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#SJblog (source page)

2016: Year In Review

Eric Graciano

#SJblog 81

JT – With 2016 coming to a close, it’s time to reflect on some of the year’s racing headlines, trends and impending changes as the new year arrives. But before we get to that, let’s chat about your first experience racing an LMP3 car earlier this month at the Gulf 12 Hours on Abu Dhabi’s Yas Marina circuit. 

You were teamed in United Autosports’ No. 22 Ligier JS P3 with Jim McGuire, Nico Rondet and Matt Keegan. Qualifying featured an average of all drivers’ lap times in each car to set the grid. The sister No. 23 Ligier of Alex Lynn, Shaun Lynn and Richard Meins lined up 7th with your car 6th. You set the fastest time among bronze drivers in qualifying and finished third in class with your teammates after both segments of the 12 Hours. 

What was it like to drive the P3 car and how did you enjoy the racing?

SJ – It was good fun. I hadn’t been in a proper car for a while. It’s been four years since I last raced a prototype. It felt a bit rusty to start with but as the weekend went on I started to get sharper. It started to feel pretty good in my last stint of the race. I guess if I had to rate myself over the weekend, I’d give myself a “5” out of 10. There’s definitely room for improvement but I really enjoyed it. It’s always been the same for me over the years when I’ve been out of a car for a longer period of time, after three races you’re more or less back to where you need to be.

The Ligier LMP3 is a great car, fantastic fun to drive. I really like the concept of the LMP3 class with economical, proper prototypes. The cars have no driver aids. They’re very pure and basic, but like all modern race cars very underpowered but certainly not easy to drive. The chassis is very reactive and because it doesn’t have driver aids it’s actually more difficult to handle than the other classes of cars. It’s not that different than a LMPC car and has a similar raw feel to it. 

JT – What did you think of the Yas Marina circuit? You hadn’t raced there before, correct?

 Correct, I have been there a few times for the F1 race but I had never raced there before. It’s another [Hermann] Tilke designed track. The facility is outstanding and visually it looks amazing when you first see it but it’s not very interesting once you drive it. There are four 1st-gear corners, ten 2nd-gear corners and one each which are 3rd, 4th and 5th-gear. So, the track is really all 1st and 2nd gear corners with the exception of turns two and three which are somewhat tricky to get right. The rest is all typical modern F1 tracks, with the identical template kerbs on every corner and although they are by no means easy to get right it’s purely another technical track where car performance and precision are the key factors to a fast laptime. Not one single corner where you have a take deep breath and go for it.

And there are three chicanes built into a track that started with a clean sheet, which is kind of strange when you can choose any combination of corners you wish? Chicanes were originally invented as a kind of last resort to slow cars down when a track was suddenly deemed too fast for certain cars. When you start from scratch designing a modern track there should be no reason to include chicanes. It’s amazing and frustrating that this trend keeps on going on almost every modern race track being built today. Why doesn’t someone at least attempt to do something really extraordinary when you have the opportunity starting from scratch. 

Source: F1

Source: F1

JT – Looking back at the 2016 F1 season, it unfolded pretty much as expected in general terms. Mercedes GP was head and shoulders above the other teams and dominated, winning 19 of the 21 races on the calendar, setting a new record in the process. 

SJ – Yes absolutely, they dominated. The only times they were beaten is when others picked up the pieces after they made errors, bad starts or had problems with reliability. Apart from that the races were pretty much a foregone conclusion before they started. 

Ultimately, Rosberg did a brilliant job winning the championship. It’s been so close between the two of them the past couple of years and this year was no different of course. Rosberg was able to turn it on mid-season to gain a big enough advantage over Lewis, where he did not have to get into a dogfight for position but merely had to maintain his points gap even if Lewis won every race towards the end. I believe this was the key to him being able to drive disciplined and error free to get the points he needed to seal the title. I don’t think there’s much left to say about his decision to retire a week after the final race, everybody interested in F1 have voiced their opinion one way or the other. In the end it’s his decision and no one else’s. I personally respect the way he bowed out of F1. When you think about it, what would a guy like that want to do next. Would he want to hang in there trying to break every record? 

Source: F1

Source: F1

I think it really comes down to the goals you set for yourself. His goal was to win the Formula One World Championship and he did that. Other drivers – Senna, Schumacher, Hamilton – they have different goals perhaps. And then some drivers simply love racing and can look beyond what the goals are and just enjoy the moment, enjoy racing for what it is and still do a great job by doing that. Bottom line is that every driver is different and it would have been a much easier decision for Nico to say I carry on for a few more years rather than make a decision that is completely life changing to him in every aspect, it takes someone with a lot of courage and will power that reach that conclusion. 

JT – For the last couple decades F1 has focused on Senna, Schumacher and Hamilton – all guys who share a determination to be relentless in their pursuit of winning races and championships - sometimes to an unhealthy degree. I think Rosberg has demonstrated that there’s another way. It may not be a new idea but his outlook is refreshing and perhaps good for Formula One. Do you agree?

SJ – I agree entirely. There is a fine balance between doing the right thing and being relentlessly obsessed with winning at any cost, including cheating if that is an available option – and the notion that we should somehow admire that without questioning the means of how the winning is achieved.

In the end, the relatively brief moments we spend fighting to win races and championships are miniscule relative to the bigger picture of life in general but also in the life of a racing driver. I think we all evolve as human beings to appreciate that at some point later in life. Everyone has their own morals, desires and ambitions in life but I think what Rosberg did was classy and graceful. 

He figured out what he had to do, did it his way and succeeded. That’s very admirable. 

 

 

 

 

JT – The Formula One cars we’ve known for the last few years are changing for 2017. Most fans won’t miss the cars that have raced in recent seasons but as you’ve said repeatedly, though the formula is changing somewhat, the direction chosen probably won’t improve competition.

