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Filtering by Tag: Ford GT

The Star Drivers of the Rolex 24 at Daytona, F1 News & What to Expect in 2019

Eric Graciano

#SJblog 99

JT – The Rolex 24 at Daytona kicked off the 2019 season for many this year. The field was stacked with competitive cars, teams and star drivers from the DPi ranks down to the GTD cars. Just a few of the famous drivers racing included two-time F1 champion Fernando Alonso, five-time IndyCar Champion Scott Dixon, CART champion and F1 star Alex Zanardi, DTM champion Rene Rast, Rubens Barichello, Kamui Kobayashi, Helio Castroneves, Alexander Rossi, Juan Pablo Montoya, Simon Pagenaud, Sebastian Bourdais, Romain Dumas, Felipe Nasr, A.J. Allmendinger, Simona De Silvestro and Timo Bernhard with many more on hand.

Video via NBC Sports YouTube Page

In fact, with its early season date and the quality of competition (with very few gentleman drivers these days), it’s reasonable to argue that the 24 Hours of Daytona now boasts a higher level of driving talent than the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Do you agree?

SJ – Yes, you’re absolutely right. Because it takes place in January there is no conflict for any drivers apart from the one’s racing in Formula E, which means we get some really high quality drivers from every category of racing. Daytona is always a great way to start the season, because it’s a 24 hours race you get a lot of seat time and most of the time the conditions are far from ideal which means you have to improvise quite a lot both with the handling issues of the car and also with the constant traffic between faster and slower cars.

There’s a very good mixture of single-seater guys, NASCAR guys and sports car drivers. It’s a very strong field of drivers that’s for sure, and you often find yourself in a group of 3-4 great drivers duking it out over a double or triple stint. It’s a lot of fun and it really gets you in racing mode before the real season starts.

JT – The race itself was very interesting and very competitive throughout the field until rain began falling near 5 am. Ultimately, Fernando Alonso, Jordan Taylor, Renger Van Der Zande and Kamui Kobayashi won overall. That means that Alonso now adds the Rolex 24 to his two F1 championships and his Le Mans 24 win last year. Next up for him is the Indy 500 this year.

What did you think of Alonso’s drive and the competition overall?

Photos via @fernandoalo_oficial

Photos via @fernandoalo_oficial

Unfortunately, Scott, Ryan Briscoe and Richard Westbrook lost five laps in the No. 67 Ford GT due to early contact with the wall by Briscoe. But they rallied back to 4th place overall, just a lap behind the GTLM class-winning No. 25 BMW M8 GTE. It’s a shame the race had to end under red flag.

SJ – It was a pity the rain came, it really ruined what could have been an epic race, with great battles going on in all the different categories, but it was sort of an anti-climax at the end. Alonso had some fantastic stints and really put on a clinic at one point. Being the great racer that he is, he must have been loving it out there, actually racing hard against some of the other top guys in the prototypes. It was a tough one to swallow for Scott and the guys, fighting back from where they were laps down, had they stopped one lap later for what became the last stop in the race, they would have won. Scott had a couple similar monster stints as Alonso in the middle of the night where he was just flying.

JT – In pre-season F1 news, the Formula One Promoters Association (FOPA) recently complained that Liberty Media would significantly harm the series if it proceeds with a plan to move to more pay TV for coverage of the series globally. FOPA is concerned that such a shift will dramatically decrease the number of viewers of F1 on TV.

The group also protested an apparent deal between Liberty Media and the promoter of the upcoming F1 street race in Miami. The promoter was offered a profit share partnership rather than the more traditional model where races pay tens of millions of dollars for the right to hold the event. What are your thoughts?

SJ – I have to agree with the promoters. In terms of TV, this is a dilemma that started a while back. Now the promoters are starting to feel the crunch too but I think the teams have already felt that for some time.

It may be coincidental but since F1 started being televised on pay-TV (cable TV) rather than broadcast TV the eyeballs have dropped dramatically. So has sponsorship. What used to be a $100 million title sponsorship deal is now in the range of $15 million. It’s totally changed the dynamic because sponsorship is so much harder to come by. It has completely changed how revenue flows to the teams.

Every team, apart from the manufacturer teams, is now 100 percent dependent on Liberty Media or the series to fund the bulk of their programs. Sponsorship used to be what kept the teams going and whoever was willing to work a bit harder was able to find more money and hire the best people, etc. The money that came from Bernie [Ecclestone] at the time was the icing on the cake. That’s definitely not the case now.

A pay-wall might help the bottom line for Liberty Media short term but at the same time the whole eco-system of the series is shrinking. The more viewers you lose – at some point a line is crossed and that model can’t work, so unless they are able to find another method, whether that is through digital media or other forms of generating real interest and growth it will be problematic.

I never understood why Liberty made it public knowledge that they’ve offered Miami a race essentially for free? No wonder the promoters are frustrated. It’s inevitable that they’re now all asking “What about us? We’ve been paying you tens of millions per year to host a race with fees on top of that.” There is most likely more to this story than we know and we have to assume they are on top of this situation.

Personally, I am not convinced all the effort of cracking the US market is really worth it in the end, they have been trying for the best part of 40 years now and things have not changed a whole lot. To me it seems like a lot of heavy lifting to try and penetrate the cultural differences between US Sports and European or Global sports in general. Soccer, or football as it’s called in Europe is still minor compared to the NFL, NBA and Baseball for example. The US have always had their “own” sports that are equally minor in most other parts of the world.

JT – Looking ahead to the 2019 F1 season with rules changes going into effect what kind of impact do you think they can make?

