Jan Tegler – Since we last chatted five Grands Prix have taken place including Monza, Singapore, Japan, Russia, the United States GP and the Mexican GP. Lewis Hamilton wrapped up his third world championship after taking victory at Circuit of the Americas. The rain-affected race proved far more interesting than most of the season’s rounds with multiple lead changes, passing and even controversial actions such as the incidents between Hamilton & Rosberg and Ricciardo & Hulkenberg. What did you think of the race and Hamilton’s championship victory.
Stefan Johansson – The race turned out to be very entertaining to watch as is nearly always the case when there are unexpected circumstances. With less practice than normal and when the weekend doesn’t go to plan under race conditions drivers and teams have to improvise. That’s a big departure from the typical weekend where everything is planned and perfect down to the lap both from the schedule to the engineering. All of that planning tends to make the races boring.
The cars are so optimized and the teams spend so much time in their simulators exploring the expected conditions that there’s very little possibility for deviation. The drivers and teams generally hit their marks and do most things right. But if the planning goes out the window due to unexpected circumstances that changes things and often makes for much better racing.
Obviously Hamilton has been the class of the field this year, riding a wave of confidence. When great sportsmen hit that kind of stride where they almost can’t do anything wrong, every move they make sticks. The move in Austin at the start where he passed Rosberg could just as easily have gone wrong either resulting in a puncture for him or knocking off the front-wing endplate. But that didn’t happen.
You’re either the windshield or the bug and when things are going your way it’s almost unstoppable. The next season you can do everything in the same way but every time you make a move it goes wrong. Then you start thinking about it and you hesitate for even a fraction of a second and your timing is off and it all goes away.
If you look at what happened between Hamilton and Rosberg I think it was more Rosberg’s fault than Hamilton’s. He got a poor start and Hamilton was already alongside him on the inside by the time they arrived at the corner. It was foolish of Rosberg to try and defend the corner on the outside. Because Hamilton braked a bit too late he missed the apex. If Rosberg hadn’t tried to defend he could have done the over-under and gone back by him.
That’s easy for me to say though. It’s a typical grandstand comment but on a wet track alongside another competitor, being on the outside isn’t the smartest place to be.
I think in part it’s the nature of the tracks Formula One races on now. There is no track limit anymore so people never give up a corner. In the past, on a track where there was no runoff area or a wall or some other defined obstacle beyond the pavement, at a certain point you had to give up and let the other driver go because you’d never make the corner.
Now drivers just keep going across the track limit out to the runoff and keep their foot in it. If they don’t have contact with another driver they just carry on and don’t even lose a position. I think this is causing a lot of weird accidents and is the main reason for all the low-percentage moves that people are trying to pull. Even top guys like Raikkonen are trying odd things like he did in Russia with [Valtteri] Bottas and then Bottas did the same to him in Mexico. It’s not really the drivers fault because you always push as far as you can until reach the limit, unfortunately the limit now is some undefined space about 3-4 car lengths outside the actual track limit in some cases. It even looks weird when you watch a car that is so far off the track you can barely see the actual track sometimes.
JT – The battle between Hamilton and Rosberg for the championship this year was not as close as it was last year and didn’t seem as impassioned either. There were instances when their differences were aired but certainly nothing like the fireworks between other teammates we’ve seen in the past.
You recalled when Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell were battling in the late 1980s while driving for Williams. It was one of the most intense rivalries F1 has seen. I thought you put the blandness of the Hamilton/Rosberg rivalry in hilarious context when you said…
“Nico gave up mentally to fight the war…Piquet resorted to calling Mansell’s wife the ugliest woman in the world.”
SJ – Yes, that’s what I mean. In 2014, there was certainly a lot more hate on display between Nico and Lewis. This year it’s all sort of been a bit polite with both guys saying the other did “a great job.”
When you’re that close to a teammate in terms of competitiveness and you can’t beat him any other way you’ve got to figure out something that will tip the balance. You have to try to undermine their confidence or get them off balance psychologically somehow. That’s what Nelson did so effectively. He was ruthless, not only with Mansell but with Senna as well, calling him all sorts of things. He didn’t care. He’d do whatever it took unsettle his rivals mentally. It sort of worked and it definitely got under their skin.
To be a great driver you need ego and relentless drive. That’s why you don’t quite have the epic battles today that F1 used to have. Mansell, Senna, Prost, Piquet, Lauda, Schumacher – they were brutal, every one of them, ego-maniacs of epic proportions in their own different ways. You have to be like that to be at the top level. That’s missing today. You don’t feel it. Alonso seems to me the only one left from that era where you resort to anything to win.
