JT – The first race of the F1 season is in the books. The Australian Grand Prix was an interesting kick-off to 2016 with both positive and negative aspects. The new qualifying format that was rather hastily introduced was a flop, proving its critics right.
SJ – No one was 100 percent sure what would happen I guess but the fears many people had were validated in terms of the session being a complete anti-climax. It’s just seems odd that one of the biggest sports in the world is making these kinds of decisions willy-nilly with what seems to be very little thought having gone into them beforehand.
Then there’s a crisis meeting after qualifying and it’s basically decided to go back to the previous version of qualifications. When you see it from the outside it all looks a bit desperate. In fact, it makes no sense on so many levels that you can’t help but to think there’s must be a plan of some sort behind it. I suspect there’s a political agenda hidden somewhere behind it all.
The problem is larger than F1 really. IndyCar is suffering from the same problems with this aerokit adventure that is now about to get canned. Instead of getting to the root of the problem and looking at racing from a philosophical point of view, they’re flailing around and taking advice from all the wrong places.
They should be asking, “What is it we are trying to fix?”
But they wind up trying to fix problems they’ve themselves created in the first place rather than going to the root of their difficulties. To get things back on track, I think there’s going to have to be a big change at some stage. You’re never going to improve the racing with a bunch of artificial cures. That has been tried time after time in so many championships and it doesn’t work. All these “band aid” fixes is like trying to cure cancer with an aspirin.
In Australia, you could see the F1 cars suffering from the same problems as IndyCar. If you get within three car lengths of a competitor ahead, that’s it. You get stuck at their speed. If you can’t make a move right away, you lose momentum and you get stuck. Hamilton couldn’t get by the Toro Rosso’s for laps but once he got by he was two seconds per lap quicker.
It’s the same in IndyCar. Get within four car lengths and you lose all grip. Conor Daly qualifies dead last at St. Petersburg and runs the same lap time as the leaders in the race because no one could get by him. Everyone is stuck at the same speed.
As long as you are racing with cars that are dependent on aerodymanic downforce for the majority of its performance you will always have a problem with overtaking and the racing will of course suffer as a consequence. This has been a fact since the 80’s and it’s only getting worse the more complicated the aero packages get. Yet, the proposed cure is always to pile on even more downforce and take away horsepower, when in fact it should be the exact opposite of that to make not only the racing more interesting but also to make the cars a hell of a lot more interesting to watch and drive.
JT - An impressive start by Ferrari drivers Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen created some drama with the pair running 1-2 early in the race. Lewis Hamilton got off the line poorly and fell to sixth while teammate Nico Rosberg ran third. Despite improved pace from Ferrari and a circuit on which it was difficult to overtake, the Mercedes duo ultimately prevailed with Rosberg finishing ahead of Hamilton and Vettel. What’s your view of the Australian Grand Prix?
SJ – The competition was obviously closer this year than it has been. I think Ferrari is at least a disturbance for Mercedes at the moment, more so than they were last year. Had they gone with the same strategy Mercedes used Vettel could have won the race. Their big mistake was going with a tire (super-soft compound) that necessitated them making another stop. That killed their chances.
So it could have been a more interesting race. If Vettel had been leading, I think his pace was good enough that it would be unlikely that either Mercedes could have gotten by even if they were quicker. Given Ferrari’s pace, the first few races could be more entertaining.
JT – Perhaps the most impressive feature of Ferrari’s performance was the start that both Vettel and Raikkonen were able to achieve, jumping past both Mercedes. That could be an advantage for them although one would imagine that Mercedes will figure out what they did wrong pretty quickly.
SJ – Yes, the further we go into the season the more all the teams will fix any issues they might have and get on top the starts. With the relative lack of assistance allowed now from the pit box for starting procedures there’s more chance to get it wrong at the moment. But I’m sure Mercedes will fix that before Bahrain.
