good part of three years to get used to the previous cars and I finally started to get my head around them last season. But when you see these new aero-kit cars on track, they look like they’ve come out of a school project somewhere. It looks like they’ve just bolted on stuff anywhere there’s an empty space on the cars.

Of course when you’ve got a free hand you can do what you want. You go after as much downforce and aero as the rules allow. I know we said it in the last blog but the one thing that there wasn’t anything wrong with in this series was the cars. I wasn’t a huge fan of the last iteration of cars when I first saw them to be honest. But I almost had to eat my words because the racing they produced was definitely great.

It was obviously a not a great weekend for Scott [Dixon]. The team started pretty well but worked their way backwards much as they’ve done every other year there. St. Pete seems like the bogey-track for those guys. I don’t think Scott’s ever had a really good race there. He was quite happy with the car the first day of practice. I think it was circumstances that contributed to the difficulty of the weekend.

They didn’t get things quite right in practice then Scott got held up in qualifying by Pagenaud, which meant he didn’t make the top 6 cut. In the race the Air-jack broke on the first stop so they were much sitting ducks for the rest of the race. The first three races in any series you race in are hugely important because as the season goes on it gets harder and harder to score in every race. If you can just have a nice clean run in the first races you generally benefit from a good points score.

But Scott has certainly won championships before coming from behind. The good news is it definitely looks like the Chevy aero package has the edge on the Honda kit at the moment. So for now, he’s definitely in the right equipment.

JT – The week before the IndyCar race in St. Petersburg you were on hand with Scuderia Corsa for the 12 Hours of Sebring. The team’s Ferrari 458 Italia drove to a 3rd place finish in the GTD class with Townsend Bell, Bill Sweedler and Anthony Lazzaro at the wheel. Considering the pace of the Vipers and Porsches, a spot on the podium was a good result.

SJ – As it turned out luck was with us and we got valuable points. The BoP (balance of performance) is really not in the favor of the Ferrari or Audi right now. Our car was nowhere all weekend. There was such a big gap, especially to the Porsches. The 458 is something like 300 pounds heavier than the Porsches. That’s ok around Daytona but at Sebring with the long, long corners and bumps the weight makes the car very hard to drive.

The drivers were fighting the car all weekend. I think, in the circumstances, they all did a great job. For most of the race we were in 7th place then got up to 6th, pitting out of sequence. We dropped back to 10th at one point but we were up and down in the bottom half of the top ten mostly.

We were in 8th place with 45 minutes to go and then all hell broke loose. Both Vipers dropped out and some of the Porsches had problems. Long story-short, we ended up 3rd. That’s a big bonus.

JT – Dixon had a pretty good race along with Scott Pruett and Joey Hand in the # 01 Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates Ford Ecoboost Riley DP. They struggled too but wound up 4th overall.

SJ – They had the same problem our Scuderia Corsa car had really. The BoP wasn’t in their favor and the car just wasn’t quick at any point.

Jann Mardenborough - Nurburgring Crash

JT – Unfortunate news came from the Nürburgring a week ago where Nissan driver Jann Mardenborough’s GT3-class GTR went airborne at the Flugplatz. It vaulted a catch-fence and went into the crowd, killing one spectator and injuring several more during the first VLN race of the season. It’s tragic and calls into question the future of the GT3 class on the Nordschleife.

SJ – As much as I love the Nordschleife - because it is so daunting and crazy in a way - the GT3 cars have obviously outgrown the circuit for racing at that level. The way those cars are designed doesn’t help either.

Looking at the underside of the Nissan in the air, you can see how big the flat-bottom it has is. That was the problem with the prototypes in the late 1990s and early 2000s. When we ran at Le Mans with Audi after Michele [Alboreto] had his accident they told us that when his rear tire deflated under braking and the car slipped, four degrees of positive yaw was enough to make the car go airborne. The underside of the prototypes used to be the same as the current GT3 cars– just a big flat surface. If you get enough air underneath it just takes off. They’ve since tapered off the flat part with plank going down the middle of the floor with an angle on the rest of the floor to prevent this from happening.

Even the little Miata (MX-5) I drove at the Ring last year went airborne over the Flugplatz. Up it went and it would take you about 100 yards to gather the thing up. What it must be like in a GT3 car I don’t know.

At least back in the day when we raced there properly (in Group C prototypes) we had 5,000 pounds of downforce or something like that! We had so much downforce you didn’t need to worry about taking off. The cars were stuck to the ground.

What’s going to happen after this accident I don’t know. But as always something serious has to occur before anything is done to prevent this kind of thing. Banning GT3 will be sad but it might not kill the Nürburgring 24 because that race has been popular for a long time. I remember people rolling up to race in diesel vans and all kinds of crazy stuff. The race was more for fun.

Then little by little, the manufacturers started to show interest and they showed up with full factory teams with pro driver line-ups. But it didn’t used to be that way. And the 24 is an institution and a fascinating event because it’s dangerous and it has all the right elements.

WEC Grid Girls

JT- Finally, this may not have anything to do with racing as such, but it was announced today by the WEC that all grid girls will be banned in 2015. What is your take on this?

SJ- I don’t know what to say really. My first thought is, this is an April fools joke, but it’s already the third so that’s not it! My second thought is, how do they have time to fit an issue like this into their agenda, when there are clearly a multitude of far more important matters to deal with, both on the competition as well as the commercial side of things with this series. It’s the same nonsense as not allowing the F1 drivers to change the livery on their helmets. Who cares! I am trying to picture the conversation in the meeting when they decided this, a number of guys sitting around a table, “next up, grid girls…they are really projecting a sexist image of our sport and should be banned…”

Sadly, this whole political correctness agenda that seems to have crept into every aspect of society today, is now well and truly manifested in motorsports too. Frankly, someone must have had to spend a lot of time thinking about “what can we do to look more socially responsible” and this is the best they can come up with. It’s pathetic and sad. You would think they would do everything in their power to attract more sponsors to the Championship, especially as they can barely scrape together 10 cars for each of the categories they run, this is the exact opposite of that. If I still owned a team I would go out and hire 20 Chippendale dudes and line them up on the grip just to piss them off.