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Stefan Johansson Monaco 1985 Ferrari.jpg

The Blog

SJ chats with Jan Tegler: Indy 500, Monaco GP & the FIA Formula 3 European Championship

Stefan Johansson

Jan Tegler – IndyCar followed up an exciting Indy 500 with the “Chevrolet Dual in Detroit” last weekend. Both Honda and Chevy claimed wins during the doubleheader. The racing was curtailed by rain on Saturday and heavily influenced by it on Sunday. Carlos Munoz took his maiden win for Andretti Autosport on Saturday while Sebastian Bourdais won for KVSH Racing on Sunday.

It was a mixed weekend for Scott Dixon with a 5th place finish on Saturday and 20th place finish Sunday after contact with his Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Charlie Kimball. You were on hand, what did you think of the racing and the weekend for Scott?

Stefan Johansson – Overall, the weather really put a damper on the whole weekend, especially on Sunday it was just miserable. The weekend wasn’t great for Scott but not a total loss. The way the strategy played out on Saturday turned out to be alright but not great. They were the first car to roll the dice and go to wets but they were about five to six minutes too early once it went green.

They lost about 15 seconds per lap before the rest decided to come in and go to wets. This meant the others had enough time to stop under green, rejoin and still be ahead of Scott. After that there wasn’t enough time left to make an impact on the people in front. Finishing in 5th place wasn’t bad considering the incidents on track and the fact that the race didn’t go the full distance.

On Sunday, things were going well near the end of the race. Scott and Will Power were the only two cars that would have made it to the end on fuel. Running in the top ten, I think Scott had a good chance of winning at that point. But then he was taken out in the accident and that caution basically saved everybody else.

Sebastian Bourdais did a great job and his KVSH Team got him out in front of everybody else on their last pit stop so in the circumstances they deserved the win.  Sebastian is a terrific driver. He didn’t win four Champ Car titles for nothing. He did everything he needed to do given the opportunity on Sunday. It was great to see my old buddy and sparring partner Jimmy Vasser win another race.

Overall though, it was a typical Detroit race, where strategy is more important than speed a lot of the time. Again, the show was great and both races ended up being exciting to watch.

JT – Looking back to the previous week and the Indy 500, Scott seemed to do everything he could have done, driving a perfect race, leading the most laps until the car experienced problems in the final stint. The race was a good one otherwise with a pretty impressive battle between Juan Pablo Montoya and Will Power for the win in the last five laps with Montoya prevailing. 

SJ – What happened right at the end was that the radiator got clogged with debris and the engine temperature shot through the roof. He basically had to back off completely. He was running 223 mph laps earlier in the race and could do that all day long on his own. But with the engine temperature so high all he could manage was 217 mph with a tow. He just had no power left and he had to go to safety settings on the steering wheel to preserve the engine.

It was a good race no doubt but personally, I think Scott would have walked it and won if he hadn’t had the overheating. The car was so fast and he was really just cruising all day. He was completely in control of the race. I think he had enough to stay out in front of Montoya and Power.

Unfortunately, if not for all of the “ifs” and “buts” we’d all win lots of races but racing is heartbreaking a lot of the time.

JT – The Indy 500 again proved to be the best racing of the big three on Memorial Day weekend, eclipsing the Charlotte 600 and absolutely burying the parade that is the Monaco Grand Prix.

SJ – It just goes back to what I’ve been saying for a couple years now. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that IndyCar is the best racing in the world right now week-in, week-out. I really believe that. Every race is exciting and there’s action all the time – passing, incidents and good hard competition throughout the field.

It’s just a shame IndyCar can’t relay that to more fans. The Indy 500 had great TV ratings but apart from that race, there is nowhere near enough attention attracted by the series. Instead of spending all the money Chevy and Honda have spent on the new aerokits – millions of dollars for sure – if that would have been allocated to good marketing I think it would have benefitted IndyCar significantly more than these aerokits that no one but die-hard fans sees a difference in.

It’s always easy to be smart in hindsight but I don’t think you can say these aerokits have improved the racing, and I don’t think there were a lot of people who really understood the reason to do it to begin with. As I’ve said many times now, the one thing there was nothing wrong with in IndyCar was the cars themselves and the racing.  They produced great racing and they were affordable to run. All this did was add extra cost for the teams, something many of them could certainly do without. I don’t even want to think what Chevy and Honda spent between them developing these kits.

JT – The Monaco Grand Prix paled in comparison to the Indy 500 to put it politely – a dull race up to the point where Mercedes’ gaffe in pitting Lewis Hamilton from the lead led to his losing the race and gifting the win to teammate Nico Rosberg. It really was simply an embarrassing outing both for Mercedes and Formula One. What’s your view?

SJ – Well, there have been so many comments and arguments there isn’t much to add. It was just a gigantic screw-up on every level. In a way, that kind of sums up the way F1 is at the moment.

Toto Wolff’s (Mercedes team boss) comment - “Data doesn’t lie. We had to go with what the data told us to do in that situation” - it’s simply ridiculous to say that. You’ve got 12 laps remaining. Unless the car has some sort of failure, you just don’t stop in Monaco, end of story. You could be five seconds a lap quicker than the car in front of you and you literally can’t get past. Anyone with the slightest amount of race craft knows that.

