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Filtering by Tag: Liberty Media

Red Bull, Honda and Verstappen, Beginning of a New Era? Exciting Races in Both F1 and IndyCar

Eric Graciano

#SJblog 103

JT – Formula One has staged three Grand Prix since we last chatted for the blog. The most significant news off-track is reporting that the FIA and Liberty Media plan to adopt ground effects for the 2021 cars. The goal is to do away with many of the complex aerodynamic devices found atop the cars currently. Instead there will be a simplified, less sensitive front wing and a series of Venturi tunnels feeding a deep twin diffuser that will produce much of the car’s downforce. The concept is reminiscent of the ground effects F1 cars that raced between 1979 and 1983, and similar to what the Dallara’s currently fielded in Indy Car employ to produce downforce. 

The FIA says the combination of ground effects, simpler aerodynamics and front wheel deflectors will all work together to help cars to follow each other much closer. In addition, the series will feature low-degradation tires that have far less drop off than the current high-degradation tires from Pirelli. The changes are similar to what you have been arguing for, for several years now, though they don’t go as far. What do you think of the changes?

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SJ – Some of the points in their plan are similar what I’ve been suggesting for a while, which is not surprising as it’s just common sense really. What’s interesting is that they (Liberty Media] actually did the exercise that I’ve been asking about for some time now – which is to paint all of the cars white and then see if anyone can tell them apart. Apparently there were only three people in their office who could tell the difference between them. I think the comments I’ve made for a while are now becoming clear to lots of people, I’m not trying to say that I’m the only who thought of this as I’m obviously not, but if the engineers and technicians can’t even tell the cars apart it’s safe to assume that not very many of the millions of fans will be able to.

Their proposal to maintain the level of downforce with more ground effects rather than getting all of the downforce from the top of the car looks better but I still think as long as you have a car that relies primarily on aerodynamics for its performance – which the cars will even with ground effects – I don’t think you’ll ever get rid of the problem of turbulent air. Computer modeling, wind tunnels and everything else the aerodynamicists have can never simulate well enough what’s going to happen in the real world. Once cars are on track together there are so many factors which upset the ideal circumstances they have when they use CFD (computational fluid dynamics) and wind tunnels.

I still strongly believe that a huge reduction on aerodynamic downforce which is then countered by less weight, more tire grip and more power is the way to go to retain the same performance we see now but with much better racing and more interesting cars to watch both on the track and estethically.

JT – Apparently, F1 hopes to reach agreement with teams about the new rules by September 15. But how likely is that? And how much of what they’ve proposed will be negotiated away?

SJ – If they’re waiting for a set of rules that everyone will agree on, it will never happen. They can continue to have meetings until the year 3000, and nothing will change apart from some minor pointless details. They need to get the teams and the engineers out of the decision-making process. It should be up to the governing body and the commercial rights holders to come up with a set of fair rules that make sense to everyone who participates, not just the top two or three teams – something that’s more controllable and makes sense financially for all participants. If the teams don’t trust the people that is running the championship they shouldn’t take part in the first place. As soon as the teams get involved it’s inevitable that they will serve their own interests first and as such we end up with a grid-lock and eventually a set of rules that is full of compromises mostly in order to please the manufacturer teams. Teams and manufacturers always come and go, Ferrari being the only exception, which makes it even more important that they will come up with a well thought out set of rules that will stay in place for a considerable amount of time, as this is always the best way to control both the level of competition and the costs. Rules stability have always proven to be the most efficient way for a successful series.

JT - The races at Red Bull Ring, Silverstone, and Hockenheim featured more action than the season’s preceding eight races. Red Bull racing’s Max Verstappen took the win in Austria after overtaking Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc two laps before the checkered flag – the first victory for a team other than Mercedes in 2019.

In England, Lewis Hamilton won, taking his seventh victory in 10 races. Teammate Valtteri Bottas led from pole and looked to have control of the race until a safety car was called for Antonio Giovinazzi’s Alfa Romeo which spun off. Hamilton dived into the pits, essentially getting a free pit stop, and leap-frogged Bottas. Behind, Charles Leclerc and the two Red Bulls fought for the podium. 

