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The 100th running of the Indy 500, the dramatic Monaco Grand Prix & #F1TOP3

#SJblog (source page)

The 100th running of the Indy 500, the dramatic Monaco Grand Prix & #F1TOP3

Stefan Johansson

JT – The 100th running of the Indy 500 was equal parts, competitive, historic and surprising. Racing before a sold-out Indianapolis Motor Speedway crowd, Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi pulled off an improbable win by gambling, stretching his fuel mileage for the final 90 miles of the race as other competitors peeled off to pit. He became just the ninth rookie to win the race.

You were on hand for the Hundredth, what did you think of the race in general and Rossi’s performance?

SJ – You could really feel the energy this year. There was the same buzz you used to feel before the split (CART/IRL) in the mid 90’s. The whole city was just buzzing all month. It was great and I hope it will continue like this.

The race, as often happens at Indy, was a bit of an anti-climax at the end. The last five laps completely changed the whole picture of the race. But that’s Indy in a nutshell. Nearly every year the scenario changes completely depending on strategy and who’s really got it together when it matters in those last few laps.

This year’s race ended up being a typical, IndyCar race that was won on strategy rather than sheer speed. We saw [Graham] Rahal do it many times last season where he wasn’t in the picture until the races came to him strategically towards the end. That’s not to take anything away from Rossi. I think he did a phenomenal job all month, really. He was always there or thereabouts through practice and qualifying. For a rookie I think he did a tremendous job.

But he was never in the hunt to win at any point during the race on pace alone. The team made the right call and that’s what matters at Indy. They gambled and in the situation they were in it wasn’t a difficult choice to make. If you’re not running you can sometimes afford to roll the dice and hope the race will come to you, and it certainly did in this case.

Scott [Dixon] was kind of in the same boat frankly. All the guys at the front went full rich for the first ten laps after the last stop, and found themselves having to pit eight to six laps before the end. But his car was never really there all day. Scott was never really able to attack. He was just kind of hanging in there the whole time. He had slight contact as well which put the car just a little out of alignment. That’s a big loss at Indy because if the car is not dialed in there’s nothing you can do as a driver to make it go any faster.

It was just one of those days and he wasn’t the only one. Montoya had a bad day, Pagenaud had a pretty bad one as well, and so did others. It was a surprise in one way but not so surprising in another that an Andretti car won.

They were very strong all month. You knew that out of their five cars at least one was going to have a good chance of winning. They were right at the front from the first day of practice forward. The lap times were coming very easy to them. They were always in the hunt.

JT – Andretti Autosport was undeniably strong. However, it was a tale of two races for them. Ryan Hunter-Reay and Townsend Bell dominated the first half of the race but it was Rossi and Carlos Munoz who claimed the first two spots on the podium for the team. The contact between Bell and Helio Castroneves as they exited their pits led to a collision between Bell and Hunter-Reay which effectively ended the race for the teammates.

SJ – Yes, had that not happened I don’t think there’s any doubt that Hunter-Reay or Bell would have been right there at the end to shoot it out for the win. They were really strong most of the day.

JT – No one predicted Rossi’s win. Even from simply observing the TV broadcast you could sense the frustration of the drivers who had run at the front all day long and had nothing to show for it while Rossi’s gamble paid off.

Similarly, no one was more surprised by Rossi’s win than Alexander himself. In victory lane you could see that he hadn’t mentally processed what had just happened. Formula One had been the focus of his career up until this season and it’s hard to say if he really understands what winning the Indy 500 means. Undoubtedly, that will change.

SJ – That’s not the first time that has happened and that’s the irony of Indy. It always comes down to a combination of circumstances at the end.

I don’t think Rossi has any idea of the magnitude of his win just yet. His life will never be the same again. An American winning Indy is huge. Look at Danny [Sullivan]. He won 31 years ago and it’s still an accolade that travels with him everywhere he goes.

JT – You said that Honda looked very strong for Indy in our last blog, adding that you didn’t think they had been that far behind Chevrolet this season. That observation proved to be exactly right. Honda engines looked very strong throughout practice and qualifying and of course a Honda-powered car won. It looks like their development program as well as their lobbying of IndyCar paid off.

SJ – There’s no question. As I said, I think it’s more that Chevy has had better teams and drivers overall this season and the past and that’s why they’ve had better results. But in terms of performance, I think there’s very little between Honda and Chevy now. Clearly Honda had an advantage at Indy.

JT – Penske, the winning-est team at Indy, didn’t fare too well this year. Castroneves was competitive but his teammates were nowhere to be seen for most of the race. Montoya crashed out, Pagenaud fell further and further back from the green flag and Power was mired in the middle of the pack all day.

SJ – I think both Penske and Ganassi missed the mark this year. It was hard work for both teams to get up to speed. They did manage to get the lap times but it wasn’t coming easy. TK (Tony Kanaan) was running strong obviously but being on the pace wasn’t as easy as it has been in the past. It was a strange Indy 500 in that respect.

