Jan Tegler – The Australian Grand Prix is now in the rear-view mirror. It was less than spectacular in many regards. And while uncertainty always accompanies the first race of any Formula One season, last weekend’s event in Melbourne seemed to be particularly fraught. In some ways it was downright embarrassing. What’s your take?
Stefan Johansson – Well, in many ways it’s a sign of the times I guess. If this is the pinnacle of motorsport, as so many inside F1 keep referring to, and they can only get 15 cars on the grid there is every reason to start worrying about the state of affairs. This amazingly complicated technology that we now have is there because it needs to be seen as the “pinnacle”? It makes me scratch my head. Something’s fundamentally wrong. In my estimate the cumulative budget for all the teams currently in F1 is somewhere around $2 Billion, and they can’t get more than 15 cars to start the race. Eleven cars finished the race, and only one of those retired due to driver error or a crash.
No form of racing should have to be this complicated. If a company like McLaren - with all of the resources, knowledge and experience they have - along with a manufacturer like Honda can’t produce a car that is even remotely close to the front, or able to run more than a handful of laps at a time, after having a year to work on it and having the opportunity to see what other constructors did it’s pretty extraordinary.
You have to seriously question if F1 really needs to be this complicated. I have a feeling the desire to be politically correct have completely overtaken the fundamental reasons for going racing. I think there’s a chance this new engine formula could ultimately be the straw that broke the camels back.
JT – Lewis Hamilton was dominant, winning the pole and the race ahead of Nico Rosberg. The two Mercedes drivers were the only competitors with a chance to win. I think most who saw the race would say that Mercedes GP may have an even larger advantage over the rest of the grid than last year. Do you agree?
SJ – Yes, I don’t think there’s any question. And it’s not just their power unit. They seem to have done a good job with their chassis as well. Their cars are very agile. But we knew that going into Melbourne. They only ran on soft tires once throughout preseason testing and still were quickest.
Everybody wants the competition to be equal in F1 but it’s not going to be. If you think back to Red Bull’s winning seasons, every time they had an advantage taken away it was because they had gained it by essentially finding a loophole in the rules. The FIA then plugged the loophole and they had to look for something else. I don’t know if it’s the same with Mercedes but I don’t think it is and so it wouldn’t be fair to penalize them or pull their performance back because they’ve done a better job than anyone else within the boundaries of the rules.
JT – Obviously the weekend simply belonged to Hamilton. Nico couldn’t really keep pace when the checkered flag dropped.
SJ – I thought Nico was looking pretty strong in practice and he might have the upper hand but when it came down to crunch time Lewis certainly did the job both in Qualifying and the race. Every time Nico turned up the wick Lewis was able to respond right away. It will be interesting to see how Nico will respond and if he’s able to lift himself mentally to pose a challenge. Lewis is definitely on a roll at the moment.
JT – Vettel had what we must view as a good weekend with a podium finish. Räikkönen had a good start too but then got baulked in traffic, run into by Sauber’s Felipe Nasr and failed to finish after losing a wheel later in the race.
SJ – Vettel and Kimi both did a great job in qualifying as well as the race, Kimi got messed up on the first lap but was definitely coming on strong and I think he would have caught Felipe Massa and passed him at the end of the race if his wheel hadn’t come off.
Ferrari has clearly tidied things up. Sometimes it doesn’t take a wholesale change. As long as you identify the areas where you’re weak or lacking, you can move forward with the right adjustments. Vettel and Räikkönen both struggled with their new cars last year because they couldn’t get them to turn in comfortably. That makes sense because they have similar driving styles. Clearly, they’ve addressed that issue with the Ferrari this year. Both drivers seem to be a lot more comfortable in their current cars. They were quick as soon as they rolled them out of the trucks in Spain for the pre season testing and have been improving ever since.
Obviously, they have also improved the power unit and that’s maybe more crucial now than ever. The engines under the previous formula were all very, very similar. There was probably less than 20 horsepower between the best of them and the worst.
JT – What’s your view on the performance of the rest of the frontrunners?