In Germany, rain came, leading to a variety of errors from drivers and teams. Max Verstappen survived a spin and five trips to pit lane for wet, medium and dry tires to win the race. Mercedes’ Hamilton and Bottas both spun off track in the wet with Bottas’ off ending his race. Hamilton finished 11th on track after multiple offs and a penalty for entering pit road beyond a cone denoting its limit. Post-race penalties to the Alfa Romeos of Kimi Raikkonen and Giovinazzi promoted him to 9th. Sebastian Vettel stayed on track to finish an unexpected 2nd after starting from the back of the grid. Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat rounded out the podium with Racing Point’s Lance Stroll finishing 4th.

Following the races, Liberty Media’s Ross Brawn said the excitement they provided was a great response to the “vitriolic criticism” of F1 this season. But of course, the only reason Hockeheim had any “excitement” was because of rain. What’s your impression of the last three races?

SJ – Yes, the last three have all been terrific races with plenty of action and some surprising results, especially the last one at Hockenheim. F1 typically has two or three great races every year – always when the unknown enters into them - weather conditions or something else that can’t be simulated or predicted beforehand. Taking the predictability out of the racing is exactly what we’re looking for. The race at Hockenheim was a classic example of this. It was simply that the rain came and went and the teams had to adjust accordingly. Most of them got it wrong at least one and some of them many times. I think they changed tires like five times. But nevertheless it turned out to be a very entertaining race to watch, with several surprises in the end result. It’s great to have a race like this once in a while regardless of what the category is, but wouldn’t it be great if every race could come down to drivers competing hard on the track in equal cars, and different strategies on both fuel and tires played a big part of the end result. 

Austria started out being kind of boring and then it came down to the tire situation. Verstappen was on fresher tires and he was catching everyone hand-over-fist. At every race, whoever can make the tires work is so much quicker than the rest. The Red Bull chassis are always very  good too and the Honda engineers are really starting to get the job done.

I think this result is the beginning of a new era. As I said a year ago when the switch from McLaren to Red Bull happened, eventually Red Bull, Verstappen and Honda will dominate, probably for four or five years once they get it right, which they will. When Honda is committed they always get it right in the end, and once they do they are very hard to stop. I think the combination of Verstappen, Red Bull and Honda might be the new Dream Team that will be very hard to beat in the next 5 year period, as long as all the main people stay committed. 

Ferrari continued having their problems at Hockenheim too. Both cars had issues in qualifying for Hockenheim and then in the race they were better. Vettel did a great job moving forward with some brilliant moves especially in the first few laps. Leclerc got schooled by Verstappen in Austria and realized he had to roll up his sleeves and get a bit more aggressive. I think he did a great job at Silverstone (Leclerc finished 3rd) but obviously he made a mistake at Hockenheim, like several others did in the same spot. I think they all got caught out by how incredibly slippery the track surface was once you got into the runoff area, under normal circumstances theirs is no real change in the grip level once you go into the runoff, but here it was like ice.

There was more dicing at Silverstone and the Red Bull Ring. Maybe it’s the nature of those tracks because they’re fast and flowing. There aren’t really any stop-and-start corners at either track. And with the amount of downforce the cars have now, you don’t really have to be on the racing line to carry the speed through the corners. It’s almost like oval racing, the way they drive around some of these corners – one car on the outside and the other on the inside, doing the same speed. Normally if you’re not on-line you lose your pace. We’re seeing some outside passes that we didn’t see before at a few of the tracks, which is great to watch, so maybe the high downforce is actually working better in that regard at these specific tracks and corners. It certainly provided some great racing and passing.

Bottas did a good job at Silverstone but the safety car just came at the wrong time. It certainly worked in Lewis’ favor and he obviously got a bit lucky which he admitted. But when things are going your way, almost everything you do seems to work. When they’re not, everything you try seems to go wrong. Vettel on the other hand is definitely on the flip side of that cycle. I also don’t think Vettel is comfortable with the car now. 

I don’t think he’s ever been really comfortable with the cars of this era – the hybrid cars. They clearly don’t suit his driving style. I don’t think he can get the cars to operate the way he wants them to, to have confidence and be comfortable with them. The Red Bull he had with the blown diffuser and everything, it obviously suited his driving style perfectly.

JT – You think Mercedes set up was wrong for both drivers at Hockenheim?

