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Race Craft vs Speed, Scary Crash at Pocono, Comments on F1

Eric Graciano

#SJblog 104

JT – Formula 1 is in the midst of its summer break. With on-track action paused, the break frequently kicks off silly season speculation about where drivers will be the following season. As yet, there doesn’t appear to be much movement for 2020 but there has been a driver promotion/demotion this month. Red Bull Racing surprised some observers by announcing that halfway through his first season with the team Pierre Gasly would be demoted and sent back down to Toro Rosso while F1 rookie Alex Albon would be promoted from Toro Rosso to take Gasly’s seat. What are your thoughts on the driver shuffle?

SJ – It’s interesting that in the last blog we chatted about the growing graveyard of F1 drivers who weren’t ready for prime time yet. And here’s another example of guys who are put in positions with F1 teams way too early in their careers in my opinion. Racing at this level takes a lot more than a driving a car fast – which they can all do – it’s all of the other stuff you need time and experience to learn and master. Dealing with the pressure of the whole thing and especially race-craft – you only get good at those things over time. 

With that in mind, this is just another chapter of the same thing I suppose. I don’t think there’s too much between Gasly and Albon in terms of their skills. They’re both talented drivers, it’s just how they cope with the situation. I think Albon will have a bit less pressure on him because he’s getting thrown in the deep end so it may be excusable for him not to perform at the same level as Verstappen. 

But really, anyone who comes up against Verstappen or Lewis Hamilton or Alonso before – they’ve got their work cut out. Those guys are at the top of their game and they’re all unicorns to begin with. They’ve got a little more talent than the others do to start with but they’ve also got a work ethic that is relentless and enough years of experience to know what they need to do in pretty much every situation. To come up against that as a teammate is very difficult. I don’t think there will be a lot of difference between Albon and Gasly. 

It’s very rare that you get a situation in a single team where you have a Prost and a Senna or Lewis Hamilton and a Nico Rosberg who are both extremely good and also have the experience to execute over a full season. It’s a difficult balance for a top team like Red Bull for example, to either take a chance in the hope of finding another Verstappen, or hire a solid experienced driver as number two. Someone who will contribute to the team and always score points without being a real threat to the main guy. We can see this with Ferrari this year, where Leclerc clearly has the speed, but at the same time have made several errors that have cost them valuable constructor points. Would they have been better off to keep Kimi and let Leclerc stay another year at Sauber to gain more experience, I don’t know?

Also, the situation in F1 at the moment is that there is no driver in the current field that you can put next to Max or Lewis with the expectation to match them in speed and race craft. The only driver I can think that would fit that bill is Alonso, and for whatever reason it seems difficult for him to find a place in any of the top teams, but he’s the only obvious choice that I can think of.

JT - Former Jordan, Stewart and Jaguar F1 technical director Gary Anderson recently spoke out about five areas he thinks F1 should address to improve its competition. He chatted about F1 budgets, the development war, tires, a reverse-grid format and the ability of drivers to push flat out over a race distance. Like others close to the series, his suggestions for fixing F1 seem to fall well short of what’s needed. What’s your take?

SJ – I read it also. I think the main thing is that we have to cut through the clutter somehow. Right now, every suggestion I have seen just keep adding layer after layer of fixes and you never cure the underlying problem. That’s the core of the difficulty and people just seem to want to add more layers of fixes without addressing what’s really wrong. Every year it gets more complicated than the one before, and the problem still persist or it’s even worse. 

As long as aerodynamics dominate the performance of the cars you’ll always have a central problem and it’s my belief that the only way to fix that is to eliminate the importance of aero by either using standard parts in all the areas that matter the most and at the same time reduce the downforce levels drastically. You offset the lack of aero grip with much better tires, more horsepower and less weight.

He is suggesting to have tires with a bigger drop off so that teams are forced to make more stops in order to make the races more interesting. I thought we already tried that some years ago and it turned into a farce where the drop off was so big after only a few laps that it became almost impossible to even drive the car at any speed. It’s yet another band aid fix that will be near impossible to get right.

There are four things that make a race car go fast or slow, it’s the chassis, engine, tires and the driver. In an ideal world all four should be equally important in my opinion. Right now this is far from the case, where the chassis and engine are by far the most dominant factors. 

The tires are at least as important as any other factor on the car. If you can’t get the tires to work even the best car isn’t competitive. I still believe it would benefit everybody if we opened up the competition for several tire manufacturers. I can’t see why it wouldn’t be great to have three or four different tire manufacturers competing along with three or four engine manufacturers and different chassis manufacturers. You’ll end up with one tire that will be particularly good in qualifying. So all the guys on those tires will be at the front when a race begins but maybe it’s not as good over a stint or race distance as other tires. That will make the racing much more interesting. Rather than yet another artificial fix, why not let everybody make the best product possible and reap the rewards. When you see the effort teams put into both the chassis and engine I think the tires would add a huge component to that equation and it will bring a new level of unpredictability that F1 is desperately lacking at the moment.

