Wednesday, 10 July 2013 20:56

Stefan Johansson chats about the British Grand Prix & the unfortunate accident of Allan Simonsen during the 81st running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans Featured

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Blog31 pic Tires Issues  British GP


JT – The British Grand Prix was a controversial affair. Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton, Ferrari’s Felipe Massa, Torro Rosso’s Jean-Eric Vergne and McLaren’s Sergio Perez all suffered catastrophic failures of their left-rear tires caused by delamination. Hamilton’s failure occurred while leading the Grand Prix.

Pirelli introduced a new tire specification for Silverstone but received heavy criticism from drivers and teams after the race. The tire-maker defended its new tires, responding that the teams were partly to blame for the failures, citing teams’ use of improper pressures, cambers and their practice of mounting right and left rear tires on the opposite side to that they were designed for. What do you make of the controversy?

SJ – Unfortunately, the tires really did affect the race although there was quite a good battle after the safety car period at the end of the race. The tire issue is a bit like what happened at Le Mans but in a different way – sort of a perfect storm of bad circumstances. You had the new specification tire and then the Silverstone track itself – a track with a lot of superfast corners where you spend a lot more time than usual in the corners. That’s different from most other current tracks in F1 and it puts a lot of extra load on the tires.

Then there’s the combination of the teams maximizing the tire pressures and cambers. That’s something teams will always do and always have done – push the limits on cambers, pressures and tire performance based on what the technicians tell you. You always try to go a few tenths of a degree more because it gives you more grip. High Cambers and low tire pressure is grip, it’s as simple as that. Most of the time, you have to back off camber for the race but in qualifying you run a lot more as you can get away with it for a lap or two before the inside edge of the tire get’s overheated.

But really, the bottom line on all of this tire controversy is – had they been able to go testing like they would have been allowed to do in the past – the problem would never have occurred. You would have found it in testing. If you have ten cars on the same track at the same time running the same tire, during a test, gathering data – that’s invaluable.

I’m certainly not envious of Pirelli’s task of building a tire that’s going to make everybody happy despite not being able to test with the current cars. It’s ludicrous really. As complex as a modern F1 tire is with all of the design parameters that have to be factored in and the teams pushing the limit at their end it’s a monumental task. It’s quite admirable what they’ve done already.

I think everybody’s coming to the realization that this whole testing ban is not the most clever thing that was ever implemented. The cost for the teams to find alternative solutions – simulators and all the rest of it – is probably far more expensive than allowing a controlled testing program would have been.

JT – Interestingly, I don’t think we’ve heard too much complaint from the teams that a lack of testing is part of the problem with the tires. They all seem to be blaming Pirelli.

SJ – The problem is that the teams agreed to ban testing. But having said that, the teams usually can’t even agree on what hour of the day to have a meeting, they can’t agree on anything. And unfortunately, whatever is done in F1 is taken to the extreme. That’s the nature of the beast. You’ve got some of the cleverest people in the world in F1 and they’re always going to try to find a different way around any problem or any new set of circumstances that may affect performance.

And basically any time you create a new set of rules you just end up increasing costs as opposed to if you kept the rules stable. Again, a lot of this stuff would not be a problem if the teams could test. As it is, it’s the same old thing. If a driver or a team doesn’t consistently make the podium, they think they’re being screwed whether that’s in the ALMS or Grand-Am or F1. Whatever rules you make, there’s only one team or car that can win. Everybody’s paranoid that some other team will get an advantage and I guess that’s why the teams voted down changing the tires before Silverstone. Some teams didn’t think they’d be as competitive on these newer tires as they were on the tires they started the season with.

It has been an extreme year with the tires in terms of tire wear. Pirelli was obviously given a mandate and they tried to satisfy it but you can only do so much. We used to test for six weeks in Rio during the off-season with Goodyear. We ran so many tires every day it was ridiculous. On average, we did about two grand prix distances per day. We went round and round doing race simulations all day long. It doesn’t make financial sense to do that now. But I still think there would be some benefit to having some testing for everyone.

Aside from that, I think that the appalling lack of race-craft from some of the more inexperienced drivers would be helped simply by getting more seat-time during testing. Why spend weeks in a simulator somewhere if you can drive a real race car instead!

JT – What do you think of the relative performance of the teams at the British GP?

SJ – Well, case in point, Mercedes has made a giant leap forward since the test they did in Barcelona. There’s no question about it and they are arguably the strongest team right now. They and Red Bull are probably about level in terms of performance.

And as I predicted, everybody’s starting to get a handle on the tires. The difference in the performance of the teams isn’t as extreme as it had been. Two or three more races and all of the teams will have the tires mostly figured out. The massive drop off in performance over a stint isn’t there really now.

JT – Once more, we hear Fernando Alonso and Ferrari saying their car needs more speed. Alonso made the podium at Silverstone but he appears to be carrying the car as he did last year.

SJ – That’s true and it’s also true of McLaren this year. I think there’s a definite shift in the F1 establishment. In my opinion, there are probably only two teams that can still go full bore on development – Red Bull and Mercedes. Everybody else has to be more than aware of what their funding is and where they can get money from. With the absence of the big car manufacturers everybody is feeling the pain in motorsport at the moment.

JT – The 81st running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans was not the easiest or happiest of occasions. What did you think of the race?

SJ – Yes, it was a difficult race this year for many reasons and in a way I’m glad I wasn’t racing. It was obviously one of those awful Le Mans events where the weather kept playing havoc with everything.