I think what triggered the panic at Mercedes was that Lewis was complaining that his tire temperatures were dropping. In fairness, it’s always toughest for the leader to make a call when a caution or a safety car comes out. Whatever he does, the others have the opportunity to do the same or the opposite.

In this case, the general rule of thumb is always – “if in doubt, stay out”. With less than 15 laps to go at Monaco you should never stop unless you have a limping car.

One thing is clear. If Ross Brawn had still been with Mercedes calling the races you know that would never have happened. Ross has the race craft; he and Michael [Schumacher] during their heyday were terrific with race strategy. One reason they were so good and why they snookered everybody so many times on strategy is because they were both trained in sports car racing.

It’s the best form of racing to hone your race craft. You have to make strategic decisions all the time - in every race – for six hours, 12 hours, 24 hours. You can make a season’s worth of open-wheel decisions in one 24 hour sports car race. There’s so much more to consider in every regard – tire wear, fuel consumption, weather conditions, track position.

I think Mercedes’ mistake sums up the mindset in F1 right now. Race craft is a thing of the past, certainly from a driver’s point of view. You don’t need it as a driver. You just listen to your engineers. They tell you to speed up a bit or to slow down, or change a setting on the steering wheel and drivers just drive to whatever commands they get.

That’s one of the reasons so many of the drivers are now paying attention to sports car racing. Nico Hulkenberg is the latest to be part of the trend but I think there are a lot of drivers sniffing around wanting to do sports car racing because they’re racers and they want to race. The racing in F1 isn’t satisfying them anymore to the point where they really get a kick out of it.

For any driver worth his salt, you want to drive a car on the limit for as long as you can. When you can’t do that, what’s the point? The excitement is gone.

JT – Speaking of the mindset in F1 currently, what’s your take on the recent meetings of the series’ “Strategy Group” to discuss proposals for making F1 more exciting? Will anything come out of them?

SJ – No. In my opinion, creating this Strategy Group is one of the biggest mistakes they’ve ever made. It’s had different names over the years but it allows the teams and more importantly, the engineers and designers, to be part of the rule-making process. It’s a disaster and the people involved will never want to change things. They’d like to add more complexity if they can, not less.

If the engineers and designers could have eight wind-tunnels instead of two or more simulators, they would. It never ends. There are two governing bodies in F1, the FIA and the FOM (Formula One Management). They are the ones who should make the rules. They need to be mowell thought out, well-formed rules that can be maintained over as long a period of time as possible. Rules stability will always bring the costs down and make the overall grid more competitive as a result.

The bottom line is that you can’t run any racing series as a democracy. That has been proven over and over again, with Champ Car being a recent and perfect example. I sat in on a lot of the meetings the team owners had and I simply couldn’t believe some of the things I was hearing - never mind the shenanigans going on behind closed doors.

There are, or at least were, two consistently strong series in racing, F1 and NASCAR. And they were both run like benevolent dictatorships but with an iron fist. They were both able to see the bigger picture and where things would go in the future. In the case of F1, Max [Mosley] and Bernie [Ecclestone] together ran the sport pretty well. They didn’t always please everyone and occasionally they would throw a grenade into the proceedings to make people wake up a bit. Then everybody would scream and shout for a couple of weeks. A little later, they’d back off twenty percent from their original positions and after the furor died down everybody would just get on with the job. Lo and behold, that actually worked.

Now the people in the sport waste their times in these meetings and the best they can come up with is a return to refueling during pit stops?

Frankly, who cares? Do they think fans are going to stampede to races again because they have fuel stops? As Christian Horner (Red Bull Racing team boss) said, the only decision they’ve made so far is to ban drivers changing their helmet designs during the season. Last year it was allowing drivers to pick their own car number.

Nothing will result from the meetings. It’s hard enough to get them to agree on where and when to have a meeting because they’re all so suspicious of one another and whatever secret agenda they think the other teams might have. As long as the teams are involved in decisions on the rules-making process it will never work.

Worse, from all of the meetings they’ve had over the last few years not one single proposal has touched on really bringing costs down. Refueling was banned because it was too expensive in the past. How on earth do they think it will be less expensive now?

And being F1, refueling couldn’t be done with gravity-feed fueling rigs in 15 seconds or however long it might take. No, they want it to be done in two to three seconds to match the current time it takes to do tire changes. Imagine, they’d need some ridiculous amount of pressure to the push fuel into the cars that quickly. That’s a recipe for disaster to begin with - why add that complication?

And with pit stops that short what’s the point anyway? I would like to see them bring the human element back into it. How about having two guys in total to execute a pit stop like teams in sports car racing do? Those guys are seriously good at what they do and then you have something that could actually make a bit of difference to the outcome of a race.

Strategy would be more in play because pit-deltas would be close to half-a-minute if not more. Deciding whether to pit or not would make a big difference. The small time it takes to stop now is almost pointless and everybody is pretty much on the same strategy most of the time.