The reverse-grid idea is to me unfathomable. If they’ve already got 40 people back at the factory doing race strategy analysis of every lap, weather etc –  I can only imagine what will happen if they had a reverse grid. There would be 300 scientists and engineers strategizing over what qualifying time they should aim for to optimize their position on the grid. Every possible permutation would be calculated to the umpteenth degree, and there would be even more devices on the car in order to manage the ideal lap-time to maximise the starting position for the race. Or the top teams would find ways to qualify at the back and then blitz everybody in the race. I can’t even begin to imagine all of the implications that would arise if they actually considered a reverse-grid. It’s yet another layer of band aid fixes rather than getting to the bottom of the problem, and yet another reason why engineers and designer need to be as far away from the rule making process as possible. 

JT – Your point about bringing tire competition into F1 is well made from another perspective. For example, if two or more tire brands were in competition, one or the other might have an advantage at a particular track based on performance. At a different track another brand might perform better. That variability distributed across the grid, in theory, would help reduce the dominance of one team or manufacturer. Right now, Mercedes is dominant, followed by Ferrari and Red Bull and then the rest. With multiple brands available, the performance advantage the top three enjoy could be diminished. Likewise, their power and influence in the series could be checked.

SJ – I think that’s what the big teams are afraid of and I think there’s massive pressure from the manufacturers on the governing bodies for that very reason. It goes back to my core point. You cannot let the manufacturers, engineers or designers be in control of the rulemaking. If they are, you will not be able to make any significant changes, it will just be more of the same.

JT – Amidst continuing talk of some kind of budget-cap for F1 in 2021, there has been reporting that notes that the top teams - the richest, most heavily resourced outfits - are spending huge sums on further development of their already lavish technical facilities and staff. Even Racing Point, now flush with investment from the Lawrence Stroll group which purchased the former Force India team, is apparently spending like crazy, pouring concrete and building its new Silverstone factory around the clock. As has been noted, this is a race against time. Those with deep pockets are spending now before any budget cap is introduced. 

With this in progress, shouldn’t it be obvious to Liberty Media and the FIA that the current top teams will have an even more massive advantage after any budget cap is initiated? Once a cap is in place, the other teams will not be able to spend at that level even if they could afford to do so. And how will Formula 1 be able to attract any new teams if they are barred from investing the incredible sums Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull have been burning through for most of a decade?

SJ – There’s just no way a budget cap will ever work. What you have to do in my opinion is eliminate the areas the teams spend most on. Allow for design freedom but limit the areas where we know the most money is spent. Restrict them to the point that any gain is not worth the money spent on them. 

A general budget cap, I just don’t see how you can control it. It’s better to eliminate the most costly avenues for spending. One thing I’ve noticed is that little by little more people in F1 are chiming in with some of the same observations I’ve had, I think we all have been thinking the same for quite some time now. It’s just common sense. I hope things will move in the right direction.

JT – I hope so too but it’s hard to imagine they will with statements like those that came from Ferrari’s team boss Mattia Binotto earlier this week. He said Ferrari is “not happy yet” with the regulations proposed for 2021, adding that plans for standardizing some car components including wheels and brake systems are “too much”

“I think since the very beginning we always said that we are against the standardization, and I feel we are going too much in the direction of standardization,” Binotto argued. 

Binotto feels that standardization will not save money and is against the “DNA” of the sport. It sounds like a point of view designed purely to maintain the status quo in F1. What’s you take?

SJ -  I disagree on several points. First of all, whatever the DNA of F1 is, was lost a long time ago. Every car today is the same, it’s just made by different teams rather than one supplier. The rules are so restrictive that there is almost zero room for any form or innovation apart from detail work within that framework. When F1 started we had all sorts of different concepts and ideas on both engine, chassis and even tires. There were V8, V12 and even V16 engines at one point. Today everyone is making the same engine, at an exorbitant cost, you can’t make anything different even if you wanted to, they’re all exactly the same spec, size and concept. The same with the chassis, they are all the same, again at an exorbitant cost. Who cares what brake system the cars use along with several other components on the cars. The brake budget alone for an F1 team is almost equivalent to a winning Indycar budget, just to put things in perspective, so I don’t really follow the logic that it won’t save money by using standard components.  Would anyone care if all the cars had the same front wing, no one call tell the difference anyway. If it will help the competition and even up the playing field surely it’s a better solution than having teams spend 10s or even 100s of millions each year on an endless development war. 

JT – The Indy Car round at Pocono Raceway was unfortunately affected by a combination of weather and a scary crash on the first lap of the race. Exiting Turn 2, Ryan Hunter-Reay and teammate Alexander Rossi were side-by-side as Hunter-Reay got a run on Rossi and moved to the inside. Then Takuma Sato with a run of his own moved to the outside of Rossi, making it three-wide. Sato’s car appeared to turn down the track into the path of Rossi’s car. The resulting collision involved all three cars initially then swept up James Hinchcliffe’s car and Felix Rosenqvist’s machine, sending it skidding along atop the wall on the back straight and into the catch-fence. Fortunately all of the drivers involved were uninjured. 

SJ – A lot of the drivers have already weighed in and voiced their opinion and apart from Sato himself, it was pretty clear to everyone that it was an incredibly stupid and poorly timed move. It’s a shame because all the drivers have been united and in agreement to take care of each other, particularly on the ovals and Pocono in particular. Unfortunately, there’s always one in every series, and yet again Sato seemed to think it was a good idea to compromise everyone else by keeping his foot in it and go three abreast into the second corner on the first lap of a 500 mile race, rather than just roll out of it and get in line for the following lap. This is the kind of move you maybe make when there’s a couple of laps left on the Indy 500 and you’re going for the win, certainly not on the first lap of a 500 mile race. It’s unfathomable to me, and thank God no one got hurt. These kind of moves leave the guys you pass no option but to avoid an accident, which is an incredibly low percentage situation even with a few laps to go, to try something like that on the first lap tells me there’s a serious lack of brain capacity and a complete lack of race craft. A guy like Sato who’s been racing for so long should be smarter than putting himself and more importantly his fellow competitors in that position.