JT – To your point about Rosberg giving up the fight mentally, he seemed in much better form at the Mexican GP. He won, qualified on pole and set that fastest lap of the race. It appears that after being released from the pressure of the championship fight he performed better.
SJ – It was a flawless weekend really. He didn’t put a foot wrong but it’s the psychology that’s so important. Ninety percent of the results you get to the top level of racing are inside your head. Maybe there was something about the pressure being off?
Nico was unlucky this year with car failures. And however it happened in Austin, he got caught out. He said it was a gust of wind that caused him to go off track. That has happened. I know how it affects a car although I’ve never really had it affect a car in a slow corner where you exit the corner almost in first gear where he lost it. At high speed the cars are very sensitive to wind.
JT – Sebastian Vettel had a fraught race in Mexico after first lap contact with Daniel Ricciardo. It seemed that he was overdriving his Ferrari.
SJ – Obviously, the track in Mexico is very tricky. The grip-level has always been very low there. I remember when we raced there in CART it was really tricky conditions with the altitude as well.
But I thought Vettel’s problems were due to a combination of things. Maybe his car was affected a bit from the contact with Ricciardo. His crash looked weird, almost like his brakes failed when he went straight off the track and hit the wall. He said it was driver error which I thought was a bit strange. But obviously he had to charge pretty hard to recover positions and he was frustrated. In fairness to him though he’s barely made a mistake all season.
JT – Do you think pressure from teammates contributes to low percentage moves whether you take the example of Raikkonen and Vettel at Ferarri or Ricciardo and Kvyat at Red Bull Racing?
SJ – I think that’s a part of it no doubt but I think it has more to do with the track layouts and how these new run off areas are designed. Very rarely in the past did you have a guy defend a corner on the outside or try to make a pass around the outside. Now it seems like part of the game. Even if you can’t hold the corner you just go wide and through the runoff area. If you don’t make it you try again the next lap whereas in the past they would have had to pull you off the Armco.
I think [Hermann] Tilke and the FIA between them have totally ruined the racing with these idiotic runoff areas. At some level there has to be a punishment for going over the limit, something with enough consequences that you understand you cannot go beyond the track without a level of risk involved.
Now, you also have a different guy at every race as a steward and because of this there’s no consistency. At some races there are penalties, at others there are no penalties at all for more or less the same action. It all depends on who’s in the control tower. There should be the same guy, or team, at every race who communicates with the drivers before and after each race telling them where the limits are and that if they violate them more than once they get a penalty. This should be someone that everyone respect and trusts, who is consistent and who lets you know where you stand and how far you can push it. That way there will soon be a pattern developed where every driver knows where the limit is.
Regardless, the track limits issue should be punished by the track itself, not by a guy in a blue shirt watching a TV screen in a control tower.
JT – The second half of the season hasn’t proven to be any better for McLaren-Honda than the first half. The team is second to last in the championship standings ahead of only the Manor outfit. Fernando Alonso retired on the first lap of the Mexican Grand Prix and both drivers struggle to finish near the top ten when the cars do complete a race. The 2015 season looks like a write-off for the team and the drivers. Once again, Alonso is in the wrong team at the wrong time. Can they turn the corner for 2016?
SJ – I still believe they’ll make big progress next year. I don’t mean that they’ll be winning races but when you’re so far off it’s not difficult to make a giant leap forward. It’s only when you get to the last five percent that it starts to get tricky.
The real problem is this incredibly complicated engine formula that F1 has with penalties for this and that, and you’re not allowed to do any development. It continues to make no sense to me. The development ban was initially implemented to keep the cost at a sensible level, but that concept is already completely broken. The manufacturers have spent so much money on these engines it’s obscene. Why not just let them carry on developing them and at least be able to fix them? It’s ridiculous to have a formula where there’s only one successful engine and the others are not permitted to do the development they obviously need to become competitive.
Yet you can bolt 500 new pieces on to the chassis every weekend if you want. The top teams do that of course, with crates of aero-parts flown in everyday in a never-ending development war with their chassis but you still can’t touch the engine. It’s nonsense. If you were allowed to throw everything but the kitchen sink at the engines as you are on the chassis, I am sure that Renault, Honda and Ferrari would all be better - maybe not as good as the Mercedes but certainly a lot closer.
