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Stefan Johansson chats with Jan Tegler: Bahrain GP, WEC & Scott Dixon's win at Long Beach

#SJblog (source page)

Stefan Johansson chats with Jan Tegler: Bahrain GP, WEC & Scott Dixon's win at Long Beach

Stefan Johansson

Jan Tegler – The Bahrain Grand Prix was perhaps better than expected.

Stefan Johansson – Yes definitely, there was some good racing and some different strategies that played out in different ways towards the end of the race. Kimi’s strategy definitely worked this time. He had a great race and with a few more laps and a little bit more luck could have even won the race if the Mercedes guys both had the brake problems they claimed towards the end.

JT – You’re correct and following the race, Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff said this level of competition shows that F1 is healthy. I think that’s more than a bit of a stretch. What’s your view?

SJ - I think it’s important to put everything in perspective. F1 is still a mammoth sport, relative to other sports and certainly compared to any other form of motorsport it’s still getting massive viewership numbers. It’s always had an ebb and flow of interest when one team is dominating or when more than one team is competitive. But what is worrying is the health of nearly all the teams, except those with direct backing from manufacturers, is abysmal.

The current costs in F1 are completely unsustainable and I think everyone is finally realizing that it’s not possible to continue this way. Sponsorship in general isn’t what it used to be. It used to be measured in numbers of eyeballs but there are so many other factors now with all of the social media and other avenues of exposure. In many ways, I think it’s a lot harder to quantify what the actual return on investment is for a sponsor today. 

JT – As you’ve pointed out in previous blogs, racing doesn’t always adhere to the logic applied to business in general, particularly Formula One.

SJ – Yes, exactly. It’s one thing for the automotive manufacturers involved in F1 but the other sponsors who participate have changed. Tobacco used to be the other big source of sponsorship and alcohol to a degree. Not just in F1, but across the board in racing I’ve never known it to be this tough to generate money.

That’s in addition to the massively higher costs of operating a racing team today, and again, particularly in Formula One. The championship consists of let’s say three categories of teams. First we have the teams that have been there for decades or from the beginning. They are the pure racers. That’s their bread and butter, their passion, their livelihood. That’s Ferrari, McLaren and Williams and later on maybe also Sauber. They will always be around, or at least attempt to be around which may currently be the case for Sauber.

That’s four teams, then we have rest of the grid is made up of a combination of Manufacturers (Mercedes) and what I refer to as the ego based teams. Those are the teams that’s either owned or backed by a wealthy individual or a group of individuals that all fancy having a go at F1 but it’s not their livelihood or main business. These are Red Bull, Toro Rosso, Lotus, Force India and Manor. You’ve always had teams like that in F1, some more financially healthy than others. Red Bull has been an exception in that they’ve been extremely successful and have always had the financial muscle to stay on top.  For any one of the teams outside the four who’s main business it is to field a Formula One car it is only a board decision away from leaving F1 if it no longer suits their purpose or for whatever other reason they decide it’s not a good fit any longer.

If one drops out after they’ve burned through however many hundreds of millions of dollars, there always seems to be another right around the corner. But many of them don’t seem to realize that buying a Formula One team is the easiest part of the whole endeavor. And once they’ve got the tiger by the tail they better hold on because it’s going to be a wild ride. Some of these teams are now looking for buyers or new investors but the economic model is now so flawed that I can’t see who would entertain the idea of owning a Formula One team without a major support of a Manufacturer or another form of guaranteed income outside of the traditional sponsorship model. If it weren’t for the money they’re getting from Bernie none of them would be in business by now, and that never used to be the case but more the icing on the cake for most of them.

JT – On that note, there’s been a lot of rumors about VW now joining F1 since the resignation of Dr. Piech from the board of VW. It was commonly known that he was opposed to VW as a whole to become involved in F1.

SJ – I find it quite humorous that everyone in the F1 media is immediately jumping to conclusions as if this somehow was the main reason for his resignation. Somehow I think the VW group has bigger fish to fry than to worry about their involvement in F1. I have no doubt they are continuously monitoring the situation and there are continuing rumors about Audi doing something, but I don’t for a second believe that this would even feature on their agenda at the moment.

 JT – In racing terms, perhaps the most interesting facet of the Bahrain GP was the strategy employed by Ferrari to aide Kimi Räikkönen’s charge to second place.

SJ – No question, it was great to see Kimi finally put a whole race together without a drama of some sort. It’s clear that Ferrari is at least a bit of a threat this year. The car clearly suits both Kimi and Vettel very well.

