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

Eric Graciano

- #SJblog 86 -

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eric Graciano

- #SJblog 84 -

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

F1 Testing, Indycar season opener and Sebring 12 hours

Eric Graciano

- #SJblog 83 -

JT – It’s been almost two months since the 2017 racing season got underway in earnest with the Daytona 24 Hours and our last blog. Since then there has been more sports car racing including last weekend’s 12 Hours of Sebring, the IndyCar season opener. In Formula One, the focus has been on off-season testing.

The Grand Prix of St. Petersburg kicked things off for IndyCar a little over a week ago. The racing was generally good with surprisingly little contact and a lot of green flag running.

Scott Dixon was well positioned, running second to James Hinchcliffe when a full course caution was called for debris on track following contact between Tony Kanaan and Mikhail Aleshin on Lap 26.  Scott, like others in the front running group, had remained on track after the window for pitting early opened on Lap 14.

A group at the back of the field including Simon Pagenaud and Sebastian Bourdais opted to pit early. When the yellow flag flew, this group gained a slew of positions as those who hadn’t yet pitted came in for fuel. Scott had to fight hard to pass his way back up the order, ultimately finishing in 3rd position.

The caution was obviously frustrating but on the whole a 3rd place finish at St. Petersburg- a course that has not been kind to Scott in the past - is positive. What did you think of the race?

SJ – Every time you have a closed-pit rule when there’s a full course caution, you’ll end up with the same problem. The race often falls into the lap of guys who started at the back or are running at the back as they have more freedom to roll the dice in a situation like that, and the guys up front are basically screwed. It’s just part of the game in IndyCar or any other series using the same rules. On the whole though, it tends to even out over the course of a season.

It’s frustrating at the time for the guys who get caught out, and especially if you know you have a winning car, which was definitely the case for Scott. His car was really fast all weekend, in every session and the race. None of the guys who were on the same strategy as him finished in the top ten positions. Interestingly, no one – not even the media – seemed to notice but I think he drove one of his best races ever. He had to save fuel for most of the race after the second caution and his first pit stop to get onto a different strategy. As usual, he managed to stretch his fuel for a lap or two compared to the other competitors and he was still passing cars along the way. He literally drove his way back up to 3rd, by going faster than the guys in front.

JT – Overall, St. Petersburg turned out well for the Honda teams. Seven of the top ten finishers were in Hondas. It looks as if the Honda engine/aero package has made some gains though there are still some tracks where it will be at a disadvantage.

SJ – Yes it went well although St. Pete hasn’t been that bad for Honda in the past. It’s interesting that people have noticed how well the Hondas did but Ganassi was pretty much the quickest Honda team overall through the weekend. That would lead you to conclude that had Honda had Penske or Ganassi as one of their teams in the last couple years there’s a good chance they would have had a lot better results over that period.

The Honda package should work fairly well at Long Beach but at certain tracks the Hondas don’t seem to have a chance to win. It’s just the way the aero is at the moment. But the engine is by all accounts better than the Chevrolet.

The Ganassi guys think they’ve found a reasonably good balance between mechanical and aerodynamic grip that seems to work well on the street and road courses. But at places like Phoenix where you’re basically flat through the entire lap there is not much that can be done, the drag vs downforce is what it is, and they are definitely at a disadvantage. On the other hand, the super speedways seems to give the Honda cars a slight advantage as we saw in Indianapolis last year for example.

JT – With St. Petersburg in the rear view mirror, Scott headed down to Sebring for last weekend’s 12 Hours. The race was competitive in most of the classes – again with surprisingly little contact and few caution periods.

The Cadillac DPis and the teams that run them – Wayne Taylor Racing and Action Express – proved to be the class of the prototype field again just as they were at the Daytona 24. In GTLM, Ganassi’s Ford GTs had a numeric advantage but finished behind the #3 Corvette.

Scott finished in 4th place in GTLM, driving with Ryan Briscoe and Richard Westbrook. Porsche looked very strong as well, particularly after night fell but a mistake in the pits put an end to the #911 challenge in the closing stages.

Meanwhile, Riley Team AMG scored the biggest win yet for the Mercedes AMG GT3 with their run to the front of the GTD class. Scuderia Corsa had a good race as well finishing 2nd just behind them.

What are your thoughts on the race?

