Stefan Johansson shares his thoughts about the 'radio ban' in F1, the unfortunate death of Andrea De Cesaris, and Vettel leaving Red Bull
JT – You’ve had a busy schedule since our last blog including attending the Italian Grand Pix at Monza as a guest of Ferrari. The weekend was a poor one for Ferrari on-track and was not without news behind the scenes as well. Ferrari president and chairman Luca di Montezemolo was reported to be leaving the marque and the Scuderia. He eventually resigned the following week. What was the atmosphere like at Monza?
SJ – Monza is always and will always be a bit special, the atmosphere is great with all the Ferrari tifosi. There is no other track in the world that has the energy like Monza does, there is something very special when you drive through the gates into the huge park where the track is, I get goose bumps even to this day. It’s the only race track I know of that has soul, maybe because it’s been around for so long and there’s been so much triumph and tragedy there that somehow this collective energy is still there. For Ferrari though it wasn’t the best. I was with the team the whole weekend and it was probably one of the worst weekends they’ve had in a long time. All of their weaknesses showed, as it did for many other teams too of course. Clearly the engine is their biggest Achilles heel and Monza with its long straights demonstrates that better than just about any other track.
I was in the pits during qualifying with a radio on, it was very interesting to listen in and one thing that really struck me is that there’s absolutely no feedback from the drivers when they come in after a run now. They don’t say anything. Their engineers have already looked at the data and know what’s going on with the car. The engineer might say, ‘We can see that you have a small understeer in the second Lesmo (Curva di Lesmo corners). We’re going to put half a degree more front wing in for the next run. We think the differential will be better on setting four...” And so on.
The drivers don’t say a word, nothing about how the balance is on the car. They just look at the monitors in the pits. I don’t think it’s even a matter of Alonso or Kimi offering an opinion. I assume that’s just the way things are done now. I’m sure if they disagree they’ll say something but as it was they didn’t. The data corresponds to what’s going on with the car as it should and that’s it.
But it’s fascinating to me because normally after a run in any race car you’re just spewing out information, giving feedback on steering input, corner entry, car balance, power down on exit and much more but these guys didn’t say a word. I guess that’s the norm now in Formula One but it’s weird.
It was great to be back at Monza. I think 2003 was the last time I was there – with Scott [Dixon]. It was right after he won his first IndyCar championship and we were talking to a number of [F1] teams.
JT – Mercedes continued its winning ways last weekend in Singapore with a victory for Lewis Hamilton. Unfortunately, when teammate Nico Rosberg’s car failed to make the grid and then retired with a faulty wiring loom the race was essentially gutted. Mercedes clearly still has a large advantage in performance and there was little doubt Hamilton would be able to get the gap over the field he needed to make his strategy work. It left me and many others feeling a bit bored. What was your impression?
SJ – Again, that’s the nature of the beast this year. Mercedes has the performance and if they wanted to they could probably show even more. It is what it is. We knew pretty much what would happen at the beginning of the season. I think they are about even now on DNF’s so the Championship standings are a good reflection of where they both are. It’s so close between them each time it’s crazy, and it will always come down to the minor details of who get’s it right on the day. The final race will be the big showdown if they are still this close.
JT – On the bright side, the championship battle between the Mercedes drivers is closer with Hamilton leading Rosberg by three points. That should be enough to maintain some interest.
SJ – Yes, like I said in the previous question, there is so little between the two of them. One would hope that the other teams are catching up little by little but the championship is between the Mercedes guys and it’s most likely going to go to the final race with its double-points payoff – unless there are more DNFs from Mercedes in the five races left.
JT – Red Bull Racing had a good outing, finishing on the podium with Sebastian Vettel second and Daniel Ricciardo third. The Singapore circuit certainly didn’t hurt their performance as it’s not a power-track like Monza. A second-place for Vettel must be a breath of fresh air.
SJ – Obviously the car was more to Vettel’s liking in Singapore than it has been. I think the same was true for Räikkönen. He was very quick in practice. Those are the two top guys who really seem to have been struggling to find their true pace this year. Tiny nuances make a big difference to the balance of a car, especially in making it comfortable on the entry to a corner.
I noticed that with Räikkönen in Monza too. It’s so easy to overdrive the car and try a little bit too hard when you’re not comfortable or the pace is not there. And when you try too hard you end up going slower. It’s that tricky balance of feeling like what you’re doing is slow but it actually makes a faster lap time. When you have confidence in the car and you feel comfortable with it, you don’t have to trash it to get a laptime, you just slow everything down and it flows.
JT – Williams F1’s performance has been quite good this year. That’s a big turnaround from 2013. It looks like both of their drivers will return for 2015 and the team is much more confident. What are your thoughts?