SJ – Well, I think the 2019 aerodynamic rules which are aimed at supposedly helping more overtaking happen will make absolutely no difference – zero percent. All it’s doing really is costing the teams another 15 million Euros each to develop their new aero packages.

There was a recent article in Autosport with Nikolas Tombazis, the FIA’s aerodynamicist, where  he is attempting to explain why the FIA made this rule. And what they were trying to achieve.  I read first three paragraphs of it over and over again, and just glazed over in the end, it’s so complicated to even try to understand his explanation. I even talked to a former F1 technical director and designer and he said, “yeah I read the same thing and I didn’t understand a word of it.”

I think this sums up the current situation quite well, I am a huge fan and am trying to stay in tune with what is happening in the business from both a technical and business point of view, we have a highly qualified F1 designer and we both agree that it’s now gotten so complicated that it’s impossible to make any sense of any of it. If these are the guys making the rules, we’re in serious trouble. No one, excepts the boffins that wrote it, can understand the rulebook anymore.

JT – Since the announcement that Charles Leclerc would join Sebastian Vettel at Ferrari this season was made there has been speculation about how much Leclerc will push Vettel and whether that could destabilize Vettel or the team itself. What do you think?

Photos via @Charles_Leclerc

Photos via @Charles_Leclerc

SJ – I think he will push Vettel, there’s no doubt. The only thing that separates the really good drivers from the rest today is race-craft. Speed has little to do with it anymore because the way the cars are engineered, drivers are going to get to the limit of the cars pretty quick. I think Leclerc will be up to speed quickly, how he will go in the races we will have to wait and see. Every indication until now would say he will do a great job, but we won’t know until the pressure is on.

One would hope that Ferrari would stay away from politics and look at the bigger picture and what the best strategy would be to win the championship. Ferrari’s been known in the past to let emotion get in the way of an objective, balanced approach. Their best hope to win the title is still with Vettel, so I believe that’s where the emphasis will be.

Leclerc has had a full season now with Sauber (Alfa Romeo) so he’s not exactly a rookie. But I think race-craft will come into play at some point. It’s a similar situation to what Max Verstappen had coming into Red Bull. He was obviously mega-quick from the start but you didn’t really see the flaws until he got into a car that could actually win races.

When you throw away a race you could have won, it’s a different story than if you’re fighting for 6th or 7th place. So that will be different for Leclerc but I think his pace will spice things up a little bit. He’ll do well. He’s got good management with Nicolas Todt who knows the business very well and that will probably help him too initially.

JT – Of course, Leclerc’s signing last year isn’t the only development at Ferrari. Shortly after this year began it was announced that Maurizio Arrivabene would be replaced as team principal by Ferrari’s technical chief, Mattia Binotto. What do you think of Ferrari’s move to put Binotto in charge?

SJ – I don’t think it’s necessarily a good move. To put all of the responsibility on Binotto I don’t think is a good idea. He’s been the technical director and he’s obviously very good at that. Why would you distract him from doing what he’s good at? He’s too valuable as technical director in my opinion.

They had a car last year that was, at least for a while, the best car on the grid. Now Binotto is going to have to clutter his brain with all of the other nonsense, sitting in the FOM meetings, dealing with all of the politics and the daily dramas of running a top level F1 team. It’s a tough responsibility and a lot for one guy to handle.

JT – One of the most significant changes to the F1 grid for 2019 is the transition of Force India to “Racing Point F1 Team”. Canadian billionaire businessman Lawrence Stroll and a group of investors acquired the team last summer and are taking it into a new era with Sergio Perez returning as a driver alongside Stroll’s son Lance who moves from Williams to Racing Point. How do you think the re-made team will perform in 2019?

Image via: @thisisf1

Image via: @thisisf1

SJ – I think they will go very well. If they keep doing what they’ve been doing in recent years and just add the better resources and stability that Lawrence will bring, I think they’ll be very competitive. Lawrence is successful for a reason as he’s proven in all his other business endeavors. He hires good people and lets them get on with it – a bit like Flavio Briatore was when he ran Benetton and Renault. I think they’ll be very strong.

JT – How do you think Haas F1 will perform this season? Though they continue to receive criticism from other F1 teams for their mode of entry into the series as a client of Ferrari, they’ve been solidly in the mid-pack.

SJ – Haas hasn’t done anything that wasn’t in the rules. I’ve been advocating that path for years. That’s what I tried to do when I had a stab at creating a new Formula 1 team some years ago - the “B team” principle if you like. 

Why wouldn’t you do that if the rules allow it? I think it’s going in that direction across the board now anyway. Teams like Williams and McLaren will find it harder and harder to stay competitive being independent. When you look at the resources Mercedes and Ferrari have, not only do they have money, the best people and equipment, they now have two extra teams of cars running. That’s more data, more of everything at a time when testing is basically banned. They can utilize every possible opportunity they have to gather data.

I think Haas has the potential to improve but they’re dependent on what Ferrari gives them. If Ferrari’s good, particularly on the engine side, I’d say they’ll be good too. The engine is the big leap for Haas and for Sauber as well obviously. Last year Sauber all of a sudden leapt from the back to the front of the mid-pack.

JT – Sauber has been the stand-out of the F1 paddock since Alfa Romeo/FIAT took an interest in them and installed Frederic Vasseur as team principle. They also have Kimi Raikkonen driving for them this season alongside Antonio Giovinazzi. How do you think they will perform?

