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

#SJblog (source page)

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.