JT – Both humorously and seriously, one of the takeaways from the Australian GP may be that multiple pit stops are no longer needed. We saw Mercedes choose the medium compound after the red flag and handily beat Ferrari, stopping just once. And the new Haas F1 team didn’t even do a pit stop. Romain Grosjean ran the whole race on one set of mediums and came home in sixth place!
SJ – Yes, it worked in Australia at least. It was a fantastic result for Haas F1 – very impressive. To score at all - let alone score that many points first time out - is incredible. The hard part now is going to be repeating that success. But as I always say, the easy points are scored in the first three races of the season for anyone – no matter what championship you’re in. It gets progressively harder as the season goes by and everyone gets their act together.
JT – The result might have been even better for Haas F1 if not for the accident between Grosjean’s teammate Esteban Gutierrez and McLaren’s Fernando Alonso. Fortunately both drivers were uninjured.
SJ – Yes, that was a very scary accident. In my opinion it was a classic case of misunderstanding. I think Gutierrez was on his brakes much earlier than Alonso expected him to be. I’ve had that happen a few times. You’re on a trajectory and you expect the car ahead to brake at a reasonable distance. But if the guy jumps on the brakes right as you’re crossing behind him you will hit him before you can even blink. I’m glad to see everybody was OK and it’s really a testament on how good the safety is in F1 now to be able to walk away from accident like that without even a scratch.
JT – Like everyone, McLaren is thankful that Alonso was uninjured but you would imagine they must be disappointed with their weekend. They have better pace than they had last year at this point but both in qualifying and the race they were still miles behind. Despite a year of working under the current rules and a heavily revised new engine/power unit for 2016, they have to be worried.
SJ – Yes, if you consider that Haas scored points right away, it doesn’t look so good. I was expecting more at this point to be honest. They may still improve more but you would have anticipated they’d have more speed by now. They ought to be within a second of the front without too much trouble, especially with the resources they have. It’s those last few tenths that get harder and harder to gain.
JT – Williams F1 looked equally unimpressive while Toro Rosso and Red Bull seemed to be the best of the rest behind Mercedes and Ferrari, battling each other pretty fiercely.
SJ – Exactly, I was expecting more from Williams as well. But again, it’s the first race and we don’t know the ins and outs of the teams’ challenges. I think we’ll need a couple more races before we see a real pattern of where everyone is. Red Bull and Toro Rosso, obviously there’s a lot of pride there and everyone’s competitive at the end of the day.
If you look at the teams at the back of the grid, there’s the usual rotation every year. One or another of those last four or five teams gets their car a bit more right than the others and rises for a season. But there never seems to be consistency in maintaining that forward progress. Last year, Force India was the team that put their season together better than the others but they seem to have a lost a bit of that momentum at the moment.
JT – A final bit of F1 news is that Red Bull has proposed a larger windscreen device as an alternative to the “halo” cockpit protector Ferrari and Mercedes have recently sampled. Apparently, the FIA’s Charlie Whiting doesn’t think the Red Bull design could be ready in time for 2017 but the halo will be in use next year.
SJ - I think the halo or some form of cockpit protection is now inevitability in F1 and also in IndyCar. If it can save someone’s life of course it’s worth doing. At the same time, there’s the purist’s point of view that says it’s not the right thing to do. But after three races of it being used, I don’t think anyone will talk about it. It just becomes part of the procedure for going racing.
All the drivers used to hate the Hans Device when it came out because it was uncomfortable and didn’t feel natural when you moved your head but no one even mentions it now. It’s just normal procedure.
JT – IndyCar is also underway for 2016. Team Penske’s Juan Pablo Montoya won the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg for the second year in a row, beating Simon Pagenaud and Ryan Hunter-Reay for the top spot. You were on hand for the now traditional street race opener. What did you think of the race?
SJ – The race was somewhat interesting and yes, Penske looked good. They certainly have their cars dialed in at St. Petersburg. All four of their cars were in the top four in qualifying. No question, that’s a statement.