SJ – Yes, we’ll have a completely new style of cars for better or worse. The cars will probably look a lot better but whether they’re going to be better in terms of racing remains to be seen. I doubt it very much personally. We have gradually over the years arrived at a situation, primarily thanks to the designs of the cars with these incredibly complex front wings and the amount of downforce they produce, where we then have to create an artificial device (DRS) that will enable overtaking with the purpose of making the racing more exciting or interesting. Add to that the tires which have been mandated to be much worse than they could or should be, again with the purpose to spice up the show with a very short life span and low grip levels. Yet we are now adding even more downforce to the cars, granted it’s supposed to be generated from the bottom of the car and not the front which will help the turbulence for sure, but the fact remains that the cars are already almost in the corners when they brake so I can’t see how by adding a very significant amount of downforce will be helpful in this regard. The cars will be on rails literally and there will be even less opportunity to pass than there currently is. Some argue that it will only be the brave drivers that will be fast which is complete nonsense in my opinion, anyone can drive a car with a lot of downforce as long as they are fit enough to handle the forces, it’s when you start taking it off to a significant degree the difference between the great and not so good will start to show.

Technical Analysis Sketch by Giorgio Piola

Technical Analysis Sketch by Giorgio Piola

You have to assume that Mercedes will maintain some kind of advantage but whenever there’s a reset like this there is an opportunity for someone else to get it more right than the others and that advantage then tends to stay for a while as we’ve seen with Mercedes the past few years. There are also a lot of changes within Mercedes for next year. Rosberg has left and Paddy Lowe (technical director) is apparently leaving too. I have a feeling that Red Bull will be in the strongest position to challenge Mercedes next season. The engines are all getting closer to each other every year and we can assume that starting next year there will be very little difference in terms of power between the different engine manufacturers, so the emphasis will be moving back more towards the chassis and who can get the best out of the tires. The cars will have a massive increase in downforce, and it will be a somewhat new frontier for the teams to find the best package for the start of the season, and this is why I think Red Bull will be very strong as they already had arguably the best chassis this year and with Adrian Newey fully focused on the F1 program again. 

Also, all the teams that have a “B” team or a satellite team or whatever you want to label them, Red Bull/Toro Rosso, Ferrari/HAAS and Mercedes with the teams they support will most likely have an advantage in the early stages as they will have 4 cars or more to collect certain data from during the initial testing.

JT – Mercedes GP is still lining up a replacement for Nico Rosberg. Williams F1’s Valtteri Bottas is seen as a leading candidate. No matter who is chosen, they will likely experience friction with Lewis Hamilton.

Photo by Motorsport.com

Photo by Motorsport.com

SJ – There was friction between the drivers before so why should it be any different in 2017? 

How much friction depends on how big a threat Lewis’ new teammate could be. That’s normal and not a bad reflection on Lewis in particular but merely the way it is, especially in a team where you have two driver with an equal chance to fight for the championship. We had the same scenario between Vettel and Webber when they were dominating and both had a real chance of winning the title, Prost and Senna, Mansell and Piquet. It was war without weapons and no different to what we have seen between Lewis and Nico the past few years. Unless you have a clear number one driver like Ferrari had with Schumacher you will always have that dynamic if the title is at stake. 

JT – At McLaren, Fernando Alonso will have Stoffel Vandoorne as a new teammate. Vandoorne spent 2016 racing in the Japanese Super Formula. The series features 2 liter turbocharged engines from Toyota and Honda in Dallara SF14 single-seater chassis. Comparable to current IndyCars in terms of pace, the Super Formula cars are challenging to master and the generally experienced field of drivers assures stiff competition. One would imagine that racing in Japan in 2016 was probably good for Vandoorne in terms of experience.

SJ – The racing in Japan is super competitive and those cars are on a very high level of performance. It’s a great training ground for sure and it shows how competitive it is when someone like Vandoorne goes there and struggles to win races. (Vandoorne won two races in 2016.) And it’s the same for every European who goes there. It’s a very tough series.

JT – The 2017 Formula One calendar is firm and it shows that F1 events are always in flux. For the first time in many years there will be no German Grand Prix. Other events which have struggled recently including the Malaysian GP were able to secure a date. But attendance has been off at many venues, including at European races like the Austrian GP at Red Bull Ring which has seen a precipitous drop and financial losses. F1’s mix of circuits globally is always a point of debate.

SJ – I’m sure there are many pockets or areas around the world where a new F1 venue can draw a big audience. I’m convinced that if they held a GP at Long Beach for example, it would be massive. There’s a huge F1 fan base in the Los Angeles and San Diego area, and there’s the California car culture which is huge. I’m sure it could be much better than Texas (USGP, Austin) has been for many different reasons.

But F1 will always have problems in one region or another. Typically they go to places where money is, although the European races are not big spenders. But I think it’s worthwhile to retain some of the classic venues to mix with new circuits. 

JT – A proposal for a budget cap for F1 teams has surfaced again, this time from Liberty Media, the new group taking control of F1. The budget cap idea has been put before the teams several times in recent years but has never gained support because the top teams claim that the caps cannot be enforced. What do you think of the latest move to try to institute some kind of spending limit?

SJ – I agree 100 percent that you can never really truly enforce a cost cap. The teams will always find ways to spend money, and the creativity they have to accomplish this will just make it even more expensive in the end in my opinion.  I think what should be done with that in mind is to limit the areas where large amounts of money are currently being spent.

The number one area by far to focus on is Aerodynamics because everything on a current race car evolves from the Aero package. This is the single most important area for car performance, yet it has very little benefit if any at all outside the realm of making a race car go faster. The amount of money each team is spending on aero development is astronomical. I spoke to one of the Senior Management guys in one of the top teams recently, he told me they have a total of 250 people in the Design and Engineering department, of which half are aerodynamicists. Then bear in mind that each team probably have a similar ratio of staff depending on how big their budgets are. And all they are free to do is basically just fine tuning of a very restricted package, hence nearly every car looking identical. There is no innovation, just an enormous amount of money being spent on gaining ½ percent here and another ¼ percent there which all adds up in the end. 

Almost every single driver and many designers I speak to today is in agreement that aerodynamics or downforce is not the way to go. It’s a point I’ve been making for some time now, it’s killing the racing in every category and is making the average drivers look much better than they really are. Even Adrian Newey, who is the best Aerodynamicist in F1 history came out this week and said he is in favor of a Wind Tunnel ban. 

The best and only solution in my opinion in order to keep the costs down and to make the racing more interesting but still give teams the freedom to innovate in other ways is to set a fixed limit on the downforce the cars can produce. Whatever the number is, something significantly less than what they’re getting right now, the focus would go from how much aerodynamic downforce cars make to how much grip the teams could gain back in other areas. It would be easy to monitor the level of downforce through the ECU and the load sensors in the suspension. 