Of course he claims complete innocence, and his team is defending his move, which I don’t think they have any choice but to do, at least in public.  But what he seems to fail to recognize is that the accident didn’t start when they made contact, it started when he decided to go for a three abreast move with two other guys who were already side-by-side. Ryan was already on the inside alongside Rossi. But if you decide to make it three-abreast at that point you’re putting everyone below you in a very marginal position, and if you look a Rossi’s onboard he was totally squeezed between the two of them and couldn’t go either up or down. This time, thankfully no one got hurt but it could very easily have gone the other way. However, there was car damage in the region of $1,5 million which is something the car owners will have to carry and I’m sure they’re not very happy about that. 

JT – The accident along with a 5th place finish by Josef Newgarden and Scott Dixon’s 2nd place run has tightened up the championship considerably. Three races back, Scott was 98 points behind championship leader Newgarden. After Pocono he’s just 52 points behind, in 4th place overall behind Alexander Rossi (35 points behind) and Simon Pagenaud (40 points behind). With three races remaining, the championship fight is alive and Scott’s definitely in range.

SJ – Yes, it’s going to be an interesting end of the season that’s for sure. I’m certain it will go right down to the wire again and I hope Scott will have a couple more good races so that he’s still in with a shot for the final one. Indycar is amazing, every year it’s at least three different drivers and teams who’s still in the fight for the championship by the final round. There is no Championship in the world that have better competition than Indycar right now, and I have the feeling that more and more people even abroad is starting to tune in as they have now started to realize how much fun and exciting it is to watch these races. 

JT – Some have questioned whether Pocono Raceway should remain on the Indy Car schedule after the serious accidents involving Justin Wilson and Robert Wickens, and the near miss last weekend. But as Scott and most of the other drivers have observed, the incidents at Pocono could have happened anywhere and are not necessarily due to the track itself. There’s some great history at Pocono and it would be good to see it stay on the calendar. What’s your take? 

 SJ – It’s hard to say whether the track has any influence or if it’s just a string of very unfortunate circumstances. I’ve never been there so I can’t say for certain but talking to Scott and most of the top guys, they all love the track. It’s very challenging because of the variety of the three corners which makes it difficult to set up the car correctly and to keep the balance in the car over the length of a stint.

Red Bull, Honda and Verstappen, Beginning of a New Era? Exciting Races in Both F1 and IndyCar

Eric Graciano

#SJblog 103

JT – Formula One has staged three Grand Prix since we last chatted for the blog. The most significant news off-track is reporting that the FIA and Liberty Media plan to adopt ground effects for the 2021 cars. The goal is to do away with many of the complex aerodynamic devices found atop the cars currently. Instead there will be a simplified, less sensitive front wing and a series of Venturi tunnels feeding a deep twin diffuser that will produce much of the car’s downforce. The concept is reminiscent of the ground effects F1 cars that raced between 1979 and 1983, and similar to what the Dallara’s currently fielded in Indy Car employ to produce downforce. 

The FIA says the combination of ground effects, simpler aerodynamics and front wheel deflectors will all work together to help cars to follow each other much closer. In addition, the series will feature low-degradation tires that have far less drop off than the current high-degradation tires from Pirelli. The changes are similar to what you have been arguing for, for several years now, though they don’t go as far. What do you think of the changes?

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SJ – Some of the points in their plan are similar what I’ve been suggesting for a while, which is not surprising as it’s just common sense really. What’s interesting is that they (Liberty Media] actually did the exercise that I’ve been asking about for some time now – which is to paint all of the cars white and then see if anyone can tell them apart. Apparently there were only three people in their office who could tell the difference between them. I think the comments I’ve made for a while are now becoming clear to lots of people, I’m not trying to say that I’m the only who thought of this as I’m obviously not, but if the engineers and technicians can’t even tell the cars apart it’s safe to assume that not very many of the millions of fans will be able to.

Their proposal to maintain the level of downforce with more ground effects rather than getting all of the downforce from the top of the car looks better but I still think as long as you have a car that relies primarily on aerodynamics for its performance – which the cars will even with ground effects – I don’t think you’ll ever get rid of the problem of turbulent air. Computer modeling, wind tunnels and everything else the aerodynamicists have can never simulate well enough what’s going to happen in the real world. Once cars are on track together there are so many factors which upset the ideal circumstances they have when they use CFD (computational fluid dynamics) and wind tunnels.

I still strongly believe that a huge reduction on aerodynamic downforce which is then countered by less weight, more tire grip and more power is the way to go to retain the same performance we see now but with much better racing and more interesting cars to watch both on the track and estethically.

JT – Apparently, F1 hopes to reach agreement with teams about the new rules by September 15. But how likely is that? And how much of what they’ve proposed will be negotiated away?

