Monday, 06 January 2014 14:00

Stefan Johansson shares his thoughts and feelings about his upcoming participation at the USC Daytona, the debut of the Porsche 919 LMP1, and the ever-changing F1 regulations Featured

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JT – Congratulations on the USC Daytona ride with Action Express! On December 19 Action Express Racing announced that Stefan is set to join Fabien Giroix and brothers Burt and Brian Frisselle for the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship 24-hour season-opener in the team’s second Corvette DP.     

SJ –  Thanks, yes I am very excited to be racing at Daytona again, it’s been a few years since my last race there. Action Express is a great team with a great history and I’m very proud to be part of their line up this year. I have just finished the first day of the test [the Roar Before the 24] at Daytona, and I am now on the flight from there to Bahrain for a three day tire test in the LMP2 car, so a very busy schedule in January!

JT – Judging from the testing so far, the DPs seem to have an advantage over the P2 cars at Daytona.  

SJ -  At Daytona for sure with the long straights and high speed banking. I think that may change though when they get to the other events during the season. There is also one more reset of the rules before the race so let’s see how it will work out when we arrive for the race. One thing is for sure, it will be a very competitive race, there a lot of great teams and drivers and it is the largest grid they have in modern history more or less. I am really excited and there was a good buzz in the paddock, everybody is eager to get going!

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JT – The Porsche 919 LMP1 debuted a couple weeks ago with its driver lineup of Timo Bernhard, Romain Dumas, Neel Jani, Mark Webber, Brendon Hartley and Marc Lieb. That should add a bit of excitement to the 2014 World Endurance Championship. I guess we’ll see how quickly they can come out of the box. 

SJ - Yeah that’ll be interesting to see. They are quite early with the program so whatever teething problems they may have, as well as pure performance issues will most likely be well sorted by the time they arrive at the first race of the season. It’s not like it’s their first time racing in the top level of sports car racing either, so I am sure they will be very competitive from the get go. They have a strong driver line up and some very good people on the technical side, I expect them to be right on the pace from the start.

 

JT – In Formula 1 news, the FIA has put forward a rule for a season-ending double-points race designed to keep the driver’s and constructor’s titles alive right to the end by offering twice as many points in Abu Dhabi next November. The drivers and teams don’t seem to like it but Bernie Ecclestone has said he’d actually like to extend the double-points concept beyond further to the preceding two races.  What do you think of the season-ending double-points race? 

SJ – Well, like most other people who’ve heard of the idea, it strikes me as a knee-jerk reaction yet again to the fact that one driver and team has been dominating the previous season. Sometimes you’re going to have a driver that dominates. It’s just the nature of the beast.  I think that if they should do anything in Formula 1 to make it more interesting for the fans, the TV viewers, they should look at the double-headers they do in Indycar. They worked great last year. I realize there are much bigger logistical issues as far as TV broadcasts and other elements in F1, but the two races the same weekend in Indycar gives you a chance to score double points. Let’s say you have a double-header in Monaco. It would be fantastic. The crowd would love it. TV viewers would love it. Maybe the crown-jewel events, say three races a year or however many you decide, could be double-headers. It’s certainly worked well for Indycar. Which leads me to my next comment, far and away the best racing in the world at the moment in my opinion is Indycar. Every year the last 2-3 years it’s been fantastic whether it is by design or luck I don’t know but the format has been working incredibly well for them.  Pretty much every single Indycar race this year has been exciting and has gone right down to the wire, and the same for the Championship, it’s always decided at the last race which is fantastic. It’s just a shame they haven’t been able to market it better. Hopefully, that will change. It sounds like there are some good things being put in motion. 

JT – There’s a story that has emerged recently that cites comments from Lotus to the effect that all the top teams are struggling financially. I guess it’s fair to say that everybody is feeling the pain. 

SJ – Absolutely, no question. It is tough times in general for motor racing at the moment, but maybe even more so in F1 simply due to the massive costs involved. It’s tricky with F1 because everything is taken to the absolute limit. What magnifies that cost even more is the constant introduction of new rules, which means that every team has to react accordingly with new designs that will comply to new rules. For example, some years ago they introduced DRS [Drag Reduction System], this is almost irrelevant now because everybody’s got it figured out. KERS [Kinetic Energy Recovery System] is the same. However, the cost of implementing all these different things are just mind boggling. Now we have the mandatory pits stops to improve the show, and everybody have now gotten so good at it that we are constantly seeing 2 second pit-stops. I just don’t see the point when everybody is doing them within half a second of each other so it’s almost completely irrelevant now. But again, the cost of being able to do pit stops at that speed with all the equipment and training they need is probably the budget of a good GP2 team just to get that part right. 

Now, more than ever, everybody is feeling the pinch. I’ve said it many times before and I repeat it again, the best way to keep the costs down over a period of time is to maintain rules stability. This also typically makes the whole field more close and the racing more competitive as the trade of between spending money on R&D and the performance gain you will see on the track diminishes every year the rules stay the same and the gap between the smaller teams and one’s with bigger budgets get closer each year. 

JT – Cost might be one of the difficulties in trying to do a double-header round in Formula 1. They’d likely be talking about doing an engine-change if there were two consecutive races. 