SJ – Overall, I think it was a very good race. The new prototypes definitely look great on-track and they sound great. The Cadillacs were good and their teams are very good and definitely make a difference as well.

The Ganassi cars couldn’t stay with the Corvette or the Porsche but I think that comes down to a little more than the change in temperature at night. It was plenty cold during practice earlier in the week and they didn’t show their speed. Somehow they managed to find some extra speed towards the second half of the race and there was no way for the Ford’s to catch the Corvette at the end.

With the Ferrari (Scuderia Corsa) we had a pretty decent race finishing 2nd. It looked like we could win it for a while but we didn’t quite have the pace of the Mercedes there at the end either.

JT - As always, it’s hard to pin down form in F1 following pre-season testing but the on-track action in Barcelona gave us an impression of the new-for-2017 cars’ appearance and a few clues as to which teams may be improving and which may not. What are your thoughts on what we’ve seen so far?

SJ – Predictably, as we mentioned before the launch of the cars, they all look pretty much the same with minor variances here and there. That’s just the way it is now because the regulations only allow teams to work within in a small window.

It’s very interesting considering these are completely and quite different rules from before, and we have to assume that none of the teams had any chance to know what the others were doing. Yet again, all the cars look almost identical apart from some different solutions to the various aero philosophies different teams have applied. There are the T-wings and shark fins but those are little nuances, not exactly ground-breaking stuff and most of it has been done before in various ways over the years. That kind of development is to be expected if it’s allowed within the rules.

When you look at these new cars and the new rules, you have to ask, why? Was it really necessary to have these new rules? The cost of creating these new cars is mind-boggling for every single team. I’m not sure what the exact reasoning was for these new rules to be put in place to begin with and I’m not so sure anyone else really does.

Was it because the racing was not exciting enough, did they think the old cars were too slow. Did they not like the look of the cars? Were they too easy to drive?  Whatever the reason, I don’t think these new rules have been particularly well thought out. They feel like another band aid solution to some knee jerk reaction based on a few minor issues rather than a big picture solution to the complete philosophy of what a modern F1 car should be.

Performance is always difficult to gauge from the early tests but everyone I’ve spoken to who has been in Barcelona seems to agree that Ferrari looks impressive regardless of how much fuel or what tires they’re running. Apparently the car looks planted in most conditions. It would be great if they’ve caught up with the front runners, but I think Mercedes is still the standard despite some difficulties in getting up to speed in the testing.

As always, we won’t know for sure until after Qualifying in Melbourne. But I have a feeling it could become a closer battle between the top 3 than we have seen in recent years.

JT – There have been a number of stories in recent weeks about Ross Brawn’s efforts to “fix” Formula One as Liberty Media’s motorsport director. He’s even suggested a “non-championship round” recently that would allow teams and the series to experiment with the racing format and approach.

Obviously there are sporting and technical suggestions which Brawn can make but unless I’m mistaken, he is not the FIA and it’s the FIA that makes F1 rules. It almost seems as if some people imagine that Brawn can shape and manage the series on his own. Do you have a similar perception?

SJ – Well, the hope would be that he can bring some clarity and sense back to the way F1’s rules are written. The way it is now, the engineers have taken over the show. The rulebook is so complicated that no one except the engineers are capable of understanding it. It’s time to simplify everything and if anyone is capable of doing that it’s Ross. So hopefully his influence will eventually show some positive results.

It would be nice if he could be the sole person responsible for shaping the rules and also to enforce them. He would obviously need a well-rounded team of people to support him but it would be a much better solution than this strategy group that currently exists. They don’t seem capable on agreeing on anything of any importance.

It’s a strange situation at the moment, typically it’s the FIA that write the rules but now F1 has this democratic process which is the strategy group. The teams apparently have an equal number of votes to FOM and the FIA to determine the rules. But no one in F1 management or the FIA can read even the first five pages in the rulebook because it’s so complicated that they just glaze over. They put it down and say, “yeah fine” and then just let them get on with it. 

I have spoken to several very competent engineers and designers that have also had the opportunity to read the rulebook and they all agree, it’s so complicated that most of them just give up.

That’s what it’s come to and things are just sort of spiraling in a vicious circle. When teams have to employ over 100 aerodynamicists to design and develop a car, you know something is seriously out of whack.

Ross is the perfect man to get a handle on this democratic process that’s gradually crept into the system and I am sure he will put together the team of people he’s been talking about that will create a sensible and coherent plan going forward that will make both the cars and racing more exciting and interesting to watch.

