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Stefan Johansson chats with Jan Tegler about Lewis Hamilton’s triumph in Abu Dhabi, the surprising replacement of Marco Mattiacci at Ferrari, and Felix Rosenqvist’s win at the Macau GP.

#SJblog (source page)

Stefan Johansson chats with Jan Tegler about Lewis Hamilton’s triumph in Abu Dhabi, the surprising replacement of Marco Mattiacci at Ferrari, and Felix Rosenqvist’s win at the Macau GP.

Stefan Johansson

Lewis Hamilton - F1 Champion 2014 - Abu Dhabi

Jan Tegler – Lewis Hamilton triumphed in Abu Dhabi, winning the final race of the season and his second world championship, beating rival and teammate Nico Rosberg for the title by 67 points. He scored eleven victories over the course of the season to Rosberg’s five wins.

The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix wasn’t a very interesting race particularly once it was clear that Rosberg’s Mercedes W05 Hybrid was malfunctioning. What did you think of the race?

Stefan Johansson – Yes, it was a bit of an anti-climax given the whole build-up over the season. But in the end though, I think it was a fair result.

Can you imagine if the result had been the other way around and Lewis’ car had broken down? We would have never heard the end of it, “Oh my god, it’s the double-points. It’s the most unfair thing!” So, for the sake of peace and quiet going into the off-season it was probably the best thing and at least kept the media from getting completely out of hand. There’s already been enough negative stuff written all year.

JT – Clearly, Mercedes GP did the best job of figuring out/coping with the new 2014 regulations, winning both the constructor’s and driver’s title easily. That’s to their credit but I didn’t find the season to be exciting. There were some interesting races here and there but for the most part, Mercedes GP simply dominated. This is an opinion expressed by many F1 fans. What are your thoughts?

SJ – I would tend to agree, it’s been about one team the whole year. But don’t forget, the previous four years were pretty much all about Red Bull Racing. In some respects, that’s just the way it is in Formula One.

It’s down to the fact that you’re always going to have one team that finds the “magic bullet” when the rules – though comparatively restrictive now – change as much as they did for this season. In recent years, the biggest difference performance-wise was on the chassis side but this time it was certainly the engine/power unit. It’s hard to overcome the enormous horsepower advantage that the Mercedes engine/power units clearly have.

JT – There is perhaps one difference in the 2014 season compared to the last two decades of F1. Over those 20 years we saw domination as you mention - Red Bull Racing most recently. But even when Red Bull was dominant, the championship was decided between different teams – not as an inter-team rivalry.

Red Bull battled Ferrari (Vettel and Alonso). In the years of Ferrari domination, the battle was between McLaren and Ferrari (Schumacher and Hakkinen, Coulthard) or Renault and Ferrari (Schumacher and Alonso). In 2014 it was Hamilton versus Rosberg. While it’s always hard to compare eras, I’m betting most would say the last major inter-team fight for the championship – between Senna and Prost - was more dramatic.

SJ – Yes, the last similar season to this involved Prost and Senna as teammates at McLaren. Those two were totally dominant and the fight was between them for every race. Whichever – Prost or Senna - managed to keep their car on the track or running was going to win. And I’d agree, the battle between them was more interesting than Hamilton/Rosberg rivalry this year.  

Marco Mattiacci replaced at Ferrari

JT – On the day following the Abu Dhabi GP Ferrari caught just about everyone off-guard, announcing that Marco Mattiacci was out as team boss just eight months after he replaced Stefano Domenicali. Many, including Kimi Räikkönen, thought he was doing a good job for Ferrari. What do you think of this development?

SJ – I think it was a big surprise to everybody including Marco. Sergio Marchionne (Fiat CEO) certainly doesn’t mess around, he doesn’t bark, he just goes straight for the bite. Without knowing very much about the details I have a sense it was a political move. It’s most likely also part of the fallout from Montezemolo leaving earlier in the year. As Mattiaci was put in place by Luca, it’s likely they simply wanted a clean sweep moving forward.

