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SJ chats with Jan Tegler: Scott Dixon "the driver of our generation," the Italian GP & the future of F1

#SJblog (source page)

SJ chats with Jan Tegler: Scott Dixon "the driver of our generation," the Italian GP & the future of F1

Stefan Johansson

Scott-Dixon-Sonoma-2015

Jan Tegler – Scott Dixon won his fourth IndyCar championship at the Grand Prix of Sonoma in dramatic fashion, winning the race to tie Juan Pablo Montoya (who finished in sixth position) with 556 points. Dixon’s three wins to Montoya’s two secured him the title. The Kiwi did what few thought he could do – win from his ninth-position qualifying spot on a very challenging road course to erase a 47-point deficit to Montoya. It’s an impressive result. What did you think of the race?

Stefan Johansson I don’t think anyone expected that outcome when they got out of bed on Sunday morning. You didn’t really even think about it before the start of the race because it was such an incredibly long shot for Scott in particular.

The car wasn’t brilliant at any point during practice or even in the first part of the race to be honest. He was just barely hanging onto the guys at the front. But then he did his usual thing. The car came alive and he did his bit. He went into a different zone almost and just checked out from the rest of them.

So Scott did what he could do but then needed all of the other players to do their part as well. Montoya obviously made a mistake when he clipped Will [Power]. That started the whole sequence of events from there on really.

But most of all it was also truly a team effort this time because all of the other Ganassi Racing drivers were up front taking positions away from Montoya which contributed hugely. The calls on tactics for when to stop were perfect and the pit stops themselves were blinding. They picked up three spots on every stop. All of those things added up on a track that you can’t normally pass on to make winning happen. It was incredible to see the whole team come together as one unit when it really mattered.

Montoya-sonoma-2015

JT – Montoya and Penske Racing were obviously disappointed that things went so wrong for them. Montoya said after the race, “It sucks, but when you make double points the last race in a road course and you change the tire and you do everything you did for this weekend and you put so many variables, it doesn't even matter what you do all year.”

That argument wouldn’t seem to hold up when you consider that Montoya himself won a double-points race, the Indy 500.

SJ – Well, in the heat of the moment when you’re disappointed you say things maybe without reflecting much on them. At the end of the day, in a championship, every race is as important as another.

Lucca-Filippi-sonoma-2015

JT – The circumstances of the race changed significantly on Lap 33 when Lucca Filippi’s Chevrolet slowed on track. IndyCar waved a full course yellow even though Filippi’s car remained under power, diminished though it was. I found that a strange caution. Did you?

SJ – Yes, that was probably premature. I think Race control clearly thought he was going to stop on track. Normally, you wouldn’t throw a caution until someone stops of course. There really wasn’t a need for a caution there.

Scott-champion

JT – Winning the championship must be satisfying to Scott not only because he came from behind in the final race to capture it but because he himself has had championships slip through his hands (2007, 2009) at the final race of the season.

SJ – Yes, there were at least three championships that he could have had in the bag and how many Indy 500s has he lost due to silly things in the last five laps? But that stuff tends to work itself out. I think he’s definitely been on the short end more than he’s been on the receiving end.

Josef-Newgarden-2015

JT – Who impressed you most with their performance – apart from Scott Dixon - in IndyCar this year?

SJ – It’s impressive how deep the talent is in IndyCar now, looking at how close the competition is between the teams and how many winners there are. You only need a hiccup from the top teams or someone to roll the dice on strategy and you have a different winner. It’s a tight, exciting championship.

Apart from the “regulars”, the guy who stands out would be Josef Newgarden. I think he’s come along leaps and bounds in the last couple years. He’s among the main contenders now and he’s performing well on ovals and road courses so he’s a diversely capable driver. CFH Racing has also done a terrific job and gone from strength to strength as a team.