SJ – It looked to me like Hamilton and Bottas had very similar problems. They went off at the same corner in almost identical circumstances where the rear just snapped without even a wiggle, it just went into a full spin immediately. That would lead me to believe something wasn’t right with their cars. Whatever set-up they had was affected worse than anyone else, maybe the car bottomed out in that particular spot or something else went wrong. It seems strange though that both drivers would do identical mistakes in exactly the same place in the same corner.

JT – Whatever the case was for Mercedes and the rest at Hockenheim, the Indy Car race at Mid-Ohio was far more exciting. There was fantastic racing throughout the field. Scott Dixon won after some terrific dices with Will Power and even his own teammate Felix Rosenqvist. It was proper nail-biting racing. 

Source: @scottdixon9

Source: @scottdixon9

Congratulations go to all of the guys on the podium with Scott finishing on top, Felix in 2nd place and Ryan Hunter Reay in 3rd. But special congratulations to you. You’ve had a role in all three drivers’ careers. Of course, you manage both Scott and Felix. And though many may not remember, Ryan Hunter Reay came into Indy Car racing with your American Spirit Team Johansson in 2003. Ironically, Hunter Reay’s first-ever Indy Car podium came with your team at that season’s Mid-Ohio round where he finished 3rd! He went on to win the 2003 season-ending race at Surfer’s Paradise, Australia.

SJ – Yes, even when you have three great races in F1, you turn on Indy Car on any weekend and the race is nearly always a nail biter which is rarely over until the last few laps. Every race ends up being exciting right until the end. Mid-Ohio was another brilliant race! Felix was on a different strategy than Scott. Rossi and Newgarden and Power were on different strategies and everyone was racing hard on track, and it went right to the finish line with only 0.09 separating the first two cars. If F1 ever had one race like that people would go ballistic!

When Felix and Scott were racing each other at the end, I seriously thought I was getting a heart attack! I was freaking out but it was great! For me personally it was fantastic obviously to see them get a 1-2. And I believe that’s the first 1-2 finish Ganassi has had in Indy Car since Scott raced with Dario [Franchitti]. And with Ryan finishing third as well it was an amazing day.

JT – Even the previous round, on a completely different type of track – the short oval at Iowa Speedway – was exciting and unpredictable. Scott had a very difficult night with the car not responding to a host of set-up changes and was running in 16th place. But pit strategy and a caution flag at the right moment late in the race allowed him to charge up to 2nd place! Josef Newgarden won the rain-delayed race and was doing donuts 1:15 am central time

SJ – It was a crazy race and I still can’t believe Scott managed to pull his way back to 2nd after being a couple of laps down at one point, but again, this is what makes Indycar the best racing in the world right now, it has all the right ingredients for close and unpredictable racing. As far as the competition side of the business goes, they are doing pretty much everything right. The only thing I’m having a hard time to understand is the lapped car rule, where the backmarkers can still race the leaders even when they are about to go a lap down. I don’t think it’s fair that they should be able to effect the outcome of the race. If it’s not your day, you should just move over and let the leaders continue to fight until the end, rather than getting caught up for laps behind someone who’s over a second a lap slower. 

JT – Haas F1 continues to struggle on track. Their car, the VF-19, is obviously part of the problem. But the drivers are another liability this year. Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen can’t seem to stop running into each other. They have an open rivalry of course but what’s taken place between them at nearly every race of the season seems illogical. Gunter Steiner recently said he was more than frustrated with their behavior and shouldn’t have to be mediating between them when he should be focused on making the car and team better. Why not sack both Grosjean and Magnussen and perhaps replace them with Indy Car drivers?

SJ – Unfortunately for them, the situation at Haas is almost comical. I can see it being justified if they are fighting for the lead or the championship, like Lewis and Nico was a few years back, but I think even those two had better discipline and race craft than the Haas guys do. It’s ridiculous to be fighting as teammates over 10th position and keep bouncing into each other race after race. Something’s not right there. These guys just have no race craft. And how much patience can Haas have, it’s not like either of them are World Champion material or ever will be? Haas shouldn’t have to be thinking about them in addition to making the car better or whatever else, if you are paid driver you are there to enhance the overall performance of the team, not give them an added headache to deal with pretty much every weekend. 

