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Filtering by Tag: Eric Graciano

F1 Australian GP, the 'Wow' Factor in Racing & Testing the New F1 HALO System in VR

Eric Graciano

#SJblog 94

JT – The first grand prix of the 2018 Formula 1 season is in the books. Sebastian Vettel scored a surprise victory for Ferrari at Australian Grand Prix after a virtual safety car period. Having stayed on track longer than Lewis Hamilton and teammate Kimi Raikkonen – both of whom had already made pit stops - Vettel leap-frogged the pair by pitting under the VSC. He emerged in the lead and held it to the finish. Hamilton, who had led from the start until his pit stop, was unable to seriously challenge Vettel. Raikkonen finished 3rd.

There were just five overtakes in the race with multiple drivers complaining that they could not overtake other cars because of aerodynamic turbulence and power unit/engine overheating concerns. Fan reaction has been overwhelmingly negative following the seasons’ first contest. Red Bull racing’s Max Verstappen agreed, calling the race “Completely worthless. I would have turned off the TV.” What did you make of it?

SJ – Yes unfortunately, it was just more of the same thing we’ve had for the last few years. And why wouldn’t it be? Nothing has really changed. The cars have even more downforce than they had in 2017 and the formula remains the same, so it’s inevitable that there will be less passing.

While the result of this race may not have shown it due to other circumstances, the worry is that Mercedes looks even stronger compared to the rest than they did last year. It seems like they’re almost back to the advantage they had in 2016.

Photo: @ValtteriBottas

Photo: @ValtteriBottas

Track position is everything now, even more than it used to be, and there’s no doubt that the Mercedes are the quickest cars. But no one, no matter how much quicker they were than the car in front, could pass. [Valtteri] Bottas for example struggled to pass even the much slower guys in front of him. It’s a real problem and anyone involved in the decision making process of the new rules should have seen this coming. Which ponders the question, how did they arrive at this solution as the final answer to whatever the problem was they were trying to fix in the first place. Was it the trade-off between faster lap time and less passing? And if so, why did faster lap times win over less passing. Or could it have been that they simply didn’t know that more downforce will produce less passing? Hard to believe, but not impossible. Unless they forgot to ask any driver who’s ever raced high downforce cars, that it becomes almost impossible to pass? It seems incredibly obvious to me that more passing and subsequently more interesting racing to watch would have won that argument hands down, but it didn’t and here we are, with everyone now complaining about the lack of passing.

Photo: @ScuderiaFerrari

Photo: @ScuderiaFerrari

JT – The track position point you make is on target. Bearing in mind Mercedes’ performance advantage and the continuing difficulties drivers are having overtaking other cars because of turbulence, fuel-saving - and now it appears, power unit temperature management issues - in the likely event that Mercedes qualifies up front they will just walk away from the field consistently. Do you agree?

SJ – Yes, at this point this isn’t exactly news to anyone. For several years now it’s been evident that the ever-increasing downforce just isn’t the way to go. It ruins the racing. You can get to within three or four car lengths of the guy ahead and then you’re basically stuck, no matter how quick your car is. As soon as you get any closer you lose all front grip and it’s now so bad that even when you’re within DRS range you still can’t get close enough to have a go at the end of the straight. The problem is worse in F1 than any other category because the aerodynamics are so sophisticated.

Via @F1Circle

Via @F1Circle

And the engine issues, well, I could never understand the logic of only being able to use three engines per season. I don’t understand what purpose this serves in the bigger picture of Formula One racing, I assume the original intent was to cut the costs, but as we have seen so many times before, all it did was the exact opposite, making the costs go through the roof. When Lewis saw he couldn’t have a go at Vettel, he simply backed off to save the engine, effectively giving up trying to win the race with some laps to go. It was the right thing to do in the circumstances, but had there not been the issue of the engines having to last he could have kept pushing as hard as possible right to the end in the hope that Vettel would have made a small mistake which would have given him the chance to pounce on him with a lap or two to go. But with the risk of getting grid penalties towards the end of the season teams now have to weigh up the pros and cons of having a go, or to wait for another day. It’s hard to understand the logic behind all this at times.

Photo: @MercedesAMGF1

Photo: @MercedesAMGF1

It has never been more expensive than it is now for the smaller teams to buy an Engine program. If there had been a simpler engine formula there would have been several companies capable of supplying a competitive engine. But with the combination of the Hybrid component and the fact that the engines have to last so much longer which means the use of extremely expensive materials and subsequent development cost has made it impossible for any independent company like Cosworth, Mecachrome and several others to even contemplate to compete. This in turn have given even more power to the big manufacturers as they now literally control the entire grid. And as history will tell you, sooner or later they will ruin every championship they compete in, as when it doesn’t serve their purpose any longer they’ll be gone, literally overnight.

We can see the start of this happening now, with the big boys starting the posturing with Liberty about the new rules, and the deals they all want going forward. It will be interesting to see how all this unravels during the course of the year.

The main priority in my opinion though, is to make sure the engineers are not involved in the decision making of the technical rules. Otherwise, nothing will change. They just want more of the same.

They need someone who really understands Formula 1, both from the FOM (Liberty) side, but more importantly also from the FIA side, someone who has a complete handle of the bigger picture and who is respected by everybody to formulate a new rules package that makes sense from a sporting, economic and technical point of view and then just say “these are the new rules, take it or leave it.” From the Liberty side Russ Brawn is, obviously the right person for this job, he seems to have assembled a great team of very competent people around him so let’s hope that the decisions they eventually come up with will take things in the right direction. I have my doubts however, that they will go all the way needed and it will end up being some form of a compromise as there will be pressure from the manufacturers and the FIA to stay politically correct and relevant to their agendas. The most important aspect of all this, and I think this is where it’s often failed in the past, is that the FIA have simply not been strict enough or fast enough to enforce the rules when someone is pushing the envelope on what is allowed or not. Every one of the top teams have several people doing nothing but scan the rule book to find loopholes in the rules in order to gain an advantage.

The danger is that there will be a combined knee-jerk reaction by the FIA, the teams and Liberty. The increase of downforce for 2017 was kind of a knee-jerk reaction to the fact that the GP2 cars were nearly as quick as the F1 cars at some tracks in the previous years and they felt they had to do something to make the lap-times look more respectable. The Halo was a knee-jerk reaction to the accident of Jules Bianchi.

So now the cars are several seconds per lap quicker, but who cares? It’s irrelevant because they’re only quicker mid-corner and actually a little bit slower on the straights. So the spectacle is no different, in fact it’s worse as all they’ve done is making the passing even more difficult, and the cars look more and more ugly each year because that’s what the aerodynamics dictate.

I think what is missing more than anything right now is the “Awesome Factor”. I feel that’s what’s needed more than anything in motorsport in general but particularly in F1. They need to somehow get the “Awesome Factor” back. Right now it’s only awesome in the sense that the technology is absolutely amazing, but unless you’re a complete geek no one can appreciate it and you certainly can’t see it when the car is running.

People who aren’t die hard motorsport fans need to be able to see right away, cars that will blow them away and when they watch the racing, it should be “Wow! This is something else!”

At Indianapolis for example, you go to the 500 for the first time and you’re just blown away at the speed the cars are doing. They come by you so fast that you can’t even focus on one car easily. You have to kind of lock-in on it and follow it with your eyes as they’re all ripping by in a blur. That’s cool!

Every person I’ve taken to see the Indy 500 for the first time – including myself - they’re all like “Wow! That is unbelievable! Holy s___t, that is fast!”

That’s what people dig. They don’t care if a car is a few kilometers quicker in a hairpin or a chicane, no one can appreciate that, except maybe a few die-hard fans but they will show up no matter what anyway.

JT – F1 is experiencing a quantifiable decline in viewership and a palpable decline in interest from people who were once enthusiastic about it – never mind the series’ challenge in attracting new fans. As mentioned, the reaction from fans and drivers alike to the first grand prix of this new season has been overwhelmingly negative. Do you have any hope that Liberty Media and F1 will create a new formula that solves the problems we’ve discussed for several years now?

