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SJ chats with Jan Tegler: MAVTV 500, Austrian GP & the fantastic GT3 Series

#SJblog (source page)

SJ chats with Jan Tegler: MAVTV 500, Austrian GP & the fantastic GT3 Series

Stefan Johansson

Jan Tegler – Scott Dixon scored well in Texas, winning on the oval. His weekend was less successful in Toronto, finishing eighth. Both IndyCar races were good however – much better than this season’s F1 events. Last weekend, Scott finished sixth in the exciting MAVTV 500 at Fontana Speedway (California).

The racing was incredible with multiple drivers racing side-by-side on many occasions and more than 70 lead changes. But it was also scary - a return to the kind of pack racing that claimed the life of Dan Wheldon at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in 2011.

Drivers warned IndyCar prior to the race that the increase in downforce mandated for the new Chevrolet and Honda aero-kits for the weekend would result in this but IndyCar paid them no heed. After the race most of the drivers voiced strong opposition to the pack racing. You were on hand at Fontana. What did you think of the race and what do think IndyCar will do to address the situation?

Stefan Johansson – Yes, Scott did a great job in Texas. In Toronto, strategy got [Joseph] Newgarden to the front which is what makes IndyCar great. You can roll the dice and sometimes-smaller teams can win by gambling a little on strategy.

At Fontana, it wasn’t just the guys in the cars who thought the racing was too crazy. Like many others watching, I thought the racing was exciting at the beginning of the race but as it got closer to the finish all I could think was, “This is not going to end well.”

With everyone getting race-y in the last 50 laps things started to get out of hand. I think on one lap there were six cars abreast going into Turn 1! It was completely over the top. All of the drivers were absolutely in unison that there’s no way they’re going to race like that again.

I think all the teams have had just about enough of these new aero-kits. One of the main reasons the series went away from the old Dallara chassis was because they said they had too much downforce. And now, with these new aero kits they change the level of downforce, again adding more? It defeats the purpose of the whole exercise.

As I’ve said before, they should have taken all the money they spent on the kits which are costing everyone a fortune and spent it on promoting the series instead. (Only a little over 3,000 people were in the stands at Fontana.)

IndyCar is maybe the best racing series in the world right now - pure racing with good battles throughout and uncertainty of the outcome. Why not direct whatever resources there are to make more people aware of that instead of petty rule changes that only the die-hard fans will even notice or appreciate?

The Fontana race was a perfect example of this, it was maybe a bit to gladiatorial, but for anyone watching it was one of the most unbelievable races ever in my opinion.

JT - The Austrian Grand Prix at the Red Bull Ring was somewhat interesting on the first lap but then settled down into a mostly processional affair. Like most of the F1 rounds this year, there wasn’t that much wheel to wheel racing. Nico Rosberg (starting second) did a good job of beating Lewis Hamilton (on pole) to the first corner and holding him off for the next few corners. Thereafter, he was never really challenged.

Meanwhile, Kimi Räikkönen somehow came together with Fernando Alonso and the two wound up in the fence with Alonso’s McLaren atop Räikkönen’s Ferrari. It was bizarre and neither driver had a good answer as to why it happened. Kimi has said he lost control of his car for some unknown reason and Fernando couldn’t avoid him.

SJ – This seems to be the norm these days, especially with the Mercedes pair. Whoever gets in front at the beginning of a race stays in front. It’s almost like they’re not even trying to race each other. They just hold position. I wouldn’t say there’s an agreement within the team but it certainly looks like no one’s even trying to race.  

It’s tricky to say what’s going on with Kimi. He’s certainly not a million miles off the pace of his teammate but it seems to be harder for him to get things right with the car than it is for Vettel or than it was for Alonso. I think he’s also had more bad luck in terms of putting everything together in the races and more importantly in qualifying. It doesn’t take much for everything to go pear-shaped, especially if you qualify poorly.

JT – There have been intra-team battles for the F1 Championship in the past of course but I don’t think I’m alone in finding the Hamilton-Rosberg rivalry a bit tepid – not really that exciting. What’s your view?

SJ – I agree. There’s certainly nowhere near the level of interest there was between Prost and Senna when they were racing for the championship at McLaren. It seemed a little better last year between Hamilton and Rosberg but clearly something’s changed within the team. Either they’ve been told not to race each other too hard or something else.

At least there was a bit of hate between them last year which made it somewhat interesting. But we don’t even have that this season. Everything’s great – Lewis says Nico did a great job when he wins or the reverse with Nico saying Lewis was great. There are a few sad faces from either of them when they don’t win but everything else is happy and chummy.

JT – There’s always gossip in Formula One but you know things are not going well overall when you hear as much comment as we’ve heard recently from drivers and ex-drivers, team-owners, and F1 chiefs about the state of the series.

Lewis Hamilton has argued that the current cars are harder to drive than they look. Meanwhile, Felipe Massa contends that F1 is more competitive than ever, maintaining that the racing during the often fondly-remembered Senna/Prost era wasn’t as good as today.