JT – It’s interesting to contrast the racing and the finishing positions for Montoya and Scott Dixon. They battled for the championship last year and, like last year, Montoya won the first race of the season while Scott finished further back - in seventh place this year.
SJ – Yes, but Scott was in much better shape this year although the end result didn’t necessarily show that. He was quick in practice and he was very quick in the race. As usual he was kind of just maintaining position, saving fuel and waiting for things to happen in the last stint but then the car started to overheat which forced the team to do an unscheduled pitstop under green. Once they rejoined he caught the leaders by 10 seconds. It would have been a good battle at the end for sure but his radiator inlets had gotten completely clogged with debris - tear-offs, leaves and all kinds of stuff. He had to pit for the guys to pull all the trash out and that was that.
JT – Prior to the race, Montoya’s Penske teammate Will Power had hard contact with one of the street circuit’s barriers during Friday practice. He went on to drive another practice session and qualify on Saturday, all the while feeling nauseous and sick out of the car. He nevertheless won the pole but was diagnosed with a mild concussion prior to the Sunday race and pulled from competition. Oriol Servia did a nice job stepping in for Power but some questioned why a diagnosis was not made earlier. In late news, IndyCar now says Power does not have a concussion.
SJ – Concussions are not easy to detect but IndyCar acted pretty quickly anyway. As it turned out, they later found out it wasn’t a concussion after all but some other form of infection that had bugged him for a while I guess. Regardless, I think it was really impressive that he went out and stuck the car on the pole despite the fact that he must have felt terrible.
It’s amazing though, once the adrenalin kicks in it’s like the best cure for everything. I wish we could tap into on command. I’ve experienced situations where I’ve been so sick I couldn’t even stand up but you get into the racecar and you don’t even think about it. You’re totally focused and you’re feeling completely fine.
Then when you get out of the car you can barely stand up again. It’s the state of mind you’re in when you race – adrenalin and 100 percent focus. It’s an incredible feeling. I haven’t found anything yet that comes close to it.
JT – The new IndyCar body kits from Chevrolet and Honda seem very similar. And the street circuit/road course package looks somewhat wacky. There are so many aerodynamic elements it looks like the cars are carrying the equivalent of barn doors around the track. What did you think seeing them up close and personal?
SJ – Well, they probably have enough downforce just from gravity with all of the stuff that’s hanging off them. I really wish they would go in the other direction. That would make the cars more interesting to drive and even out the playing field. Just like in F1, after all the money that’s been spent on these aero kits, all the cars now look the same. Unless you get really close up it’s hard to tell the difference between a Honda or Chevy car. At the end of the day, it’s done nothing to add to the show. It certainly hasn’t improved the racing, if anything the other way around as it’s now become even harder to follow the car in front due to all the aero bits that on top of the car. I wish the money that was spent on this exercise would have gone towards a joint marketing program to bring in new fans that have not yet experienced what a great product Indycar is, but instead, we are stuck with essentially the same fan-base we’ve had for years now. As they are both engine manufacturers, why not instead try to gain another 200-300 horsepower and make the cars a bit more interesting to drive, as it is right now they are seriously underpowered for the amount of grip they produce.
JT – The race was also the first IndyCar start for Alexander Rossi, driving for Andretti Autosport. He’s still a reserve drive in F1 for Manor Racing as well. He drove cleanly and benefitted from attrition to finish 12th. What did you think of his first outing?
SJ – It’s very difficult to gauge where Rossi is because he was never in a team where he could show much of his capability in Formula One. Obviously, he did a very credible job in GP2 but never dominated. So it’s hard to say.
I think it goes to show that as hard as the transition to F1 is for an IndyCar driver, it sure isn’t any easier for a driver coming from F1 to IndyCar. Barrichello demonstrated that too a few years ago. Basically, the way racing is today you have to become a specialist in every category to be able to run upfront. The cars have become so complicated and there is only so much a driver can do to drive the car fast, the rest of the speed has to come from tuning the car to get the maximum performance out of it.
