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2016: Year In Review

#SJblog (source page)

2016: Year In Review

Eric Graciano

#SJblog 81

JT – With 2016 coming to a close, it’s time to reflect on some of the year’s racing headlines, trends and impending changes as the new year arrives. But before we get to that, let’s chat about your first experience racing an LMP3 car earlier this month at the Gulf 12 Hours on Abu Dhabi’s Yas Marina circuit. 

You were teamed in United Autosports’ No. 22 Ligier JS P3 with Jim McGuire, Nico Rondet and Matt Keegan. Qualifying featured an average of all drivers’ lap times in each car to set the grid. The sister No. 23 Ligier of Alex Lynn, Shaun Lynn and Richard Meins lined up 7th with your car 6th. You set the fastest time among bronze drivers in qualifying and finished third in class with your teammates after both segments of the 12 Hours. 

What was it like to drive the P3 car and how did you enjoy the racing?

SJ – It was good fun. I hadn’t been in a proper car for a while. It’s been four years since I last raced a prototype. It felt a bit rusty to start with but as the weekend went on I started to get sharper. It started to feel pretty good in my last stint of the race. I guess if I had to rate myself over the weekend, I’d give myself a “5” out of 10. There’s definitely room for improvement but I really enjoyed it. It’s always been the same for me over the years when I’ve been out of a car for a longer period of time, after three races you’re more or less back to where you need to be.

The Ligier LMP3 is a great car, fantastic fun to drive. I really like the concept of the LMP3 class with economical, proper prototypes. The cars have no driver aids. They’re very pure and basic, but like all modern race cars very underpowered but certainly not easy to drive. The chassis is very reactive and because it doesn’t have driver aids it’s actually more difficult to handle than the other classes of cars. It’s not that different than a LMPC car and has a similar raw feel to it. 

JT – What did you think of the Yas Marina circuit? You hadn’t raced there before, correct?

 Correct, I have been there a few times for the F1 race but I had never raced there before. It’s another [Hermann] Tilke designed track. The facility is outstanding and visually it looks amazing when you first see it but it’s not very interesting once you drive it. There are four 1st-gear corners, ten 2nd-gear corners and one each which are 3rd, 4th and 5th-gear. So, the track is really all 1st and 2nd gear corners with the exception of turns two and three which are somewhat tricky to get right. The rest is all typical modern F1 tracks, with the identical template kerbs on every corner and although they are by no means easy to get right it’s purely another technical track where car performance and precision are the key factors to a fast laptime. Not one single corner where you have a take deep breath and go for it.

And there are three chicanes built into a track that started with a clean sheet, which is kind of strange when you can choose any combination of corners you wish? Chicanes were originally invented as a kind of last resort to slow cars down when a track was suddenly deemed too fast for certain cars. When you start from scratch designing a modern track there should be no reason to include chicanes. It’s amazing and frustrating that this trend keeps on going on almost every modern race track being built today. Why doesn’t someone at least attempt to do something really extraordinary when you have the opportunity starting from scratch. 

Source: F1

Source: F1

JT – Looking back at the 2016 F1 season, it unfolded pretty much as expected in general terms. Mercedes GP was head and shoulders above the other teams and dominated, winning 19 of the 21 races on the calendar, setting a new record in the process. 

SJ – Yes absolutely, they dominated. The only times they were beaten is when others picked up the pieces after they made errors, bad starts or had problems with reliability. Apart from that the races were pretty much a foregone conclusion before they started. 

Ultimately, Rosberg did a brilliant job winning the championship. It’s been so close between the two of them the past couple of years and this year was no different of course. Rosberg was able to turn it on mid-season to gain a big enough advantage over Lewis, where he did not have to get into a dogfight for position but merely had to maintain his points gap even if Lewis won every race towards the end. I believe this was the key to him being able to drive disciplined and error free to get the points he needed to seal the title. I don’t think there’s much left to say about his decision to retire a week after the final race, everybody interested in F1 have voiced their opinion one way or the other. In the end it’s his decision and no one else’s. I personally respect the way he bowed out of F1. When you think about it, what would a guy like that want to do next. Would he want to hang in there trying to break every record? 