JT – In addition, last week Brawn suggested that F1 should have a group of experts examine ways to improve overtaking on-track.  He mentioned a “state-of-the-art CFD project” to study an aero concept where cars with high downforce would be capable of running close together.
This sounds needless, unrealistic and like a fantastic way to waste money and time. As you’ve said so often, diminishing downforce and emphasizing mechanical grip is the simple, cost effective way to improve overtaking.

SJ – F1 has been through this over and over again but it’s pretty obvious what they need to do. As a basic rule of thumb, if you have half the grip or more on the cars coming from aerodynamic downforce you’re always going to have turbulence that makes overtaking more difficult. It’s inevitable and I don’t see how you can find a way to eliminate the wake behind the cars if you rely this much on downforce.

JT –Apparently F1 viewership dropped to a 12-year low in 2016 in the U.K. – F1’s business and spiritual home. This was despite a popular British driver – Lewis Hamilton – battling for the championship.

SJ – I did see that story too. However, I don’t think it’s just F1 that is losing viewership. Most sports are struggling to hold on to the eyeballs. There is just so much competition out there for things to engage in, the battle for any sport is to figure out how to capture the younger generation.

In racing, the fans just seem to get older and the loyal followers F1 has had for years are gradually losing interest for different reasons. One main reason in my opinion is that it’s just become too clinical and over regulated. It’s complicated even for people like myself in the business who are passionate about it and live and breathe it every day. So I can’t imagine what it must be like for the fans.

I am not qualified to comment on what exactly needs to be done to change that and bring not only the viewers we’ve lost but more importantly the new generation of viewers that is vital to the future of motor racing. But one thing is almost obvious and that is that we need to make the racing exciting and interesting again.

For me, I’d rather hear a lot more noise about the human drama of F1 - the drivers. They are the heroes people want to cheer for and should be highlighted as the gladiators they should be. If F1 isn’t being followed in the U.K., which is the heart of racing, you know there’s something wrong.

JT – Speaking of Lewis Hamilton, he recently confirmed what you’ve been stressing for almost a year now. Following testing he said that being behind the new, higher downforce 2017 cars is much more challenging. The turbulence or “wash” from the rear of the cars is worse than ever. Hamilton says passing will certainly be more difficult.

SJ – The aero package certainly doesn’t seem to have solved any of the issues related to turbulence. I don’t know how things will shake out but I’d be shocked if drivers’ ability to pass is improved. I can’t see how that’s possible with these rules.

Anyone with even a basic understanding of how a racing car works could have told them this. Any engineer I have spoken to who’s been around for a while says the same thing. There will be no way to overtake with these cars.

It makes you wonder who are the actual people who created these rules? I have not seen one individual name mention as the leader or responsible for this group. It’s like a big gray entity that suddenly came up with these rules and everyone just seemed to agree to go with it.

JT – Stories have come out nearly every day during testing of McLaren-Honda’s woes, particularly their difficulties with Honda’s power unit. There may be some exaggeration but they do seem to be in a bit of a pickle. The relationship between McLaren and Honda seems strained and what I’ve heard from people knowledgeable about the team suggests that it’s in a bit of disarray.

SJ – Yes, they obviously still have some problems to overcome with their engine and the situation in general is probably as challenging for them now as it was last year at this point, maybe more challenging. That’s not a great place to be in but we’ll see.

They definitely have some work to do. I don’t know enough about the details to comment either way, but it’s obvious they are way behind any targets they had set for the testing. It’s a very bad situation to be in at this stage of the game, as any major changes are virtually impossible once you have decided on the architecture of the engine and the philosophy on how you’re planning to develop it. It will no doubt be a very long and tough season for them.

JT – As the off season has progressed, I’ve noticed a number of drivers speaking out about various aspects of racing in the modern era. Their comments are very interesting and give insight to the behind-the-scenes grind of racing these days.

In the blog on his website Benoit Treluyer ( says he’s been reveling in being a part of the Andros Trophy. The ice-racing series is a fixture on the winter racing calendar in France and draws many well-known drivers. He says racing in the series was a “breath of fresh air” after having competed with the now defunct Audi LMP1 squad for several years.