SJ – I just want to say first of all that it bothers me that we have to always sound so negative, I’m a very positive person as anyone that knows me will agree to. But unfortunately, if we are to have an open and honest dialogue about these things, it inevitably ends up this way. To answer your question, at this point no, and it worries me a great deal. No one in F1 seems to be willing to take their foot off the gas in terms of the crazy aero development war that has been going on with increasing lunacy for years now.

No one, or at least very few, care about sophisticated aerodynamics or hybrid powerplants? What’s important is good racing and spectacular looking cars, where people can visually see and appreciate the skills of the best drivers in the world giving it all they’ve got. Having all this technology constantly and needlessly applied to the cars over several years has killed the racing and sent the costs through the roof - absolutely unnecessarily. There’s no benefit to anyone from it, there’s no innovation involved, no creativity. It’s just pounding away at the same old worn out concept, gaining a tenth of a percent here or there.

Especially as there are so many different and far more relevant ways that they could achieve speed or make progress. That’s what’s so annoying. When you have road cars with more horsepower than F1 cars now, with higher top speeds, with other aspects of technology that are more advanced in many areas – F1 isn’t the ultimate anymore.

Instead it’s going down a path of political correctness that will eventually ruin the sport if it’s not careful. The key point in every one of these discussions about new rules, sporting regulations etc, should always be; will this improve the racing, will this make it more exciting to watch. If we loose the main ingredient of why people tune in to watch, it’s difficult to make anything work from there.

JT – A story this week quotes Mario Andretti as saying that F1 missed out on the opportunity in 2017 to adopt “pure” open wheel cars as IndyCar did for 2018. Referring the decrease in downforce and simplicity of design of IndyCar’s universal aerokits, Andetti said…

“They’re doing the right thing with the aerodynamics of the cars and coming back to a more of a pure-looking single-seater, open-wheel car which I think was something all of the open-wheel aficionados wanted to see.”

Photo: Mario Andretti (Facebook)

Photo: Mario Andretti (Facebook)

SJ – Mario’s is absolutely right. He’s saying the same thing I’ve been saying all along. Everything IndyCar’s been doing in this regard lately has been great. The cars look good and the racing, as we saw in St. Petersburg, (the 2018 IndyCar opener) is terrific.

Can you imagine if the Australian Grand Prix had the same amount of action IndyCar had at St. Pete? People would have gone bananas. IndyCar provides the best racing out there, no question.

They’ve done the right thing with the cars and it doesn’t need a lot of thought. Limiting downforce is the obvious first thing to do and it has to be done in nearly every category. I’ve been saying it for years now and I’ll say it again, aerodynamic downforce has run its course in racing. I don’t know why it’s taking so long for the penny to drop and for everyone to realize that it ruins the racing, at a cost that makes nearly every form of motorsport several times more expensive than it needs to be.

Not only that, it creates ugly cars. The current F1 cars are just not attractive looking cars. They look weird with their long wheel base, little balloon tires and aero bits hanging off the sides everywhere you can find a space to hang something. Just like the previous Indycars did.

So well done to Jay Frye and his team at Indycar for listening to the right people and making the right decisions, Indycar is on the right path and I sense a lot of positive momentum in the series at the moment.

JT – Speaking of looking ridiculous, there has been widespread criticism of the “Halo” safety device now mandatory for F1 cars.

Fans detest it and it makes identifying drivers more difficult because the Halo blocks any view of their helmets. But you did a test with CVC Simulations recently (watch video bellow), driving a virtual F1 car with the Halo and concluded that it doesn’t hinder driver visibility. Apparently that’s correct because as yet there have been no complaints from drivers following the Australian Grand Prix.

SJ – Yes, from the driver’s point of view it’s really not a problem. The Halo does make it hard to see who’s in a car though. The drivers may as well not bother painting their helmets. They’re just not visible anymore. It’s there for a good reason of course, but I wish as time goes by they will be able to come up with a better and more esthetically pleasing solution.

JT – Looking at the performance of the rest of the grid apart from Ferrari, you’d have to conclude that no one is even within shouting distance of Mercedes. There was improvement from some of the mid-field runners including McLaren.

Fernando Alonso finished 5th with teammate Stoffel Vandoorne coming home 9th. The Haas F1s of Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean were looking very good in 4th and 5th until identical mistakes in pit lane ended their races.

Photo: @McLaren

Photo: @McLaren

Meanwhile, the mid-field standout of the last few seasons – Force India – looks to have declined the most in performance. Williams and Toro Rosso Honda are now back-markers along with Sauber Alfa Romeo.  What are your thoughts on these teams?

SJ – Force India has kind of been the miracle team of the last three years, punching well above their weight each year. Teams always rotate from year to year in the midfield group. Every now and then a particular team gets it right and sometimes they themselves don’t necessarily know why they got it right. The chances that Force India would be the leader of that pack yet another year with their relatively limited resources are slim and it seems that Haas may now be in that situation this year. They definitely look like they’re the closest mid-pack team to the front runners. They were very impressive throughout the pre-season testing and again in Australia until halfway through the race when everything came apart for them. It’s looking very encouraging for them going forward, although the first 3-4 races are always the “easy” points as everyone eventually catch up as the year goes by.

Photo: @ForceIndiaF1

Photo: @ForceIndiaF1

Of course, now everyone’s moaning about them being a Ferrari “clone” but as I’ve said from day one of their program, so what?

If I was to start a Formula 1 team, the way Haas has done it is absolutely the way I’d go. If the rules allow it, why wouldn’t you do that instead of throwing away tens of millions of dollars on hiring people and doing your own development when you can get the same or most likely a much better solution from one of the best out there. I’m just surprised more teams aren’t doing the same thing.

Williams seems to be just continuing its downward spiral. It’s sad because they have such great history. But it doesn’t look like their performance is going to change much any time soon. Toro Rosso is struggling although I still believe that Honda will eventually get it right as long as they stay committed, and when they do I think they will be very strong. I was hoping Sauber would be the team to make the big jump this year with the Alfa Romeo connection and I’m sure increased technical support from Ferrari. Maybe it’s too soon for whatever changes they’ve made to take effect, but it doesn’t look great judging by the pre-season testing and the first race.

I think Bottas is really starting to feel the pressure now at Mercedes. And I think it emphasizes again how good Nico Rosberg was. People are still reluctant to give him the credit he deserves. Lewis is clearly one of the best the sport has ever seen and for Nico to be so close to him all the time, and then to do what he did - to beat him - was impressive.

I think Bottas is in a situation now in which a lot of guys have found themselves over the years. The difference between being a really promising driver in a midfield team and a proven, top line in a top team – you never see that until a driver gets thrown in the deep end at places like Ferrari or Mercedes or Red Bull and previously, McLaren. It’s not enough to be promising when you’re in teams like that.

You can’t just have the odd great practice session or qualifying or a few great races. You have to deliver every time you step into the car, you’re expected to be right at the top of your game every session and every race. So we’ll see if Bottas can raise his game and match Lewis speed in the coming races.

JT – As we’ve already mentioned, the IndyCar season is now underway as well with the first race, the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, having run in mid-March. It was very competitive with not only the established star drivers running quickly but a very fast group of rookies pushing them and sometimes surpassing them.

The new drivers and teams in IndyCar are creating excitement alongside the new universal aerokit and it looks like there should be a very intense, very interesting fight for the championship this season. Do you agree?

SJ – Yes it’s definitely exciting with some fresh blood and a pretty good shakeup among the ranks. Ganassi had issues with maybe not playing strategy quite right during qualifying and Team Penske wasn’t really where you’d expect them to be either all weekend. The powerhouses of the past weren’t really where you might have expected them to be, but the thing is there are really no weak teams in IndyCar anymore. They’re all pretty damn good. They’ve all improved and what you’re allowed to do to the cars with the new kit is limited, which means that any of the teams who get’s it right on the day has a chance of winning. That’s a good thing and the racing shows it. It really is a case of who can get things right on race day, which Bourdais showed again winning from way back on the grid in the Dale Coyne car.

