JT – The F1 season is now well and truly underway. The Bahrain Grand Prix offered more action than the Australian GP but the result was similar – two Mercedes on the podium along with a Ferrari. Nico Rosberg turned a perfect start into a dominating second consecutive win. Teammate and pole-sitter Lewis Hamilton was slow off the line and paid the price with contact from Williams’ Valtteri Bottas at the first corner. He fell to ninth but recovered to finish third. Kimi Raikkonen also had a poor start but rallied to finish second. What did you think of the race?
SJ – There were some interesting battles here and there because teams were on different strategies. It looks like the new system of tire choices has definitely helped to spice up the races some although I actually found it hard to follow the race on TV.
It’s very difficult to keep up with who’s on which tire or strategy, which puts more emphasis on the TV production and the commentators to keep the viewers up to date all the time. There’s so much going on with all the possible strategies and tires, and that’s not really presented on-screen. You almost need a computer next to you with timing and scoring and updates. And for a very good portion of the race you never saw what the leaders were doing. They weren’t on camera. That’s understandable because of the gap but it’s tough to follow.
The new start procedure has definitely thrown a spanner in the works. That’s good I think because there should be a skill element involved for getting a good start. There was quite a technique in F1 at different points in the past to getting off the start line quickly. Then they made it completely automated and now it’s at least halfway back in the drivers’ hands.
I wish it was completely back in the drivers’ hands and hopefully they’ll go in that direction again eventually.
Looking at Rosberg versus Hamilton, Rosberg has had things go his way so far. I think it’s just the way the dynamics go in a competitive team. It would appear that Lewis has dominated the last two years but if you think about how close it’s been both years it comes down to nuances. Sometimes you’re the windshield, sometimes you’re the bug, and in many cases over the last two years things could have just as easily gone Rosberg’s way, but they didn’t.
You only need one little hiccup to fall behind. Before, it was Rosberg who couldn’t get off the start line. There were times when he qualified in front of Lewis but blew the start consistently. Now it’s the other way around. That’s the way it goes and they’ve been so close to each other every year since they became team mates.
JT – Drama took place even before the start with Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari blowing an engine on the formation lap. Raikkonen lost an engine at Australia, Vettel doesn’t even make the grid in Bahrain, and they’ve had other engine problems in testing and practice. Could it be that the failures are the result of Ferrari pushing the performance envelope of their power unit very hard in an effort to catch Mercedes?
SJ – We’re certainly seeing more reliability issues than we’ve seen in many years in general terms so it’s hard to say. But it would not appear that the failures that Ferrari has suffered so far have been catastrophic - small things that unfortunately have had big consequences.
JT – Williams F1 had another disappointing race. Their strategy seemed to be wrong and though Bottas made a good start, things went downhill from there. I think that many expected more from a team that has finished third in the constructors championship the last two years.
SJ – It’s a bit odd really. I don’t know how they got the strategy that wrong in Bahrain. You can alter strategy during the course of a race but they didn’t really. To be fair, it seemed like everyone was struggling on the medium tires. Maybe that had something to do with it.
JT – On the other hand, Haas F1 surprised the entire paddock again with good qualifying and race pace from both cars, good strategy, and a terrific drive to fifth place from Romain Grosjean. Esteban Gutierrez looked to have good speed as well until his car experienced a mechanical failure. Apparently Haas’ competitors are now complaining that the new American team is really a Ferrari “B” team.
SJ – They’re very impressive. They’ve shown everyone that Australia wasn’t a fluke. As in Australia, they had real speed in Bahrain and executed their strategy and pit stops pretty well.
It begs the question, why aren’t more people in F1 doing the same thing? Instead of spending ridiculous amounts of money to build every single part on a car, why not do a deal for a good portion of the package or as much as the rules will allow you with one of the major teams that have all the resources for R&D? Instead, focus on doing the best job you can with the race team and then have the potential to finish in the top 10 consistently.
If you look at Sauber, Force India, Manor and the rest who sit at the back of grid and rise or fall a little bit every year and wind up being similar at the end of day, you have to ask why? What Haas F1 has done seems to me to be the obvious way to go.
But you hear people like Pat Symonds (Williams’ technical director) who I have a huge respect for. He was my engineer on a number of occasions over the years and is one of the best guys in the paddock. They worry that Haas’ model is going to change the world of Formula One, or question if it’s in the spirit of what F1 is all about. Well, something has to change. When the bottom teams are spending close to $100 million per year, something is seriously wrong. Everyone in the paddock is well aware that the model is unsustainable, yet everyone seems shocked at what Haas has done.
Haas has been very smart and done their homework well - shame on everyone else for not adopting the same idea.