SJ – I think it’s fantastic. Pat Symonds (Williams Technical Director) is my old buddy and engineer from the Formula 2 days with Toleman. I think he’d worked with Formula Fords before that but my Alan Docking car with Toleman was where he really began engineering. He was sort of Rory Byrne’s protégé at the time.
He’s an absolutely fantastic engineer, very pragmatic - a bit like Ross Brawn. He dials out everything that’s superfluous and focuses on what matters. That has clearly paid off for Williams. And obviously the Mercedes engine has been a big plus. Anyone who’s had their power unit this year has been made to look probably better than they really are.
JT – The situation at McLaren continues to evolve. Honda has said they will be fully prepared for 2015 and the team is pressing ahead despite lackluster performances this year. It’s not certain what their driver lineup will look like and they seem to have lost Johnny Walker as a sponsor recently. What’s your take?
SJ –No one knows except them, but one thing is for sure, they’re not sitting still. They achieved all their success in the past through hard work and they’re probably working harder than they’ve ever worked. They’re all racers at heart and an absolutely great organization so I have no doubt that they’ll make a comeback and be a top team again in time. There will be a new era for them starting with this Honda relationship and it will probably take a little while to get to the top but I have no doubt in my mind that they won’t be back as a top team again.
JT – You mentioned Ross Brawn. He’s been on the sidelines all season on his sabbatical or retirement or whatever he considers it. One wonders if he might return to F1?
SJ – I haven’t really heard anything about Ross. I’m sure the teams are all trying to get him, as they should, but whether he wants to participate again, I don’t know. He seems to be enjoying being away from the sport quite well at the moment so who knows?
JT – Having observed F1 close up at both Montreal and Monza this year, what do you think of the sport currently?
SJ – The thing you take away when you talk to the drivers is that they’re not happy because they’re not able to race the way they would want to race. It’s managing the output from the power unit, the tires – there are so many other things to think about these days rather than just driving the race car flat out. But you have to adapt. It comes back to my earlier comments about the Engineers having too much say in the bigger picture of the Championship.
JT – F1 has raised eyebrows recently with its announcement of a “radio ban” after the Italian GP at Monza. The ban would no longer allow teams to send messages to drivers relating to car performance or driver-coaching. The FIA reversed course partially for the Singapore GP, allowing teams to message drivers about car performance. However, plans remain to ban both types of communication for 2015 in the interest of “fairness”. What do you think of the ban?
SJ – The FIA just decides to do this overnight. It’s a classic F1 knee-jerk reaction without much logic. In my opinion it’s like giving someone with a broken leg an aspirin. The problem is not with the radios and communications as such; it’s all the stuff behind that causes them to have this never-ending flow of information to the drivers. The cars have become so complicated to run that they literally need to give the drivers a lot of this information in order to keep the cars running to the end of the race. As you know, I have been going on about the steering wheels for some time now and I believe if you banned all of the dials, knobs and switches on the steering wheels to start with you wouldn’t have to worry about the radio because there would be nothing to adjust. Just ban all of the adjustments in the cockpit, end of story. Let the engineers build a car that don’t need all that stuff, and let the drivers sort it out by using throttle control, steering input and let them adjust their driving style in accordance with how the car is performing under different condition in a race situation. It would make the cars a lot simpler, but a lot harder to drive, which of course all the good guys will love. A proper racecar should be a beast to drive, that’s what every driver worth his salt wants. And it would be so much more exciting for the fans to watch a driver wrestling with his car getting the maximum out of it.
The problem today is that the engineers basically write the rules in F1. As I’ve said many times, I respect and admire the engineers tremendously. They’re fantastic people but you can’t allow them to have this much influence. Any successful racing series has to be run like a benevolent dictatorship and it used to be. Now it’s turned into more of a democracy and it’s just not working.
The technology in F1 is out of hand. I don’t know how many options there are for differentials now. That should be banned. Put a standard differential in the cars. These complex, variable diffs have no benefit to anyone. They’re there for the engineers to tinker with and come up with a smarter solution than anyone else, basically because they can.
Just get rid of all the technology that you don’t need. Ban all of the buttons on the steering wheel. Radio and pit-speed are all that’s needed. Let the drivers sort the rest out. If they can’t drive a car with 850 horsepower and three-times the grip they used to have. I hate to sound like an old crank, saying “it was better in my day” but if we could handle 1500 horsepower in the cars we drove with hardly any aero grip, I’m sure these guys could. The top drivers today are all fantastic drivers and I’m sure they’d love it.