Andretti Autosport and Ryan Hunter-Reay

JT – Andretti Autosport and Ryan Hunter-Reay seem to have rebounded in the second half of the season after very poor first half.

SJ – I think that all of the Honda teams gradually began to understand their cars better. The new aerokit was obviously more complicated on their side than it was on the Chevy side. They haven’t quite caught up with the Chevrolets yet but I suspect they will over the winter. My gut feeling is that they’ll be close by the time next season starts. Ryan will always deliver if he’s given the car, and they certainly did a great job towards the end of the season.

indycars-aerokits-2015

JT – That would be positive for IndyCar but it makes one wonder again why they made this expensive detour with the aerokits? As we’ve discussed, couldn’t the money have been better spent promoting the great racing the series already had?

SJ – Both owners and stakeholders in the series are saying the same thing, “Why did we do this?” Estimates range up to $30 million spent by the teams on the kits collectively. I don’t think there’s really been a benefit by doing that on any level.

The cars look slightly different but for me you really don’t need to cater to the people who already know what IndyCars look like. They will watch or attend races anyway. It’s all the millions of people who don’t know what IndyCar is or how good the racing is that you should be directing resources at to make them aware of what is the best racing series in the world as far as I’m concerned.

What other championship has six drivers able to win the title at the last race? Almost every race of the season goes down to the last five laps. The racing is brilliant. Spend whatever money is available on marketing. I’ve been going on about it for years but I absolutely think that a huge prize fund that is tough for teams and drivers to obtain with different trigger points – winner of the championship, the 500, whatever milestones you might select – you can market that.

Let’s say you have a $25 million prize fund, winner takes it all or whatever. You can insure against that. It might cost a million, maybe two million at the most if someone were to win it. Or, let’s say you had an extra $10 million, not as guaranteed money but real prize money, it would be fantastic.

JT – Ganassi racing team owner Chip Ganassi called Dixon “the driver of our generation”. With 38 career victories and four championships it’s hard to dispute Ganassi.

SJ – I certainly agree with him and I think you’d have to. Scott’s record speaks for itself. He’s a complete driver. He delivers day in, day out with very few mistakes. Remember, he’s been in the top three in the championship every year over the last ten years, I think. And he’s missed out on winning additional championships by just a few points on multiple occasions.

I think he could have had four Indy 500 wins and at least six championships already if things had gone his way. That’s pretty staggering.

Recently, I read a piece about [Juan Manuel] Fangio (five-time F1 world champion) and it got me thinking. In the modern day I don’t think there’s any driver who more closely goes about his business the way Fangio did than Scott. He’s full of grace and dignity whether he wins or loses, and always shows respect towards his fellow racers both on and off the track.  

He has the ability to rise above it all and be gracious when he should be very upset. By the same token, he’s gracious when he wins. He’s a very impressive human being in that respect and the fact that he’s just getting better and better in a race car is amazing.

He’s able to manage a race and then turn up his performance when he needs to like he did at Sonoma. He was the last one to leave the hospital with Justin and then regrouped, got his head together and absolutely destroyed everyone in the race. He dealt with the racing and all of the stuff that surrounds it. I was very impressed.

JT – To round out our discussion of the 2015 IndyCar season I’d like to say that it’s odd to be rounding out our discussion of the 2015 IndyCar this early. Here we are midway through September and the season has been over for two weeks. The opener for the 2016 season is the St. Petersburg Grand Prix on March 13. That means IndyCar drivers face a half year without racing. It’s a bit absurd.

SJ – It really is ridiculous and I think it’s starting to sink in now. Scheduling the season to end this early clearly isn’t the smartest idea and whoever it was that came up with the idea I don’t think knew enough about Racing and Indycar in general. However, I think they’re trying to change it for next year. I don’t know by how much but they’ve said they’ll extend it. (the St. Pete Grand Prix has been moved forward by two weeks).