JT – The 100th running of the race did attract a lot of attention. Most notably from other racers and I think that’s positive. Do you agree?

SJ – Yes, definitely. There were a ton of NASCAR drivers there. There was big interest from all areas of racing. I think even the Formula One guys are sort of curious about Indy Cars again. That’s what’s exciting. It’s starting to get the kind of buzz it used to have when at least a few F1 guys wanted to transition and have a look at it.

Nigel Mansell - Indycar 1994

Nigel Mansell - Indycar 1994

Fernando Alonso has made some noises about it. I think it would be just awesome if we could get one or two of the stars to come over and race – like when Nigel [Mansell] came over, that just blew it up.

When he came over, it elevated IndyCar to almost to a position where it became a threat to Formula One. I think the same thing could happen again if one or two guys would transition and take it really seriously. I still maintain that currently Indycar has the best racing in the world, if only more people knew about it they would have a huge following.

JT – Following the Indy 500 we had the Detroit double header this past weekend. As usual, both races threw out a lot of curveballs and the results were somewhat unexpected, certainly in race 1 at least.

Yes, again it ended up two races we have grown used to at Detroit with both the weather and fuel strategy playing their part in the final outcome. It was a mixed weekend for a lot of the front runners and in race 1 the race came to the guys who rolled the dice on strategy, exactly same scenario as last year. Scott had a rough two races, it looked like he was lined up to win the first one despite being held up for a very long time in one of the pitstops by some problems with the fuel rig. In the second one it was almost over before it started with Helio (Castro Neves) giving him a heavy hit right as it went green. I’m not sure exactly what he was thinking and both he and Scott were lucky they didn’t crash properly. As it were, Scott’s car sustained some suspension damage, which meant he was never in a position to attack the rest of the race. As usual though, the track produced some great racing.

JT – The Monaco Grand Prix had its moments - due in part to the changing weather conditions that overtook the race. A Mercedes won again but this time the result wasn’t a forgone conclusion.

SJ – It certainly was an interesting race in the first half at least. I think every single compound of tire was on track at some stage of the race. Everybody was trying something different. Once it all settled down it was kind of a typical Monaco where no one could pass and everyone was running in the same place.

JT – The difficulty of passing on-track at Monaco made Red Bull Racing’s disastrous pit stop for Daniel Ricciardo all the more frustrating for the driver and the team. Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes capitalized on their mistake.

SJ – That’s Monaco. I always used to say when we were racing there that you need a 30-second lead to be absolutely sure of winning if you’re leading. Crazy things happen at Monaco that don’t happen at any other track - whether it’s a candy wrapper getting into a radiator inlet because the public sits right at the track edge or a screw up in the pits like this because you’re not operating from a normal garage where things are organized the way they normally are.

That’s difficult to achieve in today’s racing but 30 seconds is still just about what you need for a comfortable margin. What happened with Red Bull is unforgivable but that’s typical Formula One today. They have all these boffins that sit there behind their computer screens and look at the best theoretical strategies but no one seems to be thinking on their feet. When you have adverse conditions like this time, sometimes you just have to make a decision in a split-second and roll the dice.

Hamilton experienced a similar scenario last year. Mercedes just screwed up because the guys that sit behind the computers have never been in a race. They don’t know what it’s like to be on track. All they look at are theoretical scenarios. Monaco is actually quite simple compared to most other tracks as there’s really only thing you need to be concerned with, and that’s track position as it’s virtually impossible to pass even if you’re 5 seconds a lap faster.

That’s why Ross Brawn and Michael Schumacher were always so strong. They were both genuine hard-core racers. They both came up through the sports car scene where you have to make decisions on pit strategy in almost every stint. Often you have to wing it, not looking at what ultimately may be the best solution but making a decision about what to do in the next three seconds.

JT – Daniel Ricciardo is clearly not pleased with Red Bull Racing after their pit strategy calls at both Monaco and the Spanish GP. He handled himself pretty well on track at Monaco in the aftermath however, doing his best to push Lewis Hamilton into a mistake. Hamilton made that mistake at the chicane, missing the corner and subsequently squeezing Ricciardo as he tried to pass. Race stewards chose not to penalize Hamilton.  How do you see the incident?
 

SJ – Again, it has to do with the runoff areas. Thirty years ago there was an Armco barrier there. Hamilton would have been buried in that if the same thing had happened. If all four wheels are across the track line to the outside of it then there should be a penalty for that in my opinion as it effectively means he’s blown the corner.

It’s even money whether Lewis gained any time by overshooting the chicane but the fact is he made a mistake and went too deep into the corner so theoretically I think that should be grounds for at least giving up the position, or a punishment of some sort – maybe not a stop-and-go penalty - but at least concede the position. Under previous circumstances he would have been in the fence.