It sounds controversial as it requires a complete rethink but it’s in my view it’s no different than limiting the size of the tires, the engine size, or the amount of fuel the cars can carry. We have limits and restrictions in almost every area of the car so why not limit the amount of downforce to a level that is sensible and that will also improve the racing.

Limiting downforce and putting the emphasis on other areas of development would also assist in the prevailing debate of political correctness which says that Formula One should benefit automotive technology for the street somehow. If you take all the effort, brain power and money that’s been spent in wind tunnels for the past 25 years and concentrate those resources in other areas, I guarantee you that in five years there will be breakthroughs in technology that we haven’t even seen yet. 

This could include technology that gives cars a massive leap in mechanical grip, a lot less drag, greatly improved tires and much more. At the least, it could open up new areas of exploration instead of endlessly focusing and fine-tuning the aero within this very defined box. New materials we never knew existed and other technologies would be discovered and developed at a pace we can’t imagine. 

If you free up the engine restrictions you can make similar gains as well. Set a certain parameter regarding how much energy consumption is allowed but let the engines make as much horsepower as they can get within those parameters. Make the engines powerful and not just efficient. If they can get 1500hp by only using the allowed criteria of energy consumption that’s great. Allow any technology that people want to try, remember the turbine Lotus in the 70’s, pioneering stuff that is also exciting and interesting for the fans.

Make the cars spectacular looking and difficult to drive, a car with 1500hp and half or less of the current levels of downforce will be a beast to drive, and that’s what the fans and the drivers want. 

Again, in that kind of competitive environment there would be new engine technology pioneered or developed that could be infinitely better than any hybrid or electric power plants that are currently being mandated as the only option for a power plant. Changing this focus will bring on new innovations that no one has thought of yet just because they have now been challenged to think of them. Motor racing in general and F1 in particular is the most competitive environment you can find, and if you unchain these guys and really allow their creativity to come out I guarantee you that we will see some incredible stuff in the future. 

There are more scientist and engineers alive in the world today than have lived in all previous human history put together, this is an important fact. In the past 20 years there have been literally new discoveries in Science and technology every week and this is increasing at an exponential rate. Radical new technologies are coming into existence all the time. If the emphasis of F1 or motor racing in general is to stay relevant, maybe it’s time to do a reset and allow some new and radical thinking instead of rehashing the same old Aerodynamics concept over and over at an astronomical cost each time there’s a new rule change. 

JT- With the announcement that Audi is pulling out of WEC we are now down to two manufacturers racing each other for the Championship and the overall win at Le Mans. What are the likelihood of more manufacturers joining the series and what effect do you think it will have on WEC going forward?

SJ- It’s hard to say, but I find it nearly impossible for a new manufacturer to join in the current situation and with the current rules the way they are. LMP1 is now on a level of F1, maybe even more in some aspects. The budgets are certainly very close to a top team in F1 and for a new team to join with a genuine attempt at winning would be a monumental task. We may see some half serious attempts like the Nissan project last year but I would be very surprised to see any manufacturer mount a serious effort at winning the 24 hours under the current system.

Much like F1, the development of the cars have reached a point where the racing is not very interesting any longer, the GTLM and LMP2 categories are far more interesting to follow than the LMP1 is now, with great drivers in both categories and great teams running the cars. It’s hard racing all the way.

I personally think we’re at a point now where we could take the GTLM cars and make them the main category. The goal for the ACO has always been for the fastest cars to be in the 3 min 30sec laptime bracket, they seem to think this is the safe area to be in for overall laptimes. The GT’s are in the low 50’s now and if you took of all the restrictors they would gain a significant amount of horsepower which could translate to a laptime somewhere in the mid 40’s probably. Allow each manufacturer to then develop the cars bit further, add some wider tires and wider wheel arches which would make the cars look a lot more cool and aggressive and the laptimes would be in the 30’s in a couple of years. The racing would be awesome with a whole grid full of the same cars essentially. The manufacturers would be going for it and the customer teams could buy the same car as the one winning the race. They wouldn’t be as quick, but not that far off, certainly not 10 seconds or more which is currently the case between the manufacturers and the privateers. The fans will be watching the same cars they can buy in the showroom and we would probably have 7-8 Manufacturers represented, maybe more. If you take away the BOP restrictions, it’s up to each manufacturer to make a road car that is good enough to compete for overall victory. We would see some incredibly cool looking cars, that will then also be available for people to buy. Like we have seen with the Ford GT, there will be a line of people wanting to get their hands on these when they become available to the public.

Nico Rosberg retirement, I meet an old friend at Adelaide & Felix Rosenqvist finishes 2nd at the Macau Grand Prix

Stefan Johansson

JT – It has been a couple weeks since the last blog and a lot has happened. Nico Rosberg was crowned F1 world champion at the Grand Prix of Abu Dhabi. Then late last week Rosberg shocked everyone with the announcement that he is retiring from F1. Meanwhile, Audi finished 1-2 in their final race in prototype competition at the Six Hours of Bahrain. And the Macau Grand Prix was a topsy-turvy event with plenty of carnage, controversy and a smattering of competitive racing.

While much of this played out you were Down Under, having been invited to the Adelaide Motorsport Festival to drive the No. 28 Ferrari F156/85 you piloted for Scuderia Ferrari during the 1985 F1 season (scoring two 2nd place finishes).

Given that Rosberg’s news is so unexpected, let’s begin there. Then we’ll reflect on your experience in Australia. What are your thoughts on Nico’s retirement?

SJ – It is obviously a shock announcement and a major surprise to everyone. It’s also likely a testament to how intense the situation at Mercedes has been all along. You can sympathize with him, having to go through that again is a major thing to consider.

Still, I would have thought that now having one title in the bag it would have been a lot easier to carry that momentum forward. But more than any other influence, I think it’s an acknowledgement of just how hard he had to work and how much it took out of him to win this title.

JT – In addition, I think we all recognize the maturity and guts it took for Nico Rosberg to make this decision.