JT – That parity among teams together with the fast crop of young drivers coming into the series is creating competitive pressure on all of the drivers. Routine decisions about qualifying, racing or passing aren’t quite as routine as they were and it’s challenging even the best drivers. You could see that at St. Petersburg with the mistakes that top guys like Scott Dixon and Will Power made.

Photo: @ScottDixon9

Photo: @ScottDixon9

SJ – Yes, absolutely. It’s going to be a good fight as you say and the cars look like proper race cars again. I think it caught everyone a bit off guard at St. Pete how difficult and different the cars are to drive now compared to what they were. It’s definitely going in the right direction.

JT – In addition, to St. Pete you were also on hand at Sebring for the 12 Hours with Scuderia Corsa. Cooper MacNeil, Alessandro Balzan and Gunnar Jeanette in the #63 Ferrari 488 GT3 had a very good race. They pushed hard to finish 2nd in the GTD class, beating some very strong competition. Unfortunately their teammates – Townsend Bell, Bill Sweedler and Frankie Montecalvo in the #64 sister car – were out of the race early when a P2 spun in front of Montecalvo in Turn 17, leaving him nowhere to go.

Photo: @ScuderiaCorsaFerrari

Photo: @ScuderiaCorsaFerrari

What did you think of the team’s performance and the race in general?

SJ – The guys in the #63 did a great job. The accident for the #64 was a strange one and the damage was pretty significant. It was a very unfortunate thing to have happen that early on in the race. It was no fault of anyone really, just one of those bad luck situations where everything went the wrong way. There was really nothing Frankie could have done to avoid it.

The prototype battle was pretty good and the pace was quick. It was close too although the P2s seem to be behind the DPis with the BoP. The cars that came from Europe and the P2s that are in the series with the Gibson engine – they just can’t run with them.

The GTLM BoP was a bit ridiculous too. The car that hadn’t been anywhere near the front at Daytona is now the fastest all of a sudden? It’s the same old problem with BoP. There’s only ever one car or team that’s happy and they normally stand on the top of the podium, everybody else feel they’ve been screwed. There has to be a way to create a formula where you build a car, have competitive racing and may the best man win. If you want to compete, you’ve got to build a car you can compete with, period. I know some manufacturers that’s just stopped doing any form of development work as it makes no difference any more, if they go faster they just get slapped with another BoP penalty.

I’m repeating myself again, but why not un-restrict the GTLM cars and just forget the prototypes. The GT cars are so good now and their speed unrestricted would be more than sufficient even for a place like Le Mans. You’ll easily get a ten second improvement per lap the ACO keep talking about if you let the cars run to their full power potential, give them some better tires and maybe 10 percent more aero. The Ferrari 488 have nearly 300hp more in their road-car than the race car, that alone is probably worth close to 6 seconds around a place like Le Mans.

Put all the top drivers in them and it would be awesome. You would have just about every manufacturer of sports or supercars there and they would all have to build a road-car version of the car they compete with, that would be homologated accordingly. They would sell out that Le Mans limited edition street cars they build easily. For instance, there’s a three-year wait list for the Ford GT. They could all do the same thing. Aston Martin, Ferrari, Porsche, Audi, BMW, Lamborghini, McLaren, Corvette – they could all build a Le Mans based supercar and go for it big time. It would make a lot more sense in my opinion if any of those cars could win outright than the few prototypes that are now competing for the overall win.

Everybody would compete under the same rules, no BoP, and may the best man win.

JT – Formula E reached the halfway point of its season with the recent Punta Del Este E-Prix in Uruguay. Jean-Eric Vergne won, taking his second victory of the season and stretching his points lead in the championship over Felix Rosenqvist who took the checkers in 5th. Felix struggled with technical problems during the race, correct?

SJ – Yes, he had some problems in qualifying but he drove a good race. The sensor for the beacon which relays his energy state to the pit wall broke. So he had no idea where he was in terms of battery power consumption and he had to be very conservative.

He reckoned he could have gotten a podium finish if he had been able to attack all the way through the race and not lift and coast so much. When they got the car back in the pits after the race they looked at how much battery he had left and there was plenty left. He could have gone much harder if he had known.

Reflections on the current state of Motorsports

Eric Graciano

#SJblog 89

JT – After several weeks off, the blog is back. Given the number of interesting motorsports stories that have made news over the last month, we’re going to focus on the racing world/industry in general in this installment.

We begin with last week’s admission by Liberty Media that not a single current F1 team has opted to buy shares which the sport’s new owner set aside for them. Liberty made 19 million shares of common stock available over a six month period but there were no takers. That’s obviously not a positive development for Liberty Media and something of a “no confidence vote” by the teams. Do you agree?

SJ – I don’t know enough about the “ins and outs” of it to really gauge what’s going on but at face value it tells me that none of the teams have enough faith in the business if they’re not willing to buy into it, or maybe the deal just wasn’t attractive enough.

When Champ Car did this (1998 CART/Champcar goes public on NYSE) it was different because at the time the teams were given X-amount of shares when the series did its IPO. A few of the team owners were smart enough to cash out after a short period. They all did very well and the rest used the stock to help keep their teams alive and eventually ran out of money when the series started to decline.

JT – As the embarrassing lack of performance by Honda and McLaren continues, it was recently revealed that the deal struck by Sauber F1’s ex-team principal Monisha Kaltenborn to run Honda power units in 2018 was canceled. Apparently, Sauber’s team owners called off any Sauber-Honda link following Kaltenborn’s departure from the team.

The reversal leaves McLaren as the only Honda-powered team. That casts further uncertainty into McLaren’s future with the Japanese manufacturer and the paddock as a whole. It’s perhaps likely McLaren will continue with Honda but not certain. Meanwhile, Fernando Alonso has said Honda must show improvement this year and real potential for 2018 if he is to remain with McLaren.

SJ – Again, it’s difficult to comment without knowing more details. You can be sure there’s more than meets the eye to this whole situation. It seems odd to me that an announcement was made by Sauber or Honda or jointly – it’s hard to say who announced it – but with that possibility now gone, it’s hard to know what to make of this. The dominoes will have to fall at some point for the teams and drivers.

But it looks difficult for anyone at the top end of the driver market to move much in the current situation. If Alonso were to leave McLaren, where would he go? I doubt neither Mercedes or Ferrari have a seat open for him, Red Bull is already full. In my opinion it would be better to stay patient one more year with McLaren as I still believe they will eventually get it right rather than go with any of the options that are left of which only Renault would make any sense. If McLaren were to ditch Honda and go with a different engine I think Hungary already showed that they will be a serious contender almost right away. Both Red Bull drivers are probably frustrated with their results and the reliability from their car, but they are both under contract, and again, where would they go. There are only two obvious teams for anyone who wants to move and the chances a seat will open in either of them are very small in my opinion.

JT – Mercedes would seem to be pretty set with their drivers currently. Valtteri Bottas may be on a one year contract but he’s done pretty darn well this year, winning in Russia and Austria and finishing on the podium regularly.

SJ – Yes, I don’t see any reason why they would want to change. I think Bottas has done a phenomenal job. He’s certainly keeping Lewis on his toes and there seems to be good harmony in the team. The love fest is still going on between the team and the drivers, which Lewis showed by doing the honorable thing in Hungary last weekend in letting Bottas by in the last corner which was agreed at some point in the middle of the race. I can’t for a moment think he would have done the same for Rosberg. That’s 3 points left on the table which could very well mean win or loose the championship at the end of the season.

JT – At the halfway point of the 2017 season, the Drivers championship battle between Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton has tightened with just a single point separating the pair. Ferrari and Mercedes are likewise locked in battle for the Manufacturers championship. What do you make of the contest?