It makes absolutely no sense to me to continue on with this “constructors” model. It’s an outdated concept that does not fit with the direction a modern F1 is made. A full budget for a winning team in the 1980s was something like $35 million per year. Now it’s close to $500 million. So it makes sense to do what Haas has done. What difference does it make if you can brag that you made a cleverer braking duct than anyone else? In the end, F1 should be about good racing - about the best drivers racing each other hard.
What we have now amounts to nothing more than “engineering porn”. That’s what I think of when I see these endless updates and aerodynamic elements and this and that and the other, with teams flying in crates of new parts every weekend. No one except the people inside the business can even appreciate or understand any of this. You can line up every single car next to each other and paint them white and hardly anyone will know the difference. So what’s the point of being a “constructor” when there is zero innovation allowed anyway? The whole idea is flawed.
JT – While Grosjean had a very impressive race, so did Stoffel Vandoorne, filling in for Fernando Alonso at McLaren. Surely, this raises his stock even further in terms of securing a drive in F1 in the future, right?
SJ – Vandoorne did a fantastic job. He’s the real deal no doubt. He’s beaten everybody in every championship he’s ever competed in. Throwing him into Alonso’s seat like that, he couldn’t have done more than he did really. That was a perfect job all weekend. It’s always a sign of a great driver when he can step up and grab the opportunity with both hands on the one chance he might get.
JT – Max Verstappen also drove well, finishing in sixth. His outburst on the Toro Rosso team radio at Australia was in the rear view mirror.
SJ – Well, his frustration in Australia was entirely understandable. The guy’s only 18 years old and everybody has to blow off some steam at sometimes. The bigger point though is that the second year in F1 in any team is always tougher. You come into F1 and there’s no real pressure, no huge expectations. You sort of just do your thing.
Last year he managed to pull off just about every move he made but it’s another season now and it’s very easy for things to go the other way - against you, as we saw in Australia. If you remember, Grosjean had a great first year and then got into all sorts of problems the second year although I don’t think he necessarily did anything much different. Things just didn’t go his way and once doubts start you tend to over analyze everything instead of just making things happen. Then you make the wrong move very easily.
JT – Force India’s performance was decidedly less impressive. Nico Hulkenberg started eighth but finished 17th while teammate Sergio Perez finished 16th.
SJ – Yes, I was surprised at how they just fell back in the race. They clearly went the wrong way on tire strategy like Williams did. It’s also unfair the way the tires are allocated. Grosjean didn’t want to be in the top eight in qualifying because it allowed him to have an extra set of super soft compound tires for the race.
I think that’s completely wrong. You shouldn’t be punished for out-qualifying other competitors and lose a set of tires. Everybody should be allowed to start with the same allocation for the race. It goes back to the qualifying saga actually.
I don’t see what was wrong with the qualifying format that we used for years. You had an hour to qualify and three sets of tires. You just went out to qualify whenever you wanted to, using whatever combination you liked. At every single race, the last ten minutes were electrifying.
Senna or Prost would go out with two minutes to go with a new set and it was always a game of chess at the end of qualifying. Maybe the weather conditions were changing. What were the competitors doing? I think that was way more exciting than even the format they want to go back to now.
Or, if you were allowed to turn the power units up to their highest output - it would be awesome to see them with 1200 horsepower just for qualifying.
JT – Lamentably, F1’s failed qualifying format was still in place at Bahrain and is still a point of contention for everyone in the sport. Qualifying didn’t improve the second time around with the new format and yet the teams, the FIA and Bernie Ecclestone seem stuck. Your view is that there’s more to the story, right?
SJ – To me it’s clear that all this has nothing to do with qualifying. I don’t recall a single person complaining about qualifying previously. Everyone was quite happy with it, and this is pure politics, unless everyone has completely lost the plot, which I really don’t think is the case.
My theory is that this is a political move from whatever the source is to destabilize the F1 Strategy Group (F1’s rule-making body which includes the FIA, FOM and six teams). I think the ultimate goal is to get rid of it or break it up somehow. Since the group was formed, nothing has happened. It’s been a disaster from day one.
To repeat what I’ve been saying forever, if you have the teams involved in the decision making nothing will ever get done. They can’t even agree on when to have a meeting let alone what they should talk about. They’re so suspicious and paranoid about each other.
If the goal of all this is to eliminate the Strategy Group, it’s a good idea in my opinion. Doing it all publicly shows that nothing can get done as long as this group exists. It’s the old trusted “divide and conquer” idea. The fact that you have this committee that has to approve any changes instead of simply saying - “That didn’t work, let’s go back to what we had before” – shows how broken it is.
This is a move to shake things up and force changes. When things don’t make any sense - which this one clearly doesn’t - you know something is up.
JT – Following the Australian race where the qualifying format proved to be a disaster, the GPDA (Grand Prix Drivers Association) issued a public letter declaring their displeasure with the current governance of F1. What was your reaction to this?