Now, there are four guys on each corner of an F1 car during a pit stop now plus a couple more with the front and rear jacks so it’s 18-total. To me it makes no sense.

JT – Another feature of the current rules that you’re puzzled about is the development “tokens” made available to engine constructors for 2015. Ferrari, Mercedes and Renault were given 32 tokens for power-unit development before the season began to “spend” as they saw fit. Honda was given nine tokens (an average of what the other three engine builders had left ahead of the season’s first race).

SJ – Why don’t they do the same thing - allow only so many development tokens - for the chassis, or the other way around where they leave the engine development open the same as it is for the chassis?

Apparently, it’s ok to have 80 different front wing configurations in a season. Ferrari proudly announced that they started the “development arms race” as they call it. They’ve got a new brake duct with 35 pounds more downforce and ten pounds less drag or whatever the numbers are. Who cares about a brake duct? That alone has probably cost them four or five million dollars to develop.

That’s the level of ridiculousness F1 has got to now. But there are so many things that would be easy to implement to bring down costs. Crash-testing is one area. Each team is required to do crash-testing on their tub and more importantly to pass it, which is not a very easy task by all accounts. Each team is spending a fortune just to pass this test. Why not just give the teams a standard tub and nose that’s approved by the FIA with all of the crash-testing already done? They could just bolt on their own aerodynamic bodywork on top of it.

That alone would take a huge cost burden away. But the big teams in particular don’t seem to want any changes. That defies logic in my opinion. A more competitive, broader field benefits everyone. Without too much effort, a winning F1 team should be able to run for $100 to $150 million per year. Also-rans should be able to do it for $30 or $40 million a season. And in the end, it’s always the top teams that do the winning no matter what. IndyCar is a perfect example of that where it’s basically Ganassi and Penske and occasionally Andretti who do all the winning, despite the fact that all the teams have the same cars.

Teams wouldn’t even strictly need sponsors because everything would be paid for by Bernie and any money they earned above their costs would be profit. At that point, the value of each franchise would go through the roof because people would find that F1 was a business you could actually make money from.

And let’s face it; F1 is still by far the most glamorous and high profile sport in the world. Anyone with enough money and a big ego will always line up to have a go at being an owner. Now, you’re lucky if you can give a team away and have someone else assume its debt. That’s what it has come to. There’s not a team that would be able to sell their operation at a profit right now.

JT – Apart from F1, the cost and viability of auto racing across the spectrum is questionable now, wouldn’t you agree?

SJ – Yes, it’s a tough time in motor racing in general. We keep talking about the teams and series but the promoters are having the same problems. There’s no coincidence that there’s no German Grand Prix, the Italian Grand Prix is currently in doubt. Spa (the Belgian Grand Prix) is right on the limit every year as is the British Grand Prix. No one can make any money.

JT - We’ve mentioned it previously but as time goes on, the FIA driver ratings system seems more and more pointless as a spectator. Obviously, the system is aimed at attracting more gentlemen drivers to sports car racing and generating business for teams but for fans it’s another level of needless complexity.

SJ – I think it started with good intentions. It was basically a way for “gentlemen” drivers who were also supporting the teams financially to be able to compete on high level. Now, all these teams scout the whole world for fast young Formula 3 kids.

These kids are talented and professionally groomed but haven’t been rated yet. It goes against the whole idea of giving the gentlemen drivers a break with the assumption that they’ll bring money to help fund the teams. The rating system is completely out of whack.

The way it used to be sort of worked itself out organically and the end result was more or less the same as it is now. The teams with ambition always find a way to get the results. Those with less ambition end up running a guy who helps foot the bill. All the ratings system has done is basically kill the careers of a lot of very talented professional drivers who simply can’t get a drive because their rating is wrong and there’s not enough room in the teams for them.

JT – One of the more bizarre features of last weekend’s racing was the cancelation of the third leg of the FIA Formula 3 European Championship race at Monza after nine laps due to poor driving standards. Multiple accidents in race-one led to drivers being warned about driving standards. After more incidents in race-two and crashes early in race-three the competition was abandoned. On a positive note, Felix Rosenqvist won all three rounds.

SJ – Felix certainly did the business in Monza with a hat trick both in qualifying and all three races. It can’t get any better than that. Unfortunately, due to the poor driving and all the safety cars, etc. they only handed out half-points for races two and three.

There used to be a kind of silent code of conduct amongst drivers but sadly it’s a thing of the past. There were no real rules as to what you could or couldn’t do in terms of blocking for example - there was just a quiet understanding of how far you would go. And if there was ever a dispute it would get sorted behind the transporters between the drivers themselves and then it would never happen again.

Unfortunately, I think it all started in the mid to late 1980s with some of the drivers that the current generation still looks up to. The code of conduct was just ripped into shreds and then some of the other big names in the 90s took it to a whole other level after that. Because these guys were the stars of their time, now that’s how young drivers think they should drive.

I also think it’s partly because they don’t think they can get hurt anymore. Years ago you were never sure if you’d walk again if you did stupid things like they do now. There’s a whole different mentality today and until you’ve had a big one or two you tend to feel like you can walk on water.

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.