SJ – As usual, the media is saying Ferrari is “finished” after one bad race. There’s a “crisis” and on and on. They’ve had one bad race (Silverstone) effectively. I don’t think the championship fight is over by any means which Ferrari also showed by totally dominating the Hungarian GP from qualifying to the race.

I’ve been saying since the first race of the season that thanks to Vettel doing extensive testing of Pirelli’s new tires for this year, Ferrari clearly had an early advantage. The team knew more about the tires than anyone else. It’s hard to believe they would not have learned things that others wouldn’t by being the only team with a regular driver doing all of the running.

Now that we’re halfway through the season it looks like Mercedes has caught up and understand their car and the tires much better than they did at the beginning of the season. But that doesn’t mean the battle is over by any means. I suspect it will go down to the wire.

JT – A related subject in the overall picture of Formula One and other series now across racing is the unprecedented number of drivers who are effectively paying to race at the professional level. In June, Mercedes boss Toto Wolff said the following regarding Valtteri Bottas.

“Today the revenue model for some of the teams, for most of the teams, is also actually to generate income,” he said. “Even if we look at a Red Bull or a Mercedes, I would rather have a driver with some sponsorship than not. Even Valtteri for example, part of his value proposition for this year was that he came with a sponsor and clearly we would rather have the money than not.”

If one of the two drivers in what has been F1’s top team in recent years is bringing money with him to the team, what does that say about F1 and professional racing in general?

SJ – I’m not sure the money Bottas brought was tied to him getting the drive. I think it’s more that he just happened to have a sponsor who wanted to be involved and that’s obviously a bonus for the team no matter how you look at it.

But yes, things have changed in general. Outside of Formula One, even the drivers who are getting paid, the money they’re getting is almost equivalent to what drivers were getting paid in the 1980s with the exception of the guys up at the very top end in F1, who get paid ridiculous amounts. So the contrast between the very few guys at the top and the back end where so many drivers now have to bring financial backing of some sort is huge.

The fundamental problem in general for pretty much every level of racing is that technology has taken over. Everything is driven by technology. Every racing series is driven by the engineering side instead of the drivers and the sporting side. The cars are far too expensive to run. All of the electronics, all of the aerodynamic development, all of the extra stuff which has become part of the cars today makes them massively more expensive to operate. Then we have all the various methods of simulation which effectively have replaced on track testing, this again is driving up the costs as all this equipment is constantly evolving, and anything involving R&D is never cheap.
Not only are they more expensive as a whole, components are more expensive and the cars require three to four times the amount of people to run compared to what they used to. In the end, there’s nothing left over due to the costs. The money’s got to come from somewhere. Teams are operating more and more in survival mode, and as such they have to rely more and more on drivers bringing money.

There’s no real sponsorship in F1 anymore, not at the level it used to be at least, nowhere close. The dynamic has shifted for a number of reasons, one of them being the introduction of pay TV which means there are significantly fewer eyeballs than there used to be. On the flip side the series is making more money because of the pay per view but the overall number of viewers is obviously a lot less.

Sponsors obviously look at eyeballs as one of the main gauges for engagement. If the number of people watching is small, the rate card (for advertising) goes down of course. Hence the constant arguing now about what the distribution of money from F1 is for each team because that is now the main source of income for many of the teams. This never used to be mentioned before, as each team had a reasonable level of sponsorship and the F1 money was almost like the icing on the cake. In addition we have all the social media and other disruptive technologies pulling people in all sorts of directions and there is no longer a fixed medium to get your information or entertainment from.

I don’t envy Liberty trying to find the right way forward, I don’t think there’s anyone today that has the complete vision to see where this is heading and what the end result will be.  There is no doubt a number of very competent people capable to put their foot down and say, “Stop. Let’s rethink the whole thing.” But what is the answer? There are so many moving parts to every aspect of this, every person you speak to have their own view of how to go forward, each manufacturer have their ideas ( biased to suit their own agenda of course), the teams have their views (even more biased), The FIA another one, and on and on it goes. No wonder the Strategy Group can barely agree on where to have their next meeting let alone agree on anything constructive.

JT – As we’ve discussed previously, another contributor to the muddle racing is in is a strange kind of political correctness.

SJ – Yes I agree, now it’s permeating racing just as it is in every other aspect of life it seems.
I think we’re at the point where we can’t defend this whole argument that racing has to lead the technology for the road car industry. In fact, right now it’s the exact opposite. The road car industry is actually far more advanced today in many ways than the racing industry, especially in the electronics/powertrain side.

Race cars are made to go fast as they always have been. Nowadays the main emphasis seems to be that road cars are supposed to save the planet, whether that’s valid or not but that’s the argument. Racing and road cars ought to be heading in two completely separate directions, if there is anything to be learned from Racing that could benefit the road car industry, great, but I don’t think the focus should be on that.

Hybrid technology isn’t particularly good for a race car. And the race cars and series using it aren’t inventing anything, they are in fact forced to use it by the rules. So even if a team wanted to develop a different concept or technology they wouldn’t be able to. They’re basically borrowing the technology from the road car industry to apply to a race car.

The whole concept with this technology – the philosophy of what race cars are meant to be now - is going completely in the wrong direction in my opinion. This insanely complicated and expensive hybrid technology really doesn’t benefit anyone in racing. The development of the technology for road cars is already as advanced if not more than what we see in the F1 or LMP1 cars. So there’s really no gain. Then you can look at the whole aerodynamic thing on top of it – useless for a road car.

Part of the problem is the PR the manufacturers produce. Their PR departments have an agenda and of course there’s the political side and that’s another agenda. There are all of these marketing efforts and the racing is just the tiny little bit at the bottom of it. Everything has to conform to all of the non-racing agendas.

From a PR point of view it may be great to talk about these amazing power unit that produce virtually zero emissions, the carbon footprint is almost nothing and so on. But all it is, at the end of the day is just that, a PR exercise. I asked someone just for fun to walk over to the parking lot at the British GP where the teams park all their transporters, there were 350 Diesel trucks there to service the 20 cars that were racing on Sunday afternoon. The top teams are using 9 trucks just to carry the Hospitality units and the equipment, which these days are essentially there to feed the journalists and team members as virtually no one else have access to the paddock area. I know this may be an irrelevant argument, but nevertheless it’s a sign of the general hypocrisy surrounding this subject.

The money being spent is crazy and that’s not sustainable. The ACO/WEC still seem insistent on having P1 and having some sort of hybrid formula for privateers. That makes even less sense than having the manufacturers do it. Why should a privateer want to run a hybrid car? There’s zero benefit to it unless it’s an open formula where that is one option of many others. But as it is, the rules are very strict and that is basically the only option which means that everyone will spend a lot of money for nothing as they will all run the same spec engine in the end.

On top of it, I was talking to a couple of the drivers in the P1 factory teams and they hate the cars. They’re just an engineering exercise. You have to memorize all of the hybrid system stuff instead of just driving the car fast and hard. You’re like an airline pilot on a passenger jet. You’re just constantly going through checklists.

In Formula One, the top teams employ 250 designers and engineers to design a car, this does not include the engine, there’s a massive amount of complexity, and costs obviously. There’s no real innovation in F1 at any level anymore, they’re not allowed to innovate anymore because the rules are so strict. So it’s just an endless refinement of what already exists, with all the teams, designers and engineers pigeon-holed into a tiny little box in which they can work.

It’s about optimizing every half-percent you can rather than coming up with something really new that while not completely developed, still gives you an advantage. That’s how the pioneering days of F1 used to be. We had Colin Chapman advancing winged F1 cars, six-wheelers (from Tyrell) and other new things and ideas tried.

Obviously, it’s harder to find really new ideas as the technology is far more advanced today but racing should always have a measure of that. And it shouldn’t have to get to the point where it is now when a top F1 team employs over 2,000 people in total.

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In a few more years, we’ll have some form of self-driving cars and where does that leave racing? Again that’s where road car technology and racing should go in totally different directions. The essence of racing should always be cars that are fast and spectacular to watch, driven by these exceptionally talented young guys that are putting it on the line.