SJ - It looks like Renault is in worse shape with their power unit than they were last year. Ferrari’s obviously made a tremendous step forward and Williams seems to be there too with their Mercedes power. For the rest, maybe with the exception of Sauber, it’s much the same with maybe some of the teams switching around from last year. Lotus should be a lot stronger than what showed in Melbourne with their new engine package.
Once the season gets underway, development moves pretty quickly for the top teams and hopefully the grid will tighten up a bit. But if things continue like they did in Australia it’ll be even worse than it was last year.
JT – On track, Sauber were true to their preseason form in testing and their cars obviously have decent pace. Despite contact with Räikkönen and Pastor Maldonado, Felipe Nasr finished in fifth place while Marcus Ericsson was eighth.
SJ – Yes, I have to say Nasr was quite impressive both in Qualifying and the race, though he was lucky not to get any car damage from his contact on the first lap. Of course Marcus took the first points for a Swedish driver in F1 since my last point 25 years ago, which was great and about time I have to say. He had a bit more difficulty in the race than Nasr, especially in the early part but still did a good job and I have a feeling he will become stronger as the season goes by.
JT – As you mentioned, Red Bull Racing looks to be in trouble. Ricciardo finished in sixth place a lap down while Daniil Kvyat didn’t even take the start, suffering a gearbox issue on the warm-up lap. Obviously the Renault power unit is significantly less powerful than the Mercedes units and isn’t reliable either. Christian Horner and the team have been rather critical of Renault and speculation is swirling that Red Bull may pull out of F1.
SJ – In some sense that’s the way F1 has always been. Everybody’s posturing and pushing the limit all the time; it’s part of the game. If it wasn’t Red Bull threatening to pull out it might be somebody else. Maybe Mercedes might want the engine rules to be a certain way. Remember it was the manufacturers who collectively wanted to use this hybrid technology and here we are. Someone’s always unhappy, and there’s only ever one guy on the top of the podium and generally he’s also the only one who’s happy.
JT – Speaking of unhappy people, the folks at McLaren and Honda must be wondering how they will turn things around. Although Jenson Button actually ran the full race distance, finishing 11th, Kevin Magnussen didn’t take the green flag due to a power unit problem and both cars were more than two seconds off the pace of the Mercedes GP machines. Where does McLaren go from here?
SJ – They obviously have an enormous amount of hard work to do. It’s pretty extraordinary that Button finished. The most they had run the car in testing and practice was 12 consecutive laps. For them it must have felt like a kind of victory really. Even though they weren’t running the cars on the limit, the amount of data and information they’ll get from running a race distance will be very valuable.
Every single lap you’re able to run these days is valuable because of the stupid testing rules which really limit the teams but don’t cut costs in any way. So any lap under race conditions is critical.
JT – The off-track machinations were just as sordid as some of those on-track with the spectacle of driver Giedo van der Garde suing Sauber over his contract to race with them in 2015. Though the Australian and Swiss courts supported the validity of van der Garde’s contract he decided to back off for the weekend, allowing Sauber to race without having its assets seized. Widespread speculation is that a significant amount of money changed hands.
SJ – I don’t know the full details of the dispute, but I assume that Van de Garde was in the right due to the fact he won the court case both in Switzerland and then again in Melbourne. The whole thing is amateur-hour at its best. The team has clearly just kicked the can down the road, hoping that they’ll find a way to resolve it along the way, then it became a major crisis right in front of all the worlds’ media, one cay before official practice is to start. It seems they have four drivers under contract for this season if we also include Adrian Sutil. To be in that position the day before practice starts, is not exactly an ideal way to start a new season.
It was only because Van der Garde didn’t want to cause any problems or further embarrassment for the series or racing in general - otherwise the team would have been up the creek. I’m not sure this situation is resolved yet. Apparently it’s now been solved with some form of compensation agreed to Van de Garde. I have a feeling we haven’t heard the end of this saga yet.
It’s a sign of the times though isn’t it? All four teams at the back of the grid are struggling. Or really, the teams in the middle as it were. There is no back of the grid anymore. The back is gone. It’s the middle teams who are left and are now all struggling to make it work.