Nikki Lauda was quoted recently, saying F1 isn’t exciting now because there’s not enough danger or risk associated with it. Bernie Ecclestone says F1 cannot improve because the teams have too much say in how the sport is managed. Ex-FIA head Max Mosley opines that F1 needs to simplify its currently complex formula and that Jean Todt should be more proactive regarding the series.

What do you make of it all?

SJ – One thing is clear and we’ve mentioned it many times. You cannot run F1, or any racing series for that matter, as a committee. Especially not if the teams are to have any say in the rules or decisions being made. You can’t get the teams to agree on anything. Every single person you speak to in the paddock - anyone with an interest or passion for the business - has their own opinion on how it should be run or what rules they need to implement.

I’ll say it again, there are only two racing series that have been consistently successful - F1 and NASCAR.  Both have been run like benevolent dictatorships by people who understand their business better than anyone else. The teams should not have any say in the way the rules are written or how F1 is run.

There is a governing body, the FIA, and there’s the commercial rights holder, FOM. Between the two of them they need to come up with a fair and sensible package that’s simple and easy to understand. F1 has gotten so complicated now - especially on the technical side - that people inside the business can’t even understand it. It’s a championship for engineers and boffins today.

In terms of the racing, the art of racing is to drive a car on the limit. No one’s doing that anymore. They’re all either driving under the limit or driving over it. When you have tires that can only stand five hard laps before they go off and you have to spend the rest of the stint just maintaining enough speed to make it to the next stop while constantly taking orders from the pits on what settings to use on the steering wheel - I can completely understand the frustration we now start noticing from a number of the drivers.

Everyone’s using the track width and then some. If they lose a little time it doesn’t matter. They just go on. The fine art of keeping a car on the limit whether you’re racing or on your own is kind of gone now. That’s because you don’t have to be on the limit most of the time and you’re not really penalized even if you go beyond it. I think the public can see that too.

Who wants to see a guy blow a braking zone by 20 yards, lock up, miss the apex by a country mile and then just carry on? A lot of guys aren’t even on the racing line anymore. You couldn’t do that in the past because you risked damaging the car or yourself or both. Few tracks had any form of run off area. If you went out past a curb, you were either in the wall, catch fencing or a sand trap. The asphalt in the huge runoff areas we have now is much safer but it allows people to be careless or just ignore the track limits completely.

Spa is a perfect example. Pouhon, the downhill double lefthander, used to be a mighty corner. It’s off-camber, super-fast and getting it right was a balancing act every time. Now, you just hammer a car in there and if you go too fast, you don’t even go over a curb. It’s just kind of a painted suggestion and you don’t even notice it. You just drive outside it.

In the middle of the night during the 24-hour race (the Spa 24 Hours) everybody is just going flat through there. They don’t even lift. You’ve got the track and another track width on top of that and you just keep your foot down. Eau Rouge is the same now. It’s all asphalt to the outside so if you go too fast there’s no real penalty. It used to be one of the most awesome corners at any race track in the world. You don’t even think about it anymore. On the third lap you’re flat – easy.

I don’t necessarily agree that F1 should be more dangerous because racing is still dangerous when the circumstances line up against you. But there has to be some form of punishment or consequence for going over the limit. It should also be more difficult to find the limit.

All the modern tracks are too sanitized in a way. If you took away the concrete wall that follows the Porsche curves at Le Mans for example and made huge run off areas instead, that whole sequence of corners would be a no brainer. Configured as the Porsche curves are currently, it’s a matter of digging as deep as you can to keep your foot in it the whole way. If you get it right and are able to stay flat throughout, the time you gain is massive. You can lose a couple of seconds through that section alone if you don’t get it right from the start.

JT – The recent FIA Formula 3 European Championship round at Spa-Francorchamps is another example of drivers having little regard for track limits. It was nearly as fraught as the races which preceded it at Monza. There were multiple accidents and incidents of contact with many of the drivers behaving poorly or inexplicably. You were there in-person. What’s your take?

SJ – It was pretty bad, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a worse standard of driving - certainly not at the level of where Formula 3 is. Some of the drivers are just clueless when it comes to race craft. It’s one thing to be racing hard and have incidents but what’s happening right now in F3 is just stupid and completely unnecessary. The guys are making moves that don’t gain them anything and they’re certainly costing the teams a lot. It’s weird. It’s like some of the drivers have zero race craft.

Some of them may be coming directly from karting but I think most have had a few years in the junior formulas that follow karting. It’s bizarre. Aside from the big crashes we saw at Spa, there was one guy who must have gone across the chicanes ten times – just straight through them. He never got penalized because he didn’t gain anything I guess. But he also didn’t lose any positions. He just kept his foot in it and rejoined after the chicanes, and just flew out into the middle of the pack about where he was before. It was like watching someone playing a video game.

Again, there’s no penalty anymore for going over the limit so everybody’s on the limit or a little above it. It’s odd that you can now exceed track limits and it’s become the norm. In the past, if you blew a chicane at least you’d have to stop until the rest of the field passed through it. Then the marshals would wave you out onto to the track to rejoin, meaning you effectively had blown your race. There has to be some kind of punishment for going over the limit.