"We said we'd be champions back then, now we both are! Congratulations Nico, you did everything a champion needed to do. Well deserved." - Lewis Hamilton

"We said we'd be champions back then, now we both are! Congratulations Nico, you did everything a champion needed to do. Well deserved." - Lewis Hamilton

SJ – Yes, that’s my next point. You really have to admire the strength of character it takes to make that decision at this stage of his career. You might say it’s early in his career but we can’t forget that Nico and so many of these guys started racing at a pretty high level in their early teens. (Rosberg mentioned that he has been racing for 25 years in comments on his retirement.)

So this has been pretty much all that Nico has been involved with his whole life. Since he was a little kid he’s been racing – and on a very intense level. So it may be a bit easier to understand his perspective when you think of that. However, I also think he might get the itch again after being away for a year or so, which we saw with a number of the guys who retired at an early stage in their careers. It’s an enormous hole to fill when you have been used to the intensity and focus every minute of your life pretty much for most of your life. I’ll be very surprised if we don’t see him back in some form of racing after a year or two.

JT – Nico always seems to have been a bit underrated. If we look at his time at Mercedes GP alone, realize who his two teammates have been – Lewis Hamilton and Michael Schumacher.

Source: F1 Fanatic

Source: F1 Fanatic

SJ – Exactly, it isn’t as if he hasn’t been tested. Look back to what he did while Michael was in the team. He made Michael look pretty average overall. Looking back now, Nico is probably the toughest teammate Michael ever had, certainly a lot more competitive than Eddie Irvine or Rubens Barrichello ever were.

I’d say most people have underestimated how good Nico really is. Let’s not forget that Lewis is already the second most winning driver in F1 history, and to be basically on even par with him every weekend is definitely not something that just any driver would be capable of doing. I also feel that maybe this was Nico’s way of finally sticking it to Lewis as he won’t be there to defend the title. In 2016 he was the best driver in the world, he rose to the occasion and had a string of very strong races midseason which effectively built the foundation for the Championship, when Lewis then retired in Malaysia all he had to do was drive intelligently without getting into it with Lewis every race like he was forced to do every time before that. It took him two years to figure out how to deal with that, starting with that race in 2014 in Bahrain where Lewis sort of moved the goal post and showed what he was prepared to do to win, team mate or not. I think it caught Nico by surprise and you could tell after that in both 2014 and 2015 he was not comfortable going to the length he had to do to either defend or attack against Lewis, and as such, we saw some moves that weren’t going to stick and Lewis generally seemed to come out on top. 2016 was different however, he changed his strategy and it worked out. I can sympathize 100% that it must have been difficult if it doesn’t come natural to you.

JT – Rosberg’s decision really is unexpected but as you mention, this has probably been brewing for some time. In published comments last week, his father Keke Rosberg may have alluded to Nico’s decision, saying “He has a lot of seasons behind him and I'm sure that, especially, the last three seasons have taken a high toll."

"They've been very hard seasons, because you're fighting for the championship for three years in a row, constantly." Keke said. "It's much tougher than trying to finish sixth. I don't know how much it's taken out of him."

SJ – I am sure it was not a rash decision but something that’s been on his mind for a while. I know his father Keke quite well. He’s an incredibly smart guy and has a very strong character. He’s very firm in his beliefs and if you take that into account, that could give insight into Nico’s logic.

JT – Everything is speculation at this point but the show goes on in F1. With Rosberg vacating his seat at Mercedes GP you would expect there to be a major amount of scrambling by top drivers to perhaps fill the vacancy. Of course, Mercedes has its own bench to draw from as well.

SJ – There will be a lot of action right now from every quarter, no doubt. I would imagine there are some guys, maybe like Nico Hulkenberg, who are having second thoughts about their decisions for next year. By the same token, they couldn’t have known what would happen. No one did, except Nico.

I am sure there a lot of the top guys reading their contracts with a fine comb right now to find out if there’s any way they can wiggle out of their existing deals. But more than anything the biggest dilemma is really for Mercedes to fill the gap from Rosberg, there is no one obvious to replace him with that is not already under contract, and I would imagine it would be problematic for them to put any of their Junior drivers in the car as it’s a huge step with enormous pressure. I feel for the Management at Mercedes too, they’ve had to deal with the constant battles and conflicts between these two guys in the past three year, and now they’re stuck in a situation where there is no obvious candidate to take Nico’s seat. Both Toto and Niki have certainly had their work cut out dealing with all this and when you weigh up all the circumstances I think they have done a great job in managing the situation.

JT - Returning to Australia, on the Friday before the Adelaide Motorsport Festival, you drove the Ferrari F156/85through the streets of Adelaide among the public which must have been a blast. Then on Saturday you ran the car around a portion of the Victoria Park street circuit which played host to the Australian Grand Prix from 1985 to 1995 – one of the tracks you raced it on. That must have been a great deal of fun too.

Did you enjoy driving the Ferrari again?

SJ – Yes, it was a great weekend – only there could you do something like that. It was Adelaide just how I remembered it from all those years past. It was a lot of fun and quite emotional to drive the old car actually.

I last drove that car up the hill at Goodwood a few years ago but that doesn’t really count as you can’t really lean on the car there as you do on a real race track. Apart from that my last drive in it was 30 years ago! It started to feel familiar after a few laps. It was kind of emotional when I started pushing it a bit and getting into the performance window of the car a little. Lots of memories… It was great using a manual gearbox and going through the gears and everything. By the end of day two I was getting some small blisters in my right hand from the gearshift which is how it used to be back in the day. They didn’t have it cranked up to full power but it was still enough to get a good feel for it.

JT – As usual we begin with Formula One, however let’s rewind to the penultimate race of 2016, the Brazilian GP – a race held amid off-and-on rain showers. It was notable mostly for the stop-start nature of the racing, a few on-track incidents and lucky escapes, and Max Verstappen’s drive.

He was widely lauded for his march through the field in the wet after good fortune in not wrecking somehow when his Red Bull spun on the on pit straight early in the race. During the last safety car period Red Bull Racing pitted Verstappen to fit extreme wet tires, changing from the intermediate wets he had been running on. He made a succession of passes, going from 14th to 3rd in the final 15 laps.

It was certainly an impressive drive though his cause was aided by having newer tires than any of those he passed. As you mention, there was also another key advantage for him.