I’m sure if you let all the clever engineers loose and give them some more freedom there will be a number of new and fresh ideas instead of them working within the narrow box they’re forced to work in now, just optimizing technologies that are already here. The entertainment side of racing comes more naturally when you make cars fast and challenging to drive, that everyone can immediately appreciate rather than having to explain what the technology is all about and a bunch of artificial rules to make the racing more exciting, like DRS and some guy in a blue FIA shirt sitting in a control tower watching a TV monitor determining when a driver has gone too far outside the track limit instead of the driver simply being out of the race because he either pushed to hard or screwed up somehow and simply went off.

Anyone, even a layman with no knowledge of racing, can appreciate the effort and skill of a driver wrestling a car to make it perform as well as possible at the limit. But a car that does almost everything for a driver, that’s stuck to the road on a track with so much run off area that is virtually impossible to hit anything if you try too hard and go off, that any driver with a small amount of skill can jump in and get within half a second of a three-times world champion - that doesn’t excite people. It doesn’t have the same appeal.

It’s now also been confirmed that the Halo head protection will be mandated. It was an inevitable decision in my opinion, once the knowledge is there and it’s for safety there’s no turning back. It’s a knee jerk reaction to something that should have never happened in the first place if any level of common sense had been applied at Suzuka when Jules Bianchi had his accident. But it happened, it was a freak accident and will in most likelihood never ever happen again, halo or no halo.

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The reality is that the only fatal accidents in F1 since the early 1980’s have all been a freak accident of some sort, as such it’s impossible to predict what will happen next time. In general terms though, I could probably mention at least 10 sports, maybe even more that are far more dangerous and have more serious injuries and fatalities per participant than motor racing and F1 in particular today. The general perception that racing drivers are these dare devils risking their lives every time they step in a car is more or less just a myth today, there is zero bravery or bravado involved in being a fast driver today and I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s made that observation. Fans are not stupid, they want to see their favorites wrestling their machines on the ragged edge, that’s what motor racing has and should always be about. Like all sports, it’s the heroes that make the fans come and watch, not the boffin in the back of the garage, or in the case of football or any other sport, the coordination trainer in the back of the changing room.
Ironically, the only level of motor racing where the danger is still a concern that’s on the back of anyone’s mind is probably Indycar, and the drivers there probably get less credit for what they do than pretty much any other series out there. When you watch the pack racing at some of the ovals it really makes you appreciate what these guys do.

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This is a very touchy subject of course, but I am convinced that every single driver worth his salt would still be out there if the tracks where more punishing if you made a mistake, the cars were far more difficult to drive, with much higher top speeds and less grip.

All drivers in the past, even those that complained the most about the safety, still kept racing and lost friends almost every weekend, for virtually no money. Today, we have a situation where other people are deciding what is safe for us. So instead we now have drivers racing cars that are ridiculously easy to drive in comparison, almost totally safe and make $40M a year. This is of no fault of the drivers but merely a reflection of society in general today.

JT – That kind of challenge – the kind which makes racing appealing broadly could return. As we’ve discussed many times, aerodynamics have had a very corrosive effect on racing. But the possibility exists that technology applied to other aspects of vehicle performance could restore the spectacle, correct?

SJ – Yes, it will take a while but I’m convinced that with a shift of development focused on better tire and power plant technology in particular, better suspension technology and better materials - all these factors – you could gain back amazing performance. The performance lost by eliminating a large portion of the aerodynamics could be found through these other areas to produce cars capable of amazing speeds and lap times. If they are worried about the lap times being much slower by taking away a good portion of the downforce, don’t forget that every modern F1 track today is built the way they are simply to slow the cars down, hence we have a bunch of Go Kart tracks on big parking lot tracks with 1st and 2nd gear corners and chicanes with only the odd high speed section that are still not very challenging for a modern F1 car. We could easily solve that problem by going back to a layout with more high speed and flowing corners, where a combination of great car control and big balls will determine the lap time. If your cornering speed is maybe 2/3 of what it currently is, but the driver has 1200-1300HP that he’s balancing on the edge in a 4th or 5th gear corner anyone can certainly appreciate that.

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They would be spectacular to watch and they would weed out the really good drivers from those who don’t have the same level of talent. You might see the rise again of all the really fast guys who disappear these days before they even get to F2 in many cases. Any average driver can be quick today in an aero car.

This is a complex subject of course and everyone has their own views on how it should be done. There’s no strict formula but that’s where I think we should head. I don’t want to sound like some old nostalgic yearning for the “good old days” because that’s not the case at all, but I really believe it’s time for a complete recalibration on nearly every level of motor racing, certainly in single seaters and prototype cars. Aerodynamics was a great idea when it was first invented, but I think everyone except maybe the engineers agree that it’s ruining the racing at every level, at an astronomical cost to everyone involved. We need to be clever and come up with a better alternative.

JT – IndyCar and sports car racing have made news as well lately in both separate and related ways. IndyCar debuted their new universal aero kit to positive reviews from teams and drivers. Juan Pablo Montoya and Oriol Servia did the first test of the new oval kit at Indianapolis and were comfortable going fast almost immediately.

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On the sports car side, the long awaited announcement was made that Team Penske would field Acura-powered DPis in IMSA. Another announcement which came as something of a surprise was made when Mazda revealed that it would end its relationship with Speed Source and withdraw from IMSA competition for the remainder of the 2017 season. In 2018, famed sports car team Joest will become the Mazda factory team.

The announcements add some momentum on the American sports car side for the DPi prototype formula and show the way for coming years in IndyCar.

SJ – Estethically the new car certainly looks a lot better than the previous ones, it would have been nearly impossible to design one that could look any worse though. I guess this also fixes the disparity between the Chevy and Honda aero but what a pointless exercise the manufacturer aero kits were.

As we’ve discussed before, the total cost of this very bad experiment must have been somewhere in the range of 30 million dollars cumulatively. Imagine if they had spent that money of marketing instead. They already had and still have a Championship with the best racing out there, but sadly it seems they are still incapable of getting the message out there to the general masses. IndyCar can fiddle with the cars till they’re blue in the face but it won’t matter if there’s only a relative handful of people watching. The die hard fans are always going to have a point of view and they’ll also turn up no matter what. Consider for a moment the reception of the new car design compared to the first test Alonso did for the Indy 500 this year, where more than 2,5 million were watching the live stream online. This should tell you everything, and if the penny hasn’t dropped that maybe it’s not new car designs we need, but instead a much bigger focus on the drivers, who are the heroes that people want to watch. The value of Fernando Alonso racing at Indy this year is probably the best marketing IndyCar has had for the last 20 years.

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The racing is still the best in the world as far as I’m concerned. The formula works as it is – in fact, it’s one of the few that works in all of auto racing. Stop tinkering with something that works and try to market it to the biggest audience you can. That would help teams attract more sponsors which would allow them to hire more high profile drivers. If I were Indycar I would do everything possible to lure Alonso over to the series for 2018. Look at what happened when Mansell moved from F1 to Indycar in the 90’s, in one year it catapulted the series and it was actually a minor threat to F1 until the split came which of course killed it immediately. If Alonso would come over to Indycar, he would soon be followed by other F1 guys who are equally frustrated by the current cars in F1 and the lack of real racing and real race tracks.

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With the sports car end of things, the DPi is a great concept which I think any manufacturer could embrace. With both Penske and Joest now joining it will give IMSA a huge boost without a doubt. It would be great if the ACO would accept it too, if they did you could have a global prototype formula that could be affordable enough for both manufacturers and privateers with privateers able to buy the same cars the factory teams used. It would be brilliant and you’d have a natural feeder system.

JT – Porsche confirmed what most expected at the end of last week when they formally announced that they would be leaving the World Endurance Championship at the end of the season. This obviously is a significant blow to the WEC and could spell the end of the LMP1 Hybrid category for now. The question hanging in the air is whether Toyota will return for 2018. It’s hard to see any incentive for their continuing.