With these rules if you don’t get the engine right out of the box there’s really almost no way to catch up and you’re just screwed. If your engine is as wrong as the Honda is, what do you do? You’re only allowed X-amount of upgrades. On top of that, you’re not allowed to go testing.
JT – In related news the FIA recently put forth a proposal for a "low budget" client engine for 2017 - a power unit essentially similar to the turbo V6 engines used in IndyCar currently. Bernie Ecclestone and the FIA have also proposed fixed price engines and gearboxes for client teams. The engine manufacturers and teams were in support of the ideas with the exception of Ferrari which used its veto power to kill the proposal for the moment. What do you think of this “client engine” idea?
SJ – If they could find a formula that provided reasonable parity I think it’s absolutely the way to go. There has to be a cheaper alternative for smaller teams to be able to compete.
Ferrari’s veto isn’t surprising of course and it’s an example of the core problem. As I’ve said so many times, F1 used to be run as a benevolent dictatorship and things worked. When Max Mosley or Bernie Ecclestone saw things moving in the wrong direction they’d make changes. Everybody would scream bloody murder and they’d back off 20 or 30 percent and everybody was happy and they got on with it.
Now F1 is a democracy with primarily the engineers making up the technical regulations. That’s the worst mistake they’ve ever made. F1 is now incomprehensibly complicated and as a result also incomprehensibly expensive. If F1 is absolutely the pinnacle of technology so what?
Racing should be about brave young heroes driving these cars on the limit. People don’t get excited by F1 anymore because they can see that there’s no challenge to driving the cars now. They’re on rails all the time. The drivers don’t really have to fight them. The fans can see this.
JT – Where does F1 go from here? Can it improve? Will it?
SJ – That’s very hard to answer because there are so many moving parts to it now. There is the possibility of a radical transformation which would be to make the sport a lot simpler. Max Mosley was sounding the alarm on costs four years before he left F1. He could see it getting completely out of hand and he was completely right. No one can afford it anymore.
No one used to complain about the money they were receiving from FOM (Formula One Management). Now the teams take FOM to the European Court. That’s because everybody is counting on the money from Bernie. That’s the only money they’re getting really or certainly the main source. No one really gets sponsorship of any substance anymore. The manufacturers have their money of course as does Red Bull. The rest are struggling. McLaren is funded by Honda obviously but they barely have one commercial sponsor left on the car.
The only way Formula One can right itself is if they get back to a more dictatorial method of control where FOM and the FIA between them set a very strict set of rules with no manufacturers or teams involved. And a winning budget should in my opinion be $100 to $150 million at most. You should be able to be competitive for $50 million. Now the guys that make up the show are spending close to $100 million, to finish last!
It’s hard to see anything changing next year or in the near term though as long as the sport is run as it is.
JT – Formula One has changed along with technology obviously and that’s one reason why it isn’t the same as it used to be. But you have said that the technology has changed more than just the cars. It has changed the drivers fundamentally too.
SJ – Definitely, the way drivers develop is quite different now. Everybody was going on and on about how young [Max] Verstappen was coming into the series and how it was crazy. But the circumstances are different today. Kids develop quicker because of all the technological tools that they have available to them whatever they do in life, not just in racing but life in general. There is so much information and so many tools to develop a certain skill set, whatever it is you may be into, all available instantly.
Take a 17 year old driver today – in a way that kid probably has more experience than a 26 or 27 year old had 20 or 30 years ago with all of the simulator time they’re able to get. Back then the first time you sat in an F1 car was really the first time you sat in an F1 car. Now when you go for your first test you’ve had a month in a simulator already and you know the track and the car inside out. The simulator is exactly like the real thing and you’ve probably hit the wall 40 times in the simulator before you get to the real track. All of the hard learning is mostly done.
That brings me back to race craft or the lack of it in today’s drivers. It’s atrocious. They can all drive quick because they get so much practice but when it comes to racing a lot of them are clueless. Only a handful of them understand how to race well.
With all the data available now a driver can literally pinpoint where he’s slow. So you can take a pretty average driver and make them good. I wish I’d had a data printout when I was teammates with Senna or Prost to figure out where the hell they were making up the time. But we had nothing. You had to go out and wing it. If you were lucky you could follow another driver and maybe learn something in one corner or another but that was it. There wasn’t much point in asking because if you were close enough they would lie to you anyway, and vice versa I might add.