Source: F1

Source: F1

I think it really comes down to the goals you set for yourself. His goal was to win the Formula One World Championship and he did that. Other drivers – Senna, Schumacher, Hamilton – they have different goals perhaps. And then some drivers simply love racing and can look beyond what the goals are and just enjoy the moment, enjoy racing for what it is and still do a great job by doing that. Bottom line is that every driver is different and it would have been a much easier decision for Nico to say I carry on for a few more years rather than make a decision that is completely life changing to him in every aspect, it takes someone with a lot of courage and will power that reach that conclusion. 

JT – For the last couple decades F1 has focused on Senna, Schumacher and Hamilton – all guys who share a determination to be relentless in their pursuit of winning races and championships - sometimes to an unhealthy degree. I think Rosberg has demonstrated that there’s another way. It may not be a new idea but his outlook is refreshing and perhaps good for Formula One. Do you agree?

SJ – I agree entirely. There is a fine balance between doing the right thing and being relentlessly obsessed with winning at any cost, including cheating if that is an available option – and the notion that we should somehow admire that without questioning the means of how the winning is achieved.

In the end, the relatively brief moments we spend fighting to win races and championships are miniscule relative to the bigger picture of life in general but also in the life of a racing driver. I think we all evolve as human beings to appreciate that at some point later in life. Everyone has their own morals, desires and ambitions in life but I think what Rosberg did was classy and graceful. 

He figured out what he had to do, did it his way and succeeded. That’s very admirable. 

JT – The Formula One cars we’ve known for the last few years are changing for 2017. Most fans won’t miss the cars that have raced in recent seasons but as you’ve said repeatedly, though the formula is changing somewhat, the direction chosen probably won’t improve competition.

SJ – Yes, we’ll have a completely new style of cars for better or worse. The cars will probably look a lot better but whether they’re going to be better in terms of racing remains to be seen. I doubt it very much personally. We have gradually over the years arrived at a situation, primarily thanks to the designs of the cars with these incredibly complex front wings and the amount of downforce they produce, where we then have to create an artificial device (DRS) that will enable overtaking with the purpose of making the racing more exciting or interesting. Add to that the tires which have been mandated to be much worse than they could or should be, again with the purpose to spice up the show with a very short life span and low grip levels. Yet we are now adding even more downforce to the cars, granted it’s supposed to be generated from the bottom of the car and not the front which will help the turbulence for sure, but the fact remains that the cars are already almost in the corners when they brake so I can’t see how by adding a very significant amount of downforce will be helpful in this regard. The cars will be on rails literally and there will be even less opportunity to pass than there currently is. Some argue that it will only be the brave drivers that will be fast which is complete nonsense in my opinion, anyone can drive a car with a lot of downforce as long as they are fit enough to handle the forces, it’s when you start taking it off to a significant degree the difference between the great and not so good will start to show.

Technical Analysis Sketch by Giorgio Piola

Technical Analysis Sketch by Giorgio Piola

You have to assume that Mercedes will maintain some kind of advantage but whenever there’s a reset like this there is an opportunity for someone else to get it more right than the others and that advantage then tends to stay for a while as we’ve seen with Mercedes the past few years. There are also a lot of changes within Mercedes for next year. Rosberg has left and Paddy Lowe (technical director) is apparently leaving too. I have a feeling that Red Bull will be in the strongest position to challenge Mercedes next season. The engines are all getting closer to each other every year and we can assume that starting next year there will be very little difference in terms of power between the different engine manufacturers, so the emphasis will be moving back more towards the chassis and who can get the best out of the tires. The cars will have a massive increase in downforce, and it will be a somewhat new frontier for the teams to find the best package for the start of the season, and this is why I think Red Bull will be very strong as they already had arguably the best chassis this year and with Adrian Newey fully focused on the F1 program again. 

Also, all the teams that have a “B” team or a satellite team or whatever you want to label them, Red Bull/Toro Rosso, Ferrari/HAAS and Mercedes with the teams they support will most likely have an advantage in the early stages as they will have 4 cars or more to collect certain data from during the initial testing.

JT – Mercedes GP is still lining up a replacement for Nico Rosberg. Williams F1’s Valtteri Bottas is seen as a leading candidate. No matter who is chosen, they will likely experience friction with Lewis Hamilton.