SJ – With Alfa Romeo now taking a bigger stake in the team I think they will be the favorite underdog now. Kimi has such an incredible following and his fans will be pumped up. And Vasseur is very good. He has a winning mentality and he knows the business inside and out. You can see that he has definitely lifted the whole team since he joined last season with his approach and discipline and how driven he is.

JT – Renault has also experienced significant change with Daniel Ricciardo having joined the team and the manufacturer having ended its relationship as engine supplier to Red Bull Racing. Now the team has one of the top drivers on the grid and can focus more on its own philosophy for engine development. Where do you think they will figure in the 2019 season?

Image via: @danielricciardo

Image via: @danielricciardo

SJ – I think if Renault is still committed to delivering the resources they’ve promised – and I think they are – they have a pretty good engineering group to rely on. The leadership of the team isn’t really F1 or racing people and that can lead to the wrong decision being made here or there. But I think they’ll be pretty strong.

JT – Further back on the grid are McLaren and Williams F1. McLaren made what some consider positive news with the hiring of Andreas Seidl, the ex-boss of Porsche in the WEC, as its new managing director. His arrival along with new drivers Carlos Sainz and rookie Lando Norris has created a small amount of momentum.

At Williams F1, the return of Robert Kubica to F1 alongside rookie George Russell is the main news. How do you think both teams will perform this year?

SJ – I think hiring Seidl is a very good move for McLaren. That should definitely help the whole program. But it will still take more time to rebuild everything there, even with Seidl coming aboard. An F1 team is like a big ocean-liner these days in terms of how long it takes to respond or change course. Once you make a policy decision or a philosophical decision on the design of a car it’s very hard to change direction. You kind of have to stick with what you’ve got which is what happened last year to McLaren with their aerodynamics. They discovered at some point early on that they went down the wrong avenue with aero and they were stuck.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to see Williams improving much. They made some poor decisions in previous years and I don’t think they have the resources or the budget to crawl out of the hole they are now in.

JT – Back at the front, Mercedes goes into 2019 with the same basic cast of people and will likely be strong again. Red Bull now has Max Verstappen as its clear number one driver with the departure of Ricciardo. They also have Honda stepping up, supplying them as well as Toro Rosso. How do you think these two will fare?

Image via: @lewishamilton

Image via: @lewishamilton

SJ – It will be the usual suspects up front, no question. Mercedes will be right there. Lewis is getting better and better every year and I don’t think he’s even close to his peak yet, which should be a huge concern to all the other teams and drivers. He’s the one driver who at the moment you can say with 100% certainty is really making the difference when it matters.  I think Red Bull, not necessarily this season but maybe by 2020, will be very strong. I’ve got a feeling as long as Honda is fully committed, and as I’ve been saying for three years now, they will eventually get it right. And when they get it right they will dominate.

With Red Bull it will only be a matter of time before they crack the code. I think we’ll see Red Bull, Honda and Verstappen totally dominating at some point in the next five years.

I think Verstappen really blossomed last year. He had a couple of bad races at the beginning of the season with some silly mistakes. But along the way it seems like something clicked and he’s now kind of figured it out. I think he’s at the point now where he can see the big picture. I think you’ll find that next to Lewis he’ll be the most complete driver among the guys out there. He’s going to be very hard to beat.

JT – In more refreshing racing news, IndyCar is looking stronger and stronger for 2019 and beyond. The series has signed a new title sponsor – Japanese tech firm NTT - continues its multi-year TV deal with NBC/NBC Sports which will now televise all IndyCar races including the Indy 500 and has gained a new presenting sponsor for the Indy 500 - insurance provider Gainbridge.

Logo via IndyCar

Logo via IndyCar

There’s talk of additional races with a return to Australia in 2020 and possibly Japan as well. Car count is up with grid numbers likely to be in the mid-20s. Ex-Formula One drivers and hot-shoes like Felix Rosenqvist are joining the series, and the level of competition should be higher than ever. What are your thoughts looking ahead to the 2019 season?

SJ – I’m excited about IndyCar. Jay Frye (IndyCar president) and his guys are doing a great job. They’re racers and they know the business inside and out. They’re pragmatic in their approach and I think the competition decisions that have been made have been great. It’s going from strength to strength.

And they’re doing it in increments. It’s not like knee-jerk wholesale changes. It’s just fine tuning it a little to make it better every year. I know they’ve also been trying hard to get a third manufacturer onboard. They’ve talked to everybody and I’m pretty confident that at some stage one of them will join, which would be great.

Amongst the top level racing series in the world, IndyCar is relatively affordable in the overall scheme of things and a very attractive proposition for any team or manufacturer to join. The support the manufacturers give definitely helps. If a third manufacturer joined in, then I think IndyCar would really take off. We are seeing more and more teams joining, and the grid is now limited by the engine supply more than anything. If there was a third engine manufacturer we would see even more teams joining.

We now also have two Swede’s in the series which is great for all the fans back home, I know both Felix and Markus are both fully committed to IndyCar and it will be exciting to see how they get on.

Image via @scottdixon9

Image via @scottdixon9

Scott in the meantime is quietly preparing to defend his title for the fifth time, and I fully expect him to come out just a little better than he was the previous year. He never stops to amaze me, the discipline and work ethic is incredible after so many years. He’s definitely one of the best in history in my opinion. The competition is getting stronger every year and he just keeps grinding away, racking up points and wins.

