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Filtering by Tag: NASCAR

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.

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

Stefan Johansson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: F1 Fanatic

Source: F1 Fanatic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did you enjoy driving the Ferrari again?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Controversial Mexican Grand Prix

Stefan Johansson

- #SJblog 79 -

JT – Last weekend’s Mexican Grand Prix was an unqualified success in terms of the enthusiasm and large turnout of Mexican fans. But the race itself was a mess. The officiating of the grand prix proved to be confusing for both fans and drivers.

Lewis Hamilton won from the pole despite out-braking himself at Turn 1 and reentering the track at full speed in Turn 3. No penalty was assessed though Hamilton clearly gained advantage. Nico Rosberg finished a somewhat distant second after surviving a hit from Max Verstappen at Turn 2 which forced him off track.

The third spot on the podium wasn’t decided until hours after the podium celebrations. Daniel Ricciardo was awarded third place due to penalties handed out to his Red Bull Racing teammate and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel.

Battling for third with Vettel just behind in the last laps of the race, Max Verstappen blew Turn 1 in similar fashion to Hamilton, leaving the track and reentering at Turn 3. No penalty was issued as the laps wound down and Verstappen refused to cede the position to Vettel. This allowed Ricciardo to quickly catch Vettel and attempt to pass him for fourth position. Ricciardo saw an opening at Turn 4 and dived to the inside. Vettel squeezed him to the left under braking, making light contact with Ricciardo and held his position.

Post-race, the stewards handed Verstappen a five second penalty for blowing Turn 1 and pulled him from the podium, elevating Vettel to third place initially. But hours later Vettel was also penalized by the stewards, forfeiting 10-seconds “for driving in a potentially dangerous manner, making an abnormal change of direction, and causing another driver to take evasive action.”
Hence, Verstappen finished 4th while Vettel ended up 5th.

The lack of prompt action by the stewards for each infraction should be an embarrassment for Formula One principals. They failed to act when Hamilton made a mistake then waited to assess penalties on Verstappen and Vettel until after the race. There’s much to be said about the race and the inconsistent/un-timely rulings but I believe your thoughts begin with the track - Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez – itself.

SJ – You are correct. I’ve been trying to arrive at an answer as to why the officiating of F1 has become such a mess all of a sudden. It’s certainly not the first time we’ve seen drivers duke it out with three or four laps to go. That’s the kind of close competition people want to see but this was compromised.

The new track designs with massive asphalt run off areas have slowly and systematically been introduced to every new track and modified on most of the old and existing tracks, mostly for safety reasons. Since this started to happen there has been no clearly defined rule about exceeding track limits or taking advantage of the runoff areas. Because of this the drivers have been able to do pretty much whatever they have wanted without being immediately punished for their mistakes or abuse of the track limits, by simply continuing to race even though they’ve gone off-track.

In other words, the only punishment you can get now is what comes from the control tower rather than an immediate consequence for running off-track. Formula One needs to figure out how to reintroduce an immediate and natural punishment for going off-track.

Take, for instance, Lewis’ mistake at the start of the race. He braked too late, locked up, missed the corner and carried on without even losing a position. At a few other tracks if he’d done the same thing, missing the corner entry by breaking to late and then leaving the track, the best case scenario would be that he knocked off a front-wing endplate or something and would have to pit. Or he might have gotten stuck in a gravel trap. Maybe he gets towed out of it but loses lots of positions or even a lap.

In the past, even when you had an area where there was a clear runoff or an “escape road” as it used to be called, the rule was always that you had to wait to rejoin the track until the marshals waved you on – in other words, when the track was clear. I can’t actually remember why and when that rule changed or was no longer enforced but it used to always be the rule. Knowing this, you had no choice but to be a lot more cautious of missing the entry to the corner as it effectively would ruin your race in many cases. What used to be the escape road is now effectively the entire area past the track limit as there is no longer any definition beyond that point but instead just one huge patch of asphalt in most cases, which of course make the re-entry to the track much more difficult to control. Now drivers just keep their boot in it and keep going, entering the track wherever it suits them.

Stefan Johansson - McLaren F1 - MonacoGP - 1987

Stefan Johansson - McLaren F1 - MonacoGP - 1987

And really, so would I. Because if you can get away with that, that’s what you do. Anyone with even an inkling of competitive spirit would do the same thing. Without clearly defined rules as to what you can and can’t do, this is what happens.

Lewis did exactly the same thing as Verstappen. Both of them blew Turn 1 but Verstappen was penalized and Lewis wasn’t. The rulings are completely random, all over the map.

What I’m getting at is that the fact that these situations now have to be controlled and decided by a human being is wrong. There should be an immediate, natural consequence for screwing up. They need to figure out a way to redesign these modern race tracks to bring that about. The way things are now makes it a complete mockery of the sport. The drivers don’t know if they’re coming or going.

At the end of this race time penalties were handed out. Whether what Verstappen did was right or wrong – personally, I think it was wrong but it’s not for me to decide – he should have been told to immediately give up his position to Vettel if he was judged to be wrong. In the end, instead he lost two places. He gave up a position to Vettel and then lost one to Ricciardo. This is not fair on Verstappen’s part as he lost one position more than he should have and gave an unfair benefit to Ricciardo who had nothing to do with the battle between Vettel and Verstappen but gained one position more than he should have thanks to the time penalty. There is no science behind these time penalties but just a random number picked out of the blue. Who says 5 seconds is the correct penalty, why not instead 10 seconds, or 3, they’re all completely random numbers and does not relate to the “crime” in any way.

By being wishy-washy and not having consistency in the officiating, F1 has allowed the situation to get out of control. We need to find a way to go back to basics and try to avoid having to make calls from the control tower when they should be decided on or by the race track itself.

We have street circuits on the F1 calendar. They don’t have runoff areas and at each one you avoid these situations because there’s nowhere to go beyond the track limits, if you do you hit a wall. Look at old pictures of circuits where the curbs are a foot high at a 45-degree angle. You sure as hell weren’t going to run over those curbs. You had to adapt and drive accordingly. Interestingly, if you look back and do the statistics, I don’t think there were any more incidents or serious accident because of these kerbs, because people simply had to drive with this in mind, which again sorted the good ones from the average in a much better way.

JT – There are multiple specific examples of F1’s inconsistency in officiating that stem from rulings/non-rulings in Mexico. Another you mention is their ruling on Vettel’s battle with Ricciardo.

SJ – With two laps to go, Vettel basically did what Verstappen has done in most races this year and he gets penalized. Verstappen is yet to receive a penalty for the same actions.

Yes, they changed the rule about moving in a braking zone, or said they would enforce it harder from Texas onwards but all they’re doing is just adding another element of confusion. There are so many ways to interpret this same issue that it’s become an almost impossible task to hand out a fair penalty. At some point they just need to let the drivers get on with it.

Assume for a moment that Verstappen was racing in NASCAR. He wouldn’t have finished one race this season. He would have been in the wall every single race if he had applied the same attitude he’s shown in F1 so far. The other drivers would have sorted him out in no time until he would have shown a mutual level of respect that the other competitors showed to him. Of course, you can’t do that in open wheel cars but I remember numerous times when there were a very frank conversation at the back of a truck (hauler) somewhere. That’s how it used to get sorted out if someone stepped out of line. And before you knew it everyone was falling into line. Look at the guys who’ve gone into NASCAR from other series – Montoya, Tony Stewart, all of these great drivers. They all had to pay their dues. Correct the problem with the tracks and let the drivers sort on-track behavior out among themselves. They’re supposed to be the best in the world and it wouldn’t take long for a pattern to form where everyone would be on the same page. There are always exceptions of course and every generation seems to have a resident idiot in the field, but generally speaking, they are rarely one of the top guys as they are clever enough to understand that those methods are not winning you races and championships in the long run.