JT – Meanwhile, Formula One marched on to the Italian Grand Prix at Monza. Again, the race at the front wasn’t terribly remarkable with pole-sitter Lewis Hamilton running away from the field to take his seventh win of the season. His closest contender for the championship, teammate Nico Rosberg, suffered an engine failure late in the race making the possibility of another F1 title for Hamilton even more likely.

SJ – No, it wasn’t exciting really. Mercedes is obviously still pushing even though they have a performance gap to the rest of the teams. Lewis ran a 2016 development engine that the team used all seven of its development tokens to bring forward. Unfortunately, that didn’t work out so well for Rosberg. He had problems with his new-spec engine on Saturday so he had to run a five-race-old 2015 engine.

The championship is probably all but over barring a miracle. The way Hamilton is driving at the moment too is just too much. He’s on a major roll and just too quick for Rosberg. Somehow Rosberg seems to have almost accepted that fact and the psychological war that went on last year between the two seems non existent this year. I think the only chance Rosberg could have had to beat Lewis would be to unsettle him mentally but that hasn’t happened and Lewis have instead elevated himself another step and is currently in a different league to the rest.

JT – Hamilton’s victory was in doubt for a brief period post-race after his left rear tire was found to be 0.3 PSI below the pressure mandated by Pirelli for Monza. Ultimately, F1 stewards determined that the tire was initially inflated correctly but lost pressure by the time the measurement was taken due to cooling after its warming blanket was unplugged. Your view is that the pressure mandate is more over-regulation of the racing, correct?

SJ – Yes, all of these penalties now are getting ridiculous. I don’t think anyone is capable of following what’s going on. Playing with tire pressures has been done forever. The teams and drivers will always push the envelope. In every single debrief I’ve been in with any tire manufacturers I’ve ever worked with, the driver and race engineer always want the lowest pressure possible. The tire engineers say “no, no, no” you can’t run the tire any lower than a certain pressure. But then we sort of know that there’s at least a couple of pounds margin beyond what the manufacturer suggests.

So you squeeze it down a bit and that’s how it goes. You’re always willing to take that risk to go a couple tenths quicker. The same is true with cambers. You always push the camber because more camber is more grip effectively, particularly in the front, just as lower pressure means more grip. You’re always willing to push the envelope a little bit with any part of a car to gain speed.

Obviously, if a tire blows at speed the negative effect of that can be higher than other failures. As far as I’m concerned, if you’re willing to push the envelope it’s certainly not a tire manufacturer’s fault if you go further than what they recommend and there’s a failure. Of course, you should only push that envelope within a very tiny range but you do gamble on occasion.

Handing out penalties for that though? Surely, there’s penalty enough if a tire blows. It’s another part of this current world of political correctness that is insane. Does everyone have to be protected or punished by a higher force with every step they take today?

These are individual decisions and if you’re willing to take a risk then so be it. You’re the one taking the risk. Pushing the envelope with tire pressure changes has been going on since I can remember in racing. Now it’s a big political drama. On top of that, until a few years ago no one had a clue what pressures you were running while driving. You were winging it and only knew the pressures when you came into the pits and checked the pressures manually. Then you bled them down a bit if they were too high or added pressure if they were too low.

There should simply be a natural way to be punished if you go too far with something like tire pressures rather than these endless penalties issued by someone from the FIA deciding who’s right and who’s wrong.

JT – Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel finished in second place at the team’s home race. He was delighted, saying the result was the “best second-place I ever had”.

SJ – It’s obviously a pretty special feeling to be on the podium for Ferrari at Monza. If you win there it’s quite incredible.

JT – Kimi Raikkonen stalled his Ferrari on the grid at the start, falling from his second-place qualifying position all the way to the rear of the field. He eventually drove all the way back to a fifth-place finish but it wasn’t the best result Ferrari was after. He doesn’t seem to be the “Iceman” he’s always been referred to as.