The Rosberg-Hamilton rivalry continues at the Austrian GP, Scuderia Corsa triumphed again & Chip Ganassi is inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame

Stefan Johansson

JT – Qualifying for the 2016 Austrian Grand Prix was a messy affair due to wet weather. Hamilton won the pole with Nico Rosberg 2nd. Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg and McLaren’s Jenson Button made the most of it qualifying in 3rd and 5th positions respectively.

However, Rosberg actually started from 7th after a five-place grid penalty for a gearbox change. Sebastian Vettel lost his 4th place qualifying effort due to the same penalty - a gearbox change - and had to start 9th. This allowed Hulkenberg and Button to actually start in 2nd and 3rd positions. The “penalties” for having to change a gearbox and other similar penalties for changing other components seem absurd. What’s your view?

SJ – The weather definitely helped to mix up the qualifying so it was hard to read anything into the pace of some of the cars but grid position is always important, although less so on most tracks since the introduction of DRS.  

You are correct that some of the rules they have introduced to F1 over the years are very confusing and make no sense in many ways. These grid penalties are a perfect example. I guess the intention when they introduced them was to bring costs down and discourage teams from bolting on a new engine or gearbox in every session or race, which was often the case back then. But of course, these rules make everything even more expensive because the engineering required being at such a high level to design and fabricate parts utilizing materials that last a long time.

But, what I don’t understand is that when you have an accident and damage an engine or gearbox, why should you be penalized? You’ve already suffered the penalty of having an accident. No one’s having an accident on purpose. So why should you get a penalty for replacing components damaged in an accident? This has nothing to do with reliability.

It makes no sense. If you crash in qualifying and can’t compete for the best grid position, you already have a penalty.

JT – Button ran well for McLaren finishing 6th but Fernando Alonso had yet another bad weekend with his McLaren-Honda failing to finish due to a “battery pack system failure”. Nico Hulkenberg went backward immediately, ultimately failing to finish, scored in 19th position.

SJ – Button had a strong weekend in general and McLaren is getting closer and closer although it’s taking some time. I still maintain that they will be a force to reckon with eventually. They have great people and great resources and it will all come together eventually.

Yes, Hulkenberg went backwards in a hurry. Obviously, his car wasn’t suited at all to race conditions. Perez had a tough race also.

We touched on this in the last blog also and it seems to be a very narrow window, especially in race trim, where the drivers and teams get it either right or wrong with their choice of tires, pressures and the general car set up. You’re either in the operating window or out it. Some cars just totally fall off the cliff while other cars suddenly get hooked up.

One of the Manors (Pascal Wehrlein finished 10th) for example was all of a sudden in the right range and it ran very competitive lap times. Pascal Wehrlein could not explain where the pace came from but the car was running very competitive all day. There’s a very weird dynamic with these tires and it seems much more prevalent this year than it’s ever been before.

JT – We’ve spoken about it previously but the racing in F1 remains hard to follow via television. The television broadcasts are very fragmented and the broadcasters do a poor job of keeping viewers informed about relative positions and circumstances facing cars and drivers throughout the field. Do you agree?

SJ – Yes, I find it incredibly hard to follow. With all of the pit stops and the cameras directed in what seems to be random fashion, you have real problems knowing what’s going on. There’s no real scoreboard or pit board that you can access as a TV viewer and it makes understanding the dynamic of the race very difficult. You almost need your laptop next to you with the online scoring board to be able understand the dynamics of the race. But you need to be real “anorak” to go that far.

It’s frustrating because you sit there really trying to pay attention to what’s going on and suddenly cars are missing or out of place from when you last saw them. I understand that some are pitting and others staying out but most often you don’t have any detailed information of what happened.

JT – The race’s main talking point was the incident between Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg on the final lap. Hamilton had drawn to within one second of Rosberg and used his DRS to catch Rosberg heading into Turn 2. As he attempted to overtake Rosberg, the two made contact. Rosberg’s car was damaged, resulting in his falling to 4th place. Hamilton’s car continued apace and he took the victory. What’s your view of their coming together yet again?

SJ – Poor old Nico seems to come up on the short end every single time the two of them have a get together. He seems to always have his car in the wrong place. It’s tricky, Lewis obviously has terrific race-craft there’s no doubt about that. He gets in a dogfight and generally comes out ahead. I guess the fact is that Lewis will simply not back down, under any circumstance. So, the only result is that he will either come out ahead or there will be contact, or sometimes both like in this case. It could have just as easily gone the other way where Lewis would have ended up with a wounded car. This makes it even more difficult for Rosberg as he knows by now that his options are very limited and there’s a very good chance they will make contact if they are fighting for the same piece of road.

But sometimes you’re the windshield and sometimes you’re the bug. You can have a year where every time you make a move it sticks and the other guy comes out on the short end. Then you do the same thing the next year and it goes wrong every single time. You end up with a broken car or a spin or whatever.

JT – The die seemed to be cast when Hamilton got within DRS range. Rosberg was a sitting duck and you knew any pass would be contested.

SJ – It’s one thing when you’re racing for second, third or fourth place and another when you’re racing for the win. If it’s for the win, you go for it. That’s how you’re programmed as a racing driver. You either have team orders or you let the drivers have a go.

It’s incredibly difficult because you’ve got two guys who are so close competitively in the best equipment, fighting for the win pretty much every race. It’s a perfect storm really. I don’t actually remember a dynamic quite like this – having two drivers in a team who are so close, always dominating and fighting for the win.

There was Prost and Senna of course but even that didn’t get as serious apart from one occasion at Suzuka. (A collision at the final chicane between Prost and Senna during the 1989 Japanese Grand Prix put them both off the track. Prost retired, Senna continued, taking the win. Following the race Senna was controversially disqualified for using the chicane's escape road to rejoin the circuit. Thus, Prost won the 1989 title.)

But most of the time their battles sorted themself out with one or the other being further ahead and separated in the races they each won. In 1988, McLaren were as dominant as Mercedes has been but it was never quite like this. I think a lot of that also had to do with the fact that they could not use the DRS function, which effectively makes the guy in front a sitting duck if you’re within 1 second or closer.

JT – If you look at the overtaking aids in Formula One and IndyCar - IndyCar seems to have a far better solution. Like you just said, with DRS in F1, every driver is a sitting duck when the following driver gets within one second. Push-to-Pass in IndyCar seems to be far superior as not only can the driver attempting an overtake use Push-to-Pass, the driver in front can use it defensively.

SJ – The IndyCar Push-to-Pass method is 100 percent better. Without DRS, the Hamilton-Rosberg incident would never have happened. I’ve never liked DRS from its institution. It’s a strange way to try to spice up the show. I don’t really think it’s fair and it doesn’t help the racing. If the driver behind gets within a second there’s nothing the lead driver can do. It has nothing to do with skill or bravery or whatever else is required to pass the guy in front. It’s lost the art of racing to very large degree in my opinion.

The IndyCar system is as close to perfect as you can get, I think. You can defend as well as attack and you only get so many attempts in a race. It’s up to you to distribute it and decide when and when not to use it. In addition, the public is informed of how many Push-to-Pass boosts are left for each driver. That makes it interesting. But in F1 the guy in front is completely helpless, waiting for the attack. It’s not fair and it doesn’t help the show at all.

This is the irony of F1. You have these insanely complicated, technically sophisticated, ridiculously expensive cars and then you add a crude wing opening system, which dumbs down the technology the series, emphasizes.

The other thing I don’t understand, we have these cars that are simply masterpieces of engineering, so sophisticated and complicated in every way in order to optimize every half a percent of performance from both the chassis and the “power units”, and then the series mandates the tire manufacturer to effectively build a crap tire to supposedly make the races more interesting. Then there’s the radio ban. Again, they allow the teams to develop this sophisticated and insanely expensive technology with endless options on the steering wheel to adjust the cars literally from corner to corner, and then you have to ban advice from the pits about how to use them because it effectively means that engineers are driving the car. Now they can’t even inform the driver if there’s a safety issue with the car. Perez had huge off because he was not aware his brakes were about to go, his team knew but were not allowed to communicate with him over the radio.

It defies all logic. Thank god the tracks are all so clinical and safe now. You could have had at least a couple broken legs otherwise.

JT – Meanwhile, Ferrari still struggling for pace against Mercedes, opted to keep Sebastian Vettel on super soft-compound tires for 27 laps. On lap 27, his right rear Pirelli exploded and he crashed out of the race.  It was a gamble that didn’t pay off.

SJ – We don’t know what happened yet, so it’s not really correct to comment, as it could have been something like debris or whatever that caused the tire to blow up in the first place.

JT – When you raced in F1 were the tires prone to these types of catastrophic failures?

SJ – What happened back then if anything was that tires would blister. But you could still carry on. It’s just that they lost so much performance that you basically had to pit for new tires. They didn’t delaminate or anything like that.

JT – Heading to Silverstone and the British Grand Prix, there’s an 11-point gap from Rosberg back to Hamilton. That lends some interest to the racing going forward but what gets lost is that Mercedes is still dominating. No one is close. 

SJ – A tight points battle like this is what Formula One needs… with a bit of hate and rivalry. That brings out the fans. But yes, Mercedes is still destroying everybody and it’s clear the title fight will become even more intense with every race going forward. This is all great for F1 though, all we need is for Ferrari and Red Bull to close the gap a bit more and we will have some very interesting races for the remainder of this season.

JT – Suspension failures were a recurring theme throughout the weekend in Austria. New curbing was installed at the Spielberg circuit in place of the astro-turf previously in place and it seemed to cause more problems than it solved.

SJ – Four big accidents from suspension failure is highly unusual. The thing is, every single track on the F1 schedule is like a dance floor now. There are no bumpy, rough circuits left. That’s part of how Formula One is today, every track is more or less perfect in every way. I’d like to see what would happen if they ran a current F1 car around a place like Sebring for example. It would probably have no wheels left after 10 laps! I’m only joking but it definitely adds to the challenge.

Dealing with the imperfections of all the cool old circuits used to be a big part of the racing and that’s what made them great. The fact that they were bumpy and horrible made them unpredictable and difficult. It made it a great challenge to get your set-up right and a great challenge to drive.

You had to be super precise over the bumps – to be able to feel them and lift at exactly the right moment and then get right back on power. When you felt the front tires hit a bump you mashed the throttle. By the time you got your foot down, the power would be coming on just as the rear tires passed over the bump. You could pick up two or three-tenths if you got it right. It was another added element of skill and it was a real challenge to get it right lap after lap during a race.

There are varying opinions on whether the rough circuits were a good thing or not but the current cars have been designed around these tabletop flat circuits so when they encounter taller curbs like in Austria they can’t cope.

I think Hamilton had a good point. Why not just bring back grass at the track edge like it used to be? That enforces the track limits automatically, because if you put a wheel on the grass you’re going to spin or at least loose enough speed for it to never give you an advantage which often is the case now. Just have grass for 20 feet from the track edge and then you could have asphalt and all that nonsense to catch the cars that go past that.