It would be fantastic to see Vettel, Alonso and Hamilton power-sliding these things with 1200-1300 horsepower. Let the drivers figure the cars out and get rid of all the extra stuff – the technology that has nothing to do with being a skilled racing driver. Let a little bravery figure into the racing again. That’s what it should be all about.
JT – The debate about some F1 teams fielding three cars each to make up for any shortfalls in the field should struggling teams drop out has flared recently. Not all teams see it as a positive with Mercedes boss Toto Wolff opining that he doesn’t think it would be healthy for F1 or cost effective for teams. What do you think of the idea?
SJ – In some ways I think it would be better because there would be more stability long term. You’re always going to have the stragglers at the back of the grid and they will always be the clowns that make up the show.
The way F1 has progressed it’s becoming more and more difficult to be in that position. None of those teams make any money. It’s a money-losing proposition at best. That puts the series in the position of having another rich guy come along – and there always seem to be another one right around the corner – who has enough money to buy a team and have a bit of an adventure.
Of course it’s not until they actually get a team and own it that they realize they’ve got the tiger by the tail. At that point they better hold on because it’s going to be a bumpy ride. Typically the life span of those teams is three to five years then they disappear having burned through a few hundred million.
If you had the top teams field a third car, economies of scale would kick in and it would be a great way to get better talent into the championship, I think – young drivers who are really talented and give them a proper go. There could be a lot of other benefits as well and I support it. There would still be eight teams and I think it would be better for the championship. The value of each franchise would be higher and I think the income from the series would be better for everyone as well.
JT – You were in Austin, Texas at Circuit of the Americas last weekend for Tudor USCC race and the WEC round there. What was your impression of the weekend?
SJ – There were a lot people and a lot of buzz in the paddock but there weren’t many fans in the grandstands. But historically, sports car racing in an endurance format has never been about spectators. A few of them become kind of cult events, like Le Mans, Sebring and recently also Petit Le Mans. The six-hour WEC races are tough to fill the stands except for the die-hard fans.
The balance of performance difficulties in Tudor continues. There aren’t many happy campers in the paddock let’s put it that way. When you try to balance different cars it’s always the same. Only one team or driver is happy – the people on top of the podium. Everyone else thinks they’re being shafted.
In my case, being with Scuderia Corsa now, the Ferrari teams are extremely unhappy because all of the Ferraris qualified at the back of the grid in both the GT categories. It’s clear that the balance of performance is not in their favor.
JT – The WEC race was interesting until the rains came. Then it was wacky. Then the WEC’s odd pit/red flag rules wound up gutting the race up front, leaving cars that had made it into the pits to put on wet tires just before the red flag stuck there when race began again. As a result, several cars went laps down. Not a particularly logical rule-set in my view.
SJ – Yes that’s their rules but they’re really not sensible are they? That did benefit Audi as well but you’ve got to hand it to them. They know how to execute and that’s what it’s all about at the end of the day. For Toyota, it came down to driver error again. They fell off left, right and center. That probably had more bearing on the outcome of the race than anything else.
Mike Conway’s spin (when the rain began) was amazing. He managed to slide through like six corners without hitting anything. He went sliding through the Esses – straight through every corner. If that had happened on an old style track the outcome wouldn’t have been good. I guess that’s a benefit of the new style tracks.
I can sympathize though because it literally feels slower than walking when you go at the speed he was going and still it’s way too fast to keep the car on the road, and you have literally zero control of the car, none!
JT – Not surprisingly, Toyota and Audi have a gap to Porsche. Do you think Porsche will close the gap next year?
SJ - Yes, I’m sure Porsche will catch up and make things closer but one team will always have an edge. Really though, in those races ultimate speed is not the most critical thing. I think it’s down to how well you execute on-track and execute strategy; the team that spends the least amount of time in the pits is generally the winner.
JT – As in F1, the WEC drivers and teams have to manage the energy their hybrid powerplants produce so as not exceed what’s allowable by rules. I’d rather see them just be able to go racing without that arbitrary restriction.
SJ – Yes, true. Another interesting thing I learned when I was talking with one of my former engineers with Audi – he said the they don’t even change springs or roll bars or anything like that on the cars now. All the adjustments are made using the hybrid power systems. They don’t touch the car really – no mechanical changes, mostly changes to electronic settings.
There are downforce settings but most of that is done before any race. They may do a bit in practice but really they just rely on the computers now for settings of the battery and power supplied to each wheel from the electric motors. It’s ridiculously complicated. The prototype sports cars are probably even more complicated than the F1 cars these days.
Andre Lotterer (Audi Sport driver) said he was shocked at how the Caterham F1 car he drove underperformed compared to both the sports cars and especially the Formula (Japanese Super Formula) car he races in Japan. The Super Formula cars are real, proper racecars – mega quick.