Treluyer stressed that driving isn’t always the major part of the job when racing with a top manufacturer like Audi. Many other tasks, from writing reports to briefings/debriefings, meetings, etc, consume a driver’s time. He added that the style of racing a hybrid LMP1 car can be rather “metronomic” as well. In contrast, he found ice racing in the Andros Trophy freeing and fun.

You’ve been in that manufacturer environment with the biggest teams in the world. What are your thoughts on Benoit’s comments?

SJ – He’s absolutely right, there’s no question that it can simply become a “job”. The bigger the operation, the smaller the driving part of the effort can be. You want to be as professional as you can but yes, it can be mind-numbing sometimes, the amount of reports and briefings, and on and on. There are so many layers of engineers and departments within a manufacturer team nowadays. And when you work for a manufacturer there is typically a lot more development work involved as they make almost everything themselves, whereas when you drive for a private team it’s more just dealing with the engineers on basic set up rather than development.

Both F1 and LMP1 is almost the same now. Everything is so thoroughly prepared and with more and more applications of engineering, the less important the driver becomes. That’s why the only really fun and interesting races are generally when the weather plays havoc and there are unpredictable circumstances that neither the engineers nor the drivers can prepare for beforehand.

That’s why when a lot of the drivers that come to America to do IndyCar or other series – it’s such a breath of fresh air for them. It’s very pure in comparison. The tracks are a lot better because they’re old school, rough circuits which makes them much more interesting and challenging. That gives them character.

They’re not all the same boiler plate modern-type circuits and each one of them have their own nuances that you need to figure out to get the last bit of speed out of them. The ideal line is not always the fast way around these places. That’s where “driving” comes into play in a completely different way, where a driver has to adapt and figure out what to do.

And most important of all, if you screw up, you’ll get punished because there’s not a half mile of run off area with smooth asphalt but instead either a barrier or a sandtrap which in both cases mean your race is generally over. Take a track like Sebring for example– if you repaved it, it would be the most boring track in the world but as it is, it’s one of the best tracks in the world.

Everyone that goes to do Super Formula in Japan loves it for the same reason as Indycar, because it’s pure hardcore, really tough racing with very good cars on a variety of really great race tracks.
I agree 100 percent with Treluyer. I see exactly where he’s coming from. You become like a journeyman when you drive these LMP1 or F1 cars because there’s so much other stuff aside from the driving that plays a big role in how you get on. You have to fit in with a corporate culture and do things that take a huge amount of your time.

That said, some drivers love it and though it sounds funny to say, some of them can sometimes be better at that part of the job than driving, and seemingly it works because they stay employed for several years in many cases.

JT – Another aspect of the current racing landscape that is less than ideal was directly addressed by Nicolas Armindo recently. Armindo, best known for his success in racing GT cars, announced his retirement earlier this month with a frank comment.

“I’ve only lived for motorsport but I no longer want to fight against the system,” he said.
Armindo’s remark directly addressed the difficulty the Gold-rated driver has faced in finding a competitive ride due the FIA ratings system now in place and the Balance of Performance format now prevalent.

“There are too many Gold drivers that no longer have rides,” he said. “Gold drivers are being asked to pay for a ride and Silvers are being paid. The system in place is discriminatory and arbitrary.”

He further added, “How can you ask a driver not to go too fast early in the season so the manufacturer is not penalized by BoP?”

We’ve discussed the driver ratings system before and its drawbacks, and the BoP. What do you think of Armindo’s remarks?

SJ – I agree, definitely. Every time you try to create artificial rules or regulations this is what happens.

And though the current ratings system would work in my favor if I wanted it to, especially being a Bronze driver now, it’s a completely unfair system, completely unfair. Before the ratings system there never ever used to be a problem.

Teams that wanted to win would simply hire the best drivers they could afford to give them the best chance of winning. On the other hand, the teams that just wanted to be there to fill the grid and be part of it, they would take a paying and less fast driver and it always worked itself out. Now, it’s completely unfair that good professional drivers – really good drivers - can’t get a drive because of this ratings system.

Instead, teams now scour the earth to find a karting champion who’s 16 years old and hasn’t been graded yet, and Gold or Platinum drivers instead have to find money. The thing is that the Bronze or Silver drivers become the most important ones as the difference between all the Platinum or Gold drivers in the field may be 5-8 tenths per lap.

The difference between a really good Silver, or even more Bronze driver and a not so good one, can be several seconds. So they become by far the most important cog in the wheel to win. It’s completely backwards, the whole system. They should just get rid of it. I’ve said that from the moment they came up with it. Let the driver market happen organically like it used to happen. There was never a problem before.