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SJ – I can’t see the WEC surviving. If Toyota follows Porsche what is there? What they should do is a pan-American/European championship of some kind. They should create some kind of hybrid series that brings IMSA and the ELMS together, spanning both continents.

And get rid of the LMP1 and LMP2 categories. Simplify it and make it one category. You don’t need both. Teams that are serious will hire the best drivers they can and for drivers that will pay to drive there will always be a team that will take them. And this will be at a reasonably affordable level unlike the P1 Hybrid class.

Look at Le Mans this year. The race was almost won by an LMP2 car at almost exactly 100 times less than the budget of the P1 teams – 100 times less! That should tell you something. Sports car racing has to be much more reasonable in terms of the costs. Look at the LMP3 class.

They’re fantastic cars and you can run them for a full season for about $700-800,000. The grids are full. And if you unrestricted the engines or put different engines in them they could be 10 seconds per lap quicker than a GT car in no time. The cars could handle that easily. It’s do-able if they try.

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JT – The other racing force looming on the horizon is Formula E. Manufacturers from Audi, Renault and BMW to now Mercedes and Porsche are jumping into the series. This despite the fact that recent reports in a number of financial publications reveal that Formula has a total net loss of $110.5 million currently.

SJ – Formula E definitely has momentum. With the latest announcement from Mercedes and Porsche not only joining but also pulling out of the other major series they were competing in before this, following Audi’s decision to do the same earlier in the year, it definitely looks like the series is set to grow significantly in the next 3-5 years. I think the budgets will probably triple in the next three years, maybe even more. You know that the manufacturers are going to spend a fortune coming into the series. Once they’re committed to any series all bets are off and the technology will improve drastically in the next three to four years.

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The battery specifications are fixed which is kind of strange because that’s the only thing you can gain significant performance from. But there are some interesting developments in the drivetrains otherwise.

Obviously, there are a number of reasons why the racing format is the way it is now in Formula E but having been to a few races now, the racing is tight with plenty of action. The cars are relatively slow but there are some tough battles on track and because the tracks are small so it doesn’t look that slow. It’s possibly the only series in the world where not one driver is bringing any money to race, every driver on the grid gets paid and the level of the drivers is very high.

It is extraordinary how far the series has come in just a few years. Alejandro Agag and his team have done an amazing job so far to get it where it is today, and they have great momentum now. In a way, Formula E is everything that Formula 1 is trying to be right now, in terms of being with the times and doing the right thing for the environment etc. Maybe this is the opportunity F1 need, to leave Formula E, the Manufacturers and the FIA with the political agenda to save the planet and instead go back to basics with brutally fast, noisy and spectacular cars and tracks, not worrying so much about the political side of things. Wouldn’t that be something!

 

Nico Rosberg retirement, I meet an old friend at Adelaide & Felix Rosenqvist finishes 2nd at the Macau Grand Prix

Stefan Johansson

JT – It has been a couple weeks since the last blog and a lot has happened. Nico Rosberg was crowned F1 world champion at the Grand Prix of Abu Dhabi. Then late last week Rosberg shocked everyone with the announcement that he is retiring from F1. Meanwhile, Audi finished 1-2 in their final race in prototype competition at the Six Hours of Bahrain. And the Macau Grand Prix was a topsy-turvy event with plenty of carnage, controversy and a smattering of competitive racing.

While much of this played out you were Down Under, having been invited to the Adelaide Motorsport Festival to drive the No. 28 Ferrari F156/85 you piloted for Scuderia Ferrari during the 1985 F1 season (scoring two 2nd place finishes).

Given that Rosberg’s news is so unexpected, let’s begin there. Then we’ll reflect on your experience in Australia. What are your thoughts on Nico’s retirement?

SJ – It is obviously a shock announcement and a major surprise to everyone. It’s also likely a testament to how intense the situation at Mercedes has been all along. You can sympathize with him, having to go through that again is a major thing to consider.

Still, I would have thought that now having one title in the bag it would have been a lot easier to carry that momentum forward. But more than any other influence, I think it’s an acknowledgement of just how hard he had to work and how much it took out of him to win this title.

JT – In addition, I think we all recognize the maturity and guts it took for Nico Rosberg to make this decision.

"We said we'd be champions back then, now we both are! Congratulations Nico, you did everything a champion needed to do. Well deserved." - Lewis Hamilton

"We said we'd be champions back then, now we both are! Congratulations Nico, you did everything a champion needed to do. Well deserved." - Lewis Hamilton

SJ – Yes, that’s my next point. You really have to admire the strength of character it takes to make that decision at this stage of his career. You might say it’s early in his career but we can’t forget that Nico and so many of these guys started racing at a pretty high level in their early teens. (Rosberg mentioned that he has been racing for 25 years in comments on his retirement.)

So this has been pretty much all that Nico has been involved with his whole life. Since he was a little kid he’s been racing – and on a very intense level. So it may be a bit easier to understand his perspective when you think of that. However, I also think he might get the itch again after being away for a year or so, which we saw with a number of the guys who retired at an early stage in their careers. It’s an enormous hole to fill when you have been used to the intensity and focus every minute of your life pretty much for most of your life. I’ll be very surprised if we don’t see him back in some form of racing after a year or two.

JT – Nico always seems to have been a bit underrated. If we look at his time at Mercedes GP alone, realize who his two teammates have been – Lewis Hamilton and Michael Schumacher.

Source: F1 Fanatic

Source: F1 Fanatic

SJ – Exactly, it isn’t as if he hasn’t been tested. Look back to what he did while Michael was in the team. He made Michael look pretty average overall. Looking back now, Nico is probably the toughest teammate Michael ever had, certainly a lot more competitive than Eddie Irvine or Rubens Barrichello ever were.

I’d say most people have underestimated how good Nico really is. Let’s not forget that Lewis is already the second most winning driver in F1 history, and to be basically on even par with him every weekend is definitely not something that just any driver would be capable of doing. I also feel that maybe this was Nico’s way of finally sticking it to Lewis as he won’t be there to defend the title. In 2016 he was the best driver in the world, he rose to the occasion and had a string of very strong races midseason which effectively built the foundation for the Championship, when Lewis then retired in Malaysia all he had to do was drive intelligently without getting into it with Lewis every race like he was forced to do every time before that. It took him two years to figure out how to deal with that, starting with that race in 2014 in Bahrain where Lewis sort of moved the goal post and showed what he was prepared to do to win, team mate or not. I think it caught Nico by surprise and you could tell after that in both 2014 and 2015 he was not comfortable going to the length he had to do to either defend or attack against Lewis, and as such, we saw some moves that weren’t going to stick and Lewis generally seemed to come out on top. 2016 was different however, he changed his strategy and it worked out. I can sympathize 100% that it must have been difficult if it doesn’t come natural to you.

JT – Rosberg’s decision really is unexpected but as you mention, this has probably been brewing for some time. In published comments last week, his father Keke Rosberg may have alluded to Nico’s decision, saying “He has a lot of seasons behind him and I'm sure that, especially, the last three seasons have taken a high toll."

"They've been very hard seasons, because you're fighting for the championship for three years in a row, constantly." Keke said. "It's much tougher than trying to finish sixth. I don't know how much it's taken out of him."

SJ – I am sure it was not a rash decision but something that’s been on his mind for a while. I know his father Keke quite well. He’s an incredibly smart guy and has a very strong character. He’s very firm in his beliefs and if you take that into account, that could give insight into Nico’s logic.

JT – Everything is speculation at this point but the show goes on in F1. With Rosberg vacating his seat at Mercedes GP you would expect there to be a major amount of scrambling by top drivers to perhaps fill the vacancy. Of course, Mercedes has its own bench to draw from as well.

SJ – There will be a lot of action right now from every quarter, no doubt. I would imagine there are some guys, maybe like Nico Hulkenberg, who are having second thoughts about their decisions for next year. By the same token, they couldn’t have known what would happen. No one did, except Nico.

I am sure there a lot of the top guys reading their contracts with a fine comb right now to find out if there’s any way they can wiggle out of their existing deals. But more than anything the biggest dilemma is really for Mercedes to fill the gap from Rosberg, there is no one obvious to replace him with that is not already under contract, and I would imagine it would be problematic for them to put any of their Junior drivers in the car as it’s a huge step with enormous pressure. I feel for the Management at Mercedes too, they’ve had to deal with the constant battles and conflicts between these two guys in the past three year, and now they’re stuck in a situation where there is no obvious candidate to take Nico’s seat. Both Toto and Niki have certainly had their work cut out dealing with all this and when you weigh up all the circumstances I think they have done a great job in managing the situation.

JT - Returning to Australia, on the Friday before the Adelaide Motorsport Festival, you drove the Ferrari F156/85through the streets of Adelaide among the public which must have been a blast. Then on Saturday you ran the car around a portion of the Victoria Park street circuit which played host to the Australian Grand Prix from 1985 to 1995 – one of the tracks you raced it on. That must have been a great deal of fun too.

Did you enjoy driving the Ferrari again?

SJ – Yes, it was a great weekend – only there could you do something like that. It was Adelaide just how I remembered it from all those years past. It was a lot of fun and quite emotional to drive the old car actually.

I last drove that car up the hill at Goodwood a few years ago but that doesn’t really count as you can’t really lean on the car there as you do on a real race track. Apart from that my last drive in it was 30 years ago! It started to feel familiar after a few laps. It was kind of emotional when I started pushing it a bit and getting into the performance window of the car a little. Lots of memories… It was great using a manual gearbox and going through the gears and everything. By the end of day two I was getting some small blisters in my right hand from the gearshift which is how it used to be back in the day. They didn’t have it cranked up to full power but it was still enough to get a good feel for it.

JT – As usual we begin with Formula One, however let’s rewind to the penultimate race of 2016, the Brazilian GP – a race held amid off-and-on rain showers. It was notable mostly for the stop-start nature of the racing, a few on-track incidents and lucky escapes, and Max Verstappen’s drive.

He was widely lauded for his march through the field in the wet after good fortune in not wrecking somehow when his Red Bull spun on the on pit straight early in the race. During the last safety car period Red Bull Racing pitted Verstappen to fit extreme wet tires, changing from the intermediate wets he had been running on. He made a succession of passes, going from 14th to 3rd in the final 15 laps.

It was certainly an impressive drive though his cause was aided by having newer tires than any of those he passed. As you mention, there was also another key advantage for him.

SJ – There’s no question, he drove a fantastic race. His car control is amazing and he absolutely deserved the podium finish, but the thing I absolutely cannot understand is why no one else drove on the wet racing line? That’s racing in the rain-101.

In every category I’ve ever raced whether that’s sports cars, Indy Cars or F1 and all the way down to Karting, if it’s raining hard you never drive on the dry racing line. It’s full of rubber and it’s always way more slippery. I just don’t get why everyone else was on the regular line – it’s fundamental.

Verstappen was passing guys like they were standing still and you’d think the penny would drop and they would all start doing what he was doing. It boggles my mind. I don’t understand what the rest of them were doing.

Toto Wolff said what he did “defied physics”. It didn’t really defy physics. Verstappen had much more grip out there off the regular line – simple as that. There’s always more grip on the outside line in the rain. He was carrying more speed than anyone else and you would expect that the other drivers would have thought, “Hmm… maybe I should try that.” But in the end, it was a very impressive drive by Verstappen in extremely difficult conditions. His race craft is already up there with any of them and he showed an incredible amount of car control especially on that save he did where everyone else ended up smacking the wall.

Among all this everyone also seemed to forget what Lewis did, he had the entire field completely covered and drove an incredible race in very difficult conditions. The situation for him was far worse than any other driver in the field as he basically had no option but to win in order to keep the championship alive, so the pressure on him was immense.

The race management was also odd. I’ve certainly been in races where conditions were way worse and these are supposed to be the best drivers in the world. You’d think they should be able to handle it. If it’s gotten to the point where the cars are un-drivable in that kind of weather then maybe it’s time to go back to the drawing board, at least with the tires.

If there is a problem with the wet tires, the testing ban probably accounts for a large part of that. There’s no doubt that if there was still competition between tire suppliers in F1 none of this would happen. Wet or dry, the tires would be way better.

JT – The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix was interesting chiefly as the deciding race for the 2016 championship. What drama there was stemmed from Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton, and their duel for the title. The race marked the last outing for Jenson Button and Felipe Massa but they were largely overshadowed by the title fight.

Rosberg prevailed in the championship, finishing second to Lewis Hamilton in the race. Sebastian Vettel came home 3rd. One big talking point afterward was Hamilton’s attempt to back Rosberg up, slowing his pace so much that Rosberg would be vulnerable to those behind. Hamilton has drawn both criticism and support for his tactics.

Meanwhile Rosberg held his nerve, passing Max Verstappen to reclaim 2nd position on lap 20 after his first pit stop. He also fended off Sebastian Vettel in the waning laps.

Though Hamilton said prior to the race that he wouldn’t slow his pace if he led Rosberg during the grand prix, he did exactly that. I don’t think anyone was particularly surprised by his decision apart from Rosberg perhaps, and it’s debatable whether he should or shouldn’t have done that. But his comments in response to team orders seemed a bit petulant.

What did you think of the race and Hamilton’s conduct?

SJ – It certainly got a bit exciting when Lewis started backing Nico up to the rest of them. Any little mishap and the race could have gone pear-shaped for Nico or for both of them. So the last portion of the race was very exciting and in many ways the scenario that most people probably was hoping for in a weird way.

Lewis’ tactics were to be expected despite the strict orders from the team. In the heat of the battle you can react in many different ways. It seems that in all sports today it’s gotten to the point where the moral side of things is almost irrelevant. Winning at any cost is the course of action most often. What was interesting to me was the parallel between this championship and the one in 1984 where Prost and Lauda had a similar situation. They were team mates at McLaren and if Prost won I think Niki had to finish 2nd to clinch the title.

I don’t recall one single person ever mention or speculate about Prost backing up Lauda into the pack, the term “backing up” didn’t even exist. No one thought of doing that, Prost basically disappeared into the distance and Lauda as it were had a big dice with me for most of the race for 4th place. I eventually got a slow puncture and had to pit, and then Lauda managed to pass Senna for 3rd and then inherited 2nd when Mansell spun towards the end of the race. I honestly don’t think it ever entered anyone’s mind, that Prost backing Lauda into the pack was even an option.

As it were, it all worked out ok and I think Nico very deservedly won the championship. He rose to the occasion more than once this year and did an excellent job overall.

JT – Rosberg’s title clinch also made history and positive headlines for F1. He and his father Keke (1982 World Champion) are just the second father-son pairing, along with Graham Hill and Damon Hill, to win the F1 driver’s championship. It’s a warm and welcome story for a series that has had so many negatives recently. In addition, you’ve known Keke for a long time so it’s a nice thing to see from that perspective as well.

SJ – Yes, for sure. As I mentioned earlier, Keke’s a very old friend of mine – since we were teenagers when we first got to know each other. I’m really happy for him and I’m sure it must be an incredible feeling to see his son repeat what he was able to do.

JT – On the other hand, much of the talk following the Abu Dhabi GP tends toward how glad fans are that 2016 is over. There’s a natural tendency to look toward the future of course and the new style of F1 cars next season. But 2016 was widely seen as a boring season with a lack of competition on-track and leadership off-track that doesn’t seem to know what to do next. In fact, F1’s principals still seem to have difficulty acknowledging that there are big problems.

SJ – Yes and this has been a trend for some time now. You really can’t control the domination of one team because everyone is and should be doing their best to win consistently. But any time you have one team being dominant for a number of seasons it’s generally not a good thing.