JT – One would imagine this upsets the apple cart at Ferrari to some degree. What do you think this might mean for the team’s progress going forward from a technical and sporting point of view, and do you think Räikkönen and Sebastian Vettel are worried by the turmoil?

SJ – Yes, it’s definitely attention-getting for both drivers. Poor old Kimi, he was just starting to make some progress with these new cars and now who knows how things will go? As for Vettel, Mattiaci is probably the only guy he really knows inside Ferrari at this point, so he must be questioning his decision to leave at this point.

The interesting part for me is the guy they’re replacing Mattiacci with (Maurizio Arrivabene, a senior executive with Phillip Morris and member of the F1 Commission). He’s not exactly the most experienced guy in running a racing team either, so on many levels he will have to go through the same learning curve that Mattiaci did, the advantage he will have is that he won’t get thrown in the deep end mid season, but will at least have the winter to get the hang of things.

He also does have the advantage of having been around the F1 paddock for a very long time. I remember meeting him already when I drove for Ferrari and he was with Marlboro already back then.

I thought Mattiacci did a really good job in the circumstances. He got the hang of it pretty quick and made some good hirings and navigated the Alonso saga incredibly well. He didn’t get intimidated early on but instead put the wheels in motion in case it wouldn’t work out with Alonso. He almost immediately had a strong backup plan in place (Vettel), which I thought was quite impressive.

Improving or changing any F1 team takes time. There’s no such thing as an overnight change and he had really just got going. Bottom line though - none of us really know the ins and outs of the situation. It’s hard to say what any new changes might be or what it will mean for continuity.

Having said all this, the 2015 car will be well under way already and a new team leader will not have that big impact on the performance level in the short term, so whatever they have in the pipeline will most likely remain what it is for next year at least.

Mercedes AMG Petronas Power Unit.

JT – Looking ahead to 2015. There seems to be a prevailing view that given the domination Mercedes GP and the Mercedes power unit showed this year, things won’t change much next season. Mercedes GP and the Mercedes power units are likely to dominate again. Do you agree?

SJ – Unless the freeze on engine development is lifted I don’t see how things are going to change much. The other teams may gain a little bit here or there but effectively the manufacturers are not allowed to touch the engine so I don’t see much that can be done.

It’s such an odd thing. If you’ve frozen engine development, why not freeze the chassis too, or the other way around? There are so many contradictions and enigmas in F1 now that it is becoming insanely confusing just to keep up. It’s hard to understand the logic behind much of it.

The engine manufacturers have all spent several hundred million Euros developing these engines and now they’re frozen for all new development. So, basically it means that unless you got it right first time out, you’re screwed for the next couple of years. But the chassis can be developed or updated continually. What would happen if the Aero package you present at the first race would have to remain the same for the next 2-3 years? Apparently Mercedes GP had something like 75 different front-wing configurations this year. I’m sure the other teams had just as many.  That’s just one of many components that are constantly being worked on, there’s new floors, rear wings, winglets, suspension parts, on and on it goes, every day, all year round.

Crates of new parts fresh from the factories are being delivered to the teams every day during race weekends. There’s endless chassis development and it’s costing exorbitant amounts of money. I don’t understand how that cost can be allowed to be infinite but you then can’t touch the engines in order to control the costs?

Then everyone complains about the cost of F1. It seems to me that despite the whole cost-cap idea, no one seems to want to get to the root of the problem – the root of what it is that cost so much money. Unless you prohibit development across the board the increase in costs will never stop. Typically, the two biggest line items in the budget is R&D and payroll. The top teams are now close to 1000 employees.

As I’ve mentioned many times before, the teams should just be given a front wing mandated by the FIA. That’s it. They can only use that FIA wing with whatever level of downforce it produces. Around eighty-percent of the aerodynamic efficiency of the cars is generated by the front wing. Everything else is a byproduct as the air goes backwards down the car.

The downforce generated in front of the front wheels determines the aerodynamic efficiency of the car and that’s why the teams endlessly tinker with the front wings. Every race car in just about every series these days is developed around aerodynamics. This is where the majority of any race cars performance is coming from. And, at the end of the day, who cares?