SJ – I’ve talked to a couple of engine people about that. The original idea of the current engine formula was of course to bring the cost down. [Before the engine-limit rule] I don’t know how many engines they went through in a race weekend but it was basically a new engine every session and then another one for the race plus spares. Indycar was like that in the Champ Car era too. It was mental. Everybody was just going for it with special qualifying engines etc. It’s all related to how competitive a series is. When they implemented the new engine rule which mandates they have to run an specific distance and amount of races before they can change it have basically resulted in enormous costs in terms of materials and R&D in order to achieve the maximum power without the engine breaking. It is quite impressive how reliable the current F1 cars are but of course it all come with a very hefty price tag for the engine manufacturers, some claim it’s almost a wash between the previous cost of bolting a new engine in at the end of each session compared to the cost of making the new generation engines. The bottom line is simple, the more competitive a series is, the more money is being thrown at it. If manufacturers, engineers and team principals who want to win had $10 billion a year, they would find a way to spend it. That’s just the nature of the beast but it’s also what makes F1 so fascinating. 

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 But there has to be a middle ground. At the moment, pretty much everything is governed by aerodynamics. If you remember, they put a rule out a few years ago where they changed the front wing and banned all the aerodynamic widgets everywhere on the cars. Look at the front wings now, they’re as complex as ever. Give or take, eighty percent of the aero on an open wheel car is governed by the front wing. In my opinion, if they did a simple thing like requiring everybody to use the same front wing given to them by the FIA, it would cut out an enormous amount of the money being spent on aerodynamic work and the insane amount of wind tunnel development every team does.   

Also, do we really need all the systems controlled from the steering wheel, I don’t even know if the drivers are all that excited about it. If a driver can’t handle a car with 850 something horsepower with the amount of aero grip they have, they shouldn’t be there in the first place in my opinion. F1 is supposed to be the top of the ladder and according to a lot of the drivers I have spoken to they generally feel the cars are almost to easy to drive now. Let the drivers sort out the drivability of the car, that’s what racing should be anyway. Today, you’ve almost got to be an engineer just to get the car out of the pit lane because there are so many knobs and switches and buttons on the steering wheel. The crazy thing is that everybody has them now. The difference in F1 is that you can’t go and buy it off the shelf. Every team has to design, develop, manufacture, test and make every single part on the steering wheel and every other part on the car for that matter. The cost of all that is just staggering. 

 You could also limit the amount of people involved in pit stops and change these ridiculous two second pit stops. Just limit the amount of people you’re allowed. That would make it more interesting like it is at Le Mans for example. The pit stops are more of a challenge and they actually make a difference. 

JT – As you’ve said before, most of the things done in pit stops in the past were done because they had to be. Now you don’t really have to make any pit stops. You could have tire compounds built to degrade at a rate that would actually last a race distance. 

SJ – I don’t think it would hurt if at least they have that option. You would plan the weekend completely differently. That would be part of the strategy. When I was in F1 I was never particularly great at qualifying. Part of the reason was that I simply didn’t put a lot of focus on it, so I never became a specialist at it. I hardly ever ran the car with super low fuel and with low ride-heights because it was almost irrelevant. Ten laps into the race, it was a different scenario anyway and it was easy enough to pass someone if you had a better race set up and a car that you knew was going to be consistent for 80 or 90 laps. Race day pays the points. It’s always nice to be on top of the time sheets for the ego but that’s about all it gave you, except places like Monaco where the grid position will always be crucial of course. On the other hand, you see a lot of drivers who are absolutely spectacular in qualifying but are completely useless in the races, each thrive and survive in their own way.

If you had longer pit stops, let’s say in the region of 15 to 20 seconds, then it would be debatable whether it would be better to try to run the distance without stopping versus making stops. With the short pit stops now, everybody’s running the softest tire compound they can get away with. 

JT – Surely, there have been a lot of measures aimed at making the race even more of a sprint than it would normally be. But tires that degrade very quickly interrupt that flow anyway and with DRS having been figured out by all the teams, there’s a little more passing but not a lot

SJ – In the beginning DRS made a monumental difference but it’s sort of petered-out and now it seems like it’s back to normal again. 

JT – What you see is guys defending with KERS. They get on the KERS really early exiting a corner so they can at least limit the gains of the fellow behind with the DRS open. 

SJ – Yes, like I said, everybody has got it figured out now and they know how to maximize the various systems and it’s pretty much back to normal again. In Formula 1 there are 20 cars whizzing around a track every fortnight for an hour and 45 minutes. Is KERS really that relevant in a global sense? The extra cost of those systems alone is just bonkers. 

JT – Talk of a budget cap in Formula 1 is back again and seems to be more serious this time. 