JT – True, although if Manor had actually turned a wheel on track perhaps they could be called the “back of the grid”. Bernie Ecclestone is said to be very frustrated with Manor after the team spent all weekend in Australia building its cars, not racing.
SJ – I’m sure he’s angry, I would be too. It’s a disgrace for the sport and just shouldn’t happen in today’s day and age. Supposedly, Manor has a very substantial payment coming their way from the FOM if they were to compete. But they just showed up and didn’t even turn a wheel. Of course Bernie is going to be pissed off. I’m sure he could allocate that money to better uses.
JT- Apparently Manor have some new investors or Team Owners that are providing the funding to bring the team back.
SJ- Racing in general, and F1 in particular, has gotten so expensive nowadays that you no longer have the entrepreneurs –– the guys who are team principals with a combination of being great wheeler/dealers, with a good idea of what’s going happening on the engineering side and with a complete grasp of the overall situation and the ability to somehow make it all work. The only remaining team principal of that style is Ron Dennis really. Frank Williams is still around but he’s not really running the team anymore, his daughter is. Most of the team principals today don’t own the teams, they are the people ticking the boxes, albeit very competent and skilled at what they do, which is a whole lot different from having the responsibility of being the owner. This is why you get a threat from someone like Red Bull to pull out if they are not happy. The life and livelihood of Mr. Mateschitz, who’s the owner of Red Bull Racing, does not change if he’s in F1 or not, the same with Mercedes or Renault or any other manufacturer for that matter. None of them are first and foremost racing teams, they come into F1 because it serves a purpose of some kind at the time, but they also leave just as easy when their objectives are filled or they don’t see any benefits to continue. We saw this already with the departure of Honda, BMW, Toyota and Jaguar some years back. Often, people who have zero passion for the sport do this decision at board level. Ironically it’s those same people that are driving the costs through the roof.
The top teams have something like 25 trucks carrying just the hospitality units to every race basically to feed, entertain and impress all the journalists. That’s it. For the most part, the only people in these facilities are the media. I’m not trying to put down the importance of the media in any way, but I am also pretty sure they will still get on with their jobs regardless of the fact that so and so teams Hospitality unit has three stories instead of two. The cost of just this one part of their operations is massive and of course they all try and top each other with one unit larger and more tricks than the other. That’s fine of course when you have lots of multi-national sponsors like Vodaphone or other big companies behind you but they’re not there anymore.
The amount of equipment the teams are carting around to all these races is mind-boggling. Most of the top teams have three complete set-ups of equipment for flyaway races. They’re in special containers that rotate. Now that they’re done in Australia that set of equipment will go on a boat to China. Another set-up exactly the same, is already in Malaysia.
Again, the cars have become so complicated now you need something like 30 tons of equipment and people to run them. When you need 50 guys in the back of the garage to stare at computer screens just to monitor all of the cars’ systems it’s bonkers.
JT – Will the racing improve in Malaysia?
SJ – Well, all things being equal it should get better but it’s astonishing to me that the teams have all had a year to improve and things aren’t a lot better generally. But the one thing, which always impresses me with F1, is how quickly they are able to improve or change, so I think every race going forward will get better.
JT- They announced before the start of the season that drivers are only allowed one design on their helmet for the full season. This is apparently because the fans are having difficulty in recognizing the different drivers in their cars.
SJ- I don’t quite follow that one; is that the best they can do? Who cares? The numbers on the cars are so small you can’t even see them anymore for starters. I don’t think the helmets will help much. To start with, you can barely see the helmet anyway as the drivers are tucked so deep inside the cockpit with the headrest and side support surrounding them. You can only see the very top of the helmet. I’ve always had the same helmet design with very small variations depending on sponsors. That’s a personal thing. I find it weird that they have to interfere with that of all things. The helmet design is a very personal thing for every driver and some like to keep the same design forever; others like to change it for different reasons or special occasions. I personally thought it was pretty cool how Vettel had a different design almost every race, it was very creative and fun in my opinion, and if that’s his choice of expressing himself why stop it. If they really think they’re losing fans because they can’t recognize the drivers’ helmets it’s worrying.