SJ – There’s no question, he drove a fantastic race. His car control is amazing and he absolutely deserved the podium finish, but the thing I absolutely cannot understand is why no one else drove on the wet racing line? That’s racing in the rain-101.

In every category I’ve ever raced whether that’s sports cars, Indy Cars or F1 and all the way down to Karting, if it’s raining hard you never drive on the dry racing line. It’s full of rubber and it’s always way more slippery. I just don’t get why everyone else was on the regular line – it’s fundamental.

Verstappen was passing guys like they were standing still and you’d think the penny would drop and they would all start doing what he was doing. It boggles my mind. I don’t understand what the rest of them were doing.

Toto Wolff said what he did “defied physics”. It didn’t really defy physics. Verstappen had much more grip out there off the regular line – simple as that. There’s always more grip on the outside line in the rain. He was carrying more speed than anyone else and you would expect that the other drivers would have thought, “Hmm… maybe I should try that.” But in the end, it was a very impressive drive by Verstappen in extremely difficult conditions. His race craft is already up there with any of them and he showed an incredible amount of car control especially on that save he did where everyone else ended up smacking the wall.

Among all this everyone also seemed to forget what Lewis did, he had the entire field completely covered and drove an incredible race in very difficult conditions. The situation for him was far worse than any other driver in the field as he basically had no option but to win in order to keep the championship alive, so the pressure on him was immense.

The race management was also odd. I’ve certainly been in races where conditions were way worse and these are supposed to be the best drivers in the world. You’d think they should be able to handle it. If it’s gotten to the point where the cars are un-drivable in that kind of weather then maybe it’s time to go back to the drawing board, at least with the tires.

If there is a problem with the wet tires, the testing ban probably accounts for a large part of that. There’s no doubt that if there was still competition between tire suppliers in F1 none of this would happen. Wet or dry, the tires would be way better.

JT – The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix was interesting chiefly as the deciding race for the 2016 championship. What drama there was stemmed from Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton, and their duel for the title. The race marked the last outing for Jenson Button and Felipe Massa but they were largely overshadowed by the title fight.

Rosberg prevailed in the championship, finishing second to Lewis Hamilton in the race. Sebastian Vettel came home 3rd. One big talking point afterward was Hamilton’s attempt to back Rosberg up, slowing his pace so much that Rosberg would be vulnerable to those behind. Hamilton has drawn both criticism and support for his tactics.

Meanwhile Rosberg held his nerve, passing Max Verstappen to reclaim 2nd position on lap 20 after his first pit stop. He also fended off Sebastian Vettel in the waning laps.

Though Hamilton said prior to the race that he wouldn’t slow his pace if he led Rosberg during the grand prix, he did exactly that. I don’t think anyone was particularly surprised by his decision apart from Rosberg perhaps, and it’s debatable whether he should or shouldn’t have done that. But his comments in response to team orders seemed a bit petulant.

What did you think of the race and Hamilton’s conduct?

SJ – It certainly got a bit exciting when Lewis started backing Nico up to the rest of them. Any little mishap and the race could have gone pear-shaped for Nico or for both of them. So the last portion of the race was very exciting and in many ways the scenario that most people probably was hoping for in a weird way.

Lewis’ tactics were to be expected despite the strict orders from the team. In the heat of the battle you can react in many different ways. It seems that in all sports today it’s gotten to the point where the moral side of things is almost irrelevant. Winning at any cost is the course of action most often. What was interesting to me was the parallel between this championship and the one in 1984 where Prost and Lauda had a similar situation. They were team mates at McLaren and if Prost won I think Niki had to finish 2nd to clinch the title.

I don’t recall one single person ever mention or speculate about Prost backing up Lauda into the pack, the term “backing up” didn’t even exist. No one thought of doing that, Prost basically disappeared into the distance and Lauda as it were had a big dice with me for most of the race for 4th place. I eventually got a slow puncture and had to pit, and then Lauda managed to pass Senna for 3rd and then inherited 2nd when Mansell spun towards the end of the race. I honestly don’t think it ever entered anyone’s mind, that Prost backing Lauda into the pack was even an option.

As it were, it all worked out ok and I think Nico very deservedly won the championship. He rose to the occasion more than once this year and did an excellent job overall.

JT – Rosberg’s title clinch also made history and positive headlines for F1. He and his father Keke (1982 World Champion) are just the second father-son pairing, along with Graham Hill and Damon Hill, to win the F1 driver’s championship. It’s a warm and welcome story for a series that has had so many negatives recently. In addition, you’ve known Keke for a long time so it’s a nice thing to see from that perspective as well.

SJ – Yes, for sure. As I mentioned earlier, Keke’s a very old friend of mine – since we were teenagers when we first got to know each other. I’m really happy for him and I’m sure it must be an incredible feeling to see his son repeat what he was able to do.

JT – On the other hand, much of the talk following the Abu Dhabi GP tends toward how glad fans are that 2016 is over. There’s a natural tendency to look toward the future of course and the new style of F1 cars next season. But 2016 was widely seen as a boring season with a lack of competition on-track and leadership off-track that doesn’t seem to know what to do next. In fact, F1’s principals still seem to have difficulty acknowledging that there are big problems.

SJ – Yes and this has been a trend for some time now. You really can’t control the domination of one team because everyone is and should be doing their best to win consistently. But any time you have one team being dominant for a number of seasons it’s generally not a good thing.

Unfortunately I’m not sure if next year and going forward is going to be any better. I think the outcome of the races may change somewhat with the new cars but I think the racing won’t be any better with the new rules package they’ve chosen. The cars will be much faster, but only in the corners, which will make it even more difficult to pass than it is already.

We’ve gone over the issue of having all of this downforce and how that kills the racing several times already. This is true across most all categories of racing today, and especially in single seater formulas where the front aero is critical to how the car will perform.

JT – It’s not easy to say with certainty what the pecking order will be next season in F1 given the new format for the cars. What do you expect?

SJ – I don’t think Mercedes will have the advantage that they’ve had over the last couple years. They’ll be at the front no doubt but I think Red Bull will be very strong, Ferrari will hopefully improve and I am certain that McLaren will catch up and close the gap to the front teams. As usual we can probably count on one of the mid-pack teams getting their cars somewhat right and they’ll be there fourth or fifth in the points. That includes Williams and Force India, maybe Sauber.

Every season one of these teams seems to hit the right combination whether they know it or not beforehand. They go out on a limb between seasons and try to do something clever. Usually it doesn’t work and they lose all the momentum they had and fall back to the back of the pack. But every now and then they hit on something good or they carry the momentum they’ve managed to build over a few seasons of rule stability.

JT – I guess Haas F1 could be considered among the mid-pack teams now. Though their performance suffered from mid-season forward, you’d have to say that 2016 was pretty impressive for Haas given that it was their first year in F1.

SJ – Very much so, I think everyone will agree it was unexpectedly good for them. They did particularly well at the beginning of the season. As I’ve always said, the early races are the easiest ones to score big points in. The fact that they were able to do that with a brand new team was very impressive.

And the way they came into F1 was very intelligent. They made use of available resources allowed by the rules from an already established team and why wouldn’t they? Why would you employ a huge group of people and spend an enormous amount on development if you can purchase intelligence that already exists from someone else. That’s something you’d want to leverage as much as possible in my opinion.

Ferrari struggled this year but they’re still a top-three team so making use of their technology and expertise made a lot of sense.

JT – In off-track news, Zak Brown has been appointed executive director at McLaren while long time McLaren Group chairman and CEO Ron Dennis has been dismissed. Presumably Brown’s role will be to exercise his considerable marketing expertise (Brown is the founder and CEO of JMI, the world’s largest motorsport marketing agency) to bring sponsorship and financial resources to McLaren – something the team/Group have fallen behind with in recent years.

You know Zak well and have raced with him for his United Autosports team. I imagine he’ll be working hard in this capacity while Eric Boullier continues as Racing Director for McLaren. How do you see it?

SJ – Yes, I assume that’s what he’ll be doing and I’m sure he’ll do a terrific job. The momentum for the team and the car next year seems to be going in the right direction. With the new rules there’s a better opportunity for McLaren to get the car right or “right-er” than it has been, assuming that Honda make similar improvements as well.

JT – Bernie Ecclestone recently floated the idea of having Formula One chop the length of its races in half, effectively going to a format where there would be two sprint races per weekend. This is something IndyCar has already done with varying degrees of success. It’s hard to tell what Bernie’s real reasoning is but what do you think of this idea?

SJ – The correct answer is somewhere out there. The problem is that the teams don’t seem to be able to agree to change the things that aren’t working, whether it’s the way races are run or the technical regulations or the format of the points system, whatever. They always seem to want to come up with their own answers rather than looking at other successful series and simply copy what’s good and what works. So inevitably, we end up with some odd experiments from time to time. 

I actually think that NASCAR’s Chase format isn’t a bad way to go. It makes the racing pretty exciting towards the end of the season. Certainly it engages fans right up to the end of the year and ensures that the championship isn’t over until the last race. Of course, everyone in F1 says it isn’t fair. But of all the systems out there I think it’s the one which retains the most excitement over a whole season and keeps building momentum up to the last race.

It may be worth trying a different format at one or two races to see what the reaction is. I think the idea of two sprint races over the course of the weekend would be great at places like Monaco and Singapore for example.

JT – The 2016 Grand Prix of Macau was a pretty fraught event. There was some good racing here and there but there were also a lot of wrecks and lengthy delays caused by them. That interrupted the racing to a great degree and made the individual races less enjoyable. There were also incidents in the F3 race but Felix Rosenqvist drove well to finish second behind Antonio Felix da Costa.  Is the Macau GP outgrowing itself?

SJ – I saw the F3 final. I didn’t see the GT race. Felix did really well but yes, these are the usual issues at Macau. The track is seriously dangerous and accident-inducing but at the same time it’s one of the best tracks in the world for the same reasons. I hold Macau as one of the top 5 tracks in the world, maybe even higher. It’s an awesome and very challenging and difficult track to do well on. Felix did a great job again and had it not been for the exact reasons you just mentioned he would have most certainly qualified much closer to the front which then would have made life much easier to get to the front than what was the case now. To work your way up to 2nd from 8th is extremely difficult there.

JT – The finish of the FIA GT World Cup race at Macau was bizarre. Porsche factory driver Earl Bamber passed Audi factory driver Laurens Vanthoor cleanly after a restart on Lap 5. Vanthoor then clipped curbing, hit an Armco barrier and wound up on his roof.

The race was immediately red-flagged. Bamber was leading when the race was stopped but Vanthoor was awarded the win as per FIA rules that revert to the running order on the previous lap. In most series, the driver causing a red flag is excluded from the results. It’s seems illogical that Vanthoor would be awarded the win for a race he failed to complete after crashing while in 2nd place. What are your thoughts?

SJ – Yes, I can’t understand that one. I saw Bamber at an event after that and he was understandably unhappy.

JT – Early testing of the new global LMP2 cars has shown them to be significantly faster than their predecessors. Rumors are already circulating that the FIA/ACO may step in to slow them down, fearing that gentlemen drivers will not be able to handle them properly. The speed of the new P2 cars has also rekindled ongoing concerns about the FIA driver rating system.

Wouldn’t it be sensible to simplify the ratings system and have just two categories? The Pro category would include anyone who makes their living racing professionally. The Am category would include everyone else. Or how about just doing away with the highly abused ratings system altogether? If gentlemen drivers choose to race in categories where Pro drivers compete shouldn’t they accept that the results? They didn’t seem to have a problem with this in the past.

SJ – Yeah, that’s how it used to be and it was just a process of natural selection. Teams that weren’t as eager to win took on drivers who could pay a bit. And teams that wanted to win put the extra effort in to find a way to pay professional drivers to drive for them.

That was simple and it worked. It was a natural and I think fair way to go about it. You’re never going to have a fair system with driver ratings. As we’ve seen far too many examples of already, some drivers have made getting downgraded to Silver status into an art form.

JT – Following up on the new LMP2 machines, why slow them down? In fact, wouldn’t it be reasonable to shed the LMP1 class? P2 could be the premier class using the DPi formula that IMSA will use. That way you have the potential to attract manufacturers while having a limited number of platforms and a chance of controlling costs. Done right, it could lead to large, competitive prototype fields. They might not be as fast as current P1 hybrids but the racing should be much more competitive.

SJ – I keep saying that and I think many people agree. But the ACO and FIA don’t seem to agree with anything IMSA proposes, and vice versa. In WEC, seemingly they really only care about LMP1. It’s clear that both the ACO and the series need the big manufacturers involved and have them spending very serious money not only on the cars but also on the activation around the Le Mans race and the series events.

But maybe they could shift the manufacturers to GTE instead. I think they’d have a lot more participation from a lot more manufacturers. If you take off the restrictors and open up the GTE cars the lap times could improve by 10 seconds almost immediately - even more after another year or two. By then they are down to what they seem to consider the ideal lap time around Le Mans, somewhere in the 3.30’s range. I personally can’t see any new manufacturer wanting to step into the LMP1 category right now, the commitment is huge and the chances of succeeding against either of the two that’s left (Porsche and Toyota) will take several years.

The Controversial Mexican Grand Prix

Stefan Johansson

- #SJblog 79 -

JT – Last weekend’s Mexican Grand Prix was an unqualified success in terms of the enthusiasm and large turnout of Mexican fans. But the race itself was a mess. The officiating of the grand prix proved to be confusing for both fans and drivers.

Lewis Hamilton won from the pole despite out-braking himself at Turn 1 and reentering the track at full speed in Turn 3. No penalty was assessed though Hamilton clearly gained advantage. Nico Rosberg finished a somewhat distant second after surviving a hit from Max Verstappen at Turn 2 which forced him off track.

The third spot on the podium wasn’t decided until hours after the podium celebrations. Daniel Ricciardo was awarded third place due to penalties handed out to his Red Bull Racing teammate and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel.

Battling for third with Vettel just behind in the last laps of the race, Max Verstappen blew Turn 1 in similar fashion to Hamilton, leaving the track and reentering at Turn 3. No penalty was issued as the laps wound down and Verstappen refused to cede the position to Vettel. This allowed Ricciardo to quickly catch Vettel and attempt to pass him for fourth position. Ricciardo saw an opening at Turn 4 and dived to the inside. Vettel squeezed him to the left under braking, making light contact with Ricciardo and held his position.

Post-race, the stewards handed Verstappen a five second penalty for blowing Turn 1 and pulled him from the podium, elevating Vettel to third place initially. But hours later Vettel was also penalized by the stewards, forfeiting 10-seconds “for driving in a potentially dangerous manner, making an abnormal change of direction, and causing another driver to take evasive action.”
Hence, Verstappen finished 4th while Vettel ended up 5th.

The lack of prompt action by the stewards for each infraction should be an embarrassment for Formula One principals. They failed to act when Hamilton made a mistake then waited to assess penalties on Verstappen and Vettel until after the race. There’s much to be said about the race and the inconsistent/un-timely rulings but I believe your thoughts begin with the track - Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez – itself.

SJ – You are correct. I’ve been trying to arrive at an answer as to why the officiating of F1 has become such a mess all of a sudden. It’s certainly not the first time we’ve seen drivers duke it out with three or four laps to go. That’s the kind of close competition people want to see but this was compromised.

The new track designs with massive asphalt run off areas have slowly and systematically been introduced to every new track and modified on most of the old and existing tracks, mostly for safety reasons. Since this started to happen there has been no clearly defined rule about exceeding track limits or taking advantage of the runoff areas. Because of this the drivers have been able to do pretty much whatever they have wanted without being immediately punished for their mistakes or abuse of the track limits, by simply continuing to race even though they’ve gone off-track.

In other words, the only punishment you can get now is what comes from the control tower rather than an immediate consequence for running off-track. Formula One needs to figure out how to reintroduce an immediate and natural punishment for going off-track.

Take, for instance, Lewis’ mistake at the start of the race. He braked too late, locked up, missed the corner and carried on without even losing a position. At a few other tracks if he’d done the same thing, missing the corner entry by breaking to late and then leaving the track, the best case scenario would be that he knocked off a front-wing endplate or something and would have to pit. Or he might have gotten stuck in a gravel trap. Maybe he gets towed out of it but loses lots of positions or even a lap.

In the past, even when you had an area where there was a clear runoff or an “escape road” as it used to be called, the rule was always that you had to wait to rejoin the track until the marshals waved you on – in other words, when the track was clear. I can’t actually remember why and when that rule changed or was no longer enforced but it used to always be the rule. Knowing this, you had no choice but to be a lot more cautious of missing the entry to the corner as it effectively would ruin your race in many cases. What used to be the escape road is now effectively the entire area past the track limit as there is no longer any definition beyond that point but instead just one huge patch of asphalt in most cases, which of course make the re-entry to the track much more difficult to control. Now drivers just keep their boot in it and keep going, entering the track wherever it suits them.

Stefan Johansson - McLaren F1 - MonacoGP - 1987

Stefan Johansson - McLaren F1 - MonacoGP - 1987

And really, so would I. Because if you can get away with that, that’s what you do. Anyone with even an inkling of competitive spirit would do the same thing. Without clearly defined rules as to what you can and can’t do, this is what happens.

Lewis did exactly the same thing as Verstappen. Both of them blew Turn 1 but Verstappen was penalized and Lewis wasn’t. The rulings are completely random, all over the map.

What I’m getting at is that the fact that these situations now have to be controlled and decided by a human being is wrong. There should be an immediate, natural consequence for screwing up. They need to figure out a way to redesign these modern race tracks to bring that about. The way things are now makes it a complete mockery of the sport. The drivers don’t know if they’re coming or going.

At the end of this race time penalties were handed out. Whether what Verstappen did was right or wrong – personally, I think it was wrong but it’s not for me to decide – he should have been told to immediately give up his position to Vettel if he was judged to be wrong. In the end, instead he lost two places. He gave up a position to Vettel and then lost one to Ricciardo. This is not fair on Verstappen’s part as he lost one position more than he should have and gave an unfair benefit to Ricciardo who had nothing to do with the battle between Vettel and Verstappen but gained one position more than he should have thanks to the time penalty. There is no science behind these time penalties but just a random number picked out of the blue. Who says 5 seconds is the correct penalty, why not instead 10 seconds, or 3, they’re all completely random numbers and does not relate to the “crime” in any way.