SJ – Yes, for all the reasons and many more we’ve just touched on. But I don’t see how you can create a budget cap and enforce it. They tried with a resource restriction agreement and it just seems that little by little, everyone just tends to forget these things. I can’t see how you could police it without making it incredibly complicated. We know how incredibly creative the engineers are in F1, it wouldn’t take them long to figure out a way to circumvent whatever policing the system the FIA have in place. It is the same problem they have every time they try to clamp down on the rules, the teams each have over 100 super smart engineers in the design office against maybe 15-20 guys at the most in the FIA. You can imagine it doesn’t take them long to find loopholes in the rules no matter how tight they try to write them. Besides, I’m not sure there’s even a fair way to do it. There’s no reason why Force India for example can’t be where McLaren is today. It’s not as if billions of dollars fell out of the sky onto McLaren’s parking lot. It’s purely hard work. Ron Dennis created what is McLaren today. Everything that is there is purely down to him and a group of very talented and very hard working people. It didn’t just come from nowhere.  I don’t for a second believe that the net worth of Ron Dennis is the same as Vijay Mallaya or the Russian guy who owns Marrusia for Example, or even Tony Fernandez of Caterham. The difference is that there is 100% dedication to winning and that means whatever it takes to get the job done, I frankly don’t believe the bottom of the grid teams are capable or prepared to do that, hence they are where they are…

 I firmly believe that a true capitalist system should work in sport. May the best man win. It’s part of the whole process. It can’t be a democracy just as a racing series very rarely works if you run it like a democracy. That’s why Bernie’s done such a fantastic job with F1 and the France family has done such a fantastic job with NASCAR. They’ve been run like benevolent dictatorships. There are usually only one or two individuals who have the bird’s-eye view who can see what needs to be done three years down the road. Most teams can only look six months ahead because that’s what their cash-flow allows. If you look at both F1 and NASCAR over the year, both series have made the teams and team owners who had the required skill set, ambition and work ethic to become successful incredibly wealthy from the sport. The one’s who weren’t fell by the wayside, and this is absolutely the way it should be in my opinion. F1 is not for the faint of heart, it’s the ultimate arena for the best of the best in our field and I sincerely hope it will stay that way.

 So I really don’t support the concept of capping budgets. I think there are a lot of things you can do to bring the costs down in general without anyone even noticing, but there should always be a reward for the guy who wants to put in the extra hours, the extra work and brainpower, and who’s a little smarter than the rest. 

JT – It has long been said that the battle to win on-track is also fought off-track. It’s the resources, talent and other things that tip the balance. 

SJ –  Of course, even more so. The races are won or lost back at the factory. Most of the top F1 teams have between 100-150 in the design office alone! I’ll repeat what I’ve said before. In the last 20 years every F1 championship except for four has been won by a car that either Adrian Newey or Ross Brawn was involved with. That says a lot. 

JT – On the driver’s side there have been a few announcements or non-announcements over the Holidays. Heikki Kovalainen doesn’t know whether he’ll stay with Caterham or not because Kamui Kobayashi is coming into the team. Sauber is to retain Esteban Gutierrez who must’ve gotten a cash infusion. Isn’t it embarrassing that almost 50 percent of drivers in the world’s top open-wheel series are paying to be there? In NASCAR most drivers are paid to be in the seat. 

SJ – It’s really atrocious at the moment I have to say. I’ve always been a pragmatist in that I believe that if you’re genuinely good enough, you’ll find a way to make it. But I really don’t think that works any more. The cost barrier to entry for a potential Formula 1 driver is so massive now. If you start in karting and work your way up, assuming you win everything along the way, it’s still going to take a good part of 15 million Euros to get to the point that you can show you’re ready for Formula 1. Then it’ll probably take another ten million Euros to get the seat. You have the odd exception like Kevin Magnussen who landed a McLaren seat this year purely on merit. It will be interesting again to see how he get’s on with the added pressure of F1 and all the things that go with it.

The other thing is that the way the cars are today, the technique of driving is very different than what it used to be. The tracks are very different and the amount of time they spend in the simulator are different. But you can’t train race-craft except in races and that’s where their deficiencies show up. Sergio Perez, for example, certainly has speed but he doesn’t have race-craft. I think that’s the case for a lot of the new generation drivers because they don’t get enough racing. Everybody was giving Romain Grosjean a hard time in 2012, quite rightly so, I’m glad to see how he improved in 2013. As we speculated at the beginning of the year, he certainly had the speed and skill. He needed some confidence and he did come through. I think that was also in large part due to the team which made him feel comfortable and gave him that confidence. Eric Boullier is a great team manager, a pure racer. He has a great feel for it and I think that’s really important. Having Kimi Raikkonen there was obviously a great benchmark and that helped. If Perez would have been given the chance of a second year at McLaren I think there’s a good chance the same thing would happen to him also, he was often quicker than Jenson but struggled to put it all together in the races.

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JT-  Luca Di Montezemolo was quoted this week saying he thought the simulators that is being used by every single F1 team today are a joke.

SJ- I agree with him 100%. The cost to make these things now are astronomical and quite frankly at the level they perform they have no relevance to anything outside of trying to make the experience as identical to a real F1 as is humanly possible. Why you may ask? Simply to get back to the point they were before the on track testing got banned. Without knowing the exact cost of running a current F1 on a track I can’t imagine that it will come anywhere close to the cost of making these unbelievably sophisticated simulators. I think it would be great for everybody to have some real track testing with the teams and their cars, the drivers would benefit and the fans would certainly love it.

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