It was quite interesting to see shots of the track from overhead during the broadcast. You could watch Kimi and Vettel taking the same corners using very different lines than most of the other guys. Most of them use the modern method if you like, squaring off the corners with a very late, fast and aggressive entry whereas Kimi and Sebastian turn in much earlier, carry speed to the apex and take that momentum through the corner more.

It’s more of an older approach, but you’ve really got to have a car you can trust if you do that. You trail-brake to the apex of the corner basically but you have to have a solid, planted rear-end to do that otherwise you’re correcting all the way to the apex. 

JT – Lewis Hamilton was in good shape, starting from the pole and building a gap. But if Räikkönen had had a few more laps it looked as if he could have challenged for the win.

SJ – It appeared that both the Mercedes had brake problems toward the end of the race so I think there’s a good chance Kimi could have fought with them if the race was longer. I’m sure he wouldn’t have caught Nico [Rosberg] the way he did if Nico didn’t have a brake issue.

Lewis however seems to be on a different planet at the moment, I said it last time but it’s worth repeating, it’s rare when you get into the situation where he is now, where all the stars are lined up perfectly. When you have the best car, the best team and your driving is so effortless it’s almost flawless. He’s enjoying that at the moment and who knows how long it will last but it’s a rare occurrence and it may never happen again in his career but he’s certainly making the most of it while he can. I feel sorry for Nico, he’s only a fraction behind but it’s just enough to not being able to make an impact on Lewis program. He’s going to have to come up with something radical soon or it will be a walk in the park for Lewis to win the championship this year again. In some ways it’s similar to the Red Bull situation a few years back, Webber was very close in the beginning but lost out and the longer it went on the advantage for Vettel just grew bigger and bigger. Once you hit that trigger point mentally where you gradually give up the fight it’s all over.

JT – Williams finished behind Mercedes and Ferrari once again. They seem to qualify well enough but don’t have sufficient pace in the races. McLaren had another less than stellar outing with Jenson Button failing to start the race and Fernando Alonso finishing eleventh. What do you make of their respective performances?

SJ –Williams seems to have the same problems they had last year. Their execution is not there. They’re just not one hundred percent on top of things. There always seems to be some little glitch here or there that stops them maximizing their potential. As for McLaren well, it wasn’t great obviously. But I kind of have a feeling about them.

They have the resources, the equipment, the right manpower and definitely the desire… I think they might actually surprise a few people before the end of the season. Ok, Button didn’t start in Bahrain but at least Alonso was close to fighting for a championship point. That’s a huge improvement from where they were in Australia.

The early season points, especially in F1 today, are so valuable it’s ridiculous. The rate of technical development is so high that all of the mid to back-end teams – whatever points they were able to score these first three to four races will be worth gold at the end of the season. It gets much, much more difficult to score points as the season goes on. 

 

JT – Regarding McLaren, they made an announcement today about their new color scheme, which seems to be quite a big deal for them.

SJ – Yes, I did see that too. It’s still grey, albeit a bit darker than before, with a few day-glow red bits on it. There are still no sponsors of any significance on the car, and the only car that really matters what color it carries is Ferrari, the rest I don’t think anyone would care one iota over. Colors keep changing with sponsors and the only car that have always been the same color is Ferrari, if they were to change it would no doubt be a huge deal, for the rest, I don’t think it would matter to much.

JT – The Spanish Gand Prix is next on the calendar, the first of the European races. Do you expect significant jumps in performance from the teams?

SJ – I think you’ll find that it will be harder and harder for the mid-pack teams to score points. Development will start to get more serious and it’s likely that McLaren will make more progress and probably quite fast considering how far behind they started, so will Red Bull and probably also Toro Rosso, Lotus and Force India. I think the competition at the front will tighten up a bit but I think Mercedes still has some performance in their pocket.

 

JT – In related news it may be a bit premature to say that the World Endurance Championship (WEC) is stealing F1’s thunder in racing terms but many watchers of both series are commenting that the competition in the WEC is easily outclassing that in F1. That seems a fair statement after having seen the good racing at both Silverstone last month and Spa last weekend.

The technology fielded by Audi, Porsche and Toyota in the WEC now surpasses what we see on the F1 grid and lap times aren’t that much different between the F1 single-seaters and LMP1 prototypes. Commercially, sports car racing can’t begin to touch F1 but the current situation reminds me a bit of circumstances we saw in the 1980s with the World Sportscar Championship and F1. F1 drivers, including those currently competing like Nico Hulkenberg, are starting to cross over, looking at the WEC as a viable and attractive alternative. One wonders how much notice the powers in Formula One are taking?