JT – Do you think the varied challenge of IndyCar racing enhances race-craft? On ovals for example, you either learn to respect the track and the other drivers or you don’t last long.

SJ – Absolutely, no question about it. A large degree of this deficit of skill or race craft is once again partly due to the design of modern circuits, and the relatively equal character to every track they race on. Finding the limit on these tracks is too easy. That of course promotes more irresponsible behavior because the risk and often even penalties, are removed from the equation. Again, there is no punishment. There are a couple of the current F1 drivers, without mentioning any names, that are absolutely brilliant in the Simulator and also as test drivers, but as soon as they get into a position where they have to race someone hard or have a few cars around them everything just goes to pieces. I have had discussions with the team principals about this and they are completely baffled about their lack of basic race craft.

JT – Going back to the Mexican GP, one has to wonder why the FIA waited to issue penalties until after the race? Why couldn’t they have been issued immediately – particularly regarding Verstappen or Hamilton. Those were clear-cut infractions. And if a penalty had been issued in timely fashion, wouldn’t that have diffused the situation that arose between Vettel and Ricciardo?

SJ – Exactly, as I said before, the penalty should have been immediate. Within a lap they should have got on the radio and told Verstappen to let Vettel go by.

What choice did Vettel have? He gets backed up into Ricciardo and he’s all of a sudden looking at losing 4th place and being 5th when he should have been in 3rd place. Any driver would have had the same level of frustration, it goes without saying and that leads to my next point.

I don’t remember when this whole open-radio policy began where the public can hear conversations between the drivers and teams. I guess that’s part of the entertainment now but if you allow and promote that then you’re going to have to expect that drivers are going to show their frustration now and then. Why should that surprise anyone? At least you’re hearing a live, breathing human being showing real emotion instead of drivers thanking the team, sponsors, their parents, etc – all that stuff you normally hear on the slowing down lap has become almost meaningless.

What Vettel said shows what’s actually going on in the car and I can relate to it 100 percent. Normally when you get on the radio like that, you just want to blow off some steam. Yes of course, you have to try to control yourself but I’ve certainly been guilty of using far worse language than Vettel did.

Stefan Johansson - Ferrari - Italian GP - 1986

Stefan Johansson - Ferrari - Italian GP - 1986

JT – Some commentators are now publicly recognizing what you have been commenting on for months. The 2017 rules package for F1 which allows a significant increase in downforce levels will do little if anything to improve the racing. However, those inside F1 still don’t seem to see this, correct?

SJ – The general consensus seems to be that the cars will become more difficult to drive next year because of the added downforce, and the really brave and good one will stand out much more than they do now.

I disagree completely. Anyone can drive a high downforce car. There’s no bravery involved when the car’s completely stuck to the track. It will just make the racing even more like a video game. Bravery comes into it when you’re balancing a car right on the edge of adhesion going through a high speed corner on the very limit. Like Eau Rouge used to be. It’s already almost not a corner anymore, I can’t even think of what it will be like next year. All this will do is make the minimum speed mid corner in the slow stuff even more critical and there will be absolutely no way to make up any time in the high speed stuff as the car will be completely stuck. The cars will outgrow the tracks even more than what is currently the case.

Pedro Rodriguez - Ferrari - MexicanGP - 1965

Pedro Rodriguez - Ferrari - MexicanGP - 1965

The technical rules in Formula One have gotten so complicated that the only people who really understand them are the engineers. That’s why they are the main people involved in writing the technical rules. I guess in a way it’s job security for them. I keep repeating myself over and over, Aerodynamics and the endless search for more downforce will kill the sport if they don’t do something about it. It serves no purpose but to make a race car go faster, but at a cost that will make your eyes water. The top teams now employ something like 200 people in the Design and Engineering departments, of which half are aerodynamicists. And all they are allowed to do is fine tune and hone an aero package that is so strictly defined that I beg anyone to tell me which car is which if they painted them all white. There is no innovation anymore, just and endless tinkering to gain an extra half percent here and another quarter percent there.