If any of these guys were to race in Indycar, not just the Haas guys but in general, they would have to make some major adjustments in order to be competitive. Execution is everything in Indy Car. If you or the team get one thing wrong you lose several positions immediately and fighting your way back from that is almost impossible as close as the racing is. And at most of the tracks you don’t have run-off areas where you can rejoin the rack after bouncing off someone else or missing the apex, so if you tangle or have to go off track for any reason, your day is pretty much over. 

The irony is that F1 teams are now considering guys like Pato O’Ward who left to join Red Bull in Super Formula in Japan and Colton Herta is being considered by a number of teams. Both of them are super talented but if you look at what they have done in Indy Car – for an F1 team to consider them kind of sums up the mentality of Formula 1. Neither one of them is ready for F1. They have one good race in Indy Car and then a series of others with mistakes or poor execution. It’s the most bizzare situation at the moment, where Formula One has now become some kind of training ground for young talented drivers. Every now and then you will find a Unicorn, like Hamilton or Verstappen for example, but for everyone of those there’s a graveyard of other really talented drivers that got spat out of the system very early on for a variety of reasons but primarily because they simply weren’t ready either mentally or technically. 

But this is how they think in F1. It’s all about really young and fast drivers. If you’re over 20 years old, no one in F1 will even look at you it seems. I don’t understand why they wouldn’t be patient and take a driver who’s 23, 24 or 25 years old who’s had four or five years of hard racing behind them duking it out in other series and has shown that they’re a proven winner. 

JT – That’s a great point. Why wouldn’t F1 teams be looking at relatively young Indy Car drivers like Josef Newgarden or Alexander Rossi? Rossi’s been in F1 before but only with a back-marker team. Both guys are proven winners. Newgarden already has an Indy Car championship under his belt (2017) and Rossi is a threat at every race. Both are competitive with the series’ most decorated and experienced racers like Scott Dixon, Will Power, Ryan Hunter Reay, etc. Felix Rosenqvist is another possibility. He’s really beginning to show his talent in Indy Car. 

SJ – Absolutely, I couldn’t agree more. These guys have been in Europe in the early days of their careers and now they’ve been racing hard for a few years and have a lot more experience. Now is the time that F1 teams should be looking at them not when they started their careers over there and had virtually no experience with either the tracks or the people they were racing against.

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.

Bernie Ecclestone leaves F1: the End of an Era

Eric Graciano

- #SJblog 82 -

JT – The New Year is underway and as the Rolex 24 have just kicked it off, we begin another season of the #SJBLOG.

We’ll continue to discuss all that is fun, fantastic and occasionally frustrating on the global racing stage. We invite you to join us for what should be a very interesting year in Formula One, IndyCar, sports car racing and more.

Times are definitely changing in F1 with the ownership transfer of the series to Liberty Media and the departure of Bernie Ecclestone as F1 CEO. It’s the end of an era and the beginning of something different. Opinions on Ecclestone’s reign vary but two things are certain:

Bernie pushed the series forward to new heights and is the one person most responsible for what F1 has become in the modern era. He also the only leader the overwhelming majority of the F1 paddock has ever known – a figure central to the environment in which teams, drivers, circuits and manufacturers have functioned for decades. What are your thoughts on Bernie’s exit?

SJ – Well, it was to be expected of course with the new ownership but it’s still a very major end of an era. Since any of us can remember Formula One has been synonymous with Bernie. It seems like nothing in modern times in almost any capacity has ever happened without his involvement. Teams, drivers, promoters, TV, you name it – every little detail and every brick in that business has been laid by him.

It was a weird feeling when I first heard of the announcement and talking with other friends from Formula One it seems that everyone agrees that it’s kind of sad, he’s been like a grandfather to all of us. The change is definitely a big deal. I can’t think of anyone in the paddock now who was there before Bernie. It will be very interesting to see what happens. Personally I feel that Liberty might have been better off by keeping Bernie on-board for a few more years and ease into the ownership by learning or studying how things got done rather than cutting the cord and starting with a clean sheet right away. If I had the opportunity to work next to what is arguably one of the best deal-makers in history, not only in F1 but in general, I would certainly jump at the opportunity. The devil is always in the detail and Mr. E was the only one in that organization that had an intimate knowledge of every little detail. Those are some big shoes to fill for sure.