SJ – I think it was a very bad idea. First of all, why is it necessary to issue a public letter instead of dealing with this matter behind closed doors? Anyway, all the letter did was state the obvious and I love the way Bernie dealt with it. Essentially he agreed with them but corrected their spelling and grammar, which only underlines the respect and reaction it got from the people it was meant to be addressed to.
As long the voice of the drivers is not one of the top guys, I don’t think anyone will give two hoots about what they have to say. Their current president is not even an active driver anymore. Judging by the various comments from various teams and the governing bodies, I think they did a good job at shooting themselves in the foot - that’s all.
JT – The second race on the 2016 IndyCar schedule also took place last weekend. Scott Dixon overcame strong competition and a track on which it was difficult to pass to win the Phoenix Grand Prix. While it wasn’t the most action-filled event, Phoenix did prove to be a safe race and Scott gained valuable points. He now sits second in the championship, five points ahead of Juan Pablo Montoya who he battled for the title last year. What’s your take?
SJ – From Scott’s point of view the race was fantastic. To have the points he has now is great because he’s normally not very far up in the championship at this time of year. It’s a good start to the season. He’s hard to beat when he gets going. He’s like a machine nowadays.
But a lot of credit has to go to the team also. They did a phenomenal job on all the pit stops and the strategy to not only get him to the front but also to keep him there. A lot of his main opponents pitted at exactly the wrong moment and went a lap down with the yellow flags coming out as they were either in the pits or just rejoined.
As a whole though, the race was quite uneventful. No one could pass other than on the restarts. Everyone was just stuck on one racing line and there was never an opportunity for a second line to open up. That limited most of the passing to whatever spots you could gain on the pit stops.
But at least it was a safe race and that was good. With the huge aero (downforce) they have on the cars it could have been pretty tricky and some people including myself were quite nervous that it might be another crazy pack racing event like we saw at Fontana and a couple of other places last year. That’s not the way to go.
Everyone knew the first two or three laps of the race and the restarts were really the only opportunity you had to pass. Hunter-Reay was pretty far back at the start and knew he had to take a few chances. He made some great moves, as did Tony Kanaan. They are both very experienced and aggressive drivers and it was impressive to see.
I know I’ve been talking about it for a couple years but you’d think IndyCar would realize that, just as in Formula One, big aero downforce is ruining the racing. It’s as simple as that.
The evolution of the new aero-kits has really resulted in nothing. We’re at greater levels of downforce now than we were a few years ago when these new cars were introduced. Again, I’ve said it before – theoretically, they could have stayed with what they had in 2014 and the racing would be better.
Now, if you get too close to a car in front it’s almost impossible to pass – same as in F1. If you got stuck behind a car that was on the end of the lead lap, as we saw, there was nothing you could do. You’re stuck at their speed and everyone was running around doing exactly the same lap time. I just hope at some point the penny will drop and everyone will have a major rethink on the philosophy of what a modern race car should be like. The way it’s going right now is not helping the racing at all.
JT – Another side effect of the downforce and the horsepower IndyCar powerplants make currently is that if you make a move on a competitor ahead, particularly on an oval, you lose nearly all momentum. That makes you vulnerable to those behind immediately.
SJ – Exactly, no one dares take the risk to pass – or rarely anyway, because of that. Their frustration just keeps mounting as a result and that’s when stupid things happen.
Maybe things will be different at Long Beach but it did surprise me that at Phoenix there was such a difference between Chevy and Honda again. I would have thought Honda could have closed the gap a bit. But the gap seems almost bigger than it was last year on ovals.
JT – IndyCar rookies Max Chilton and Alexander Rossi both did a good job at Phoenix. Chilton finished seventh but ran as high as fifth while Rossi ran in the top ten as well but was caught out by a yellow flag while in the pits – the same fate that befell Hunter-Reay twice.
SJ – They both raced well. Rossi would have had a great result if they hadn’t pitted when they did, and Chilton had a great result in his first oval race in Indycar.
JT – Felix Rosenqvist made his first-ever start on an oval in the Indy Lights round at Phoenix International Raceway. He qualified 13th and finished the race in 15th position. Not satisfying for him I’m sure but a great learning experience nonetheless and he’s still third overall in the championship.
SJ – Obviously not the result he would have wanted. But it was a great learning experience for him and I’m sure he will come back to the next oval mentally prepared and determined to get the job done. With as little preparation and practice as they had before this race, I think he just started out a little too cautious and that carried on through qualifying. Once the race got underway, track position was everything, not one single driver passed under green except on one restart. So he was basically stuck where he started all race.
JT – This was also the second weekend you ran the F1TOP3 competition on your website. Can you explain in more detail what that is?
SJ – Basically, it’s a very simple competition where we invite people to guess the top 3 in each Grand Prix in the correct order. If anyone gets it right three times or more they have a chance to win one of my watches that retail for $7500. Plus there’s a number of smaller prizes at each race like Headsets and T-shirts. Click bellow to participate: