JT – Usually, we lead off the blog chatting about Formula One. It remains the technical pinnacle of global racing and the most widely known form of motorsport. It was also a huge highlight of your career and a world you’re still intimately familiar with. But some would argue that Formula One is no longer the pinnacle of open wheel racing from a competition perspective.
In recent years IndyCar has returned to the top of the heap competitively. As you’ve observed, even drivers in F1 have taken note. The experience and ability of today’s IndyCar pilots is the rival of any racing series in the world. It makes one think back to the glory days of CART when Nigel Mansell, fresh from winning the Formula One World Championship in 1992, left Europe and F1 to come to America to race Indy Cars in CART. You were there as well, having left F1 in 1991 to join Bettenhausen Racing.
And once again, as is usually the case these days, last weekend’s Verizon IndyCar Series race – the Iowa Corn 300 at Iowa Speedway – was the best race of the weekend. It proved more interesting than the British GP even though Ed Carpenter Racing’s Josef Newgarden nearly lapped the field. But the racing was great throughout the field. As I know you agree, that makes IndyCar the right place to start this week’s discussion.
SJ – I agree with you that the actual racing in Indycar is hard to beat. It was a terrific race again. You can’t beat short-ovals. As far as the racing goes, it doesn’t get much better. There’s always action – non-stop. And the action isn’t just at the front. There are battles going on all through the field all the time.
As I’ve said, the competition in IndyCar is the best out there right now. At almost any track, there’s hardly more than a second between the front of the field and the back.
However, I don’t know how many drivers or fans are taking notice, I still think the sharp end of F1 is a good as it’s ever been, maybe even better. There is a lot of depth of talent and a number of World Champions competing at the same time, plus some incredibly talented new guys, like Verstappen and Sainz for example. F1 is still the pinnacle for sure, it’s just a shame they are not able to really display their talent in equipment that is more challenging.
JT – I remember NASCAR driver Mark Martin saying many years ago that a talented driver can overcome poor car balance on a road course by driving around it, essentially “carrying the car”. But he added that there’s no way to do that on an oval. Basically he said that you can be the world’s best driver but if you miss the setup on an oval you’re finished.
SJ – Exactly, there’s nothing you can do. It’s sheer torture if your car is not balanced, and especially so if the car is loose (oversteer). I went through that a few times too many back in the day with Bettenhausen.
I remember one year at Indy when the team did an engine installation before the race. One of the bushings for the engine mount was twisted just slightly. They didn’t realize that. But it was enough so when they did a torque-check with a torque key it was tight.
As soon as the car got loaded up at full speed, which was on the first lap going in to Turn-3, I felt this clunk as the engine came into position. From then on, there was maybe a millimeter of play in that bushing. Over the distance back to the rear wheels, a millimeter of play in the bushing translated to probably five millimeters of play at the wheel.
The car was absolutely un-drivable. It was stupid-loose one lap and on the next it was pushing like a pig! It was totally inconsistent. You didn’t know what it was going to do from one lap to the next. We should have just parked it but stupidly you hang in there hoping there’s going to be a multi-car accident that puts cars out of the race and moves you forward but of course, no way. That was 500 miles of sheer torture.
You’re just spent if the car is off. You’re fighting the thing all the time. Even on the straights it can be a handful.
JT – At one point, Josef Newgarden had lapped everyone but the leading car. He and Ed Carpenter Racing must have absolutely nailed the setup. Have you ever driven a car that worked that well on an oval, and if so, what is that like?
SJ – I had a car that worked quite well but never that good. But when you have a car that’s hooked up on an oval it is the most fun racing you can do. It’s fantastic. You’re racing all the time, every lap.
Scott [Dixon] had a car like that last year on one of the ovals where he was absolutely dialed in. Unfortunately, the team missed the setup on the car at Iowa at the beginning of the weekend and eventually had to revert to last year’s setup. Scott basically ran it like that and improved it as much as possible through the race. On every pit stop they dialed it in to get a decent balance but at least the car was drivable.
