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Scott Dixon dominates at Watkins Glen, Mercedes wins at the Italian GP & the future of Formula 1

#SJblog (source page)

Scott Dixon dominates at Watkins Glen, Mercedes wins at the Italian GP & the future of Formula 1

Stefan Johansson

JT – IndyCar returned to Watkins Glen in early September, the first time the series has run there since 2010. Scott Dixon absolutely dominated the weekend, winning the race by over 16 seconds (his 40th career win, moving him to 4th in all-time wins in IndyCar) and smashing the qualifying record by 5.6 seconds for his 25th career pole.

Scott has performed well at Watkins Glen in the past, having won three times there but looked even better two weeks ago. What did you think of his performance?

SJ – It was a very impressive display in every respect. I can’t remember anyone dominating to quite that level for quite some time. It was like he was in a different league all weekend. He dropped back a few places for the restart (on Lap 42 after a caution for a collision between Will Power and Charlie Kimball, and pit stops, Dixon restarted 4th) and within less than two laps he was back in the lead.

Everyone else was struggling to pass anywhere on track but it was amazing how Scott just pulled off passes with his incredible, fluid driving style which is just perfect on a track like that.

It’s been a strange year in that I think he’s been driving more strongly this year than any that I can remember and yet he’s come away with less than almost any year before. Even reliability issues have stopped him at places like Detroit and Road America, where it was almost certain he would have won both races.

JT – The win moved Scott to 3rd in the championship standings but it wasn’t enough to keep him in championship contention. Leader Simon Pagenaud finished 7th at Watkins Glen, putting him 104 points clear of Dixon. Even with double points (100 total) on offer for this weekend’s season finale, the Grand Prix of Sonoma, Dixon cannot catch Pagenaud. Only his Penske teammate Will Power has a chance. Power would have likely been closer to Pagenaud points-wise if not for the accident with Kimball. With a 43-point lead over his teammate it looks pretty good for Pagenaud to capture his first IndyCar title. Do you agree?

SJ – The IndyCar championship is all about racking up points at every race - being consistent. Last year Montoya kept racking up points and he was on top going into Sonoma. You never know - look at what Scott did last year, particularly with double points available - but it’s most likely that Pagenaud will score well enough to win the championship. Still, if Power wins and Pagenaud gets involved in any incident... well, that could be enough. What is amazing though is that we are again going into the final race with the championship still open, I don’t remember if the Indycar series ever had the championship decided before the final round.

JT – With the offseason rapidly approaching, speculation about the IndyCar driver-market has been plentiful. Josef Newgarden seems to be the main focus of conjecture. He could go to Penske Racing, Chip Ganassi Racing or elect to stay with Ed Carpenter Racing. Depending on what he chooses to do, other drivers might have to adjust. Do you think we’ll see much movement?

SJ – I don’t really know what will happen but I’d be surprised if we see a huge amount of movement among the drivers.

JT – Unsurprisingly, Mercedes won Formula One’s most recent round the Italian GP at Monza. In this case Nico Rosberg, starting from second position alongside teammate and pole winner Lewis Hamilton, made a perfect getaway and won while Hamilton stumbled, dropping to 6th place on the opening lap. He eventually recovered to finish 2nd behind Rosberg. As we’ve said in recent blogs, the result of nearly every grand prix this year has hinged on who got the better start – Rosberg or Hamilton.

If Rosberg starts cleanly, as he did early in the season, he wins. If Hamilton starts cleanly, as he did mid-season, he wins. It’s basically as simple as that, and again the Italian GP didn’t offer much exciting racing. However, just two points separate Hamilton and Rosberg heading into this weekend’s Singapore Grand Prix.

SJ – Yes, that’s basically what it comes down to. Whichever guy – Hamilton or Rosberg, as they are the only two with a realistic chance of winning all things being equal - gets off the line best and manages to scramble through the first few corners, it’s pretty much job done.

This last race made the championship closer and everyone keeps talking about how Mercedes might struggle again (Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel won the 2015 race, followed by Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo and Ferrari-teammate Kimi Rakkionen) but I can’t imagine that they won’t have dug deep enough and found out what their tire problems were last year. They’ll be better.