The point is, you won’t gain any time by going into the grass with all four wheels like you do now by keeping your foot in it over the curbs or even on the astro-turf. The Mercedes accident in Austria would most likely have been avoided as Lewis would have never attempted to go on the outside as there would not have been enough room to carry the speed through the exit.

As it is now, everyone is abusing the track limit rule and there is no enforcement. If you have all four wheels past the white line, there should be an automatic penalty as far as I’m concerned, end of story, just as you can’t cross the blend line leaving the pits. It will take a few races of screaming and shouting, but if everyone knows where the limit is, everyone will very soon fall into line and that will then become the norm. As it is, the tracks are already designed this way and I can’t see a good solution to fix the problem any other way. If the ball is past the white line in Tennis it’s out, I don’t see why they can’t enforce the same rule in motor racing.

JT – IMSA raced at the newly repaved Watkins Glen last week. Scuderia Corsa triumphed again, following up success at Le Mans with a GTD win for the No. 63 Ferrari 488 GT3. The team is really in good form.

SJ – They’re having an incredible season. It’s fantastic to see. The 488 is obviously a great car. What they’ve always been really good at is strategy. Between Giacomo [Mattioli] and the engineers, they have always done a better job than anyone else; they’re just doing a superb job. That’s how we won the Championship at Petit Le Mans last year too, by simply understanding the rulebook better than the rest and thinking on their feet during the race. They snookered everybody and won the championship.

JT – In the GTLM class the Ford GTs dominated once again. Only the RLL BMWs could get close to them. Finally, IMSA is going to adjust the balance-of-performance, having announced additional weight and a boost reduction for the Fords while others get weight breaks and larger restrictors for this weekend’s race at Mosport.

SJ – Yes, the BoP saga continues, I so wish there was a different way to sort all this out. I hope they will eventually find a way to make everyone happy.

JT – In related news, Chip Ganassi was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame last week. What a career he’s had with 11 IndyCar titles, multiple Indy 500 wins, Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 wins, six Rolex 24 wins and now a GTLM class victory at Le Mans.

SJ – You’ve got to admire and respect what he’s accomplished over the years. His team has won pretty much every major racing event and series in the world, in every category except Formula One.

His Hall of Fame induction is well deserved. Having been able to observe his teams at close range, he’s the dream team owner for a driver. He gives you every bit of support and every tool you would ever need to be able to win. There are no compromises and no excuses.

I couldn’t think of a better owner to drive for. I only drove for him for one year (2005 GRAND-AM Season with teammate Cort Wagner) but having been around Scott [Dixon] all these years you can see it’s a really amazing operation. The people he has around him are all top talent and the best in the business. His leadership is very impressive in that he understands the business inside and out, he’s passionate about his team and he gives his people all the tools and motivation they need to perform at all levels within the organization.


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Misfortune and controversy at the 84th running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, F1 Canadian & European Grand Prix

Stefan Johansson

JT – The 84th running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans was a compelling event, notable in terms of history, misfortune and controversy. You were on hand with Scuderia Corsa and Scott Dixon who made his first start at Le Mans with the Chip Ganassi Ford program. Both teams had a fantastic race, winning the GTE and the GTE AM categories handily.

Interestingly, Bell and Sweedler have now won the Daytona 24, Sebring 12 Hours and Le Mans 24 as teammates. Segal has won all three as well. What did you think of the Scuderia Corsa team’s performance in just their second year at Le Mans?

SJ – What a difference a year makes. Although that’s kind of typical for Le Mans. It’s such a daunting track on your first visit. If you’re not prepared and already know what to expect it takes time to get up to speed there – for the drivers and also the teams. When you do it for the first time, you start to get the hang of it halfway through the race, once you have a couple of stints under your belt you start getting into a rhythm and little by little it all comes together and the lap times suddenly start coming down. Practice is generally a disaster your first time there because you get very little seat time with three drivers sharing the car, and the fact that each lap is almost four minutes long. If you’re not qualifying you will go into the race with probably less than 15-20 laps of practice beforehand. If the car is not well balanced and handling close to your liking it makes it very difficult.

This year all three drives came back with a clear frame of mind. I don’t think I’ve ever been involved in a Le Mans where there was so little drama from beginning to the end. The car ran perfectly from the first lap and handled really well. There were no mishaps or incidents either in practice or the race. The drivers did their bit perfectly and everybody was happy with the way the car was handling which makes a huge difference.

During the race everyone just got on with the job. Everybody did exactly what they were supposed to do, all three drivers were very fast and not one mistake from any of the drivers. We didn’t have a single unscheduled pit stop the whole race. That’s how you win endurance races of course, spending all the time on track and not in the pits. The execution was flawless by everyone on the team and most importantly by the guys in the car. It was great to be a part of.

JT – What was the overall atmosphere at the circuit like this year? There seemed to be a great anticipation for the race.

SJ – It was very upbeat overall. Every year the event seems to be getting a little bit bigger and better. There was another huge crowd and a tremendous atmosphere. Everyone was excited and it was everything you expect Le Mans to be. It’s just like the Indy 500, steeped in tradition and procedures that no other race has, or would ever get away with. Starting with the scrutineering on the Sunday or Monday prior to the race, which means you have been there almost a week before the race even starts. It’s a fantastic event and for everyone involved and the build up over the week is a huge part of it. The manufacturers are spending a fortune not just on the racing but also on the activation around the track. I don’t think there’s any sport or event that actually comes close to the set up Audi and Porsche have around the track, it’s incredibly impressive.