But even with the data and the other tools they have now, you can’t make a driver great. That’s where the difference is between the few guys at the top and the paying drivers. All the drivers in F1 today are very good, there’s no doubt about that. But are they best overall, I don’t know. You can make an average driver good today, but the great one’s will always be great and they would be great with or without all the tools available to them. The sad part is that a lot of the guys today that have the potential to become great simply fall by the wayside before they get the chance to measure themselves against the best.
JT – The American Haas F1 Team recently announced its driver lineup featuring Frenchman Romain Grosjean and Mexican Esteban Gutierrez. It seems sensible that a new team would want to hire drives with experience. Also, as Haas is sort of a Ferrari junior team, the selection of Gutierrez isn’t surprising. But some have complained that the team should have hired an American driver for one of the seats. What’s your take?
SJ – I guess the criticism is to be expected. It’s always that way with teams from a certain nationality and questions about why drivers from the country a team is based in aren’t hired. I think Haas did the right thing in this case.
To be honest, I don’t think it would be fair for [Alexander] Rossi or an American rookie to go racing with a brand new team in its first year. Remember when Toyota was in F1? I don’t know how many drivers they went through before they pulled out. They never were competitive really. It’s been the same with so many drivers cycling through Toro Rosso in the early years too.
As a first year entrant in a new series Haas just wants to do the best job they can at this stage. Once they gain experience and if they become competitive that’s a different story. But right now they have a steep learning curve ahead of them. Having the best combination of experience and speed they can find is important.
As far as the Gutierrez choice, I know Ferrari is quite impressed with him. He’s done a fantastic job apparently in the simulator for them. He’s super quick and gives good feedback.
JT – There is ongoing speculation about what Red Bull Racing will do for 2016. Apparently Ron Dennis is opposed to them using Honda power units and is trying to block that option. Do you think Red Bull leaving F1 is a possibility?
SJ – They could pull out but apparently there is a big penalty if they do. But I do think it’s a definite possibility. Red Bull is not a racing team first and foremost, they are involved in all sorts of activities today, all based around the Red Bull brand which of course started it’s life as an energy drink. F1 is only one of many different activities they are involved in, albeit maybe the most important and most visible. But if Mr. Mateschitz wakes up on the wrong side of the bed he could very easily pull the plug on the whole program, his life won’t change. This is the difference from Ferrari, McLaren and Williams for example, their entire existence is based around F1 and racing.
JT – With Formula One’s ongoing difficulties it’s all the more frustrating that IndyCar - which has a great product on-track - doesn’t promote its product off track. If they did you would assume it might be possible to win over some of the fans who are disillusioned with F1 right now.
SJ – How many years have we talked about this? IndyCar keeps tinkering with the cars and race formats and completely ignores the marketing. That’s the one thing they really need to focus on. They already have the best racing in the world in my opinion.
I saw Derrick Walker’s development plan for the future of IndyCar recently. There wasn’t one sentence in the whole plan that touched on marketing, not a word. The teams have already spent stupid money on these aero-kits for very little benefit.
Again, if they put together a $25 million prize fund for winning the championship, the Indy 500, a street course, a road course and the final race for example, you could take out an insurance policy that would cost a fraction of the full amount if anyone managed to hit all the milestones. The level of publicity they could get out of the fact that this is a championship with $25 million at stake would be great. They need to pump up the marketing in some way but there’s been nothing. All they seem to worry about is the comments from the existing fans, which is valuable, but I think most of them would show up no matter what because they are die hard Indycar fans. It’s the millions of people that are unaware of what a phenomenal product Indycar is that they need to somehow get interested.
JT – The 2016 IndyCar schedule is now out and includes three new rounds – Road America, Phoenix and Boston. Road America and Phoenix return after a few years of absence while the Boston street circuit is entirely new.
SJ – They’re all exciting venues. The street races we know work well, in any form or racing they are always popular because you bring the race to the people, not the other way around. The cities come alive so Boston could be a fantastic place for a race. I think Road America will be good because it’s probably the best track in America and I think the fans there will embrace it. I think a lot of hardcore fans will travel to see it as well. They can appreciate how hard the drivers work to drive that track.
JT – In the WEC, Porsche wrapped up the manufacturers championship at last weekend’s Six Hours of Shanghai round. Their performance has been head and shoulders above the rest all year.
SJ – They obviously have a better car than Audi and Toyota and have had all year. Audi has sort of hung in there more because of clever race strategy than anything. But they’ve never really been on the pace.