I thought Ricciardo was absolutely superb all weekend. He was fantastic in both qualifying and the race. He was really hustling the car behind Lewis. It was quite impressive. I think it’s going to be very interesting to follow him and Red Bull from now on. They’ve made a lot of progress and they clearly have a good car. Ricciardo’s got the bit between his teeth and really should have won in Spain too under normal circumstances.

JT – Ricciardo’s teammate Max Verstappen came into Monaco riding the high of winning the Spanish GP but had a pretty bad weekend.

SJ – He’s not a rookie anymore. He’s had a year in F1 and he raced last year at Monaco. But the track is extremely difficult and one small mistake can cost you big time. Still, that’s how all of the tracks used to be. Monaco is almost the only place like that left now. Montreal is similar, there isn’t a lot of runoff or margin for error but most of the other tracks offer no penalty for screwing up.

Ricciardo was clearly on it at Monaco and I think Verstappen felt that. I think it’ll be interesting going forward because the dynamic inside the team will change dramatically. I think there will be a lot more pressure on Verstappen from Ricciardo to deliver in every area.

JT – Once again, Ferrari wasn’t really a factor at Monaco. Sebastian Vettel finished a distant fourth and Raikkonen crashed out. The pressure on the team must be even higher.

SJ – In the earlier races this year, it just seemed that they couldn’t quite put together a top finish. The potential to win was there but circumstances prevented it one way or the other. But they’ve clearly fallen a little bit behind now.

Monaco is unique though so we’ll see what happens when we get to Canada. Certainly everyone is working hard trying to get the performance they need.

JT – McLaren scored their best finish of the season with Fernando Alonso taking the checkers in fifth. The team took advantage of the misfortunes of others but they seemed to perform better at Monaco. Meanwhile Williams F1 didn’t perform well yet again.

SJ – McLaren is definitely making strides toward the front of the grid. Little by little they’re getting closer and they are now to the point where their engine is running reliably. That gives them the opportunity to work on many other things. I think it will only be a matter of time before they’re fighting for wins again.

Williams was sort of in between the front runners in the last few years but now I think the other engine makers have caught up. The advantage they had in the past two years running the Mercedes engine has mostly gone away. Both Ferrari and Renault are definitely closer on the engine front now.

That puts more emphasis on the chassis and the way F1 is today, you need cubic dollars to get more performance from the chassis. You have to spend more and more money and hone and hone to get the last half percent from every area of performance. That’s what it comes down to. It’s not about being innovative or clever anymore.

So when you’re in the middle of the pack either you get it right or someone else does from year to year. If you don’t have the resources the top teams do you have to sort of gamble on which direction to go in your development and you’re not always sure whether you’ve gone out on the right limb or not. They’ve obviously missed the boat somewhere this year.

JT – Yes, and another Mercedes team in the mid-pack, Force India, got things right for Monaco with Sergio Perez finishing on the podium.

SJ – I must say, I’ve been critical of him in the past but I think he’s doing a phenomenal job now. He’s comfortable and not taking stupid risks like he used to. He’s well dialed in and he’s actually outperforming Hulkenberg at the moment which is quite impressive.

JT – Sauber teammates Marcus Ericsson and Felipe Nasr are not on the best of terms. They collided at Rascasse when Ericsson tried to overtake Nasr. He claimed that Nasr had been told to move over and let him through by the team. After several laps behind, he went for the pass. Nasr claims the team hadn’t ordered him to move and blames Ericsson for the crash.

SJ – That’s been brewing for quite a while, all the way back to GP2 where they already had a rivalry. It obviously doesn’t help anyone, particularly the team. You’ve just got to put your ego aside. If you’re fighting over 15th place well, you have to keep it in perspective.

I understand that they both had the red mist and got carried away in their battle but whether Nasr had orders to let Ericsson by or not, passing at Rascasse is nearly impossible – even if you’re five seconds a lap quicker. You come up on the apex of the corner and it’s always wide open when you go in because you have to give yourself enough room to get the lock to get around the corner.

But that doesn’t mean the corner is open. By the time you get to the apex you know there’s going to be a car in the middle. It was more than a low percentage chance to make a passing move stick there.

In the end, all this does is lowering their chances of impressing another team to consider them for the future.

JT – That offers a good contrast between Mercedes and Sauber. Rosberg was told to move over for Hamilton after not getting his tires to work and he complied.

SJ – At the end of the day F1 is a team sport and you work for the team. Rosberg’s mature enough to look at the bigger picture and that’s the difference. Less impressive however was the fact he lost a position to Hulkenberg on the last lap; I really don’t understand what he was thinking on that one. If he ends up loosing the championship by a point he will rue that moment for the rest of his life.


Stefan Johansson (1) & Alain Prost (2) / McLaren F1 - Detroit 1987

Stefan Johansson (1) & Alain Prost (2) / McLaren F1 - Detroit 1987

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