By being wishy-washy and not having consistency in the officiating, F1 has allowed the situation to get out of control. We need to find a way to go back to basics and try to avoid having to make calls from the control tower when they should be decided on or by the race track itself.

We have street circuits on the F1 calendar. They don’t have runoff areas and at each one you avoid these situations because there’s nowhere to go beyond the track limits, if you do you hit a wall. Look at old pictures of circuits where the curbs are a foot high at a 45-degree angle. You sure as hell weren’t going to run over those curbs. You had to adapt and drive accordingly. Interestingly, if you look back and do the statistics, I don’t think there were any more incidents or serious accident because of these kerbs, because people simply had to drive with this in mind, which again sorted the good ones from the average in a much better way.

JT – There are multiple specific examples of F1’s inconsistency in officiating that stem from rulings/non-rulings in Mexico. Another you mention is their ruling on Vettel’s battle with Ricciardo.

SJ – With two laps to go, Vettel basically did what Verstappen has done in most races this year and he gets penalized. Verstappen is yet to receive a penalty for the same actions.

Yes, they changed the rule about moving in a braking zone, or said they would enforce it harder from Texas onwards but all they’re doing is just adding another element of confusion. There are so many ways to interpret this same issue that it’s become an almost impossible task to hand out a fair penalty. At some point they just need to let the drivers get on with it.

Assume for a moment that Verstappen was racing in NASCAR. He wouldn’t have finished one race this season. He would have been in the wall every single race if he had applied the same attitude he’s shown in F1 so far. The other drivers would have sorted him out in no time until he would have shown a mutual level of respect that the other competitors showed to him. Of course, you can’t do that in open wheel cars but I remember numerous times when there were a very frank conversation at the back of a truck (hauler) somewhere. That’s how it used to get sorted out if someone stepped out of line. And before you knew it everyone was falling into line. Look at the guys who’ve gone into NASCAR from other series – Montoya, Tony Stewart, all of these great drivers. They all had to pay their dues. Correct the problem with the tracks and let the drivers sort on-track behavior out among themselves. They’re supposed to be the best in the world and it wouldn’t take long for a pattern to form where everyone would be on the same page. There are always exceptions of course and every generation seems to have a resident idiot in the field, but generally speaking, they are rarely one of the top guys as they are clever enough to understand that those methods are not winning you races and championships in the long run.

JT – Do you think the varied challenge of IndyCar racing enhances race-craft? On ovals for example, you either learn to respect the track and the other drivers or you don’t last long.

SJ – Absolutely, no question about it. A large degree of this deficit of skill or race craft is once again partly due to the design of modern circuits, and the relatively equal character to every track they race on. Finding the limit on these tracks is too easy. That of course promotes more irresponsible behavior because the risk and often even penalties, are removed from the equation. Again, there is no punishment. There are a couple of the current F1 drivers, without mentioning any names, that are absolutely brilliant in the Simulator and also as test drivers, but as soon as they get into a position where they have to race someone hard or have a few cars around them everything just goes to pieces. I have had discussions with the team principals about this and they are completely baffled about their lack of basic race craft.

JT – Going back to the Mexican GP, one has to wonder why the FIA waited to issue penalties until after the race? Why couldn’t they have been issued immediately – particularly regarding Verstappen or Hamilton. Those were clear-cut infractions. And if a penalty had been issued in timely fashion, wouldn’t that have diffused the situation that arose between Vettel and Ricciardo?

SJ – Exactly, as I said before, the penalty should have been immediate. Within a lap they should have got on the radio and told Verstappen to let Vettel go by.

What choice did Vettel have? He gets backed up into Ricciardo and he’s all of a sudden looking at losing 4th place and being 5th when he should have been in 3rd place. Any driver would have had the same level of frustration, it goes without saying and that leads to my next point.

I don’t remember when this whole open-radio policy began where the public can hear conversations between the drivers and teams. I guess that’s part of the entertainment now but if you allow and promote that then you’re going to have to expect that drivers are going to show their frustration now and then. Why should that surprise anyone? At least you’re hearing a live, breathing human being showing real emotion instead of drivers thanking the team, sponsors, their parents, etc – all that stuff you normally hear on the slowing down lap has become almost meaningless.

What Vettel said shows what’s actually going on in the car and I can relate to it 100 percent. Normally when you get on the radio like that, you just want to blow off some steam. Yes of course, you have to try to control yourself but I’ve certainly been guilty of using far worse language than Vettel did.

Stefan Johansson - Ferrari - Italian GP - 1986

Stefan Johansson - Ferrari - Italian GP - 1986

JT – Some commentators are now publicly recognizing what you have been commenting on for months. The 2017 rules package for F1 which allows a significant increase in downforce levels will do little if anything to improve the racing. However, those inside F1 still don’t seem to see this, correct?

SJ – The general consensus seems to be that the cars will become more difficult to drive next year because of the added downforce, and the really brave and good one will stand out much more than they do now.

I disagree completely. Anyone can drive a high downforce car. There’s no bravery involved when the car’s completely stuck to the track. It will just make the racing even more like a video game. Bravery comes into it when you’re balancing a car right on the edge of adhesion going through a high speed corner on the very limit. Like Eau Rouge used to be. It’s already almost not a corner anymore, I can’t even think of what it will be like next year. All this will do is make the minimum speed mid corner in the slow stuff even more critical and there will be absolutely no way to make up any time in the high speed stuff as the car will be completely stuck. The cars will outgrow the tracks even more than what is currently the case.

Pedro Rodriguez - Ferrari - MexicanGP - 1965

Pedro Rodriguez - Ferrari - MexicanGP - 1965

The technical rules in Formula One have gotten so complicated that the only people who really understand them are the engineers. That’s why they are the main people involved in writing the technical rules. I guess in a way it’s job security for them. I keep repeating myself over and over, Aerodynamics and the endless search for more downforce will kill the sport if they don’t do something about it. It serves no purpose but to make a race car go faster, but at a cost that will make your eyes water. The top teams now employ something like 200 people in the Design and Engineering departments, of which half are aerodynamicists. And all they are allowed to do is fine tune and hone an aero package that is so strictly defined that I beg anyone to tell me which car is which if they painted them all white. There is no innovation anymore, just and endless tinkering to gain an extra half percent here and another quarter percent there.