Worse, the same kind of thing was going on in Austria during the F1 race. Cars were leaving the track completely but just kept going. They lost maybe half a second but just carried on.

JT – The 2015 edition of the Le Mans 24 Hours was a good race with interesting battles in just about every class. Scuderia Corsa did very well on debut with Townsend Bell, Bill Sweedler and Jeff Segal finishing on the podium in GTE AM with the Ferrari. You were there with the team throughout the week. It must have been enjoyable. The battle between Townsend and Patrick Long in Patrick Dempsey’s Porsche late in the race was very good.

SJ – That was a great battle – very professional from both drivers, very fair. Patrick was a little defensive but didn’t block, used his mirrors well and drove with full awareness. Townsend had some fantastic stints as did Jeff and Bill and it was terrific to watch. It was a great result for the team, being on the podium on the first trip to Le Mans. Everybody was over the moon.

And every category was pretty tight. The P1 duel between Audi and Porsche was great, and although it didn’t go down to the wire it was still pretty tight all the way.

It was somewhat disappointing to see Toyota being completely off the pace this year. It’s hard to understand the reason after they had the fastest car last year pretty much everywhere. It seems they’ve done almost no development on their cars at all. I can’t imagine they just sat still and expected the others to do nothing, so maybe there were other reasons why they didn’t make more progress.

P2 went right down to the wire. The JOTA Sport car (Gibson 015S-Nissan) was catching the KCMG car (ORECA 05 Coupe), having gained three laps back on them on pure speed. The GTE Pro fight between the Corvette and the Ferrari was great too until the Ferrari lost its gearbox.

JT – Nissan’s debut in P1 was not good. Only one of their three GTR LMs was running at the finish but didn’t complete enough laps to be classified. None of the cars ran with their 2-megajoule hybrid system functioning. They had numerous problems including braking issues and massive understeer. They claimed they would easily out-qualify the P2 cars but only one of their cars managed to post a time faster than the fastest P2 car. Even then it was only a few tenths quicker and more than 20 seconds slower than the lead P1 cars.

SJ – The bottom line is that their performance shows a complete lack of understanding of the business. Any engineers you talk to whether they’re in Formula One or sports cars unanimously agree that this car will never work. It will never be a competitive proposition.

To claim that they would easily out qualify the P2 cars is a very odd statement considering they’re not running in that category, so who cares? The fact that they not only did not do that but they were over 20 seconds slower than the cars they were competing against?  I can’t imagine Audi, Porsche - or any other manufacturer for that matter - showing up to the biggest motor race in the world that far off the pace - and unreliable on top of it.

Having something different may get Nissan noticed and maybe they can market that. But aside from it being cute just because it’s so different or the political correctness around their effort, racing is still about winning. That’s why we go racing – to win races.

To think that you’re going to win - and claim that you’re going to win - with this design against Audi and Porsche and Toyota is not realistic. I can only imagine that someone sold the executives a bill of goods and none of them understand enough about racing to say, “Hang on a minute!”

The way racing is today, everybody operates in a pretty narrow box to be competitive. With the big role that aerodynamics in particular plays now, everyone eventually migrates to the best solution and the best solution usually leads to cars that look a specific way.

Look at the cars in F1. They all look the same because that’s what works. The same holds true for prototype sports cars. They all have very aggressive, stubby front ends and similar aero shapes as you go to the rear of the car because that’s what works.

JT – GT3 racing continues to impress globally. The Blancpain Endurance Series round at Paul Ricard boasted 60 entries. That follows earlier rounds which had similar size grids. It remains a good formula.

SJ – It’s fantastic. When you look at Blancpain and the GT3 regulations, you have to say that [Stefan] Ratel (SRO Group principal) has done a terrific job. The racing works brilliantly, very even. It’s just a shame that Le Mans couldn’t apply the GT3 concept.

P1 has what, eight cars maximum racing right now? And they’re going to slow them down again  because somehow they’ve determined that their lap times are too quick. I don’t understand how that’s determined. Historically, a certain lap time is too quick? Who says so, whether it’s sports cars or F1?

There was a time when F1 cars had aerodynamic side skirts that basically sealed them to the track. Their ultimate speed was determined by how much the drivers could withstand before they started to blackout. That should give you an indication of how far you could possibly go speed-wise. You wouldn’t have to go that far but why not go as fast as reasonable?

My point is, if you took the GT cars, whether they’re GTE or GT3, and let them run without  restrictors they would have all another couple hundred horsepower at least because that’s how much they’re strangled now. Their lap times would be right down in the mid 3-minute, 40s. In 1997 when we won the race (Stefan won with Joest Racing in a Porsche TWR-Porsche WSC-95) our pole time was a 3:47 in the Porsche prototype.

You’d be right there in terms of good, fast laps and then you’d have effectively 56 cars with almost identical performance racing each other. I think that would be pretty cool. And I think they should just make GT one category. The whole division of GTE and GT3, it’s just nonsense. Everybody has to make a special car for Le Mans. It’s ridiculous.