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Filtering by Tag: Scott Dixon

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.

Silly Season for Drivers and Teams

Eric Graciano

#SJblog 97

JT – It’s been a few months since the last #SJblog. Since then, the IndyCar, Formula 1 and sports car racing calendars have marched forward. We find ourselves in the middle of the summer break for many series and of course that means it’s silly season for drivers and teams figuring out who will be driving where in 2019.

Formula 1 has made the most news recently with driver shuffles kicking off in early August when Daniel Ricciardo made the surprise announcement that he was leaving Red Bull Racing after four seasons with the team. What do you make of Ricciardo’s move?

SJ – It’s interesting, I don’t think too many people saw that one coming. I’m sure there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye behind his decision to move obviously. Whatever the reason, it’s a major loss for Red Bull.

If you look at it historically, Renault has always won eventually when they’ve been involved in Formula 1. Of course, there’s completely different people at Renault now compared to the past but the commitment is there it seems. Just the fact that they’ve hired Ricciardo tells you the commitment is there. They’ve certainly got some good people in the team and I’m sure they will keep adding more. I am sure they must have given Ricciardo’s pretty firm guarantees that they are prepared to allocate the budget and resources required to win the championship. I see no reason why they would not fight with Mercedes and Ferrari eventually.

This situation is different but it’s not entirely dissimilar to when Lewis Hamilton left McLaren, which was then a winning team, for Mercedes who weren’t winning anything at the time. I’m sure he was shown the big plan and the commitment they had to winning the Championship. Interestingly, Mercdedes also had this driver called Rosberg, that no one was completely sure how good he really was and it ended up being a few of years with epic battles between the two. Renault has Hulkenberg that has shown great promise and great speed but never delivered the results, now he will be paired against a proven race winner, will he be able to step up and finally deliver on the promise or will this be the end of his career? I think he will keep Daniel honest and this dynamic could be great for the team if both of them push each other all the time. I don’t think this is a bad move on Ricciardo’s part, he would have always had to deal with Verstappen being favored at Red Bull, at least if what we’ve seen until now is anything to go by. Now he’s the team leader which makes a big difference also psychologically for a driver. I think there’s a good chance that Renault will eventually be on the pace of the top three, maybe not next year, but if you take a three or five year view I feel there is a very good possibility they will. There are always shifts that will come if the rules stays the same for long enough, history shows that everybody will eventually catch up. The new rules won’t be wholesale like it was when the new engine formula came in to play, where everyone’s been playing catch up to Mercedes until this year. Even when you dominate or win, like Mercedes, every year it gets a little bit harder to stay on top. So I think at some point it’s likely that Mercedes will end up with a car that isn’t the best and the dynamic will change. Ferrari is already as quick or quicker in many places.

It may take longer because a lot of things are different in F1 now. One is the massive amount of resources required to be competitive. That’s the main reason why Mercedes and Ferrari are at the front. They’re simply spending more than anyone else.

I can only assume that Ricciardo has been given pretty strong guarantees about the depth of Renault’s effort. That must have been one of the contributing factors otherwise I doubt whether he would have made the jump. He’s obviously seen what the five-year plan is.

At the same time, I also think Red Bull will be very strong with Honda power in the next five years. I think Honda is on the verge of cracking it, and when they do they are normally unstoppable.

Image by: Red Bull Racing

I think the next few years could become very interesting with both Renault and Honda catching up to Mercedes and Ferrari, it has a good chance of being more competitive than we’ve seen in a long time. I just hope they won’t tinker to much with the rules as we’re now on the verge of everyone catching up which will allow the competition to be much closer. But we should never count on the wisdom of the rule-makers, they seem to be experts at making changes where none are needed.

We all know the current set of rules are far from ideal, but at least we have gotten close to the point of diminishing return on R&D and when that happens the racing is always getting better and closer as the gap from the front to the back keeps getting smaller each year. Let’s hope it will stay this way for a while until everyone has figured out  the bigger picture of what really needs to be done. That is a subject for a whole other conversation and it’s obviously a big topic. I am actually working on a big document on that very subject which I should have ready in a couple of weeks, it’s very radical and will require a complete rethink but I hope people will like what I have in mind.

JT – Less than two weeks after Ricciardo’s announcement, Fernando Alonso announced that he would be retiring from F1 for 2019. In comments on his departure Alonso indicated he could still return to F1 if a good opportunity arose and if the series changed enough to produce a good competitive environment.

Alonso added that racing in F1 is no longer enjoyable on track, stating that the predictability of the racing was far too high with little chance to actually compete. He concluded that most of what is talked about in F1 focuses on off-track polemics and politics, not actual racing. What do you think of his decision to leave the series and the reasons behind it?

SJ – I can certainly sympathize with a driver of Alonso’s pedigree, everybody knows he doesn’t belong where he’s at, but that’s the nature of the beast in F1. It doesn’t matter how good the driver is, if you don’t have the best car you will never win or get close to the front. It’s tough to be motivated when you know before the season’s starts that you’re going to be somewhere around 8th to 12th in qualifying and get the odd point here or there.

There’s also this current obsession in Formula 1 with young, fast teenage drivers or drivers around 20 year old. For sure they’re very quick. There’s no doubt about their speed, but we don’t really know how good they are. F1 has turned into a place where driving fast is just about the only criteria that seems to matter. You can see it very clearly in the races. On Lap 1 and Lap 2 there’s more contact and debris flying off the cars – broken wing-endplates and stuff – than there is at the Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch every year.

There’s very little racecraft and very few of the drivers who have any racecraft. Alonso is obviously one of them, one of maybe five or six. The rest, even some of the experienced guys, I won’t mention any names but it’s pretty obvious by now, just should not have the amount of unnecessary accidents they do. As I’ve been speculating, maybe it’s something to do with these new super long wheelbase cars but it strikes me as very strange that these drivers who are supposed to be the best in the world can’t get past the first two laps without three or four cars per race getting damage in pretty much every single race.

I think one of the problems with F1 is that it’s simply too good. What I mean by that is everything is so well done from the engineering to the simulation of the races that there is literally nothing left to chance, there is no unpredictability left, except if there’s a sudden shift in weather conditions or something else that could not be planned for before the race started. We normally get 2-3 races a year like that and everybody is jumping up and down over what a great race we just had. That should tell everybody something right there. But unfortunately, it’s the engineers that are running the show now as far as the technical rules go, and they won’t back down, it’s just more and more of the same. No one’s willing to give up their toys.

JT – Toro Rosso’s Pierre Gasly and Alfa Romeo Sauber’s Charles Leclerc are candidates for other drives. With Ricciardo’s departure from Red Bull Gasly is now seen as strong possibility to be a teammate to Max Verstappen. Meanwhile, Leclerc has been mentioned in connection with Ferrari for some time. Each is an example of the youth movement you mentioned.  Neither one has even completed their first season in F1.

SJ – There is no doubt that both of them are very good, I think they are future stars for sure. Just as with Max Verstappen, every now and then we get someone exceptional that pops through that little hole at the bottom of the funnel and I think both these guys are that kind. However, I think it would be foolish to throw them in the deep end with a top team this early, for the same reason I mentioned earlier. They would both fare much better where they are and gain another year of experience in a team with much less pressure and scrutiny than they would get at either Ferrari or Red Bull. If you don’t perform at your very best in every session and race the media is all over you and then the doubt start to creep in and it all goes sideways very quickly. There’s loads of examples of great drivers who never made it once they got the opportunity in the big teams, simply because it was too early in their careers. This works both ways, I don’t understand the rush from Ferrari to put Leclerc in one of their cars at this stage of his career, it will be much better for them to keep him at Sauber and let him gain more experience before they put him in the main team.