JT – One of the biggest stories was the heartbreak for Toyota in LMP1. Their cars had led most of the race and looked fast and very reliable. The No. 2 Porsche 919 was their only competition. The No. 6 Toyota had a setback when Kamui Kobayashi spun into a gravel trap after dawn but otherwise this looked like Toyota’s race to win.

Then on the penultimate lap, the No.5 TS050 Hybrid with Kazuki Nakajima at the wheel ground to a halt on the main straight due to a turbo component failure. With minutes to go the No.2 Porsche took the win. Toyota, having made numerous attempts at Le Mans came up short once again. It was Porsche’s 18th overall victory. Mazda remains the only Japanese manufacturer to have won overall.

What are your thoughts on the late race drama?

SJ – It was shocking in a way and gut wrenching to watch the car stop on the very last lap. Like every single person in the place I just felt so bad for them. It’s just unfathomable that the car would break with three minutes to go. They had done such a great job the whole race and really, I think they took everyone by surprise. Both the drivers and the team had done a phenomenal job. I’m sure will take them a while to get over this.

JT – It could be said that Toyota had an “Audi-esque” performance. On the other hand, Audi didn’t look like the Audi we’ve known at Le Mans. Both of their cars had reliability problems and issues on-track. The only reason they kept their streak of podium finishes alive is because the No. 5 Toyota was not classified.

SJ – It was strange. Qualifying was a bit weird overall anyway because of the weather. It was unrepresentative of a lot of the cars pace so we didn’t know where Audi was really. As it turned out, they never really featured in the race.

Of course, Porsche had a problem too with one its cars. It’s seems to be the nature of the beast now though. The P1 cars are getting so incredibly complicated with all of the systems they have and the technology is relatively new which all contributes to more reliability problems of course. I was given a tour around the Audi garage on Saturday morning. Their setup is just mind-boggling. It makes even Formula One look like club racing in comparison. It’s truly unbelievable how far it has come in recent years.

JT – Moving on to the GTE class, controversy still surrounds Ford’s historic win with the new GT. There were three Fords in the top four finishing positions with the Ganassi Team USA cars as the chief rivals - finishing first and third - for Ferrari’s entries from Risi Competizione and AF Corse. The American-fielded Risi 488 GTE finished second in class.

Both the winning No. 68 Ford GT and the No. 82 Risi Ferrari received post-race penalties with Ganassi and Risi protesting each other. A further investigation is pending on whether the Ford GTs were outside the ACO’s “7 Percent Rule” which is enforced to establish a minimum buffer in performance between classes.

Balance of Performance adjustments made after the Le Mans test day and then again just before the race affected the Fords and Ferrari’s least. Many of the other teams opined that the ACO was favoring Ford and Ferrari. Fords accounted for eight of the top ten fastest laps during the race and took four of the top five spots in qualifying, besting the top normally-aspirated car by nearly four seconds.

Their pace during the race was impressive. Much of this can be attributed to the driver line-ups and professionalism of Ganassi Racing. But observers both in the paddock and outside it have questioned the politics behind the BoP for the race and the outright pace of the Ford GTs. What’s your take?

SJ – Well first of all, the 488 has been winning races all year leading up to Le Mans. It’s a fantastic car, and so is the Ford.

It’s not just a question of weight, horsepower, aerodynamics, etc. There are so many other factors. Obviously a production Ferrari is far more inclined to be a great race car than a Corvette or an Aston Martin – just by the way the car is built. Then take the Ford GT, it’s half the height of any of the other cars so it will obviously cut through the air a lot better. It’s a different type of car and in my opinion it sets a precedent for how manufacturers are going to have to look at GT racing in the future.

As I’ve said many times, I don’t like the BoP. I can’t give an answer as to what should be done other than to un-restrict the cars but lots of people disagree with me. The bottom line with the BoP is that there’s always going to be only one team happy with it – the team on top of the podium. The rest will always think they’re being shafted.

Let’s face it, everybody is playing the game to a degree, it’s a sensitive subject obviously and frankly I don’t think you can ever find a happy medium that will suit everybody on every track. Clearly every manufacturers goal is to win Le Mans first of all, and I think some cars are more suitable to this kind of track than others. I think all you have to do is look at the design and shape of each car to figure out which one looks more suitable to achieve this goal compared to some of the others.

Don’t forget as well that the driver combinations that  the Ganassi US operation had were beyond what any other team had in my opinion. All of this adds up. And the GT was built to be quick at Le Mans specifically. I think you also have to give a considerable amount of credit to Chip Ganassi’s team for figuring out what needed to be done. They’ve never been to Le Mans before and they show up and basically clean up. From my point of view I would have loved to see Scott win of course but it didn’t pan out that way unfortunately, his car got separated from the leading bunch on one of the early safety cars and the gap basically remained the same throughout the race, everyone was running so close to each other on pace among the top three cars that it was impossible to make up enough time. He did get fastest lap and a new lap record for the GT category, which was impressive for his first visit to the track.

JT – That’s a good segue to another question that may arise for manufacturers in the GTE/GTLM class in the future. Ford has made it clear that they designed the new GT as a race car first and a production car second. GTE and GTLM are “production-based” classes. Yes, their adherence to the actual road-going versions of the cars raced is far from complete but it looks as if Ford has moved even further from the production-based formula. What might that mean going forward?

SJ – Again, I think there a number of factors, not just horsepower, weight, aero and the rest. It’s how you look at a car like this philosophically – how you take into consideration weight distribution, center of gravity, suspension design. But the more competitive anything gets, the further the goal post will be moved and it’s fair to assume we may see some different looking cars from some of the manufacturers in the future, if they are serious about winning at Le Mans.