JT – Indeed they are. Liberty Media has a fairly impressive team. Chase Carey is now CEO while ex-ESPN executive Sean Bratches will direct the commercial side of the series. Ross Brawn returns to F1 with Liberty in charge of the sporting side of the series as managing director, motor sports. 

SJ – I think it’s great that they’ve gotten Ross involved on the technical and sporting side. You couldn’t find a better guy as he’s probably the only designer or engineer that also has a very clear and deep understanding of the business side of F1. Hopefully he will be able to simplify many of the things that have gotten far too complicated over the past years.

On the other hand, there’s been a lot of talk that everything needs to change. But I don’t think anyone really has the answer whether it’s on the digital side, the sporting side or the commercial side. What is the actual answer to all of this?

It may be easy to recognize what’s wrong but fixing it all is something else. That’s the critical part going forward. I’m not underestimating the people at Liberty Media. They’ve been extremely successful in everything they’ve done. And they’ve have already been smart enough to surround themselves with good people so one would hope that the right decisions will be made.

But I believe F1 is at a stage right now where if you make another two or three wrong decisions in important areas I don’t know how much longer it will be interesting or relevant for the fans - or for the teams too for that matter. Aside from the manufacturers, every team is on the limit financially already. With new rules again for this year the costs will certainly not go down, most likely they will increase yet again as all the teams had to start with an almost clean sheet as far as the chassis go.  How do you control the costs? There are so many different aspects and at the same time you may not want to do too many things. Ross has already talked about a 3-5 year plan on the technical side, and that’s a good sign for sure. But then there’s all the other commercial aspects of the business that needs to be dealt with. I don’t think anyone truthfully has the correct answer or the right way forward in this area simply because things are changing at such a high rate today. It’s very tricky to say the least. All sports are dealing with the same problems, people were quite happy to sit through a 2-3 hour sporting event in the past, because it was the only game in town, not so anymore, except for the very big events like the Superbowl or the Soccer World Cup for example.

JT – Chase Carey made the comment that he wants every race to turn into a “Superbowl” with the event starting the week prior to the Grand Prix. Do you think there is enough interest in some of the markets to make this work?

SJ – We have two very definite Superbowl equivalents in Motor Racing already, the Indy 500 and the Le Mans 24 hours, they are both massive events. Monaco probably falls into the same category although they can’t pack in the same amount of people due to the sheer size of the venue as they do at Indianapolis in particular.  I don’t know how well they have studied each individual market but in some other places it is already like a Super Bowl kind of atmosphere. The build up is starting very early and the entire City comes alive when the GP comes into town. Montreal for example is a great example of this, there’s an incredible atmosphere there, Singapore, Monaco and some others too. But there is generally a common denominator in all these cases and it’s the location of the track. If the track is located in a major city or very nearby it sort of just happens organically. But, when you have to drive for an hour or more and the hotels near the track are spread over a 100 mile radius it’s difficult to get a Superbowl atmosphere because there is no focal point. And this is the problem with a lot of the venues on any racing calendar. Indycar is exactly the same, all the city races are huge, with large crowd and great atmosphere. As for the TV numbers I am not sure they would get anything close to what they have for the Super Bowl if there was one every two weeks in F1. It’s a completely different thing and maybe that’s partly what’s lacking in F1. Monaco is for sure more prestigious to win than any other Grand Prix, but it’s nowhere close to Indianapolis or Le Mans in terms of the amount of spectators or the build up beforehand.

JT – In comments earlier this week, Liberty commercial chief Sean Bratches outlined four areas that the organization will prioritize to improve the sport. The third concerns the approach Liberty will take to managing the series.

“The third is creating a much more democratic approach in terms of how we approach our partners – from teams/sponsors/promoters and rights holders. There is a lot of opportunity to leverage the F1 IP to integrate it to their businesses,” Bratches said.

Given the view you’ve often expressed about the inefficiencies that result when F1 is ruled “by committee”, what do you think of Liberty’s notion of a “much more democratic approach”?