Aerodynamic downforce, except to a certain and quite minimal level, is about as useful as an ashtray on a motorcycle on anything except a racing car.

I really think it’s time for a complete rethink on the whole design concept of an F1 car and for that matter just about any race car.

Let’s say you set the downforce limit for a car at 2,000 pounds – that’s just an arbitrary number I’m using. You could measure that very easily with the strain gauges on the suspension pushrods. If you go over 2,000 pounds the car is illegal, simple as that. Then you could work on other more relevant efficiencies like optimizing drag, maybe increased downforce at lower speeds and other parameters.

Seemingly, it’s very important for the manufacturers in F1 to have engines that can be linked with the engines in their road cars. If so, then why not downplay the importance of downforce, so the manufacturers could work on developments like drag reduction which would have applications for their road cars? Less drag will aid fuel efficiency and you might also develop tires with less drag. There could be all sorts of developments that could be realized.

Make the tires and the mechanical grip more important and increase the top speed of the cars. Aim to get back to the same lap times as you have now, but do it by decreasing the minimum speed mid-corner and instead increase the top speed in a straight line. Unless something breaks or falls off a car, no one’s ever had a big accident on a straight as far as I can remember. And if something does come off a car it’s not going to make much difference whether you’re going 400 km/h or 350 km/h, but it would certainly make the cars a lot more spectacular to watch and it would give people something to talk about when the cars are doing close to 400kph in some places.

JT – As you have said before, that would make the racing would be better as well.

SJ – Exactly, that’s the whole point. Right now, the cars are on rails basically. I bet anything that if the cars had an engine producing 1300 horsepower with half the downforce that they have now and bigger tires and none of the driver aids they have now - all the pointless stuff on the steering wheel – the cars would be power-sliding around corners and it would be spectacular to watch.

That much power, which is absolutely not unreasonable for a car at the level of F1 with the carbon brakes that we have today, would be much better for racing. You’d be 30 to 40 km/h faster on the straights. The braking areas would be a lot longer because of the increased speed and less downforce and that will of course open up passing opportunities.

With much lower mid-corner speed and more power on hand, combined with the lack of driver aids, it will be much trickier to get a good exit out of the slow and medium speed corners. That will put more emphasis on hand, foot and throttle control. Whoever has the best car control will get a run on the car in front and be able to pass going down the straights without DRS and all the gimmicks, just a good exit and slipstream and better braking will be enough to make a pass. A good driver will really make a difference with this type of car. The cars will move around a lot more in the faster corners due to the loss of downforce, this will allow for a different quality of driver skill, some bravery and commitment that everyone used to love to watch. Nowadays, the slowest guy in the field is flat through Eau Rouge on his third lap, it’s barely a corner anymore, and it used to take a whole weekend to build up the confidence to take it flat.

Simplify everything; everything is so complicated now that it’s killing the racing. The cars would also look cooler instead of being like F3 cars on steroids.

JT – Again, looking ahead, many F1 observers are wondering whether the grid will be full next year. With the departure of Marussia and Caterham, and other teams on the brink financially, with the threat of boycotts etc, will the car count be down? What do you think?

SJ – – Well, we’re at the point now that everyone has feared for a long time. I think the problems are rooted much deeper fundamentally than the revenue share and who gets what. How many times have I said that when you change the rules, costs never-ever go down? The budgets always jump - sometimes by quite a lot - with every major rule change. The longer you can maintain rules stability the costs will eventually taper off, the trade off between R&D and performance will taper off each year and the smaller teams will eventually catch up to the bigger one’s.

This year the costs jumped hugely because all teams had to re-do literally everything. These are completely new cars with new engines, or power units as they are now called, re-gen systems and so much incredibly complicated stuff. Is it really necessary for F1 or racing in general for that matter- whether its 22 or 18 cars - to be that environmentally conscious? For me, it’s the best drivers in the world supposedly – brave young guys driving their tails off with very fast, spectacular, powerful racing cars – putting on a great show.