JT – The increasing pace of the GTE class, particularly as demonstrated by Ford, brings us back to the points you’ve made previously about the potential lap times GTE cars could achieve if restrictions upon them were removed. The Ford GTs are already closing in on LMP2 lap times.

SJ – Yes, when you see the money that’s being spent on the P1 factory teams it makes your eyes water – it’s insane. It’s the same level as the top teams in Formula One now. The road car versions of the race cars in GTE/GTLM have almost 250 more horsepower than the race cars with all of the restrictions in place on them.

If you gave them back that power for a start that would make their lap times probably six seconds per lap quicker, I reckon. There’s no question they could be in 3 minute 40s very quickly. That’s kind of where the ACO feels the fastest cars in the field should be. So rather than restricting them why not simply let them loose and see what times they will be able to get down to. It would make the racing spectacular in my opinion.

The amount of grip the LMP1s have in the corners is simply unbelievable. Even in the rain when it’s coming down significantly their turn-in is just as fast as in the dry. The cars literally do not move. You rarely see a P1 car get out of shape. They’re stuck like Scalextric slot cars.

If you increased the tire widths on the GTE cars along with the added power - the aero could almost stay the same – they might go eight to ten seconds quicker over a lap within a couple years.

You’d have every manufacturer who wants to compete on a serious level be able to build a car that would fit the purpose. People might say that the costs will go through the roof but they won’t get anything near as expensive as building and developing a P1 car. And at least you’d be able to sell the same car to a customer racing team, to offset some of the development costs.

It could be like it was back in 1980s with the factory Porsches and then customer teams with the same cars but maybe slightly different than the factory machines. You had the three factory Rothmans cars (Porsche 956s) and about 25 privateers running the cars as well in the 80s. The factory cars will always be a bit faster than the privateers in most cases, but it would still be a lot better than the gap we have now between the P1 factory cars and the 2 privateer teams.

JT – The ACO has reversed its stated plan to allow teams with IMSA-specific engines to compete in the LMP2 class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Next year only LMP2 cars with the new global-spec Gibson engine, as well as grandfathered prototypes, will be allowed to compete at Le Mans.

Obviously that splits the global sports car racing scene once more. It has certainly happened many times in the past but fans hoped the two P2 formulas could race together.

SJ – Yes, well like a lot of people I get tired of even listening to the debate. I just find it sad that the two sides can’t figure out a way to do this together so that everyone could run the same cars. It’s already hard to come by sponsorship for sports car racing and it would make a lot more sense if they could agree to one set of rules.

JT – You were on hand for the Canadian Grand Prix. Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes took the win after Ferrari pursued a questionable pit strategy. What did you think of the race?

SJ – Mercedes obviously made the right call in Montreal or maybe it was Ferrari who made the wrong call and Mercedes had to cover by doing the opposite which in this case worked out perfect for them. It seems like every other team is up and down in terms of their performance or tactics from one weekend to the other. Nobody has the consistency Mercedes has in every single race.

If you look at Ferrari, we have yet to see them properly execute a race weekend in its entirety where everything runs smoothly from Friday to Sunday. So it’s hard to get a reading on what their real pace actually is.

When you have momentum as Mercedes does, it’s a lot easier but even they screwed up at Monaco last year so it can happen to anyone. There’s no doubt that the other teams are getting closer, but week in, week out, the Mercedes is still the fastest car and the strongest team.

JT – In the most recent round, the European Grand Prix, Mercedes won again – this time with Nico Rosberg dominating the race. Lewis Hamilton had electronics issues during the grand prix but his weekend was compromised in qualifying.

SJ – Obviously, Rosberg had everything together. Lewis’ weekend kind of fell apart from qualifying forward and everyone else seemed to have a fraught day. Obviously his electronics and subsequent radio issues didn’t help him any.

The tires seems to play a bigger part in every teams performance where some teams manage to get it right and others are completely out to lunch, then the next weekend it’s someone completely different who either gets it right or not. Which comes back to my earlier argument that they should allow for more than one tire company to compete. The tires are such a huge part of a race cars performance, and if there’s one area which is completely neglected as far as innovation goes it’s the tires. Now we have one manufacturer who’s basically been mandated to build a crap tire in order to spice up the show. Yet there’s probably more to learn in that area than anything we will ever learn about aerodynamics. And, it will cost the teams a lot less in development costs, they would have to bring back more track testing which everyone seems to want, rather than the endless simulator testing that everyone is now forced to do since the ban of in season testing. There are three major components that dictate a cars performance, Chassis, Engine and Tires. Both the Chassis and Engine are open for anyone who wants to compete, so why not also the tires?

JT- Finally, we had the Indycar series return to Road America last weekend. It seemed like the race had a great turn out with fans from all over the country coming back to this classic venue. The race gave us plenty of action although it didn’t turn out great for Scott this time.

SJ- Yes, it’s great to see there is a genuine resurgence for Indycar right now. I think the series is doing a really good job at bringing back some of these classic venues but what’s even better is the fact that the fans are responding. There is no doubt that Indycar has finally got some real momentum and more and more fans are now becoming aware that the series is producing what may be the best racing in the world. Elkhart Lake proved to be no different, it was a great race packed with action from start to finish. Unfortunately for Scott it ended early with an engine failure. If you add Detroit where he also dropped out with an engine failure while leading it makes it two races where he could have potentially scored big. This is obviously not helping the Championship but at least he’s still in the hunt although it’s becoming more difficult to close the gap with each race that goes by.