Scott finished third but didn’t really gain much in points. (Pagenaud finished fourth) Scott’s been very unlucky with DNFs, scoring no points. He probably would have won Race One in Detroit if the car hadn’t had a mechanical problem. And then again, at Elkhart Lake (Road America) he probably could have fought for the win or at least second place if the car hadn’t let him down.
That’s at least 80 points off the table for Scott and Pagenaud is doing what you do to win championships, scoring points in pretty much every race. He’s won several times this year and he’s basically just having consistently good finishes. With a championship as close as IndyCar’s is, points make prizes. If you score in every race you’re gonna be right up there fighting for the title. So it’s going to be very tough to beat Pagenaud.
JT – The Chevrolets dominated at Iowa. Only three of the top ten finishers were in Hondas. That’s odd considering that Andretti Autosport won just last year with Honda at Iowa and that they won the Indy 500 with Honda this year.
SJ – It’s very strange. Honda kind of dominated Indy but apart from that they’ve struggled at every other track. It’s odd how they managed to be so good at Indy but not anywhere else really.
JT – In the wake of the rain-postponed Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway, IndyCar announced that the race will “resume” at the 71-lap mark where it was halted on August 27. Newgarden, now second in the championship standings, will not be allowed to race as he and Conor Daly had a massive accident before the race was red-flagged. Scott has made the gracious and intelligent point that the Texas race should be re-run in its entirety for the sake of the fans who waited out multiple delays. That seems only logical.
SJ – Yes, it makes no sense to just run a partial race. Everyone will be starting from scratch anyway, going through the whole weekend ritual of practice just as they did before. Obviously, you can’t send them out on track without practice because everything will be different – different track conditions, different temperature, everything.
It would be much fairer to simply start from scratch. It will be a completely different race anyway.
JT – Newgarden is obviously a proven winner with victories on road and street courses, and now an oval. Many are speculating that IndyCar’s top teams have their eyes on him, including Ganassi.
SJ – He’s been the new, young hope since last year when he won and was very impressive. He certainly hasn’t gone backwards this year. He’s doing a very good job and it’s no surprise that people are looking at him. I also think that Ed Carpenter’s team has done an amazing job, their engineering group is clearly on top of things.
JT – The British Grand Prix had a predictable outcome. Mercedes finished first and second on-track with pole-sitter Lewis Hamilton winning his home grand prix once again. With the start having taken place under safety car due to rain, he had had an advantage once the field was released. He gained a couple seconds right away and was never really challenged. He was also lucky, as were some others, not to crash after an off course excursion on dry tires.
SJ – Yes, to have a clean track in front of you in a wet race after the safety car releases you is huge. That’s why Lewis pulled 100 yards on everybody right away. You tend to do that when you have no visibility problems and the opportunity to control the start. That was a given almost.
I don’t think the conditions were that terrible to be honest. I don’t know what the current cars are like to drive but I’ve certainly had many races where the conditions were much worse. I think they definitely held the safety car out there for too long. The start is a great element of the excitement of a grand prix and you didn’t get that at Silverstone.
JT – Nico Rosberg became embroiled in a battle with Max Verstappen who passed him after the first round of pit stops. Verstappen’s pass was impressive and delayed Rosberg’s progress. Rosberg finally gained second place back on lap 38 of 52. By then Hamilton was gone but Rosberg left Verstappen behind quickly and was gaining on his teammate until a gearbox issue arose. He couldn’t get drive in seventh gear and asked the team what he should do.
Unlike at the European Grand Prix where Lewis Hamilton had electronics issues and the team informed him that they could not advise him on what to do because of F1’s ban on radio coaching, Mercedes told Nico what to do. It’s confusing because in one instance, they opted not to advise Hamilton for fear of a penalty but at Silverstone they did speak to Rosberg and must have known there would be a penalty. That’s what happened and Rosberg was demoted to third with a ten second penalty following the race. The radio ban and Mercedes’ decisions make no sense.
SJ – The whole thing, the radio ban, is a complete joke as far as I’m concerned. I hate to complain again but at least with IndyCar and NASCAR when they see something getting out of hand they nip it in the bud right away. F1 creates these monstrously complex vehicles and then gets way down the road before they realize that what they’ve done is causing huge problems.