SJ – If you look at any championship that’s been run like a democracy, it’s failed. I think that’s true of most sports in general. I think there will be so many opinions that, again, it will be hard to get things done. But this is the “romance period” for the new establishment. We’ll see how it goes. Since F1 implemented a somewhat more “Democratic” approach through the Strategy Group there seems to be more confusion and more complicated rules every year. So far, they have not accomplished anything that has made F1 better as far as I’m aware. I absolutely think they need to get away from this Democratic approach and instead put together a small team of individuals that are highly respected by their peers, that understand the different aspects of the business and are completely independent from the pressure of running a team or promoting a race or anything else that will give them a biased view of how to run the business. You then need to let them get on with formulating a plan to go forward. If they let everyone have their view on every single matter it will end in disaster just as we’ve seen in so many other series and sports for that matter. I don’t think the guys at Liberty has any idea of what’s in store for them when it comes to dealing with the teams in particular. The best analogy would be to use the famous quote from Ron Dennis when Eddie Jordan entered F1 back in the 80’s, “Welcome to the Piranha Club”. Nothing has changed since then and that is exactly what they can expect.

JT – Drivers have now started to opine that the new 2017 cars will not only be faster but much more physical to drive with higher loads to be withstood. That’s why many have said they have stepped up their off-season physical training. In addition, many including current and former drivers are finally acknowledging what you spoke out about half a year ago - namely that the increased downforce of the 2017 cars may actually make passing even more difficult in F1.

SJ – Unless I’ve completely missed something, I can’t see how the new cars will make the racing better. I’d love to be proven wrong, seriously, but I don’t understand how it’s possible.

It was already difficult enough to pass in recent years because braking distances are already so short. With the current cars they are almost in the corner when drivers hit the brakes. They are now talking about a 40kph increase in cornering speed with most likely even slower straight-line speeds due to increase in drag from the added downforce, which means they will literally be in the corner when they brake. Unless I’m mistaken, braking into a corner is generally where most passing takes place, unless you’re on an oval track and you can run multiple lanes. Maybe these cars will have so much grip that they can run two lanes. That’s the only way I can see any passing happening.

Your exit speed from a corner will be completely irrelevant because, relatively, there will be so little acceleration taking place with a 40 kph higher exit speed on average. That means your acceleration will be even less than currently from corner exit to the end of a straight.

Apparently the FIA has already informed the track owners that they will have to modify the run off areas in some places due to the increase in cornering speeds. In fact, what is happening is that the cars have now outgrown nearly every track. With such an increase in grip and cornering speeds there is virtually not one challenging corner left on the calendar. The engineers are already talking about several corners or sections on many of the tracks being straights, as in there will be no lifting or braking as it used to be before. For example, I expect Eau Rouge at Spa to be flat on the second lap out in first practice, it will literally hardly be a corner anymore. The only place where a driver will be able to make any difference in the lap times will be in the low speed corners, and it will be even more about technique and just hitting your marks than it already is. Bravery and being able to “hang it out” won’t enter into the equation anymore.

JT - All this talk about the drivers having to be super fit this year, what are your views on that?

SJ - I don’t think it will be anything near as hard as everyone thinks or is talking about. By the time they get to the first race they will all have gotten used to it. They’re certainly not going to pull more Gs than what an IndyCar already does on an oval track. And the guys in IndyCar don’t complain too much about that. All of this is completely blown out of proportion in F1 as far as I’m concerned. The other thing is that the Indycars don’t have power steering so they are way more physical to drive than an F1 car will ever be to begin with.

In any race car these days you’re literally glued into the seat. The only things that should move are your arms and anything from the knees down and maybe your core to some degree. But your head is literally stuck in one position now because the head-rest surrounds you and you have the Hans-Device. I don’t see what the fuss is all about.

When your head was sitting a foot above the cockpit like it used to be, you really had to use your neck muscles to hold it up. Now you just brace against the head-rest and you’re fine. And in F1 it’s still nothing like the oval in Phoenix in an IndyCar for example, where you race with monster Gs lap after lap for 200 laps.

And generally speaking I think all drivers today are very fit to begin with, much fitter than they used to be and they have much more sophisticated training methods and better diets. I don’t think we will hear a word about the physical aspect after a couple or races.