SJ – If they’re waiting for a set of rules that everyone will agree on, it will never happen. They can continue to have meetings until the year 3000, and nothing will change apart from some minor pointless details. They need to get the teams and the engineers out of the decision-making process. It should be up to the governing body and the commercial rights holders to come up with a set of fair rules that make sense to everyone who participates, not just the top two or three teams – something that’s more controllable and makes sense financially for all participants. If the teams don’t trust the people that is running the championship they shouldn’t take part in the first place. As soon as the teams get involved it’s inevitable that they will serve their own interests first and as such we end up with a grid-lock and eventually a set of rules that is full of compromises mostly in order to please the manufacturer teams. Teams and manufacturers always come and go, Ferrari being the only exception, which makes it even more important that they will come up with a well thought out set of rules that will stay in place for a considerable amount of time, as this is always the best way to control both the level of competition and the costs. Rules stability have always proven to be the most efficient way for a successful series.

JT - The races at Red Bull Ring, Silverstone, and Hockenheim featured more action than the season’s preceding eight races. Red Bull racing’s Max Verstappen took the win in Austria after overtaking Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc two laps before the checkered flag – the first victory for a team other than Mercedes in 2019.

In England, Lewis Hamilton won, taking his seventh victory in 10 races. Teammate Valtteri Bottas led from pole and looked to have control of the race until a safety car was called for Antonio Giovinazzi’s Alfa Romeo which spun off. Hamilton dived into the pits, essentially getting a free pit stop, and leap-frogged Bottas. Behind, Charles Leclerc and the two Red Bulls fought for the podium. 

In Germany, rain came, leading to a variety of errors from drivers and teams. Max Verstappen survived a spin and five trips to pit lane for wet, medium and dry tires to win the race. Mercedes’ Hamilton and Bottas both spun off track in the wet with Bottas’ off ending his race. Hamilton finished 11th on track after multiple offs and a penalty for entering pit road beyond a cone denoting its limit. Post-race penalties to the Alfa Romeos of Kimi Raikkonen and Giovinazzi promoted him to 9th. Sebastian Vettel stayed on track to finish an unexpected 2nd after starting from the back of the grid. Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat rounded out the podium with Racing Point’s Lance Stroll finishing 4th.

Following the races, Liberty Media’s Ross Brawn said the excitement they provided was a great response to the “vitriolic criticism” of F1 this season. But of course, the only reason Hockeheim had any “excitement” was because of rain. What’s your impression of the last three races?

SJ – Yes, the last three have all been terrific races with plenty of action and some surprising results, especially the last one at Hockenheim. F1 typically has two or three great races every year – always when the unknown enters into them - weather conditions or something else that can’t be simulated or predicted beforehand. Taking the predictability out of the racing is exactly what we’re looking for. The race at Hockenheim was a classic example of this. It was simply that the rain came and went and the teams had to adjust accordingly. Most of them got it wrong at least one and some of them many times. I think they changed tires like five times. But nevertheless it turned out to be a very entertaining race to watch, with several surprises in the end result. It’s great to have a race like this once in a while regardless of what the category is, but wouldn’t it be great if every race could come down to drivers competing hard on the track in equal cars, and different strategies on both fuel and tires played a big part of the end result. 

Austria started out being kind of boring and then it came down to the tire situation. Verstappen was on fresher tires and he was catching everyone hand-over-fist. At every race, whoever can make the tires work is so much quicker than the rest. The Red Bull chassis are always very  good too and the Honda engineers are really starting to get the job done.

I think this result is the beginning of a new era. As I said a year ago when the switch from McLaren to Red Bull happened, eventually Red Bull, Verstappen and Honda will dominate, probably for four or five years once they get it right, which they will. When Honda is committed they always get it right in the end, and once they do they are very hard to stop. I think the combination of Verstappen, Red Bull and Honda might be the new Dream Team that will be very hard to beat in the next 5 year period, as long as all the main people stay committed. 

Ferrari continued having their problems at Hockenheim too. Both cars had issues in qualifying for Hockenheim and then in the race they were better. Vettel did a great job moving forward with some brilliant moves especially in the first few laps. Leclerc got schooled by Verstappen in Austria and realized he had to roll up his sleeves and get a bit more aggressive. I think he did a great job at Silverstone (Leclerc finished 3rd) but obviously he made a mistake at Hockenheim, like several others did in the same spot. I think they all got caught out by how incredibly slippery the track surface was once you got into the runoff area, under normal circumstances theirs is no real change in the grip level once you go into the runoff, but here it was like ice.

There was more dicing at Silverstone and the Red Bull Ring. Maybe it’s the nature of those tracks because they’re fast and flowing. There aren’t really any stop-and-start corners at either track. And with the amount of downforce the cars have now, you don’t really have to be on the racing line to carry the speed through the corners. It’s almost like oval racing, the way they drive around some of these corners – one car on the outside and the other on the inside, doing the same speed. Normally if you’re not on-line you lose your pace. We’re seeing some outside passes that we didn’t see before at a few of the tracks, which is great to watch, so maybe the high downforce is actually working better in that regard at these specific tracks and corners. It certainly provided some great racing and passing.

Bottas did a good job at Silverstone but the safety car just came at the wrong time. It certainly worked in Lewis’ favor and he obviously got a bit lucky which he admitted. But when things are going your way, almost everything you do seems to work. When they’re not, everything you try seems to go wrong. Vettel on the other hand is definitely on the flip side of that cycle. I also don’t think Vettel is comfortable with the car now. 

