Jan Tegler – Last weekend was a sad one for the global racing community overshadowed by the death of driver Justin Wilson stemming from a late race accident during IndyCar’s ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway. Struck by the nose cone of Sage Karam’s Ganassi Racing Dallara when it flew off after Karam impacted the outside wall, Wilson succumbed to massive head trauma.
Stefan Johansson – It’s obviously very tragic. I got know Justin and his family well recently because I tried to advise and help his younger brother (Stefan Wilson) when he came over to the U.S. to try to do some IndyCar. They’re just the nicest, finest people you could ever meet. It’s very sad. And Justin was always on the cusp of getting a ride with a top team but never quite got the break he really deserved.
It was obviously a freak accident but freak accidents happen because other accidents happen I suppose. I think there were 12 cautions, most of them for crashes. That seems to be the trend this year, much more so than in the past. It’s hard to say exactly why but it’s clear that the cars have more downforce now than they’ve had before.
The reason IndyCar went away from the original Dallara chassis was partly that and partly because of other safety issues with the cars. The bottom line though is that they’re now back to cars with high downforce on these banked ovals again. That means that the cars are relatively easy to drive and everyone is running in a big gaggle again. Anyone can run with the pack. That’s something the series wanted to get away from after Las Vegas (Dan Wheldon perished in an accident in Las Vegas 2011).
At one point there were seven cars abreast at Pocono. That’s just too much I think. It’s the same scenario we had in Fontana where they were 5-6 cars abreast with only an inch or two between the cars. It was only luck that nothing worse happened in Fontana, just as it was bad luck that we had a tragic accident in Pocono. But you must question if it makes sense to rely on nothing more than luck if something goes wrong, which we have now seen more often than not in both Fontana and Pocono. Last year the race was completely different with the cars having less down-force and as such more difficult to drive and also to get the right set up.
JT – While it’s certainly unusual, Wilson’s accident is the latest of a few that have had something to do with open cockpits. Jules Bianchi perished after contact with a crane at the Japanese Grand Prix, Felipe Massa was hit by a spring and severely injured in 2009 at Hungary, and F2 driver Henry Surtees lost his life after a loose wheel came into his cockpit. Next month the FIA is set to conduct closed-cockpit tests, considering a number of designs including a fighter jet-like cockpit and a blade or boomerang-like arrangement. What’s your take, should these ideas be considered?
SJ – It definitely makes sense to look at different cockpit solutions especially after what’s been happening lately. By the same token, I think different ways to strengthen other parts of the cars to stop debris flying off them should be considered too. Crash testing is effectively done with 90-degree impacts; they never test at other angles at any great speed to see what might fly off the car if you hit at heavy impact at a 45-90 angle for example. There is no way the entire nose assembly should separate from the car the way it did on Karam’s car for example.
My concern with a canopy approach for closing the cockpit is how do you get out of the cockpit if you’re pinned upside down? I’m sure that could be figured out but there can always be freak accidents and even with a closed-cockpit you can never make racing completely safe. I don’t know what would happen in a prototype sports car with an enclosed cockpit if you hit something like that nose cone. That’s a big, heavy object, no matter if you have an open or closed cockpit.
Obviously a lot of testing is being done and that needs to be done.
JT – Leaving aside Wilson’s tragic mishap, the IndyCar field seems to be getting more and more aggressive on ovals. At Fontana, Iowa and Pocono in particular there were many instances where drivers chopped in front of one another while trying to pass. It looks pretty sketchy viewed from the stands or on TV. Do you agree?
SJ – Yes, there’s absolutely no respect among the drivers anymore. It’s horrendous. People are just chopping each other and taking the air off of each other. That’s not acceptable on ovals. You’ve got to show some respect. But people keep doing it and pissing off other drivers. Then as a driver when you get pissed off, you do the same thing and it all snowballs.
Unfortunately, the people in race control don’t seem to understand the problem because they’ve never sat in a race car, there is no way that some of the drivers should be able to get away with some of the stuff they’re doing without a penalty of some sort.
The ultimate penalty is of course when you eventually eat it big yourself, which will eventually happen to all of them. That will typically make them think once or twice before they pull the same stunt again.
JT – Scott finished the race in ninth position and never really seemed to have the car balanced as well as he would have liked. Heading into the final double-points paying race this weekend in Sonoma, he sits third in the standings, 47 points behind Juan Pablo Montoya. Penske has had a lot of success at Sonoma over the last few years but Dixon won last year. What’s the outlook for the final race of 2015?
SJ – Yes, Scott was never really comfortable with the car at Pocono. It’s a shame the way the championship is playing out. Penske is good at Sonoma but Scott did win last year so the team (Ganassi Racing) should have a pretty good handle on the track.
My biggest worry given the way things have gone at road courses this year is that it will come down to strategy again. Someone who’s not even in contention for the championship will roll the dice, as has happened many times this year, and win the race. They’ll go off the conventional strategy and gamble. But no one can predict what will happen so we’ll see.
JT – Formula One was back in action at Spa-Francorchamps after their summer break. Lewis Hamilton won, beating teammate Nico Rosberg without much drama. Romain Grosjean scored a podium finish for Lotus-Mercedes, the team’s first since the USGP in 2013. The race wasn’t terribly exciting after the start. Force India’s Sergio Perez did challenge Hamilton on the first lap and after the first pits stops but apart from that there wasn’t much to be impressed with.
SJ – Well, if you think about it F1 has been like this for a very long time. Because of the way the rules are and the cars are you’re always going to have one, two or maybe three teams fighting for the wins and the championship. The rest are there but never really a serious threat. Mercedes is more dominant these days than what we’ve seen for some time but Red Bull was nearly as dominant and there was the Ferrari period before that.