JT – Will Power finally clinched the IndyCar championship at the MAVTV 500 finale at Fontana last month. In fact, three of the top four drivers in the championship were Penske drivers, making Scott Dixon’s third place finish in the championship even more impressive - especially considering Ganassi Racing’s struggles in 2014.
SJ – It was a pretty stellar comeback for Scott considering where he was with even just three or four races remaining. It’s a pity they weren’t able to get on top of the weaknesses they had in the car sooner. He could have had a good shot at the championship. Still, to finish third in the championship after a season like this one was quite impressive.
As we’ve said, 2014 was a year where no one seemed to want to win the championship. The main contenders all kept tripping up. It was a weird championship but there was certainly no weakness on the racing side of things. Every race had great competition, and the Championship went down to the wire yet again.
JT- Finally, last weekend was very bad for F1 in many ways, with the horrible accident of Jules Bianchi, and then the passing of Andrea De Cesaris in a motorcycle accident.
SJ- Yes, if we start with the accident in the Japanese GP from Suzuka. As usual, the media and internet has been inundated with comments and views about this, that and the other regarding the accident. To me it’s very clear and very simple, as soon as there’s a track worker or any form of equipment on the track there should be a full course yellow and the safety car should be deployed immediately, no discussion or personal opinion from anyone should ever enter into this decision, it should be automatic. It’s incomprehensible that they allow the race to run with only a local yellow when something like this happens. Drivers will only slow down to the bare minimum without being penalized as the race is still effectively running at full speed, except at the post where the local yellow is displayed. If they know there is a full course yellow, they can automatically back off completely and then slowly catch up with the pace car knowing it won’t affect their position or outcome of the race. The safety car method has been used in all forms of racing in the US for as long as I can remember, and it works. The other thing I don’t understand with F1 is that every race has it’s own local safety crews apart from the doctor and the pace car that goes to each race. In Indycar they have the same safety crew that travels to every one of the races, they are extremely well trained and know exactly what to do in every situation, they fly them and the safety cars and all the equipment to every race even when it’s Trans-Atlantic, which is a minor cost in the overall scheme of things. When you see some of the local safety crews in F1 it looks like amateur hour out there, which is mind boggling in itself considering how much has been done to improve the safety both on the cars and the tracks themselves.
On top of all this we then found out on Sunday evening that Andrea De Cesaris had been killed in motorcycle accident. This was shocking news and it made me really sad, as we have been great friends for more than 30 years now. We were roommates when we both started out in F3 in England, driving for Ron Dennis Project Four team. Andrea was one of the sweetest and kindest people I have ever met and although we were not in regular contact anymore it was like yesterday every time we met. We used to play Golf and Tennis and Ski together, needless to say every time it was like the World finals but so much fun at the same time. I could write a whole book about all the stuff we used to get up to. Everybody that was close to him in the racing community loved him and he will be missed by all of us. I think of all the drivers from that generation, he might have been the one who really had it all figured out in the end, many years ago he basically sold everything he had and decided to travel around the world following the surf crowd as he had at that point become an avid surfer and wind surfer, moving from one great spot to the other around the world depending on where the big waves were. At the same time he had become a very good day trader and spent the mornings doing some trading online, and then the rest of the day on the ocean, not a bad way to live your life if you ask me. He was a free soul and a wonderful guy to be around.
JT - We then had the shock news about Vettel leaving Red Bull for Ferrari, within hours after Alonso had resigned from the team.
SJ- Yes, at first sight it looks like Vettel has played his cards very well in this game of poker that’s been going on for a couple of months now. It’s clear the deal between him and Ferrari has been in the pipeline for quite some time in order for him to announce his departure to Red Bull at such short notice after Alonso told Ferrari he was leaving. Likewise, I am sure Alonso has some ace up his sleeve or it will certainly look like he might be left in the cold with the only real option being McLaren, which at the moment would be a bit like jumping from the fire into the frying pan, although I’m sure it won’t be long for either of the two teams to catch up and become real contenders for the title again. Interestingly, they both had a year left on their contracts but were both able to exercise some performance clause in their contracts to allow them to leave. The final piece of the puzzle is of course Lewis Hamilton, who has not yet done his deal with Mercedes going forward.
It will be interesting to see how Vettel will adapt to the Ferrari situation and if he will bring any key people with him from Red Bull, much like Schumacher did when he left Benetton, basically bringing both Ross Brawn and Rory Byrne with him, which then formed the nucleus together with Jean Todt of the “dream team” that ended up dominating F1 for a very long time.
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