SJ – He’s not the Iceman. That’s really an image he gives to the media. It’s quite clever because it saves him being hounded by the media. He’s a one-syllable kind of guy with the press but in private he’s quite talkative.

JT – McLaren continues to disappoint. Jenson Button finished 14th at Monza while teammate Fernando Alonso failed to finish. Honda seems to be somewhat lost as to how to improve their power unit and it looks as if McLaren’s chassis could use lots of improvement as well. Team morale is reported to be low. This is despite the return of Ron Dennis for 2015 and factory backing. Both drivers must be getting very frustrated.

SJ – I’m sure they are. The problem for anyone in F1 these days is that if you don’t get everything right with the powerplant you’re so far behind it’s ridiculous. This engine formula - and most of all the rules - with penalties, development tokens and only four engines per season, it’s the most illogical format the series has ever had.

The economic model is already completely broken in terms of what it costs to develop these engines so who cares if they have four power units or six in a season? It’s absurd. The cost of building two or four engines more per season is like filling up the gas tank compared to what it costs to develop them. These rules just lead to added costs.

I don’t understand why F1 doesn’t have a free engine formula just like it’s a free chassis formula. Building a front wing today probably costs almost as much as it used to cost building an engine. The top teams use between 70 and 80 front wings per season. It’s insanity.

JT – Given the high costs and the barriers to non-manufacturer and new teams, you have to wonder why they race?

SJ – Exactly, most of the teams from the middle to the back are vanity projects, except for Sauber. You have Manor and they’re there on a wing and a prayer, Force India – same thing, Lotus could go under if Renault doesn’t buy them. Sauber is relying on Bernie and their drivers for funding. That’s eight cars, nearly half the grid. Torro Rosso is racing at the whim of Red Bull and Red Bull Racing – if Dieter Mateschitz (team owner) can’t get the engine he wants, or decides for any other reason he’s had enough, they could be gone too.

Mercedes will probably stay in F1 for as long as they’re winning but the day will come when their board will say “we’ve had enough Formula One for a while. We’re going to pull the plug.”

So what have you got left? Ferrari, McLaren and Williams; McLaren is obviously not hitting it out of the park right now, Williams is up and down and financially somewhere in the middle and then there’s Ferrari. It doesn’t make sense that the teams can’t get together and find a way to collectively agree on a budget that’s in the range of $100 to $150 million to win and somewhere around $30 to 50 million to compete well. And it makes even less sense that the FIA does not step in and mandates a way to bring the costs to a sensible level, there is enough clever people on both sides to work out a sensible plan.

That would at least give some value to their franchises. Every team today is effectively worthless to an investor because the sport is so expensive they can’t make money.

Sponsorship is not plentiful now, the costs have gone through the roof with this new engine formula and the economy isn’t what it was so the teams are now counting on the money from Bernie more than ever before.

JT – Other news surrounding the Italian GP included the possibility that the race may not be on the 2017 calendar if the circuit cannot meet the $28 million annual fee that F1 and Bernie Ecclestone are demanding. Many have said that F1 would be damaged if Monza was lost from the calendar. What’s your view?

SJ – It’s obviously no secret that all of F1’s traditional venues have been getting a pretty substantial discount compared to new tracks like Abu Dhabi and Shanghai. That’s why races are moving to new locations – simply because the revenue is much higher.

From Bernie’s point of view I think he’s fed up with some tracks paying less than others. But let’s not forget, it’s CVC [Capital Partners] (CVC acquired majority control of F1 in 2006) that is influencing this too. They’re only looking at revenue. I’m pretty sure that if Bernie ran F1 on his own like he used to we wouldn’t have this problem. He would work a deal with Monza one way or the other.

Now he really has one hand tied behind his back, not only in this regard but with rules and everything. In my opinion that’s a large part of why F1 is in the situation it’s in currently. Bernie was always able to work out a deal. Often, he became a promoter for a struggling venue but at least it stayed on the schedule and kept tradition alive.