Photo by Motorsport.com

Photo by Motorsport.com

SJ – There was friction between the drivers before so why should it be any different in 2017? 

How much friction depends on how big a threat Lewis’ new teammate could be. That’s normal and not a bad reflection on Lewis in particular but merely the way it is, especially in a team where you have two driver with an equal chance to fight for the championship. We had the same scenario between Vettel and Webber when they were dominating and both had a real chance of winning the title, Prost and Senna, Mansell and Piquet. It was war without weapons and no different to what we have seen between Lewis and Nico the past few years. Unless you have a clear number one driver like Ferrari had with Schumacher you will always have that dynamic if the title is at stake. 

JT – At McLaren, Fernando Alonso will have Stoffel Vandoorne as a new teammate. Vandoorne spent 2016 racing in the Japanese Super Formula. The series features 2 liter turbocharged engines from Toyota and Honda in Dallara SF14 single-seater chassis. Comparable to current IndyCars in terms of pace, the Super Formula cars are challenging to master and the generally experienced field of drivers assures stiff competition. One would imagine that racing in Japan in 2016 was probably good for Vandoorne in terms of experience.

SJ – The racing in Japan is super competitive and those cars are on a very high level of performance. It’s a great training ground for sure and it shows how competitive it is when someone like Vandoorne goes there and struggles to win races. (Vandoorne won two races in 2016.) And it’s the same for every European who goes there. It’s a very tough series.

JT – The 2017 Formula One calendar is firm and it shows that F1 events are always in flux. For the first time in many years there will be no German Grand Prix. Other events which have struggled recently including the Malaysian GP were able to secure a date. But attendance has been off at many venues, including at European races like the Austrian GP at Red Bull Ring which has seen a precipitous drop and financial losses. F1’s mix of circuits globally is always a point of debate.

But F1 will always have problems in one region or another. Typically they go to places where money is, although the European races are not big spenders. But I think it’s worthwhile to retain some of the classic venues to mix with new circuits. 

JT – A proposal for a budget cap for F1 teams has surfaced again, this time from Liberty Media, the new group taking control of F1. The budget cap idea has been put before the teams several times in recent years but has never gained support because the top teams claim that the caps cannot be enforced. What do you think of the latest move to try to institute some kind of spending limit?

SJ – I agree 100 percent that you can never really truly enforce a cost cap. The teams will always find ways to spend money, and the creativity they have to accomplish this will just make it even more expensive in the end in my opinion.  I think what should be done with that in mind is to limit the areas where large amounts of money are currently being spent.

The number one area by far to focus on is Aerodynamics because everything on a current race car evolves from the Aero package. This is the single most important area for car performance, yet it has very little benefit if any at all outside the realm of making a race car go faster. The amount of money each team is spending on aero development is astronomical. I spoke to one of the Senior Management guys in one of the top teams recently, he told me they have a total of 250 people in the Design and Engineering department, of which half are aerodynamicists. Then bear in mind that each team probably have a similar ratio of staff depending on how big their budgets are. And all they are free to do is basically just fine tuning of a very restricted package, hence nearly every car looking identical. There is no innovation, just an enormous amount of money being spent on gaining ½ percent here and another ¼ percent there which all adds up in the end. 

Almost every single driver and many designers I speak to today is in agreement that aerodynamics or downforce is not the way to go. It’s a point I’ve been making for some time now, it’s killing the racing in every category and is making the average drivers look much better than they really are. Even Adrian Newey, who is the best Aerodynamicist in F1 history came out this week and said he is in favor of a Wind Tunnel ban. 

The best and only solution in my opinion in order to keep the costs down and to make the racing more interesting but still give teams the freedom to innovate in other ways is to set a fixed limit on the downforce the cars can produce. Whatever the number is, something significantly less than what they’re getting right now, the focus would go from how much aerodynamic downforce cars make to how much grip the teams could gain back in other areas. It would be easy to monitor the level of downforce through the ECU and the load sensors in the suspension. 

It sounds controversial as it requires a complete rethink but it’s in my view it’s no different than limiting the size of the tires, the engine size, or the amount of fuel the cars can carry. We have limits and restrictions in almost every area of the car so why not limit the amount of downforce to a level that is sensible and that will also improve the racing.