JT – Valtteri Bottas has been confirmed as Nico Rosberg’s replacement at Mercedes GP since last we talked. Mercedes made quite a few deals to bring him to the team. What’s your view on his potential?

SJ – Signing him was the obvious thing to do, I guess. We’ll see how it goes but now it’s time for him to shine and become a real superstar, or fall by the wayside if he’s not able to match or beat Lewis. It’s the same for all of these guys in mid-pack teams. It’s easy to be a kind of underdog and do a great job and be recognized every time you do a good job and succeed.

And when on occasion you do an average job, it’s still ok. If you have an “off” weekend, finishing 7th instead of 4th – which has certainly been the case more than once for Bottas – it’s not that big of a deal. When you’re in Mercedes, Red Bull, Ferrari or McLaren, you’re not allowed to have an “off” weekend. In a top team there’s a completely different dynamic. You better be on your A game in every race and every practice session. If you’re not people immediately start to ask, “What’s wrong with him?”

They say you’re “finished” and this and that, and the media is all over you. The team is on you, everybody’s on you all the time. You’ve got to be at the highest level every time you step into the car. I think that will be the biggest eye-opener for Bottas. He is no doubt a super talent but trying to beat Lewis every time out won’t be easy for anyone in the paddock, we have already seen that with Alonso, Button and Rosberg. All those guys are the best in the business.

JT – Adrian Newey and Red Bull Racing seem to be more optimistic heading into the 2017 season, declaring that Renault has made progress with its power unit and that the Red Bull chassis - already well developed – will benefit from it.

SJ – I think Red Bull will be the biggest challenger to Mercedes. I don’t think the gap to Mercedes will be as big because the huge advantage they’ve had with their engine is getting smaller. I think they’ll still have a slight advantage but whoever gets their new chassis right will be much more competitive with them and I think Red Bull will be very strong. I have a feeling McLaren will catch up quite a bit too. Ferrari is an unknown at this point, I hope they will surprise everyone and maybe the silence from Maranello is a good sign.

JT – You’ve said repeatedly in the past that despite all the resources invested, F1 cars all end up looking almost identical even after a rules change. Do you think that will be true this season?

SJ – To a large degree I think they will. The window of what teams are allowed to do is so small now that by nature they’ll all end up looking the same. There’s really no room for innovation anymore. They work in such a narrow box that it’s mostly down to the endless tinkering with the details. I noticed from what I’ve seen until now that the complicated front wings will remain more or less the same, which effectively means that any hope of a car being able to follow the car in front close up is no different from before. I thought one of the reason for increasing the aero from underneath the car was to avoid this from happening, but this will not be the case, unfortunately. As long as the main area of performance on the car is aerodynamics it’s inevitable that all the cars will eventually look nearly the same, the air only like to travel in a certain way and that ultimately determines the shape of the car.

JT – One thing not yet discussed by Liberty Media is what they might do to control costs in F1. They have proposed more evenly distributing money among the teams but that won’t help much if F1 remains unsustainably expensive. The sums spent by manufacturers, teams, etc in F1 these days are staggering yet no one seems to blink an eye or has the courage to try to control it. How is it possible for this to be ignored?

SJ – Yes, distributing money more evenly is fine but when costs are already through the roof it doesn’t help much. And with frequent rule changes you add even more expense. The best way to keep costs down and make the racing more exciting is to maintain rules stability. The ramp up in costs is always at the beginning of a new rules package for obvious reasons as every team has to develop a whole new car effectively. The longer you have the same set of rules the more the lower ranked teams will catch up and the closer the field will be and the costs will eventually drop for all teams as the trade-off between performance versus money spent decreases each year.

To make the competition closer and to control costs, more than anything, I think you need to limit what teams are allowed to do with the cars. I firmly believe that you could standardize 50 to 60 percent of the components. That eliminates the need to design, manufacture and build every single component of a car. All those components have to be run and tested, and now with limits on testing it becomes even more expensive as they have to be simulated and tested in different way which adds even more cost.