SJ – Yes, the battle between Audi and Porsche at Silverstone in particular was great. What’s refreshing in the WEC is that you have racing that while still restricted does allow alternative options for employing technology. I think this is great and the way it should be. Porsche are using one concept (V4 Turbo, 8-megajoule Hybrid ERS), Audi is using another (V6 Turbodiesel, 4-megajoule Hybrid ERS), Toyota are doing their own thing (V8, 6-megajoule Hybrid ERS) and of course the Nissan which is completely different (V6 Turbo, undetermined-megajoule Hybrid ERS, front-wheel drive).

Things now are a bit similar to that period in the 1980s. I wish it was more like that. Back then I raced in Formula One, Group C and I even raced in F2 sometimes, all at the same time. That stopped when I got fully established in F1 and you weren’t allowed to do anything else but I think the fact the F1 drivers are trying sports car racing again is a good thing.

Take Scott [Dixon] for example. Chip [Ganassi] (Ganassi Racing) let’s his drivers race wherever they can fit it in as long as it doesn’t affect their main program of Indycars or NASCAR. Yes, for the most part they are Chip’s cars but because he competes in several categories, his drivers are able to race different types of cars. His IndyCar and NASCAR guys get to do sports car races. I think that’s a good thing. 

JT - Someone pointed out in Autosport recently that sadly, the best drivers in the world aren’t necessarily in F1 anymore, do you agree with that?

SJ - The sharp end in F1 is obviously very, very good there’s no doubt about that, maybe as good as it’s ever been in fact. But even guys like Nico Hulkenberg and Mark Webber soon realize that they have to work pretty hard to even stay on the same pace as the teammates they drive with in prototypes. In many ways the current F1 cars are the easiest cars to drive because they are so incredibly well engineered and the main purpose of all the technology aside from making the car as fast as possible of course, is to make it as easy as possible to drive as this also helps to get more speed and avoid as many mistakes as possible from the driver being on the limit.

Frankly, if I were a F1 team owner I’d let my drivers do as much as they could in Sports-cars in particular, and I think you’ll see more of it. You can sense the level of frustration when you talk to some of the guys in F1 now, they all complain because it’s just not pure racing anymore. All they do is maintain tire wear and drive to a certain speed determined by their engineers.

I think the more the drivers race the better they get, especially with as little racing as they do now in F1. There’s no better school for race-craft than sports car racing because you’re racing all the time. You have slower cars, faster cars, track conditions which change more and many other factors. And you’re racing on the limit the whole time with all of those variables. You learn to save fuel, learn to save tires, all the stuff you need. Every lap you do in a race car adds to your experience somehow.

The WEC is no threat to Formula One on any level except technically or its attractiveness in terms of driving and racing. They have few spectators and not too much TV exposure. Back in the day, IndyCar (CART) started gaining on F1 a bit and it didn’t take long before a certain someone the kibosh on that.

If the WEC attracted more manufacturers and had five or six of them with three-car teams then all of a sudden it’s a very serious proposition, especially if they’re all spending money on marketing as well as racing. Up to now, Porsche and Toyota have been fairly quiet in terms of their marketing. But Audi has done extremely well in that regard. Of course, it helps if you win before you start doing a lot of marketing.

JT – The racing at last weekend’s WEC round at Spa-Francorchamps was not as good as what took place at Silverstone but Audi and Porsche had a fairly interesting battle with Audi emerging victorious. It was curious that Audi decided to run two of its three cars in low-drag “Le Mans” configuration in preparation for the 24 Hours but Porsche and Toyota didn’t opt to do the same.

SJ – It seemed to be a good battle between Audi and Porsche but it looks like Toyota has lost their way a little bit this year for whatever reason. The new Audi looks quite impressive though. The aero they have is obviously working, and the car looks awesome.

It is strange that Porsche and Toyota didn’t run their Le Mans bodywork. You’d think Spa is really the only chance they will get to run with it before the 24 Hours. That would be where you’d put some effort in. The test day at Le Mans is only one day and the running is very sporadic. You don’t really get a lot of laps in, especially if you have to cycle three drivers through a car, added with the long laps at Le Mans they’ll be lucky for each driver to get 15 laps in anger over the course of one day.

JT – The IndyCar season has progressed since we last chatted, with Scott Dixon finally taking a win at the Long Beach Grand Prix – a race also remarkable for the uncharacteristic lack of caution flags this year. He was justifiably pleased and I think everyone can agree that he’s not just one of the best drivers in IndyCar – he could succeed anywhere including F1.