Unfortunately I’m not sure if next year and going forward is going to be any better. I think the outcome of the races may change somewhat with the new cars but I think the racing won’t be any better with the new rules package they’ve chosen. The cars will be much faster, but only in the corners, which will make it even more difficult to pass than it is already.

We’ve gone over the issue of having all of this downforce and how that kills the racing several times already. This is true across most all categories of racing today, and especially in single seater formulas where the front aero is critical to how the car will perform.

JT – It’s not easy to say with certainty what the pecking order will be next season in F1 given the new format for the cars. What do you expect?

SJ – I don’t think Mercedes will have the advantage that they’ve had over the last couple years. They’ll be at the front no doubt but I think Red Bull will be very strong, Ferrari will hopefully improve and I am certain that McLaren will catch up and close the gap to the front teams. As usual we can probably count on one of the mid-pack teams getting their cars somewhat right and they’ll be there fourth or fifth in the points. That includes Williams and Force India, maybe Sauber.

Every season one of these teams seems to hit the right combination whether they know it or not beforehand. They go out on a limb between seasons and try to do something clever. Usually it doesn’t work and they lose all the momentum they had and fall back to the back of the pack. But every now and then they hit on something good or they carry the momentum they’ve managed to build over a few seasons of rule stability.

JT – I guess Haas F1 could be considered among the mid-pack teams now. Though their performance suffered from mid-season forward, you’d have to say that 2016 was pretty impressive for Haas given that it was their first year in F1.

SJ – Very much so, I think everyone will agree it was unexpectedly good for them. They did particularly well at the beginning of the season. As I’ve always said, the early races are the easiest ones to score big points in. The fact that they were able to do that with a brand new team was very impressive.

And the way they came into F1 was very intelligent. They made use of available resources allowed by the rules from an already established team and why wouldn’t they? Why would you employ a huge group of people and spend an enormous amount on development if you can purchase intelligence that already exists from someone else. That’s something you’d want to leverage as much as possible in my opinion.

Ferrari struggled this year but they’re still a top-three team so making use of their technology and expertise made a lot of sense.

JT – In off-track news, Zak Brown has been appointed executive director at McLaren while long time McLaren Group chairman and CEO Ron Dennis has been dismissed. Presumably Brown’s role will be to exercise his considerable marketing expertise (Brown is the founder and CEO of JMI, the world’s largest motorsport marketing agency) to bring sponsorship and financial resources to McLaren – something the team/Group have fallen behind with in recent years.

You know Zak well and have raced with him for his United Autosports team. I imagine he’ll be working hard in this capacity while Eric Boullier continues as Racing Director for McLaren. How do you see it?

SJ – Yes, I assume that’s what he’ll be doing and I’m sure he’ll do a terrific job. The momentum for the team and the car next year seems to be going in the right direction. With the new rules there’s a better opportunity for McLaren to get the car right or “right-er” than it has been, assuming that Honda make similar improvements as well.

JT – Bernie Ecclestone recently floated the idea of having Formula One chop the length of its races in half, effectively going to a format where there would be two sprint races per weekend. This is something IndyCar has already done with varying degrees of success. It’s hard to tell what Bernie’s real reasoning is but what do you think of this idea?

SJ – The correct answer is somewhere out there. The problem is that the teams don’t seem to be able to agree to change the things that aren’t working, whether it’s the way races are run or the technical regulations or the format of the points system, whatever. They always seem to want to come up with their own answers rather than looking at other successful series and simply copy what’s good and what works. So inevitably, we end up with some odd experiments from time to time. 

I actually think that NASCAR’s Chase format isn’t a bad way to go. It makes the racing pretty exciting towards the end of the season. Certainly it engages fans right up to the end of the year and ensures that the championship isn’t over until the last race. Of course, everyone in F1 says it isn’t fair. But of all the systems out there I think it’s the one which retains the most excitement over a whole season and keeps building momentum up to the last race.

It may be worth trying a different format at one or two races to see what the reaction is. I think the idea of two sprint races over the course of the weekend would be great at places like Monaco and Singapore for example.

JT – The 2016 Grand Prix of Macau was a pretty fraught event. There was some good racing here and there but there were also a lot of wrecks and lengthy delays caused by them. That interrupted the racing to a great degree and made the individual races less enjoyable. There were also incidents in the F3 race but Felix Rosenqvist drove well to finish second behind Antonio Felix da Costa.  Is the Macau GP outgrowing itself?

SJ – I saw the F3 final. I didn’t see the GT race. Felix did really well but yes, these are the usual issues at Macau. The track is seriously dangerous and accident-inducing but at the same time it’s one of the best tracks in the world for the same reasons. I hold Macau as one of the top 5 tracks in the world, maybe even higher. It’s an awesome and very challenging and difficult track to do well on. Felix did a great job again and had it not been for the exact reasons you just mentioned he would have most certainly qualified much closer to the front which then would have made life much easier to get to the front than what was the case now. To work your way up to 2nd from 8th is extremely difficult there.

JT – The finish of the FIA GT World Cup race at Macau was bizarre. Porsche factory driver Earl Bamber passed Audi factory driver Laurens Vanthoor cleanly after a restart on Lap 5. Vanthoor then clipped curbing, hit an Armco barrier and wound up on his roof.

The race was immediately red-flagged. Bamber was leading when the race was stopped but Vanthoor was awarded the win as per FIA rules that revert to the running order on the previous lap. In most series, the driver causing a red flag is excluded from the results. It’s seems illogical that Vanthoor would be awarded the win for a race he failed to complete after crashing while in 2nd place. What are your thoughts?

SJ – Yes, I can’t understand that one. I saw Bamber at an event after that and he was understandably unhappy.

JT – Early testing of the new global LMP2 cars has shown them to be significantly faster than their predecessors. Rumors are already circulating that the FIA/ACO may step in to slow them down, fearing that gentlemen drivers will not be able to handle them properly. The speed of the new P2 cars has also rekindled ongoing concerns about the FIA driver rating system.

Wouldn’t it be sensible to simplify the ratings system and have just two categories? The Pro category would include anyone who makes their living racing professionally. The Am category would include everyone else. Or how about just doing away with the highly abused ratings system altogether? If gentlemen drivers choose to race in categories where Pro drivers compete shouldn’t they accept that the results? They didn’t seem to have a problem with this in the past.

SJ – Yeah, that’s how it used to be and it was just a process of natural selection. Teams that weren’t as eager to win took on drivers who could pay a bit. And teams that wanted to win put the extra effort in to find a way to pay professional drivers to drive for them.

That was simple and it worked. It was a natural and I think fair way to go about it. You’re never going to have a fair system with driver ratings. As we’ve seen far too many examples of already, some drivers have made getting downgraded to Silver status into an art form.

JT – Following up on the new LMP2 machines, why slow them down? In fact, wouldn’t it be reasonable to shed the LMP1 class? P2 could be the premier class using the DPi formula that IMSA will use. That way you have the potential to attract manufacturers while having a limited number of platforms and a chance of controlling costs. Done right, it could lead to large, competitive prototype fields. They might not be as fast as current P1 hybrids but the racing should be much more competitive.

SJ – I keep saying that and I think many people agree. But the ACO and FIA don’t seem to agree with anything IMSA proposes, and vice versa. In WEC, seemingly they really only care about LMP1. It’s clear that both the ACO and the series need the big manufacturers involved and have them spending very serious money not only on the cars but also on the activation around the Le Mans race and the series events.

But maybe they could shift the manufacturers to GTE instead. I think they’d have a lot more participation from a lot more manufacturers. If you take off the restrictors and open up the GTE cars the lap times could improve by 10 seconds almost immediately - even more after another year or two. By then they are down to what they seem to consider the ideal lap time around Le Mans, somewhere in the 3.30’s range. I personally can’t see any new manufacturer wanting to step into the LMP1 category right now, the commitment is huge and the chances of succeeding against either of the two that’s left (Porsche and Toyota) will take several years.