JT – In IndyCar news, Scott Dixon resigned with Chip Ganassi Racing. Scott has driven for Chip since 2002, scoring 43 of his 44 IndyCar victories with the team. He seems very content with the decision to stay at Ganassi despite offers from others including Andretti Autosport and the team McLaren may be forming. As his manager, you played a role in the negotiations. Obviously some work was involved despite the fact Scott elected not to change teams.

Photo via: @scottdixon9

Photo via: @scottdixon9

SJ – Yes, there was a lot of talk and a lot rumors, I don’t know where some of these guys get their stories from but it was very amusing to hear some of it. So far from the truth that you have to wonder where the rumors started. Scott certainly had some strong offers but continuing with Ganassi made sense. You know Chip will always put a winning car on the grid, and that is in the end all that matters, the rest kind of falls into place. There’s obviously a huge amount of respect between the two of them and the great success story will hopefully continue for a while longer. And yes, there was a lot of work associated with it and it was quite stressful at times but as a manager you’re there to try and be objective and look at the bigger picture – all the different factors that come into play and I believe Scott made the right decision in the end.

The 101st Running of the Indy 500 & the F1 Grand Prix of Monaco (Recap)

Eric Graciano

#SJblog 86

JT – The 101st running of the Indy 500 was another great race. Andretti Autosport’s Takuma Sato claimed victory after a 10-lap dice with Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves.

Takuma-Sato-indy500.jpeg

Andretti Autosport’s drivers and their Hondas looked good all day, occupying most of the top positions through the race but engine failures for Ryan Hunter Reay (leader of the most laps) and Fernando Alonso combined with pit-crew mistakes for Alexander Rossi and Marco Andretti took several bullets out of their gun. Ultimately Sato came through for the team, giving Andretti Autosport its second consecutive 500 win.

Fernando-Alonso-Indy500-2017-1.jpeg

Scott Dixon was one of the other Honda-powered drivers who ran at the front until lap 53 when Jay Howard’s Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports Honda hit the wall in Turn 2 and slid back across the track into Dixon’s path. Scott had nowhere to go and hit Howard’s car (Howard’s last IndyCar start was in 2011). The contact launched his Ganassi-Honda into the air and the catch-fence between Turns 1 and 2. The car also contacted the wall below the catch-fence before landing on its wheels on track.

It was a scary accident which Scott is fortunate to walk away from. Apparently, his left foot was has a compound fracture. How did he view the race and how’s he feeling?

SJ – Scott started the race with the car pretty trimmed out in preparation for the last 20 laps shoot out. That’s really what you have to prepare for and you’ve just got to hold onto the car for the rest of the race and get it as balanced and dialed in as you can for the gun fight at the end. I have no doubt he would have been right there.

He was very loose during the first stint and they took some downforce off the front wing at the first pit stop and the car started to get pretty decent. One more stop and a further tuning of the aero and I think he would have the car where he wanted it to be.

The accident was crazy and scary. Indy is always a dichotomy. It’s the hardest race to win and in some ways it’s also the easiest race to win. You can have speed all day long like Scott did a couple years ago and then a trash bag ends up in the radiator inlet with 10 laps to go and his engine just shuts down on him. Or you can come from seemingly nowhere all day and win if you’re on the right fuel strategy at the end, like Rossi showed last year.

I’m not saying Scott would have won this year but I think he would have definitely been in the mix at the end. I think Alonso would have been there too and for sure, Ryan (Hunter Reay) would have. There were a lot of strong cars up front and it would have been a mighty ending if Scott, Alonso, Rossi and Ryan had all been there together with Castro Neves and Sato in the last few laps.

Takuma-Sato-Indy-500-Win-2017-2.jpeg

But coming back to the accident, unfortunately you’re always going to have a few guys in the field who really aren’t quite up to speed no matter what the category is. The lack of race craft some of these drivers have is a mystery, it’s like they lack all common sense.

If you’re not on the pace for whatever reason or you are already laps down it really isn’t that hard to just gently roll out of the throttle before you get to a corner? You lose a few tenths on a lap, maximum. You let the faster car go by and continue instead of charging into the corner and then end up fighting for a piece of real estate in the middle of a corner – and then blame someone else for pushing you up into the grey. He should have never put himself in that position to begin with, at that point he was already up the track in the grey and it ultimately it’s what caused his accident. All he would have had to do is roll out of the throttle by four or five MPH before he got to the corner and those guys would have gone past and it would have been fine.

If you’re already two laps down you have no business trying to meddle with the race leaders, as you have no chance of making up the lost time on speed, the only chance you have at that point is to hope for a yellow and use clever strategy to gain you laps back. As it were, Scott ended up being the front runner who got caught up this time, it could have been anyone who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

JT – There’s always excitement at Indy but it seemed to have even more energy this year with Alonso on hand, another huge crowd and lots of notable people there. What were your impressions?

SJ - Indy was tremendous as it always is. I think it’s getting better and better, it’s really starting to get the buzz back that it used to have in the days before the split. Few places in the world, if any, no matter where they are or what event they have, have the energy and electricity that Indy has. When you stand on the grid before the race it’s something really special.

Andretti’s probably the best team at the Indy 500 right now. They had six potential winners. Every one of their cars could win the race. No other team had anything close to that. Whatever it is they’ve done to their cars they definitely seem to have found the magic bullet for that track.
Alonso’s presence was great and added a lot of extra buzz and excitement from the F1 community also, hopefully it will open the eyes to a lot of his fellow drivers how great this event is and how good Indycar is in general.

JT – I think it was a unanimous view that Fernando Alonso did a great job at Indy and raced very well.

SJ – Yes, there’s no question he did very well. But to be honest, I didn’t expect anything else. I would have been surprised if he didn’t do a great job. I think he’s maybe the best driver in the world still, at least in terms of his race-craft. In the early stages of that race, everyone is fairly polite. But after the last pit stop – that’s when it starts to get a bit dicey. That’s when the racing really starts, it would have been great to see him duke it out with all the other guys at the end.

You have to get the car right to start with, and if you do that – I mean, I qualified 5th my first year (1993, Stefan out-qualified fellow rookie Nigel Mansell who started 8th) there in the old Bettenhausen car with a fairly stout grid. There’s no doubt that the Andretti cars were the class of the field so Alonso had a good car and he made the most of it in a situation where you really have to race.

I think Lewis Hamilton’s comments about Alonso were ill informed (Hamilton said of Alonso’s qualifying 5th … “A great driver, if he cannot win in Formula 1, will look for other races to win. But to see him fifth against drivers who are [in the series] all year is… interesting.”).

It just shows the ignorance and arrogance toward anything outside of Formula One that most people in the F1 paddock has unfortunately. They don’t even have a clue how hard some of these other championships are. In F1, if you’re in the right car, it’s easy. I can’t think of an easier championship to be good in. If you’re in the best car, you’re going to win – simple as that or at worst finish 2nd. And just because the top drivers in all these other categories of racing never made it to F1 doesn’t mean they’re not any good. A good indicator of this is when the F1 teams put some F3 kid in their cars for the end of season tests and within less that 30 laps they are doing lap times that are the same as the regular drivers who in some cases are world champions. The cars are simply too easy to drive and have too much engineering and technology for the drivers to make any real difference.

There’s never ever been a world champion who wasn’t in the best car. It’s the nature of the beast. Everyone in F1 builds their own cars so there will always be one or maybe two cars that are better than the rest. In IndyCar, nearly anyone can win at any race depending on how they play strategy and who gets it right on the day. At the end of the day, you have to become a specialist in every category you race in. It’s relatively easy to get to 95 percent but it’s that last five percent that makes the difference between being really good and winning.

JT – Interestingly, apart from Castroneves’ good performance in the race, Team Penske was off the pace all weekend.

SJ – Yes, I was surprised that Castroneves managed to pull himself up that far. Penske was struggling the whole time, really. It’s strange. Ganassi was a bit like that last year too, I think the Chevy package in it’s current format is very difficult to get right around there.