An important point in all of this is that almost every single race car today is too expensive to run. With all of the electronics they have, with all of the systems it takes twice, maybe three times the amount of people just to run a car now. Manpower doesn’t come for free. The cars are much more expensive to manufacture, and the cost of spares are through the roof in comparison to what it used to be. What happens is that all the money a team can generate is now absorbed in running the team, hence there is very little left to pay a good driver.

The truth is that drivers today outside the top level of Formula One or maybe NASCAR make less money than they did 20 years ago. In some cases you’re lucky to even make any money at all as a professional driver. The system is really screwed up.

In sports cars, LMP3 is a great example of how a less expensive formula should work. It’s a comparatively very affordable category with reasonably priced cars where you can run a full season for $500,000-$600,000.

And look what’s happening. The LMP3 grids are full. You can’t even get an entry. Next year there will be about 150 LMP3 cars sold around the world. That should tell you something. On the flipside, an LMP1 prototype budget is over $200 million per year in an effort to win Le Mans and that should tell you something else.

That’s just as ludicrous as it is for an F1 team to spend half-a-billion dollars per year. It’s crazy, and as a result we now have only two teams running LMP1 who are capable of taking the overall win at the Le Mans 24 hours and more than a handful of F1 teams running on fumes before the season’s even started. Not a good situation.

Unfortunately, you can’t put the genie back in the bottle. When you create new technology and knowledge, you can’t just erase that. That means it’s always difficult to control costs. People will always find another way to recover performance. But some simple reforms need to be made.
As an example, a one car IndyCar budget for a season equals just the brake budget for one of the top F1 teams!

But going back to the ratings system, another way to think of it is that everyone reaches their limit as a driver - the limit of how good they really are. That’s gone now. There are guys who literally shouldn’t even be on the grid in sports cars who are there because of this ratings system while pros can’t get a job. Even in F1 you have half the grid there because the drivers can bring money. It’s a mess.

JT – In the WEC, Toyota recently said that if there was any reduction in the scope of hybrid technology for LMP1 in the coming years, they would be unlikely to continue in the championship. LMP1 is declining and as we’ve discussed costs must be reduced for the WEC as a whole and the P1 class if it’s to survive. Dialing back the massive cost of creating complex hybrid drive systems would help. But apparently the manufacturers aren’t that interested in cost reduction if that means they can’t use the series for development.

SJ – It’s a repeating problem in several championships. They become slaves to the manufacturers and that affects every other part of a series. It’s the same old double-edged sword. It’s great to have the manufacturers because they spend money and promote the championships but simultaneously they make the racing so expensive it pushes out other competitors.

I’ve said this for a while now and I’ll say it again. In my opinion the best thing they could do is scrap LMP1. There are only two teams now and who cares? They should do away with the prototypes altogether and instead un-restrict the GT cars and get rid of theBoP (Balance of Performance). That would give them 200-250 more horsepower immediately, even with their road car powerplants. The Ferrari has over 200 more horsepower as a street car than it does as a Le Mans car and it’s far from the only GT car that has much more power than the racing version of the same car.

If you gave the GTs that kind of power and some wider tires, maybe by two inches wider front and rear, and a little more aero, they would be doing 3-minute-30-second laps around Le Mans in no time. That’s seems to be the sweet-spot where the ACO wants the speed to be.
That way you would have a whole field of really fast GT cars which effectively could be purchasedas customer cars by any team – the same car as the factory teams use – and it would be like it used to be with the Porsche 956s for example. There used to be three factory cars and 25 privateers running 956s.

You would still have the factory teams that would be a bit faster than the customer teams but not much. Nothing like we have now where there are two teams that are more than 10 seconds a lap quicker than the next competitors. Every manufacturer would have to build a car that’s homologated, like the Ford GT.

There would be a wait list for every road car version of the same car they’re racing, just as it is now with the Ford. No BoP. Every manufacturer would have to build the best car they could to fit the rules and not slow down the rest of the cars to make the field even - may the best man win!

LMP1 may die a natural death anyway with expenses and other concerns for the current manufacturers at the moment. If the GTs were brought forward I think you’d have eight to ten manufacturers wanting to participate. And if they’re GT cars, I think you attract a whole different and much larger fan base.