I don’t think he’s ever been really comfortable with the cars of this era – the hybrid cars. They clearly don’t suit his driving style. I don’t think he can get the cars to operate the way he wants them to, to have confidence and be comfortable with them. The Red Bull he had with the blown diffuser and everything, it obviously suited his driving style perfectly.

JT – You think Mercedes set up was wrong for both drivers at Hockenheim?

SJ – It looked to me like Hamilton and Bottas had very similar problems. They went off at the same corner in almost identical circumstances where the rear just snapped without even a wiggle, it just went into a full spin immediately. That would lead me to believe something wasn’t right with their cars. Whatever set-up they had was affected worse than anyone else, maybe the car bottomed out in that particular spot or something else went wrong. It seems strange though that both drivers would do identical mistakes in exactly the same place in the same corner.

JT – Whatever the case was for Mercedes and the rest at Hockenheim, the Indy Car race at Mid-Ohio was far more exciting. There was fantastic racing throughout the field. Scott Dixon won after some terrific dices with Will Power and even his own teammate Felix Rosenqvist. It was proper nail-biting racing. 

Source: @scottdixon9

Source: @scottdixon9

Congratulations go to all of the guys on the podium with Scott finishing on top, Felix in 2nd place and Ryan Hunter Reay in 3rd. But special congratulations to you. You’ve had a role in all three drivers’ careers. Of course, you manage both Scott and Felix. And though many may not remember, Ryan Hunter Reay came into Indy Car racing with your American Spirit Team Johansson in 2003. Ironically, Hunter Reay’s first-ever Indy Car podium came with your team at that season’s Mid-Ohio round where he finished 3rd! He went on to win the 2003 season-ending race at Surfer’s Paradise, Australia.

SJ – Yes, even when you have three great races in F1, you turn on Indy Car on any weekend and the race is nearly always a nail biter which is rarely over until the last few laps. Every race ends up being exciting right until the end. Mid-Ohio was another brilliant race! Felix was on a different strategy than Scott. Rossi and Newgarden and Power were on different strategies and everyone was racing hard on track, and it went right to the finish line with only 0.09 separating the first two cars. If F1 ever had one race like that people would go ballistic!

When Felix and Scott were racing each other at the end, I seriously thought I was getting a heart attack! I was freaking out but it was great! For me personally it was fantastic obviously to see them get a 1-2. And I believe that’s the first 1-2 finish Ganassi has had in Indy Car since Scott raced with Dario [Franchitti]. And with Ryan finishing third as well it was an amazing day.

JT – Even the previous round, on a completely different type of track – the short oval at Iowa Speedway – was exciting and unpredictable. Scott had a very difficult night with the car not responding to a host of set-up changes and was running in 16th place. But pit strategy and a caution flag at the right moment late in the race allowed him to charge up to 2nd place! Josef Newgarden won the rain-delayed race and was doing donuts 1:15 am central time

SJ – It was a crazy race and I still can’t believe Scott managed to pull his way back to 2nd after being a couple of laps down at one point, but again, this is what makes Indycar the best racing in the world right now, it has all the right ingredients for close and unpredictable racing. As far as the competition side of the business goes, they are doing pretty much everything right. The only thing I’m having a hard time to understand is the lapped car rule, where the backmarkers can still race the leaders even when they are about to go a lap down. I don’t think it’s fair that they should be able to effect the outcome of the race. If it’s not your day, you should just move over and let the leaders continue to fight until the end, rather than getting caught up for laps behind someone who’s over a second a lap slower. 

JT – Haas F1 continues to struggle on track. Their car, the VF-19, is obviously part of the problem. But the drivers are another liability this year. Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen can’t seem to stop running into each other. They have an open rivalry of course but what’s taken place between them at nearly every race of the season seems illogical. Gunter Steiner recently said he was more than frustrated with their behavior and shouldn’t have to be mediating between them when he should be focused on making the car and team better. Why not sack both Grosjean and Magnussen and perhaps replace them with Indy Car drivers?

SJ – Unfortunately for them, the situation at Haas is almost comical. I can see it being justified if they are fighting for the lead or the championship, like Lewis and Nico was a few years back, but I think even those two had better discipline and race craft than the Haas guys do. It’s ridiculous to be fighting as teammates over 10th position and keep bouncing into each other race after race. Something’s not right there. These guys just have no race craft. And how much patience can Haas have, it’s not like either of them are World Champion material or ever will be? Haas shouldn’t have to be thinking about them in addition to making the car better or whatever else, if you are paid driver you are there to enhance the overall performance of the team, not give them an added headache to deal with pretty much every weekend. 

If any of these guys were to race in Indycar, not just the Haas guys but in general, they would have to make some major adjustments in order to be competitive. Execution is everything in Indy Car. If you or the team get one thing wrong you lose several positions immediately and fighting your way back from that is almost impossible as close as the racing is. And at most of the tracks you don’t have run-off areas where you can rejoin the rack after bouncing off someone else or missing the apex, so if you tangle or have to go off track for any reason, your day is pretty much over. 