On that note, that’s one of the ironic twists of F1. All the teams are spending copious amounts of money on car and aero development in particular yet every race it basically comes down to the tires and who can manage them best for optimum grip, especially with the crazy pressures they’re required to run now.

I keep joking about it but at the sharp end of the grid they spend well over $300 million a year, of which most of it is development. Then they bolt on a set of tires for a couple of thousand dollars and that makes more difference than just about anything else they do with the car. If you can get a second from the tire by being able to get the most out of it, and manage it correctly over the stint, it’s probably equivalent to $50-100m worth of development on the car to gain that same second!

JT – Ferrari managed to get one of its cars on the podium at Monza with a 3rd place finish from Sebastian Vettel. Kimi Raikkonen finished in 4th place. The team seemed to be pleased with the result and team manager Maurizio Arrivabene stated that while Ferrari has “failed to achieve its target” this year, the team is making progress and the atmosphere inside Scuderia Ferrari is “very positive”. With the departure of some of its key personnel and Ferrari’s inconsistent performance something about Arrivabene’s comments rings hollow. Do you agree?

SJ – It’s a difficult situation for them at the moment, and I don’t envy Maurizio Arrivabene for one second as he was basically thrown in the deep end with all the wholesale changes that took place when Montezemolo left. As we have seen with almost every team at some stage, once you loose the momentum it takes years to gain it back to a point where you can consistently be challenging for wins. Mclaren is a perfect example, Red Bull has had their slump and they were both dominant teams not that long ago. Ferrari still have a lot of challenges ahead, there is no doubt about that, let’s hope that the people at the very top of the company will stay the course and make the right decisions going forward.

JT – The biggest news for Formula One was made off-track last week when it was finally confirmed that Liberty Media, an America conglomerate which owns the second largest U.S. cable television company and has holdings in Sirius/XM radio and Live Nation, a large event promotion company, will acquire F1 from current majority owner CVC Capital Partners.

Bernie Ecclestone will continue in his role as F1 CEO but will now work under Liberty Media’s umbrella. There seems to be some optimism that Liberty can bring more energy and direction to the series and attract more viewers globally. What’s your take?

SJ – I don’t know anything more than what has been covered by the press but one would hope that they’ll look at the business more pragmatically. I think that’s already starting to happen and maybe they’ll bring more of a clean sheet approach to it.

Let’s not forget that F1 is still a hugely popular sport globally, but I think they know they can make it significantly more popular. With the speed at which the world moves today in terms of social media and other digital platforms there are definitely ways to monetize those outlets. Bernie says he’s never made any money on the Internet but I don’t think he’s been dealing with the right people. Certainly not if you look at the F1 website which is full of broken links and quite clunky in general, you can tell that very little effort has been spent in this area.

You see others doing well in that area. NASCAR, for instance, is doing very well in that space. They’ve figured out how to monetize the digital side of their business and they’re making money.

Liberty has already made noise about offering the opportunity for teams to buy into Formula One. I don’t know exactly how that would work but it could potentially be a good move. If you look at other sports, certainly football and soccer, every franchise is worth a fortune. They also spend big money but F1 is still in the stratosphere in terms of the resources associated with it.

If the series, together with the FIA can work out a way to control costs by focusing on areas of development which are prohibitively expensive like aerodynamics and maybe standardize some components, it will immediately be on a better business footing.

For example, the other day I was visiting a new racing simulator here in Los Angeles. There was a two-year old Williams chassis there that a group bought to transform for the purpose of making it into a simulator. They were showing me simple things like the car’s power steering rack. It’s an absolute work of art. That piece alone probably required 50 people to engineer and build. It’s absolutely exquisite, but for what?

I don’t see why you couldn’t just use a standard steering rack that all teams would have to buy from one single supplier that is the same for all the teams. It would cost a tiny fraction of that custom piece Williams built. That piece alone probably cost them more than a million dollars all told. And that’s just one component of the car – a piece the fans will never ever see or understand.

Look at the insanely complicated brake ducts the teams create now… for nothing. Why can’t the teams all agree on standardizing some components and save themselves millions of dollars?