As I’ve said for the last three years, the multitude of complex settings and technical adjustments on the current cars’ steering wheels never should have been allowed – these insanely complicated differentials and gearbox settings and on and on.
Either you have radio communications or you don’t. With the complexity of these cars engineering was telling the drivers on every straight what settings to have for the next corner – which is ridiculous of course. So they then ban all kind of communication. Which effectively means that currently you can’t even tell a driver what to do even if there’s a technical fault on the car.
What does the radio ban have to do with advising a driver how to fix a fault? It’s not like Rosberg’s performance was going to be better than it was before the gearbox issue came up if the team told him how to resolve it, all it will do is allow him to finish the race.
In the case of Perez in Austria it was outrageous that they couldn’t tell a driver that his brakes were about to fail because of this radio ban. Imagine if that happened at Monaco coming out of the tunnel? There’s no logic to any of it.
Beyond that, if you allow the designers to make cars so complex that you have to tell a driver how to drive them during a race…. You’ve got to pull back and get back to basics, fast! What we have now is what I keep repeating – engineering porn. That’s all it is. The drivers don’t even understand half of it so how can the public?
There have been three races in a row – Baku, Austria and Silverstone - where there have been issues with the radio ban.
JT – This seems to be a good illustration of how irrational F1 is these days. Mercedes decides not to tell one driver what to do at Baku to avoid a penalty, then tells the other how to proceed at Silverstone and gets that penalty – a penalty which logically could have been awarded during the race. Why did the decision have to come after the race? The whole thing is nuts.
SJ – Yes totally. I can’t help myself, I get up at 5am every Sunday there’s a GP as I live in California, all excited for the race, get a nice cup of coffee and it starts and then I think, ‘why do I bother?’ You just sit there getting angry. It’s crazy.
I’m the biggest fan in the world. I love racing and I love F1. It’s my passion and I watch every race live and I just end up being frustrated because of the absurdity of what takes place. And if that’s what I’m thinking, I can only imagine what the casual fans think. You have to wonder.
There are so many strange things going on all the time with this subjective rule making that it’s very difficult not to get worked up about it. A good example is this nonsense going on with track limits and white lines. At Silverstone they said if you put four wheels over the line in three of the corners there was a penalty, no compromise. But in all the others it was ok? (The FIA proclaimed a “zero tolerance” policy for exceeding track limits in “certain corners” at Silverstone)
What is that? If you go over the white line anywhere, that should be it. If there’s a penalty for exceeding track limits then apply it to the entire track. In tennis the ball is out if it goes past any of the white lines. They don’t call the ball in if it crosses a white near the net or something. If it’s out, it’s out.
Why is there all this subjective judgment all the time in F1? If the rule is that you don’t exceed the white lines and you go over them then you should get a penalty – simple as that. The officials, not only in F1 for that matter, have gotten so used to these endless gray areas. It’s not the drivers’ fault. If they actually enforced that rule every time someone crossed a white line I guarantee you after two races no one would go over the line.
Make it a stop-and-go penalty for races or take away a lap time in qualifying or practice. And do it during the race or session, not afterwards. They have cameras around the tracks for that. It would be easy to monitor. And as a driver all you want to know is where you stand, black and white. For instance, you already know that if anyone crosses the white line leaving the pits they get penalized. Why shouldn’t it be the same on the race track? That’s the kind of consistency everybody wants.
JT – In the last blog we chatted about the difficulty of following F1 races via television coverage. We agreed it’s difficult to keep informed about what’s taking place in the race for different competitors while it’s in progress. Apparently we’re not alone in that view.
SJ – Yes, I spoke to a couple friends in England, two former F1 designers, after the race. They both agreed that it’s so confusing trying to follow the races live on TV. There’s barely any information on screen and the commentators are all busy yapping away about their own theories or whatever so they miss half the action.
I think there’s a lot more that could be done to make following the race on TV easier. You could present graphics on-screen that would make it easier to understand what various competitors were doing as it happened. That would spice up the coverage and make it a lot more interesting and intelligible for everyone.