I think the difference now is that the rules are very confusing with development tokens and engine penalties for this and that. For instance, if you have a rule where a team can be penalized 105 grid positions; clearly there are too many rules and too many boffins involved in the rule making process. F1 needs to be simplified dramatically.
JT – Silly season is in full swing in F1 with everything from driver and team pairings to engine-suppliers and teams in the mix. For example, there’s now speculation that Renault wants to buy Force India and that Fernando Alonso has been talking to Red Bull Racing. Should we be paying attention?
SJ – Everyone’s had a month off from racing now and it’s the usual thing from the F1 media, everyone thinks they have the big scoop. They’re notorious for making up rumors and relentless in doing it. If someone has a conversation with someone, well there are people on different teams in F1 who are friends but the media makes up a story. It’s always been that way. But no one really knows the truth aside from the people involved. All the moves will shake out eventually whatever the media speculation says.
JT – A number of rules changes for the 2016 season are already being discussed or implemented. Do you think any of them have the potential to improve the competition?
SJ – Let’s hope so. I think some of the ideas that are been brought up seem to make sense, others not at all in my opinion. They keep talking about the need to make the cars go faster. I think that will lead to them altering the aerodynamics of the cars again completely. That would be ok if they actually came up with a plan that made sense instead of just making the sport more expensive yet again.
I still hold that they should limit aerodynamics. Just institute a limit on how much downforce the cars are allowed. That would eliminate this incessant, expensive and never-ending aero development. If anyone calculated the cost per kilo of downforce gained I bet you would get some insane number.
The easiest way to make the cars faster is by opening the tire regulations to competition and let the competing manufacturers build quality tires with more grip and better endurance. Let it be a tire war again. Right now, you have teams spending north of $500 million in some cases on making their car faster. Then the tire manufacturer basically gets a mandate to build a bad tire to make the racing more interesting supposedly, to help the show.
That leads to a situation like you had at Spa where Ferrari decides to take a gamble on strategy with a one-stop race for Vettel and not only does the tire not perform close to how it could perform but it’s not even safe after 40 laps! (Vettel’s right rear tire came apart on lap 42 dropping him to 12th)
If tires can be made to do four stints at Le Mans on the limit every lap with a car (LMP1) that has at least as much downforce as an F1 car, weighs 50% more, has 1100 horsepower when you put it all down and does its best times at the end of the four hours, why can they not be that good for F1?
It would be a no brainer for Pirelli or Michelin to build a decent tire that would go even 5-6 seconds a lap quicker after a year of development if you had the two tire companies competing. Problem solved. Leave the cars alone. Don’t spend a bunch of money on nothing. Let the tire manufacturers spend the money. They have money and they are prepared to spend it.
Then give the cars another couple hundred horsepower more. They’ll get another 25 km/h down the straights and better acceleration and they’ll be more difficult to drive. It would be a no brainer to go 10 seconds a lap faster.
In terms of controlling costs, in my opinion it should also be far cheaper to do real testing than it is to do all this other stuff with simulators and god knows what else the teams have to do instead. On track testing was banned because it was to expensive apparently, yet I haven’t been able to get one answer from anyone about how it’s possible that actual testing on track is more expensive than all this simulation and other stuff the teams do now. Simulators cost more than $50 million in some cases. You can’t tell me the teams would spend $50 million per year if they went testing, and if they did then something is very seriously wrong.
Go testing again, it should be made cheaper, drivers will get more seat time, get more comfortable with their cars, and they won’t make near as many mistakes as they do on track now, particularly the young guys. The only training they get these days is in a simulator then they go racing.
JT – In the past, F1 has complained that the tire wars resulting from having multiple manufacturers made the racing more dangerous with ever more aggressive compounds being fielded. Would that hold true again?
SJ – That’s not really true. There were only very rare occasions when you had tire issues, certainly not more than what we’ve seen with a single tire supplier. Occasionally there might be something that surprises you like the cuts that result to tires when people don’t respect track limits but that’s not because of the tires themselves.
When I was racing in F1, I could run one set of tires a full race distance. When I was third in Portugal (1989, racing for Moneytron Onyx) I did the whole race without stopping. That was our strategy. There was hardly any rubber left on the fronts. They were just running on the cords and didn’t have hardly any grip left the last five laps but they were still fine.
My strategy back then was always to do two heat-cycles on the tires prior to the race. I’d run a set for two or three laps in practice – not hard, just enough to get heat into them. I’d take them off, let them sit and do the same thing the next day - another three to four laps to let them cure just a bit. They’d lose about three or four-tenths to a brand new set over the first four or five laps in the race but then they’d stay consistent for much longer.
It’s a whole different world today of course but that was part of the race strategy back then. I might give up an extra run in qualifying to make sure I got the best set of tires I could get for the race.
JT – You were on hand with Scuderia Corsa for Rounds 16 and 17 of the Pirelli World Challenge at Miller Motorsports Park last weekend. How was the racing and the results for the team? Scuderia Corsa was also in action at VIR for IMSA’s Oak Tree Grand Prix. Townsend Bell and Bill Sweedler took the win in their GTD Ferrari.
SJ – It was a bit of an odd weekend partly because of the high altitude there in Utah. The Cadillacs (ATS-VRs) were dominating GT the whole weekend with Johnny O’Connell. The Ferraris (458 Italias) were nowhere. None of the normally-aspirated cars had much performance. Still, we finished second in GTA with Martin Fuentes in both races so it wasn’t bad.
Townsend and Sweedler did a great job. Bill drove like a man-possessed so a lot of credit to him.