It’s not fun when it’s like that. You’re constantly on the wrong tires and you can’t really go for it. You basically just try to stay on the race track and avoid having an accident. Obviously, what happened to poor Allan Simonsen was another perfect storm of horrible circumstances. You could see what happened. He obviously hit a wet patch, got sideways and went to full-opposite lock. As soon as he got on the dry part of the track he was correcting with the steering full-lock to the left, and a fraction of a second later when the car got back on the dry part the car just took off like a rocket in the opposite direction of where it should be going. This was also magnified by the traction control where the driver is now relying 100% on the Traction control to get you out of trouble and you don’t have to drive the car with feel and adjust the throttle accordingly. In Extreme circumstances like this one the TC simply don’t have the speed to react quick enough to stop the car from breaking away and the subsequent slide is much bigger than it would be if you were controlling the throttle with feel only. The same thing happened to the other Aston Martin when they were in the lead towards the end of the race and also the Rebellion car. Due to the high speeds at Le Mans and the relatively small run off areas it all ended up with big accident where even the Armco had to be repaired.

It’s kind of like the fatal move you can make at the Indianapolis 500. One thing they teach you from the very moment you get to Indy is to never-ever correct if you get loose. Once the car gets grip it will usually shoot you head-on into the wall. You always try to steer to the inside of the corner even when the car gets loose. You never try to correct it. You let it try to correct itself. It’s very difficult to train your brain to do that. You spend your whole life training your brain to correct when a car gets sideways.

Having said that, the fact that that tree that Simonsen hit is where it is just behind the Armco barrier didn’t help. I’ve looked at that tree for the last 20 years and have been hoping every time that I’m not going to lose the car and hit the barrier right where the tree is. It’s ominous. It’s right next to the Armco.

Sadly things always have to get to the point where someone is either killed or badly hurt before changes are made. You can bet that tree won’t be there next year. There are a few other trees around the track that are in a similar position.

JT – Audi’s win didn’t surprise anyone really but were you surprised that Porsche was able to win GTE Pro with their new 991-based RSR?

SJ – In fairness, I think Aston Martin had the race pretty much in the bag but managed to lose it in the end. But Porsche is always Porsche. They know Le Mans like the back of their hand and they know how to race. They always do a good job no matter where they race.

JT – What do you think of the recent images of Porsche’s new LMP1 car which obviously derives some of its design from the R18 e-tron Quattro and their intention to race against fellow VW-Group manufacturer Audi as well as Toyota?

SJ – Basically I think it means there will be a few more cars racing in P1 and fighting for the overall win. Let’s face it, the competition is pretty poor at the moment. Only the manufacturers have a serious chance of winning. I think it’s great that another manufacturer is joining; if we could 2-3 more it will become interesting again. Even if it’s Audi and Porsche fighting it out with cars coming from the same group. It’s more cars and it’s positive. The way things have developed now it’s completely pointless for a privateer team to enter P1 with any hope of actually winning anything, they are merely the clowns that make up the show. It would be much more interesting in my opinion if all privateer teams ran in the LMP2 category which would make it ultra competitive and then let the manufacturers fight it out between themselves in the LMP1 category.

JT – Four drivers have been named to the 2014 Porsche LMP1 squad so far including Mark Webber. What do you think about the speculation regarding his open seat at Red Bull Racing?

SJ – To me there’s only one obvious choice – Räikkönen. He’s a proven racer, a grand prix winner and a world champion. He’s everything you’d want.  They’d be crazy if they didn’t get him.

I think he’d work well in the team with Vettel, not that it would really matter that much anyway and it’s not like the drivers there currently are working together particularly well on a personal level. I think the best thing for a team is to have two very quick drivers. They push each other and at the end of the day that’s what it’s all about. Your teammate doesn’t have to be your best friend. As long as you’re professional and you’ve proven yourself in a top team – Kimi has done that and he doesn’t care about anything but getting the job done. I think it could be a great combination.

JT – Since we last did the blog, IndyCar has raced in Detroit, Texas, Milwaukee and Iowa and now last weekend at Pcocono. Obviously, 2013 is proving more difficult all around for Ganassi racing this year, aside from the great result at Pocono where they finished in the top three positions they have been struggling to get the results they are used to.

SJ – Yes, Scott’s been at the front most of the races but he’s had no luck. And yes, it’s been a tough year for the team. The Honda engines have not been quite as strong as the Chevrolets but obviously, the team isn’t hitting the nail on the head in terms of the set-ups for the cars either. They’re definitely scratching their heads in that area.

Scott has done a terrific job in the races. He always manages to get from the car whatever it’s capable of on the day. Personally I’d just like to add again that the cars are not challenging enough to drive. They have too much grip and not near enough horsepower. They’re almost like Indy Lights cars and because of that it’s difficult to separate yourself from anyone else. Everyone within reason can drive these cars relatively quickly because they’re easy to drive.

I am very pleased for Scott and the entire Ganassi operation that it came together for them at Pocono, I don’t think any of them expected a 1-2-3 when they got out of bed on Sunday morning but clearly they had the cars dialed in for race day and Scott did his usual brilliant job of saving fuel when it mattered which ultimately got him the win. I don’t think there’s another driver on this planet that car safe fuel and maintain speed like Scott can, and it paid off well this time.

JT – You were impressed as many were with Sebastian Loeb’s run at Pikes Peak recently. He won overall driving a special Peugeot 908 with a record time of 8 minutes, 13 seconds, beating Rhys Millen in second place by almost a minute.

SJ – That was pretty amazing. What a car and driver combination! The speed they go up that hill is just mind-boggling. Plus it’s cool seeing him and Romain Dumas (driving a Norma M20FC PP) there, doing it for the sheer love of it. There should be more of that. 


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