JT – The Indy Lights series had its opening race at St. Petersburg as well. Felix Rosenqvist had a good outing in his debut, winning the second of the weekend’s two races in dominating fashion for the Belardi Auto Racing Team.
SJ – Definitely, the first time out he gets pole and a win in the second race, and nearly got pole for the first race. Actually, I think he could have won both races. He didn’t realize until afterwards that he’d done the whole first race in the rain-map for the engine. That’s 30 percent less power in first, second and third-gear! It’s a huge difference to everyone else.
But it was a good start for a rookie in a new championship. He seems to like the car and the racing in the US is always a fresh eye opener for all the Europeans that come over here.
JT – You were also on hand for the 12 Hours of Sebring last weekend with Scuderia Corsa. The team scored a historic first win for the new Ferrari 488 GT3 in its competition debut with drivers Alessandro Balzan, Christina Nielsen and Jeff Segal. That’s quite an achievement.
Meanwhile, Tequila Patron ESM won overall with a terrific late charge from driver Pipo Derani. Sharing the Ligier-Honda with Ed Brown, Scott Sharp and Johannes van Overbeek, Derani was the stand-out on the team. Corvette won the GTLM class and Scott Dixon led laps impressively in the #67 Ford GT. What did you think of Scuderia Corsa’s performance and the race overall?
SJ – Winning the first time out with a new car is really impressive. The 488 is a fantastic car and the drivers did a great job. There was perfect execution in the pits too. The strategy was right on. Our engineers and strategists along with Giacomo [Mattioli] on the scoring stand– the whole team did their part. That’s how you win races.
It was obviously an exciting race at the end with close racing in all of the categories. This Derani kid is obviously very good. He single-handedly led them to two wins now (Daytona & Sebring). I’ll be amazed if he doesn’t end up in a proper factory program somewhere soon.
Scott was pretty happy with his performance. It’s hard to know where everything stands with the car now but it looks pretty promising. He did a great job as always.
The BoP (balance of performance) changes are a constant battle for everybody. All of the teams are running at speeds which may or may not be representative of what they are capable of. It’s the same in every class except PC.
I wish there was a different way of monitoring or policing performance. Or even, just forget about it and let everyone go at it. A few manufacturers might drop out but there’s really no good answer right now with the BoP. No one’s ever happy with it unless they’re standing on top of the podium. Everybody else thinks they’re getting screwed.
The GT cars would be much quicker if you simply unrestricted them. A GTLM Ferrari has almost 200 less horsepower than the road car counterpart you can buy at a dealership. It’s ridiculous. Give the cars that horsepower back and you would be able to run at the speeds the ACO says it wants to restrict prototypes to at Le Mans – these random lap times that they say are “safe”. I don’t understand who decides what lap time is safe and what they base that on but it’s a silly argument in my opinion.
The cars are so good today, they can go much faster if they unrestrict them. If you’re instead going to restrict the Prototype cars that much (to be in the “safe” laptime zone), why not get rid of them altogether and just run GT cars at those target lap times? Let the GT cars be the main class for manufacturers with a set of rules that were the same for everyone with no BoP or other gimmicks – the quickest car wins, end of story.
In every category there are these crazy-sophisticated, expensive cars with terrific performance potential and then they slow them down to a point where they become ridiculous to drive. They have monster grip and no power so it’s all about corner speed. You’re literally in the corner by the time you have to brake and none of it makes any sense.
JT- Last weekend in Australia was also the beginning of your new competition to pick the F1 podium in the correct order, can you tell me some more about that?
SJ – Sure, it’s a very simple competition. If you can guess the top 3 in each Grand Prix in the correct order you will win a prize. If anyone gets it right 3 times during the course of the full season they will win one of my watches, valued at $7500.00. We had a huge amount of entries already and I expect it will grow with each GP. It’s a fun and simple competition that I hope people will enjoy.