The irony is that F1 teams are now considering guys like Pato O’Ward who left to join Red Bull in Super Formula in Japan and Colton Herta is being considered by a number of teams. Both of them are super talented but if you look at what they have done in Indy Car – for an F1 team to consider them kind of sums up the mentality of Formula 1. Neither one of them is ready for F1. They have one good race in Indy Car and then a series of others with mistakes or poor execution. It’s the most bizzare situation at the moment, where Formula One has now become some kind of training ground for young talented drivers. Every now and then you will find a Unicorn, like Hamilton or Verstappen for example, but for everyone of those there’s a graveyard of other really talented drivers that got spat out of the system very early on for a variety of reasons but primarily because they simply weren’t ready either mentally or technically. 

But this is how they think in F1. It’s all about really young and fast drivers. If you’re over 20 years old, no one in F1 will even look at you it seems. I don’t understand why they wouldn’t be patient and take a driver who’s 23, 24 or 25 years old who’s had four or five years of hard racing behind them duking it out in other series and has shown that they’re a proven winner. 

JT – That’s a great point. Why wouldn’t F1 teams be looking at relatively young Indy Car drivers like Josef Newgarden or Alexander Rossi? Rossi’s been in F1 before but only with a back-marker team. Both guys are proven winners. Newgarden already has an Indy Car championship under his belt (2017) and Rossi is a threat at every race. Both are competitive with the series’ most decorated and experienced racers like Scott Dixon, Will Power, Ryan Hunter Reay, etc. Felix Rosenqvist is another possibility. He’s really beginning to show his talent in Indy Car. 

SJ – Absolutely, I couldn’t agree more. These guys have been in Europe in the early days of their careers and now they’ve been racing hard for a few years and have a lot more experience. Now is the time that F1 teams should be looking at them not when they started their careers over there and had virtually no experience with either the tracks or the people they were racing against.

Controversy at the Canadian GP, Tire Wars & the Competitiveness of Indycar

Eric Graciano

#SJblog 102

JT – The Canadian Grand Prix has been the subject of controversy since the race took place. While leading the race, Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel ran wide between Circuit Gilles Villeneuve’s Turns 3 and 4, reentering the track just in front of Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes. After a brief evaluation of the incident, F1’s stewards gave Vettel a five-second penalty for impeding Hamilton. Hamilton crossed the finish line 2nd behind Vettel but with the five seconds applied, he was declared the winner.  

Vettel was angered by the penalty, as were fans and many current/former F1 drivers and racers from other categories who weighed in with their frustration. Ferrari has requested the FIA review the penalty. What are your thoughts?

SJ – Unfortunately, nothing is new under the sun. The one time this season so far they actually have a great race on their hands which would have been an epic battle to the end, they manage to ruin it by meddling with these random and completely inconsistent penalties. 

I know some people have come out and said the penalty was deserved because Vettel broke a rule. Strictly speaking, this may be true, but this also signifies the problem we have at the moment. Formula 1 already has far too many rules. How many more scenarios are there going to be where they will come up with a penalty instead of letting people get on with racing? If you strictly follow the rule book you could also argue that you are also allowed to change direction once on every straight, which is another stupid rule by the way, which if the argument the stewards put forward was that Vettel changed direction once he had the car under control is then negated by the next rule. Each year the rule book keeps getting thicker, with more and more rules to cover every possible scenario both on the competition side and the technical side, in parallel, as we all know only to well, the racing is getting more and more boring and sanitized. 

I’ve made my view on the random driver stewards/race control situation clear many times. I’ve been totally against it since they started it. I think they need one or two people who could be ex-drivers like Indycar has but they are the same people at every race. It’s been clear for years now that F1’s random driver steward process doesn’t work. I read someone’s argument that this system works great because they have four Stewards that alternate between the races, and five different driver stewards. To me that’s three stewards and four drivers to many! There is no way you will ever get consistency with a system like this, hence we have these random decisions in almost every race that are completely inconsistent from similar incidents that happened in an earlier race. 

It would have been so great to see Vettel and Hamilton go for a real fight to the end, as it were, Lewis was just cruising knowing that all he had to do was finish within five seconds of Vettel, a total anticlimax to what would have probably been the best race of the season.

JT – Apart from the controversy at the Canadian GP, most of the teams continue to voice the same complaint at every race. They cannot get Pirelli’s very temperature-sensitive tires to work. Only Mercedes seems to be able to make them respond consistently.

SJ –  Yes, it’s the same story over and over again up and down the pit lane. On some weekends one or other of the teams may get their car to work but they all seem to struggle apart from Mercedes which seems to have gotten a better handle on the tires than the rest. 

I think a lot of that is just resources. The more money and resources you have the more manageable it is to find a quick solution. But I find it extremely ironic – and it goes back to my “Make F1 Awesome Again” document – that here the teams are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on aerodynamic development and other elements but the bottom line is the majority of the performance comes down to the tires most of the time. 

They’re the cheapest component on the car that really matters by a hundred times. You’ll find performance from the tires a hundred times quicker than you would out of anything else you develop on a car. I just don’t understand the logic of forcing one tire manufacturer to build a terrible tire. It makes no sense. If you opened the tire supply up I can see at least four manufacturers that would jump onboard immediately. 

They would all pour a ton of money into marketing and development for the teams they’d work with and the racing would be really interesting. At some tracks the Michelin’s would be quick, at others the Bridgestone’s would be quick, at some the Pirellis would be fast and at some tracks it might be the Hankook’s or whoever else would choose to supply tires. Some tires will be really good in qualifying and not so good in race trim and vice versa. It would mix up the grid and make the races far more interesting.