Limiting downforce and putting the emphasis on other areas of development would also assist in the prevailing debate of political correctness which says that Formula One should benefit automotive technology for the street somehow. If you take all the effort, brain power and money that’s been spent in wind tunnels for the past 25 years and concentrate those resources in other areas, I guarantee you that in five years there will be breakthroughs in technology that we haven’t even seen yet. 

This could include technology that gives cars a massive leap in mechanical grip, a lot less drag, greatly improved tires and much more. At the least, it could open up new areas of exploration instead of endlessly focusing and fine-tuning the aero within this very defined box. New materials we never knew existed and other technologies would be discovered and developed at a pace we can’t imagine. 

If you free up the engine restrictions you can make similar gains as well. Set a certain parameter regarding how much energy consumption is allowed but let the engines make as much horsepower as they can get within those parameters. Make the engines powerful and not just efficient. If they can get 1500hp by only using the allowed criteria of energy consumption that’s great. Allow any technology that people want to try, remember the turbine Lotus in the 70’s, pioneering stuff that is also exciting and interesting for the fans.

Make the cars spectacular looking and difficult to drive, a car with 1500hp and half or less of the current levels of downforce will be a beast to drive, and that’s what the fans and the drivers want. 

Again, in that kind of competitive environment there would be new engine technology pioneered or developed that could be infinitely better than any hybrid or electric power plants that are currently being mandated as the only option for a power plant. Changing this focus will bring on new innovations that no one has thought of yet just because they have now been challenged to think of them. Motor racing in general and F1 in particular is the most competitive environment you can find, and if you unchain these guys and really allow their creativity to come out I guarantee you that we will see some incredible stuff in the future. 

There are more scientist and engineers alive in the world today than have lived in all previous human history put together, this is an important fact. In the past 20 years there have been literally new discoveries in Science and technology every week and this is increasing at an exponential rate. Radical new technologies are coming into existence all the time. If the emphasis of F1 or motor racing in general is to stay relevant, maybe it’s time to do a reset and allow some new and radical thinking instead of rehashing the same old Aerodynamics concept over and over at an astronomical cost each time there’s a new rule change. 

JT- With the announcement that Audi is pulling out of WEC we are now down to two manufacturers racing each other for the Championship and the overall win at Le Mans. What are the likelihood of more manufacturers joining the series and what effect do you think it will have on WEC going forward?

SJ- It’s hard to say, but I find it nearly impossible for a new manufacturer to join in the current situation and with the current rules the way they are. LMP1 is now on a level of F1, maybe even more in some aspects. The budgets are certainly very close to a top team in F1 and for a new team to join with a genuine attempt at winning would be a monumental task. We may see some half serious attempts like the Nissan project last year but I would be very surprised to see any manufacturer mount a serious effort at winning the 24 hours under the current system.

Much like F1, the development of the cars have reached a point where the racing is not very interesting any longer, the GTLM and LMP2 categories are far more interesting to follow than the LMP1 is now, with great drivers in both categories and great teams running the cars. It’s hard racing all the way.

I personally think we’re at a point now where we could take the GTLM cars and make them the main category. The goal for the ACO has always been for the fastest cars to be in the 3 min 30sec laptime bracket, they seem to think this is the safe area to be in for overall laptimes. The GT’s are in the low 50’s now and if you took of all the restrictors they would gain a significant amount of horsepower which could translate to a laptime somewhere in the mid 40’s probably. Allow each manufacturer to then develop the cars bit further, add some wider tires and wider wheel arches which would make the cars look a lot more cool and aggressive and the laptimes would be in the 30’s in a couple of years. The racing would be awesome with a whole grid full of the same cars essentially. The manufacturers would be going for it and the customer teams could buy the same car as the one winning the race. They wouldn’t be as quick, but not that far off, certainly not 10 seconds or more which is currently the case between the manufacturers and the privateers. The fans will be watching the same cars they can buy in the showroom and we would probably have 7-8 Manufacturers represented, maybe more. If you take away the BOP restrictions, it’s up to each manufacturer to make a road car that is good enough to compete for overall victory. We would see some incredibly cool looking cars, that will then also be available for people to buy. Like we have seen with the Ford GT, there will be a line of people wanting to get their hands on these when they become available to the public.