I think a much bigger part of the problem with the fans today is that Formula One isn’t really on the edge in a sporting sense anymore. The cars don’t look that way and it certainly isn’t that way. There’s no secret that NASCAR catapulted itself in the eyes of fans when it contained a greater element of risk. It probably quadrupled its viewership with some of the high profile incidents. Formula One had a similar attraction in the wake of Senna’s demise. As harsh as it sounds, that’s the reality of it. Being on the edge is part of the appeal of racing and it’s just not there as much anymore. The tracks are completely sanitized, the cars have so much grip that some of the classic and most challenging corners are all gone, either replaced by a chicane or they have simply become so easy that they are not a challenge anymore.
JT – On the sports car racing front, the opening race of the season for Pirelli World Challenge at Circuit of the Americas had a very impressive entry and some good competition even though the weather wasn’t ideal. Scuderia Corsa was there with three Ferrari 458 GT3 Italias and performed respectably in what was only its second outing in PWC.
SJ – Yes, everybody’s very positive about it. I don’t think there’s a championship in the world with a bigger grid than what they have there now. There are good cars, good teams and good drivers.
I think they’ve found a great formula. It’s great to see that there is some real health in sports car racing. Most of the other series are limping along more or less with half-full grids in most of the categories.
JT – In endurance racing news, the ACO has recently floated a proposal that would see the P2 category become much more homogenized for 2017 with a limited number of approved chassis constructors (just four) and a spec powerplant in ACO-affiliated series. This would move P2 much more in the direction of spec racing. It’s a controversial proposal supposedly aimed at cutting costs and increasing collaboration between the FIA, ACO and IMSA. Not everyone is enthusiastic about it including some prospective manufacturers.
SJ – It’s hard to understand what their (ACO) angle is. I don’t think anyone will leave P2 for P1. I believe P1 is 100 percent for manufacturers. P2 should be for everything else including Rebellion and the rest of them. What’s the point of Rebellion or anyone else running around being five seconds a lap slower than the manufacturers?
In a larger sense, all these restrictive boxes that have been created in so many series with the goal of controlling costs – I don’t think they cut costs. I think those types of rules actually increase costs. People will spend endless money honing and tweaking components of any kind to find that last half-a-percent of performance. That’s the only way you find an advantage.
If you have more open rules you get much more innovation and you don’t need to optimize everything. If you have something that’s innovative and different and that works well - even if it’s only working to 80 percent of its potential - it’s still going to be quick. The money you’d spend on that is probably a fraction of what you’d spend endlessly refining a spec formula.
I’ve said it before but I firmly believe the way forward for auto racing in general is to get away from aerodynamics. It kills the competitiveness of racing, drives costs through the roof and doesn’t return any real benefit to road vehicles anymore. Instead of having all these restrictive boxes just limit downforce in every kind of car, just as you limit the engine size, or any other performance criteria on the car. Then you could have a much more open rule book for other aspects of the car, which will by default invite innovation in other areas.
JT – Testing of the new IndyCar aero kits from Chevrolet and Honda has been underway at Barber Motorsports Park this week. Drivers report that the cars have much improved downforce and that they are able to carry more speed through corners and brake significantly later. Their debut is being referred to as beginning of a new “Era of Aero”. That could impact the competitiveness of the racing this season. Whether that’s positive or negative remains to be seen.
SJ – With higher loads from the downforce these cars will be way harder to drive physically. They don’t have power steering. It will be interesting to see what the racing is like. No one will really know anything until qualifying at St. Petersburg.
But I think the racing might be worse, honestly. The one thing they didn’t have a problem with in Indycar was the level of competition. They’ve done a relatively poor job of everything else except the racing and that’s going to change now?
It is the best show in open wheel racing, always exciting and down to the wire. I really don’t think anyone cared about the similarity of the cars apart from some anoraks, and I absolutely don’t think the fans they need to attract would even know the difference.