Yes, the top teams would want to make sure they were on the right tire but you need to do something to introduce variability, something to make it interesting and less predictable. And I don’t remember the “tire wars” being terrible when we last had them. It was never a problem as far as I can recall. Everyone was happy to compete and get the best out of the tires, do the required tire testing. At some tracks the Bridgestone’s were quicker, and at some the Michelin’s were quicker. 

Eventually, one manufacturer might get an edge but then the others partner with different teams and continue the development – it’s part of the whole process.

JT – Meanwhile, the deadline for presentation of F1’s 2021 rules has been delayed with teams and F1 chiefs opting to wait until October to unveil them. The end of June had been the previous deadline. Disagreements among the teams on some of the fundamentals are said to be the reason for the delay.

SJ – They can keep tweaking the rules until the year 3000. The teams are never going to agree. They haven’t been able to agree on anything so far so what makes anyone think they’ll agree on the new rules?

It’s impossible to get the teams to agree to the same set of rules. Because everything is now run like a democracy and the teams have to have their say in everything we’ll end up with some half-assed compromise that won’t make anyone happy, least of all the fans. That’s the reality of it. As I’ve been saying all along, the series needs to be run like a benevolent dictatorship with people running it who have an acute understanding of the business. They make the rules that all the teams will have to follow, end of story. That’s the only way it can work. 

There is no way you can try to please everyone. Once you set a fair, coherent set of rules that make sense, that’s it. People will say some teams will then leave the sport. If they don’t want to play, let them leave. As long as the barrier of entry to F1 is not so high financially that almost no one can join, which is currently the case, other teams or manufacturers will soon replace them. 

After more than a year of deliberations,  they’re now talking about a $150 million cost-cap – not including engines, drivers and marketing. So you’re basically back at $250 million before you even start. So everyone apart from the top three teams is already screwed because none of them have a budget that size even today. 

JT – The most recent round of the 2019 Indycar season came at Texas Motor Speedway where Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden held off Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi to win, executing a clever pit stop strategy that put Newgarden in front for the final stage of the race. 

Scott Dixon was competitive all evening, leading at times. But with just 19 laps remaining, Scott and rookie Colton Herta made contact while battling for 3rd place in turn 3, sending both into the safer barrier. The DNF saw Scott fall to 4th in the championship standings, 89 points behind leader Newgarden. Felix Rosenqvist finished in 12th position. Obviously, it wasn’t a great outcome for Scott. What did you think of the contact between him and Herta?

SJ – Looking at the video replay a few times afterwards, Herta had both wheels over the inside at the bottom of the track going into the corner, so once they got in the corner there was no room to keep the foot down and his car just crept up the track until they made contact. It’s just one of those things. I think Herta was lucky to get away with several of the moves he made earlier in the race which were also right on the limit. I think his driving was a bit marginal all day long, but It’s to be expected from a guy with the amount of talent that he has. I like his driving a lot I must say, he’s brave and full of confidence, with a huge amount of natural talent. But at places like Texas and Pocono, it’s maybe a little too much considering the consequences if something goes wrong, not only for yourself but also the guys you’re fighting with.  It’s a little like Verstappen in his early years, he just puts the nose in there, and if the guy he’s about to pass doesn’t move or give enough room there will be contact, they’re low percentage moves that look amazing when you get away with them, but as soon as it turns the other way, which it always will eventually, you look like a schmuck. It’s part of the learning curve, especially when you consider how young these guys are when they get their breaks. Verstappen at some point understood this and is now a much more complete driver.

Scott lost quite a few points so that’s going to make it very tough for the championship going forward. It’s not over but it’s not easy to come back from that far back. 

Felix results doesn’t really give credit to the effort he’s put in. He qualified on the second row next to Scott at Detroit but unfortunately things didn’t go his way in the race. It’s just about putting everything together for a whole weekend and a whole race, between the driver, the team and the strategy. That’s what makes Indycar so difficult. At the Indy Grand Prix before the 500, where he started from Pole Position, there were some issues in two of the pitstops and Felix had problems keeping the tires under him during the whole race. And the accident he had in practice for the 500 – that will set you back big time. 

Having the confidence that the car is underneath you at Indy is critical. When it comes unstuck, it will let go pretty quickly as he found out the hard way. It’s a confidence thing and after that you’re never quite sure when you can rely on the back end of the car. It’s always a balancing act.  He got comfortable and did a great job in the race, moving up through the field throughout the race. Unfortunately both him and Scott both got caught up in the Bourdais and Rahal accident.

JT – It’s interesting to look at Indycar on any track and compare the level of competition with what we see in F1. There’s no denying Lewis Hamilton has had a very impressive career with five world championships to his credit. But, at most, Hamilton has to beat only one or two drivers to win those championships. Scott Dixon is a five-time champion as well but in Indycar he’s had to best a large number of competitors to earn each of his championship titles. It seems to me that the depth of the competition in Indycar makes Scott’s achievements more impressive. What are your thoughts?

SJ – I don’t think there’s anyone in the F1 paddock that can touch Hamilton at the moment, he’s on a different level and is just getting better every year, so in my opinion he deserves all the success he’s had without a doubt. But as you correctly point out, the facts in F1 will tell you that there’s never been a world champion in all the history of F1 that did not have the best car. On the other hand, I don’t think there’s a championship in the world that’s harder to win in than Indycar right now. Winning three to four races in a season of Indycar is a huge accomplishment. There are so many factors at play and you don’t have the predictability you have in F1. Look at Texas. I think we were all surprised when Newgarden emerged at the front near the end of the race. He came from nowhere!