Apparently the manufacturers don’t think so and these new rules have come about because of this, and the costs hit everyone hard, especially the smaller teams although none of them wanted these new engines. They all have to buy these completely new power units at a much larger cost than before, in addition to having to build a new car that is now so complicated to operate that it doesn’t compare to anything they’ve been used to.

That’s just one part of it. Then there’s all the development and increased costs to run the cars, more people, on and on and on - and for what? When a small team needs a budget of close to $100 million just to be one of the clowns that make up the show with no hope of ever winning a race something’s seriously wrong. The top teams now have budgets of $500 million-plus.

What’s crazy is that no one in the top teams in Formula One seems to feel that there’s anything wrong with that. They say F1 should be the top. It should be the highest level. I believe it will still be at the highest level even if the biggest budgets were $100-150 million.

And the other problem for F1 teams is that every single part of the car has to be designed, manufactured and tested by the team itself. Most other race cars are offered as kits you can buy off-the-shelf. In Indy-Car for instance, you don’t have to make every single part of the car, in fact you’re not allowed to make anything yourself anymore, everything has to be bought directly through the series. That’s probably going to far in the extreme in the opposite direction though.

Every component of an F1 car is like a work of art, so beautifully made. But is all that really necessary? The big teams have a thousand people just to build a car - a thousand employees, seriously?

If the front wings on all the cars looked the same, would anyone really care? There are so many components on the car that could be standardized and no one would notice any difference, but the cost of manufacturing would come down drastically, and it would be the same for everyone, without having to enforce a cost cap, it would become a natural cost cap by simply not allowing each team to make each and every component on the car themselves.

I doubt there will be a full grid. I mean, who would try to buy either Marussia or Caterham at this point? There will be another year (2016) before Haas F1 joins the series so I’ll be very surprised if we see a full field. If anything, there are two or three other teams that are right on the limit. I think there will be a lot of drama before everything’s settled. However, I don’t think it’s the end of the world if there’s only 18 cars, as long as the racing upfront is great I really don’t think anyone cares.

JT – Certainly, F1 has experienced periods of expansion and contraction in the past but the current situation seems very serious.

SJ – It was bound to get to this point. The cost of Formula One has been unsustainable for quite some time. I’ve heard the arguments about the distribution of revenues but I can see Bernie’s (Ecclestone) previous points about the situation. Okay, teams like Sauber that have been in F1 for years and have been committed – that’s one thing. They deserve more than they have gotten, I think. But also, don’t forget they’ve done a lousy job the last couple of years with their cars and because of this they are now facing the situation they are in.

But when you look at Marussia and Caterham for example, it’s a different story. They’re basically some rich guys who fancies owning an F1 team but they are not really committed, or they jump into it without doing their homework before they commit. It’s one of several projects they are working on or own; Airlines, Soccer teams etc. They’re just dabbling. Like I have said many times before, owning a F1 team is not for the faint of heart, and it requires a total commitment on every level not only to be successful, but also to merely survive.

Compare the Marussia and Caterham owners to Ron Dennis, I doubt very much that Tony Fernandez net worth is any less than Ron Dennis for example.  The difference is that over the years Ron has put every penny back in McLaren to make it better, more competitive, a winning team. He’s hired the best drivers, the best people, invested in new facilities and equipment, never compromising. As a result he has of course become extremely wealthy in the process but it certainly wasn’t that way in the beginning. I don’t see that with Caterham for example, and certainly not with Marussia.

For Bernie, why should he bail those guys out? I am sure he feels they’ve got to pay their dues, and I agree 100%. That’s always been the case in Formula One. It’s the top of the top, and the bottom teams always come and go, either because they didn’t do their homework before they got into it, or they did a lousy job of it while they were there.

Stefan Johansson - McLaren - Mexican GP 1987

JT – Surprisingly, even now in early December, the driver silly-season continues. As we chat, Jenson Button still does not know if he will remain with McLaren for 2015 as no announcement has been made. I understand McLaren’s desire to cross their ‘”Ts” and dot their “Is” but leaving him in limbo isn’t terrifically professional. You had a similar experience with McLaren didn’t you?