IndyCar has great racing with a basic, standardized package. The best teams still work their butts off and find an edge over their competitors by refining the components they have to work with. Why make every single piece of every car a custom-made item? I’m not saying that F1 should copy Indycar, because I personally think Indycar has gone to far in the other direction where you basically can’t do anything to the car anymore, except the dampers. But, there are several things on any racecar that is just a pointless and extremely costly exercise to make in house, assuming the parts were available to buy off the shelf. To make this work there needs to be firm rules in place otherwise every team will still go their own way even if the parts were available to buy off the shelf, because the engineers are very competitive by nature, just as the drivers, and everyone thinks they are more clever than the other, and that their solution is much better than anything else out there.

The teams all seem to be addicted to their toys, even the smaller ones. It makes no sense. Each team will apparently be receiving something like $100 million from F1 in the next year or two. If you can’t run a team for less than $100 million, something’s fundamentally wrong. If you bring spending down to more sane levels, every F1 franchise should be worth serious money, just as they were for a brief period when Eddie Jordan sold his team for example. Nowadays most teams that are potentially for sale are lucky if they can walk away with new owners clearing their debts.

There are extremely clever people in F1 and the cleverest will still produce the best results even if the series goes to a much more basic formula. Just start fresh. As Flavio Briatore says, F1 is so complicated now that no one understands it, not even the people in the business.

The fact that Bernie [Ecclestone] will stay on is positive. Some people gripe and moan about him from time to time, but deep down, everybody loves Bernie. He’s like the grand-daddy for all of us in the business in one way or the other. Everyone knows that without him F1 wouldn’t be anything near what it is today. I believe that 100 percent. He’s laid every single brick in that business and has a personal relationship with every promoter, TV Network, sponsor, team owner, driver, you name it. There is not one deal going down that Bernie does not have his hand in. I think he should be applauded for what he’s done, not just for F1 but for motorsport in general, because everything filters down from Formula One.

JT – In other off track news, McLaren announced that Jenson Button would be taking a “break” from F1 in 2017 but that his two-year deal with the team means that he could drive again in 2018. He will be replaced next year by GP2 sensation Stoffel Vandoorne. Team principle Ron Dennis insists that Button’s “deal” is not a “retirement”. But everyone understands that Button is basically leaving the sport. Why does McLaren not want to state the truth? Their version of this sounds nuts. Do you agree?

SJ – Well, If Jenson now suddenly feels “like a kid again” because he’s effectively been pushed aside or whatever you’d like to call it then you obviously have to question why he didn’t make this decision on his own rather than wait until he was basically told he’s not driving next year. Can someone please fire me! I want to get fired too, if that’s how it makes you feel. Joking aside, it’s just seem like a very odd statement to claim that this is a new and innovative solution to effectively fire one of your drivers, or at least demote him to reserve driver. It’s good news though to see that Vandoorne has a permanent drive based purely on merit, he deserves it, and the timing could be perfect for him as it’s almost certain that McLaren will be back fighting for wins in the next few years. I am sure he will be one of the superstars of the next generation drivers that are now filtering through.

JT – Much has been made lately of the new, wider tires the 2017 rules will allow for F1 cars. Together with other changes this should give the cars more interesting appearance and may make them significantly faster but as you’ve already noted, it probably won’t improve the racing.

SJ – I would say it’s almost a certainty that it will make passing even more difficult than it is now because the cars will be so fast in the corners and even slower on the straights because they’ll have more drag from both the increased downforce and the wider tires. This will result in even less difference between mid-corner speed and top speed on the straights. Braking distances will be even shorter and grip levels will be much higher. So in other words, the exact opposite of what you want to make the racing more exciting. I hope I’m wrong but I don’t think I am.

The cars will look much better though, lap-times will be much faster but once you get used to watching the cars cornering a lot faster then everything will be back to normal again.

It’s been interesting to follow the tire testing for the 2017 cars that has been going on, or at least the little information that’s been made available. The teams doing the testing will without a doubt have an advantage next season. Tire testing is the key to performance. In every team I ever raced for where we were able to do a tire test before a race, or where the designated test team, we were always much better off for having done it.

Just the sheer fact that you’re running a car helps already as you’re always picking up little bits of information every time the car is on the track. Even if a team isn’t told which tire it’s testing – the fact that you’re running on a tire of the same general specification to what you’ll be using next year will already be a big advantage. Watch this space, there will be a lot of moaning about this by a lot of the teams as the new season unfolds.

Bottomline though, overtaking will only get harder next season.


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