Team Penske made a fantastic call on strategy and played their pit stop cycle perfectly. It’s impossible for something like that to happen in Formula 1. Indycar has that variability and so many good drivers and teams. I keep saying it but I think it’s the best racing of any series in the world right now. Nothing comes close. Every single weekend is flat out hard racing. Can you imagine if even one F1 race was like that? People would go crazy.

JT – It strikes me that the complete lack of competitive balance in F1 might induce talented  drivers coming up through the open wheel ranks - from F2, F3, etc – to aim for Indycar rather than F1. If you’re a hot young prospect and you want to compete against top drivers in a championship where the competitive balance between teams is close, why not skip the lopsided soap opera that is F1 and go do some real racing in Indycar?

SJ – To be honest, I think we’re going to see more and more of that. At the same time, it’s not easy for any of those guys to come over here and get a ride at the moment. But if there are drives which open up, I don’t think anyone could disagree that Indycar, tough as it is, is a series where at least you have a possibility of winning. There’s no possibility in F1 unless you’re driving for the right one or two teams. One of the issues though is that the drivers in F1 today make it there at such a young age, which works out great in F1 because the main criteria is just to be able to drive the car as fast as possible, race craft doesn’t matter anywhere as much as it does in Indycar or Sportscar racing. The reason is that everything is so perfect in F1, the engineering of the cars, the simulations, the tracks that are smooth like a dance floor with huge run off areas, the adjustability of the cars through all the devices on the steering wheel. All these things take away a lot of the elements a driver has to deal with in most other types of racing. 

JT – Scott Dixon was one of several Indycar drivers who raced at Le Mans. Predictably, the 24 Hours left a bad taste in many people’s mouths. The overall outcome was never in doubt with Toyota dominating in LMP1, winning over the nearest P1 car by six laps. The GTE battle had great potential even in the final hours. But the pit/safety car rules at Le Mans trapped Jan Magnussen’s Corvette at pit out, allowing the winning AF Corse Ferrari to go by as Magnussen idled in pit lane. 

Scuderia Corsa, where you are the Sporting Director, ended up with a podium finish after the Keating Ford got disqualified after the post race scrutineering.

Scott finished 5th in GTE Pro in the #69 Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT after the sister #68 car was disqualified from its 4th place finish for having a fuel capacity .83 liters over the limit. The GTE Am winning Ford GT of Keating Motorsports was disqualified as well for a fuel infraction, a tenth of a liter over the limit. 

What did you think of the race and how did Scott view it?

SJ – I thought the race was unusually uneventful this year, with only two cars in the race with a realistic chance of winning, the only interesting battles was in the other categories. I feel sorry for Mike Conway and his co drivers as they clearly had the pace to win this time. Mike was very impressive to build the gap early on that they were able to maintain throughout the race, until the very end when it all went pear shaped for them.

It was a good result for Scuderia Corsa in the end, we just didn’t quite have the overall pace this year, but the team did a terrific job overall.

Scott was a bit frustrated I think, it seemed the Ford’s never quite had the pace throughout the event, and then they had a few unfortunately minor things go wrong on their car that basically put them out of contention. 

As usual, no one is happy with the BoP unless you’re on the top of the podium. It’s a tricky one and I wish there was a different way to compete, but for the time being I can’t see anything change in this area. 

JT- Finally, last weekend we had the French GP at Paul Ricard and the Indycar race at Road America. Two very different race tracks, do you have any comments on the nature of the tracks and the outcome of the races?

SJ- Yes, two very different race tracks for sure. Although Paul Ricard is quite an old track in F1 terms, it’s been updated and modified significantly since the first GP they held there way back. However, the layout is not that much different, they’ve only added a few standard issue F1 chicanes. After the race we got all the usual complaints of an extremely boring race with no passing and no action throughout. But to be fair this track never invited any great racing, it was always difficult to pass and hard to get a run on the driver in front due to the layout of the track. Most drivers, including myself hated the layout of this track because it has no natural flow, it’s very choppy and you can never get a good rhythm going. I never considered it to be a good track for either racing or testing. Bernie Ecclestone bought it some time ago and turned it into a mausoleum of how a modern GP track should look, the run off areas are incredible with the different surfaces which are also color coded. I remember losing the brakes once during a 24 hour test in preparation for Le Mans,  at the end of the long straight. The car stopped on it’s own before I hit anything, the last rows of asphalt was like glue and it just stopped the car on it’s own, amazing!! Everything including the Pit complex is done the absolute maximum, but the place have no character.

At the other end of the spectrum is Road America, one of the few remaining old school tracks that is incredibly challenging and unforgiving. If you put a wheel wrong it will punish you right away. Every driver I know absolutely love this place, it reminds me of Brands Hatch but it’s even faster and more flowing. The race was again very exciting, if you don’t count Alexander Rossi, who just checked out and left everyone to fight for second. In typical Indycar fashion there were great battles throughout the field. Both Scott and Felix put in some very good recovery drives and salvaged some good points on what looked to be a bad weekend for both at the start of the race.