Maybe you have graphics for what tire a given driver is on and how many stops he’s made. That gives you an idea of what strategy everyone is on. Pirelli has different color coding for the tires but the problem is you don’t see half the cars on screen during an entire broadcast or at least parts of it.
JT – Again, Max Verstappen’s performance was impressive. He out-qualified teammate Daniel Ricciardo and finished on the podium, ultimately in 2nd place while Ricciardo was 4th.
SJ – I think that everyone, including myself, who had doubts about him is being proved wrong. He’s doing an incredible job apart from that hiccup in Monaco which he seems to have learned from. But ever since he got into the Red Bull Verstappen’s been impressive to say the least. He’s super fast, his race craft is amazing and he’s probably one of the best overtakers in the field already. If he manages to pick the right teams going forward, there is a good chance he could smash every record there is in F1.
JT – Kimi Raikkonen was finally re-signed by Ferrari for 2017. Apparently, Sergio Marchionne wanted the deal to get done and they made it happen quickly. Some have suggested that his re-signing was in part spurred by Kimi’s willingness to be a number 2 driver at Ferrari. You don’t necessarily agree.
SJ – That’s possible but I think more than anything there’s a nice harmony in the team and a good relationship between the drivers. And I’m not so sure that Kimi will play number 2. Right now he’s third in the championship and Vettel is 5th. Ok, Vettel has maybe been faster in general but not all the time.
Had Kimi been in a position to win more often, I think all the effort would’ve gone behind him last year. I wouldn’t by any means count him out. Assuming Ferrari can provide a winning car for both drivers, I’m pretty sure Kimi will be a contender.
Unfortunately, Ferrari’s performance at Silverstone seemed a bit weak and it’s been that way for quite a few races now. I think they’re slipping back. Red Bull’s definitely making gains and their Renault engine is pretty close to everyone except Mercedes.
JT – As the race was the British Grand Prix, it’s even more appropriate to talk about the performance of Williams and McLaren which, to put it plainly, was lackluster at their home GP.
SJ – I think what Williams has done with their car shows they’ve must have taken a gamble in some areas and it’s obviously not working. I touched on it in the last blog but I also don’t think that the engine advantage they’ve had with the Mercedes power unit is what it was in the past.
Everyone’s closed the gap to a degree now so that makes it more difficult. Last year, their chassis looked better than maybe it was partly because they had a bigger advantage with Mercedes power. That’s no longer the case and now Red Bull, Toro Rosso and even McLaren are able to give them fits.
That’s what always happens when you have rules stability. It’s the best way to even out racing. Now for 2017 there will be wholesale rules changes yet again with more aero and bigger tires. It’s just going to lead to the same thing. Mercedes and the big teams will have a huge advantage. One of the mid-fielders will probably get it right and the rest will be nowhere.
I like the idea of the bigger tires for next year but they’re adding even more downforce and now the obsession is faster lap times. Who cares? The cars might go 10 mph faster and five to six seconds per lap quicker but the competition will be just the same because of the aerodynamics. The racing won’t change for the better. It’ll just be a bit faster and it will cost everyone a mountain of money to develop a new car.
No one will still be able to pass because of the aero. You saw that at Silverstone last weekend. All the commentators were going on about Verstappen not giving Rosberg an inch, etc. But you can’t get close enough to the car in front of you now, especially those medium speed corners where aero is so important. You get to a certain point on those straights at Silverstone and then in the corners the front of the car washes away as you get to close behind the guy ahead. It was the same story in Barcelona.
So through the corners you lose enough ground and when you exit them onto the Hangar Straight for example, you can’t get close enough to pass even with DRS. It’s the same for everybody and it was only when they encountered traffic and Verstappen also had dirty air to deal with that Rosberg got close enough to have a go. That’s how he got back by Verstappen.
With McLaren, I have a sneaky feeling that something’s going on because they’re talking a big game - Alonso and even Ron [Dennis]. I don’t see why they would do that unless they know something. I think they’ve definitely got something in the pipeline. I do believe they’ll eventually get back to the front because they have the resources and the people to do it.
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