On the other hand, you have to admire Andretti Autosport. They’ve come a long way as a team in recent years and have turned into a very impressive organization. They have a good number of cars and sponsors. It’s impressive.

JT – The Monaco Grand Prix was, as usual, a largely boring procession. Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel won by staying on course longer than teammate Kimi Raikkonen and emerging from the sole pit stop in front. A similar scenario took place at Red Bull Racing where an early pitting Max Verstappen lost his position to teammate Daniel Ricciardo when the latter stayed on track longer. Why would anyone pit early and give up track position at a grand prix where track position is everything?

SJ – Yes, it was the usual Monaco snoozefest. The layout of the track is such that we know it’s never going to be any different unless it rains or something unexpected happens that the boffins behind the computer screens can’t plan for. The only interesting bit was that Ferrari and Red Bull got the strategy wrong for the drivers who should have had a choice of strategy – Raikkonen and Verstappen.

It’s clear that staying out longer before stopping was an advantage this time. It’s interesting to follow and it seems that there is less and less of the “seat of the pants” race strategy calls that we used to see from Ross Brawn and Schumacher for example where there used to be a constant dialogue and decision were made depending on the conditions as the race unfolded.  It would seem that none of the people doing the engineering today in F1 have that type of race experience or race-craft. They’re all brilliant and geniuses in their own way but when it comes to race strategy it’s all theoretical for them. And it seems that the drivers are simply following a set plan and have very little room to maneuver in terms of how the race is called. Only the driver can feel how the tires are holding up and how hard he can push, if the car feels good and you can go hard you want to stay out as long as possible, especially if you have a clear track and there’s no cars to lap in front of you, but it seems the strategy was already set and both Kimi and Verstappen came in on whatever lap was already determined before the race even started. In this case it lost them a win and a podium. I would have been pissed off too!

A couple years ago I was in the Ferrari pit with the radio headphones on during qualifying and what really surprised me was that the drivers don’t say one word when they return to the pits. The engineers are effectively telling them what the car is doing and what changes they plan to make next. I didn’t listen during the race but if I’m the driver in Monaco and the car still feels alright and the tires aren’t going off, and I’m still doing good lap times, I would say, “I’m staying out”.

If the tires are still performing that gives you way more leverage toward the end of the race and you can monitor what other people are doing. If no one’s going faster – they were all slowing down actually – you stay out. The only reason you would pit early there is if you were stuck in traffic. That’s all the more reason why Vettel and Ricciardo with a clear track after Raikkonen and Verstappen pitted went faster. Of course they would. The only danger is a full course caution if everyone else has pitted and you haven’t.

JT – Jenson Button substituted for Fernando Alonso with McLaren at Monaco and qualified well, starting 9th on the gird ahead of teammate Stoffel Vandoorne. He crashed out of the race attempting to overtake Sauber’s Pascal Wehrlein but adapted to the new car pretty quickly.

SJ – I think he did a great job. He qualified quicker than his teammate and in the circumstances he performed well. Unfortunately he had to start from the back and starting from the back at Monaco it’s near impossible to do well. You can be five seconds a lap quicker than the guy in front of you, literally, and there’s still no way to pass. The whole track curves the whole way around and there’s only one line so there’s almost nowhere to get a run on someone ahead – even on corner exit.

JT – Ferrari’s performance at Monaco showed their continuing improvement. Meanwhile, Mercedes GP struggled. Adapting to the 2017-spec Pirelli tires is an ongoing issue for Mercedes. Again, you point to Sebastian Vettel’s preseason tire testing as a big part of the difference in the two top teams’ performance.

SJ – It’s clear that it’s all down to the tires right now. Again, it boggles my mind that teams like Red Bull and Mercedes didn’t force their regular drivers to do all the tire testing. How can you put a junior test driver in a car to do just about the most important testing you do all year?

You are strictly limited on any test days to begin with and tires are the most critical component you have in terms of getting the car dialled in. You can simulate most of the engine and the chassis to a pretty accurate level these days but the tires is as much about feel as anything else and variables change all the time due to track surface and conditions.  What else could the regular drivers possibly have to do that’s so important that they can’t attend those less than 10 days total of testing?