Sketch by Giorgio Piola

Sketch by Giorgio Piola

I keep repeating the same thing over and over, the biggest culprit is the aerodynamics. They must figure out a way to minimize the importance of downforce on the car, or at least simplify what you’re allowed to do on the car. I don’t see why they can’t use the same front wing on all the cars for example, issued and controlled by the FIA. No one can hardly notice the difference between any of the cars as it is now, yet they all produce their own front wings at an astronomical cost to each team, with a windtunnel and CFD programs that never ends, literally. It’s a constant 24/7 development war that never stops all year long, to find the tiniest gains. One of the top teams employ a total of 250 staff in the design and engineering department, of which half are aerodynamicists. I am baffled why they can’t all agree on this as a starting point at least.

JT – On a lighter note but also a serious one, racing in general is facing an unprecedented level of competition from other sports and new forms of entertainment. As you observe there are lots of distractions and some are a good laugh.

SJ – Fernando Alonso made a comment about the 80’s era recently, saying that people would find it boring nowadays watching those races with Prost and Senna fighting each other. He’s 100 percent right of course. But the difference is that’s all there was back them. People could understand the challenges and dangers, the spectacle. They looked up to the drivers as gladiators and thought it was fantastic. The cars were beasts and fans could see that when they were watching. But the racing was generally quite boring in fact, even more than it is today I would say.

Today, there is so much clutter and competition for eyeballs from so many different sources, especially for the younger generations which makes it hard for anyone to sit through a 2 hour race that have very little happening most of the time. Compare that to something as silly as watching these “fail” videos that are so popular now on YouTube for example with these morons from all over the world wrapping their Lamborghini’s and Ferrari’s around a tree or a lamp post, well I hate to admit it but it can be quite entertaining too at times.

It’s a silly example and as funny as that is to say, it’s true. And it can be anything. Whatever people are into, there’s instant access to as much as you want – complete sensory overload. So, in my opinion, whatever needs to be done to increase the interest from the younger generation in F1, and racing in general, it has to be something really special. It has to be something really spectacular like F1 is supposed to be, and even more. It can’t be politically correct all the time. It has to be something that people can easily understand as extraordinary and special. F1 isn’t that way at the moment.

JT – With the Rolex 24 a new era started in sports car racing with IMSA’s DPi and the global P2-spec.

SJ – We’ll see how it all shakes out. The cars at Daytona looked fantastic in my opinion, both the Dpi’s and the LMP2 cars. The racing was good and I think this format could be the way forward for Prototypes in general. Let’s hope the ACO will take a good look at this with an open mind and allow the same type of cars to run the 24 hours too eventually. With only two teams or manufacturers that can effectively win the 24 hours I think it’s time to re-evaluate the entire format for the ACO and the Le Mans 24 hour race.

JT – The 2017 IndyCar season is on the horizon. Much of the off-season talk has centered on the series “aerokit freeze” this year and its intention to go to a “universal” kit in 2018, a configuration that may see Indy Cars generating more downforce from underneath the chassis. The move to make downforce from below is intended to reduce turbulence for following cars.  What are your thoughts on these moves?

SJ – Well, moving to the kit for 2018, even if you try to make downforce from under the car instead of from the top I don’t think it will completely eliminate the problem. You might improve things a bit but you’re still going to have a high downforce configuration. Whatever the ratio is between aero and mechanical grip, you’re going to have a problem if the aero portion is greater than the mechanical no matter what.

Right now, the dependence on aero with an Indy Car is probably 80 percent or more. The cars have a crazy amount of grip. If they got rid of a lot of the aero appendages that are all over the cars and cleaned them up it would be a big improvement.

I think the best, and only way, to solve this problem for any type of open wheel car is to drastically reduce the downforce and rely more on mechanical grip and more horsepower to get the lap-times to the same levels we have now. This would put the emphasis back on the drivers and car control which is key in my opinion.

It’s the same as in F1. Why spend all of this money on aerodynamics when you can have the tire companies give you the grip and engine manufacturers make the engines more powerful? They are both very easy things to do, and at virtually no development cost to the teams or certainly nothing close to what they are spending on their aero programs at the moment. If you had multiple tire suppliers they would duke it out and spend as they used to, to develop better tires. The lap times would drop by 4-5 seconds almost immediately and probably a lot more with time. That would at least have some level of benefit for street tires too as some of the technology is eventually applied to their consumer products. Aerodynamic downforce is about as useful as an ashtray on a motorcycle for anything else but making a race car go faster.