The following race at Barber Motorsports Park provided what has arguably been the best racing this year and a podium including Scott and two Americans – winner Josef Newgarden and runner-up Graham Rahal.

SJ – Yes, Scott is and always has been one of the best drivers I’ve seen period. I call him the “mailman”. If you give him a good car, he’ll deliver – simple as that, and it doesn’t matter what type of car, he will win in anything.

As you know, there are hundreds of fast guys but less than a handful in the entire world that can deliver a win when the car is capable of winning, or finish second when a car is not capable of winning. That’s how you win championships. I’m glad he got the Long Beach monkey off his back. He’s got St. Petersburg to deal with still. That’s the other bogey-track.

It was also great to see nice, clean driving at Long Beach, especially given what went on at NOLA (New Orleans Grand Prix) the week before. That was just embarrassing to watch. That looked like the Formula Ford festival or something. It wasn’t the standard of driving you expect from a series like IndyCar.

The Chevrolets still seem to have an advantage over the Hondas on the road and street courses but there isn’t too much Honda can do now because they’ve submitted their spec package and I don’t think they can change it much. The changes made to the Chevys (IndyCar banned the use of one of their front wing elements) didn’t seem to affect their downforce that badly.

All of the teams were also supposed to beef up the aerodynamic pieces on the cars to stop all the debris flying around the track after the St Petersburg debacle, but you can strengthen them all you want. If you hit someone or something, something has to give. You’re better off having the little dive planes or devices fail than having the whole main-plane on the front wing. That gets expensive very quickly.

I just followed the race at Barber online. From what I understand it was very much a fuel conservation race and had a lot to do with tire management. But it was an exciting race, especially the finish.

JT – Last Sunday marked the first time IndyCar teams have been back on the Indianapolis oval since last May. They ran with their respective Chevrolet and Honda speedway aero-kits for the first time as well. The cars already seem to be quicker with the Team Penske drivers posting laps in the high 226 mph-range. The cars also look a little less odd.

SJ – Yes, I think they want to get up above 230 mph at least and I think they’ll be there. I talked with Scott [Dixon] this morning and the team is pretty happy with the car. They’re running the Chevrolet with a kind of draggy, high-downforce setup at the moment so there’s probably a lot more to come speed-wise.

The cars look quite good with the speedway aero kits. But then the previous version of the car didn’t look bad either.

 

JT – When you were racing at Indy in CART (1993-1995) the cars were quite a bit different, running with more power and less downforce than the current cars. What kind of speed was being posted for pole position?

SJ – I can’t remember exactly what they were but we were up around the 230 mph mark as well. We ran mostly Penske chassis there. These new cars probably do have more downforce than what we ran with. But the engines have far less power than what we had. We had close to 900 horsepower back then.

It’s always been the same though. You want the car right on the limit at Indianapolis, being able to go flat but not more. If you’re too comfortable, the car will be too draggy down the straights.

JT – On the domestic sports car racing front, the Tudor United Sports Car Series has looked comparatively meager since the regular season got underway, particularly at Long Beach where only two classes – prototype and GTLM ran. Only 17 cars started the race and within a couple of laps only 16 were running. Mazda’s prototypes finished three laps back behind most of the GTLM cars.

The field at last weekend’s round at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca was larger as the PC and GTD classes also ran but it still looked uneven and ragged. At least both races featured little in the way of caution flags and the racing was better at the front in the prototype class at Laguna Seca.

SJ – Yes, what can you say? The racing overall is occasionally good but it is uneven and with only around 10-11 cars in each of the four categories it makes it difficult to get too excited.

IMSA seems to be a championship more for the participants these days. Obviously, sports car racing has always had a mixture of manufacturers and rich guys so there’s never been a huge level of sponsorship. It’s racing mostly for die-hard fans, not the general public. The race at Laguna Seca had almost no promotion anywhere beforehand. The crowd was very small. I remember when we ran Champ Car there. The hills were black with people. The place was full.

 

JT – On a positive note, the No. 63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari seemed to have a decent weekend at Laguna Seca. Townsend Bell and Bill Sweedler finished fourth. I suppose the team has to be somewhat satisfied with the result.

SJ – It was a decent weekend with good points in the circumstances. The BoP certainly hasn’t been in our favor since Daytona which we really had a shot to win if we hadn’t had a clutch issue. The team did a terrific job in the pits with good strategy and quick stops. We’re third in the championship but it’s very close now.