There’s no doubt in my mind that whatever input Vettel gave Pirelli is directly translated into the tires on the Ferraris. Of course they’ll suit the Ferrari better because he’s the one who gave them input! How can you expect a 17-18 year old F3 driver to figure out what’s going on with a tire. It’s mind boggling and inexcusable in my opinion.

JT – As you mention, another element of Ferrari’s improvement in 2017 may be the return of Rory Byrne to the team last year and his input on the design of this season’s car.

SJ – Rory is one of the top designers ever in F1 history and he’s never received enough credit for what he’s done. He was responsible for every Ferrari Michael Schumacher won with. He designed the winning Benetton’s before that. Rory is a genius. I think his influence is a significant part of why Ferrari is doing so well again.

JT – With the injury to Sebastian Bourdais at Indy, Ganassi Racing has tabbed Tony Kanaan to replace him in the No. 68 Ford GT for the Le Mans 24 Hours. Given Kanaan’s experience and the fact that he raced the GT at Daytona earlier this year, he should have no problem being up to speed at Le Mans even though he hasn’t raced there before, correct?

SJ – He’ll be fine. I don’t think his preparation will be any problem with simulator time and by the time you get into the race you do a few double stint and that gets the rhythm going. Looking at the testing times from last weekend at Le Mans it looks like the Ford’s might have a battle on their hands for this year. The BoP (Balance of Performance) changes seems to have slowed them down significantly. I just wish there could be a different way to balance the cars than this BoP that will always benefit or slow down one car more than the others.

JT – The laptimes during the testing were the fastest we’ve ever seen around Le Mans until now, in all categories from LMP1 and especially the LMP2 cars who were almost 10 seconds faster than previous years.

SJ – Yes, the LMP2 cars in particular are now extremely fast, what was interesting is that they were actually faster than the LMP1 in straight line speed too. I’ve said it for some time now, it would be so much better if LMP2 became the main category and they just scrapped the LMP1, with only 2 teams competing for overall victory it’s become a bit flat. The ACO always seemed to want the fastest cars to be in the 3.30 min range, they seem to think that’s a safe zone somehow. I’m repeating myself again, but I don’t think it would be that hard to make even the GT cars do a high 3.30 if they took the restrictors off and gave them a little wider tires and some more aero. Get rid of the BoP and let every manufacturer make a car that is within the rules and that fits whatever they need to do win but without the BoP. In other words, may the best man win, period. We would see some incredibly cool looking cars, like the Ford GT, that would be offered to their respective road customer to fill the production to meet the homologation standards. I bet you every car from every manufacturer would be sold out before they start production, just as the Ford is.

JT – We also had the double header Indycar race in Detroit this last weekend. Graham Rahal scored a double win and is the first driver this year to win more than one race. Scott finished a gritty second in the first race and despite a fuel rig issue in the second race finished a good 6th. What do you make of the weekend?

SJ – I think it was a great weekend with some good hard and very competitive racing again. Graham was clearly hooked up the moment they rolled the car of the truck, quickest in nearly every session and walked away with both races. I think every driver dream of those days when your car is just perfect. He didn’t put a foot wrong all weekend and drove with a lot of confidence. Scott did an amazing job in the circumstances, to have a fractured foot and clearly in a lot of pain there is probably no worse track than Detroit to do a double header race. In the second race, had it not been for the fuel rig problem on his first pitstop it’s safe to assume he would have been 2nd in that race too as he was in front of Newgarden who was on the same strategy and eventually finished 2nd.

There are so many good teams and drivers in Indycar now, that it’s impossible to predict the outcome in any of these races before the weekend starts. Apart from Graham’s double win, there’s been 7 different winners so far, and Scott who is leading the Championship has yet to win a race.  I think that says it all as to how competitive this series is. I’ve said it many times before, but there is no other championship in the world that is close to the racing that Indycar produces. If they could only find a way to market this it would be huge.