SJ – Yes, I was in that same situation in 1987, being kept waiting forever while the team brought Senna in. It’s the old adage – it’s not about the driver, it’s about the team, which is completely understandable, it’s their business and the driver is one of many employees, and in the end it’s up to the owners of the team to make the decisions they think will serve their company the best. Jenson I think has done an excellent job, but clearly not good enough to make it a slam-dunk decision, and as such he’s in a position where he’s just going to have to wait.

Jeson Button - McLaren - F1

JT – Some have speculated that Button could be picked up by one of the factory P1 teams now racing in the WEC. Porsche recently finalized its driver line-up so there’s no open seat there. But, with Tom Kristensen retiring, there is an open seat at Audi. In addition, there are rumors swirling about Audi Sport leaving sports car racing and going to Formula One. One wonders whether it would be better for Audi to leave for to F1 where they might get more exposure or stay in the top echelon of sports car racing, a category they have basically owned. What are your thoughts?

SJ – Well, it’s hard to say with Button. As we’ve seen it’s not easy to make the transition from F1 to these hybrid P1 cars. Every car is so specialized these days and it’s very difficult to rise to the level where you’re able to extract that last five percent of performance. I know one thing for sure though, it would be an eye opener for him and he will love the racing in sportscars.

Why would Audi go to F1? That’s the question. You have to ask really, what is the best category of racing today?

Now, we’re at the point where each category has its own appeal and traits that aren’t so appealing. But I don’t think it’s the be-all or end-all to be in any one of them. If you do have the choice to race in any series – which very few manufacturers have – the decision should be based on whatever works best for you. There’s the financial side and the pressure of the racing side. As for Audi, I have no doubt whatsoever that the Le Mans experience have served them extremely well not only on the sporting side but also commercially, the question is, would an involvement in F1 have made that situation any better, I doubt it very much.

From a drivers perspective, like Jenson for example, I’m not sure Formula One’s the most fun anymore. Listening to all the drivers, I don’t hear too many happy campers – guys who are actually enjoying the driving part of it. They enjoy their jobs and the perks that go with them but I don’t think they’re too excited about the actual racing anymore.

Felix Rosenqvist - Macau GP Podium - 2014

JT – On the domestic sports car racing front, Pirelli World Challenge seems to be gaining even more strength with the recent revelation that Andretti Autosport may be entering the GT category with a Nissan GT-R effort. Meanwhile IMSA seems to be losing momentum.

SJ – World Challenge is definitely becoming a pretty impressive championship. We’re (Scuderia Corsa) going to run two cars next year (Ferrari 458 GT3s). The format is good with short sprint races and the racing is great.

JT – You just returned from Macau and the Macau Grand Prix, a race you finished second in in 1984. You were there to support Formula 3 driver Felix Rosenqvist who you’ve been aiding in his career. Felix won the race, F3’s biggest, most famous round. Overall, the Macau weekend including the GT3 race that runs there now, has really become a renowned event.

SJ – It was a great weekend and mainly to do with Felix of course. I went to a couple meetings with him there and took a look at things in general. It’s a critical point in his career right now, having spent probably one year to many in the same category it’s time to move on and look at the opportunities that are available, generally speaking, for any Junior category driver aren’t that many unless you have a significant budget to bring with you.

His result in Macau obviously did the job though and it has opened up a lot of new possibilities for him. He knew what he had to do before he got there and he did exactly that in the race. I was impressed with how he dealt with the whole weekend, knowing before he got there he only had one option to leave the place and that was to basically clean up. He’s had a rough season and a win in Macau was really the only thing that could salvage a bad situation going forward. It’s always a good sign when you see a driver that can knuckle down and stay focused and drive with the level of confidence you need to win, especially at a place like Macau where there’s basically no room for error. That makes a big difference.

Macau has a great atmosphere. Every year it gets bigger and bigger. It’s a top class world event now, very impressive – the whole organization and the build-up to it. The media exposure is huge too.

----- SJ Blog #48 -----