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Filtering by Tag: Sergio Perez

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.

Getting ready for Indy 500 and the F1 Grand Prix of Monaco

Eric Graciano

- #SJblog 85 -

JT – In recent IndyCar events, Simon Pagenaud dominated at Phoenix, taking his first win on an oval. Really, Penske as a whole was strong as were the Chevrolet cars in general. Seven of the top ten finishers were in Chevys. Scott Dixon must have been fairly pleased to be the best of the Hondas with his 5th place finish.

More recently Scott finished 2nd in the Indianapolis Grand Prix, the prelude to the Indy 500. He was the best of the Honda finishers, bested only by Chevy-powered winner Will Power.

But the big news as we count the days until the Indy 500 is that Scott put in four fantastic laps at the Speedway to win his third Indy pole at 232.565 mph!

SJ – Getting the pole at Indy again is great obviously, and it was a mighty run from Scott for sure. Indy qualifying is not easy under any circumstance. But to go out cold without even one lap in practice all day – he went straight from qualifying on Saturday to qualifying on Sunday – in a car that you have no idea about in terms of how it will perform, that’s impressive. Everybody is trying to trim their cars to the absolute limit and I think Scott and his engineer Chris Simmons went all out this time. Scott said he had a small breather in turn 2 every lap just keep the front tight and he was still doing 232 laps so the car must have been extremely light on downforce. Typically, if you have to lift anywhere on the four lap run the time won’t hold up.

JT – Last weekend’s action at the Speedway proved again that nowhere else is qualifying for a race more dramatic than at Indianapolis.

SJ – Indy is fantastic, the whole format, the build up and the process, everything is just magic. It’s so exciting both for the fans and the competitors. There’s nothing that comes close to it really. It’s a very special place. It’s a pity there’s not enough cars for bumping as there used to be, that was almost more exciting than the fight for pole many times. But the format is great, and the crowd was fantastic this year, you could even hear the roar on the TV when the guys were posting the big laps. Great stuff!

With Alonso being there this year as well, I think a lot more people that normally would not tune in are going to realize again how incredibly exciting it is and how great IndyCar racing and the Indy 500, in particular, are. It’s an outstanding event and qualifying is really an event in itself, apart from the race.

Alonso also mentioned that he wants to be a “complete driver” which I think is fantastic coming from him. I think his involvement this year could start a trend. I’m sure he’s loved every minute of this experience so far.

Attendance for the race this year could well be the biggest yet. It will for sure be the biggest crowd Alonso has ever raced in front of. It’s the biggest crowd anyone ever races in front of period. The whole experience is totally exceptional.

I remember the first time I raced there, walking out onto the grid for the first time after having been there all month and it’s amazing. Qualifying has a pretty good crowd but when you walk out onto the grid on Sunday morning before the start you suddenly see this mountain of people in front of you. I get goosebumps just thinking about it. It’s an incredible experience.

JT – Does the massive crowd distract you during the race, as opposed to practice when the seats are basically empty?

SJ – It’s different. You get in the car on race day and there are all these people and you find that the track has suddenly shrunk. Your view peripherally is completely different. The track feels like it’s half the size compared to what it was when the stands were empty. It’s kind of bizarre and it takes a few laps to get used to. You just have to readjust. You have visual reference points and you just have to adjust them a bit.

If you’re running in the middle of the pack during the race - or in the last 500 I raced in where I started from the back row because I qualified on Bump Day and I bumped the Penske’s out of the race – when you’re behind all these other cars, and because they’re running on ethanol you literally can’t see anything the first three laps. Your eyes are watering so much, just dripping from the exhaust fumes. They’re so strong and the smell is just insane.

Then there’s the turbulence. The whole car is just dancing around all over the track. You’re basically hanging on for dear life before the field gets strung out a bit. And back then, going into Turn 1, you couldn’t even hold your head straight. We didn’t have the head rests they have now and your helmet was bouncing around all over the place which also prevented you from seeing a damn thing.

JT – Four of the five Andretti cars made the top nine with the fifth in the 10th starting position. Scott’s on pole with Tony Kanaan 7th for Ganassi. Only one of Team Penske’s drivers made it into the top nine, Will Power. This is a bit puzzling given Penske’s typical performance at the Speedway.

SJ – Yes, this is highly unlike Penske. They go for it big time in qualifying normally. I don’t know if they’re struggling to find speed or what their issues were. We’ll find out on Sunday. Qualifying is a different deal though, just because you can’t find the ultimate speed in Qualifying, that doesn’t mean you won’t have a quick race car. The other thing is that at Indy more than any other track the cars are very sensitive to any changes in track conditions. If the wind direction or speed changes or the temperature goes up it can very quickly go from a perfect car to one that is nearly undriveable in a matter of a few laps. This is why you often see someone that starts upfront going backwards very quickly. Every team is spending as much time as they can running in every possible condition during practice to gather as much data as possible for race day.

JT – Getting back to the Indianapolis Grand Prix and the race at Phoenix, what did you make of those two?

SJ – I think Scott did extremely well to finish in 2nd in the Indy Grand Prix. I think the differences in the Honda and Chevy aero kits definitely gave the Chevys an advantage drag-wise in both those races, but then Honda clearly have an advantage at the Speedway so one outweighs the other I guess.

Whatever the intent was when IndyCar set out to have manufacturer-specific aero kits, I think it’s really kind of backfired. For the Indianapolis Grand Prix, Chevy had the edge. For the 500, it’s obvious that Honda has an advantage. Then again, the Chevys have a big advantage at Phoenix and other short ovals.

So the performance is not really equal for one or the other manufacturer depending on where you go. Chevy and Honda had to submit a finalized aero kit at a certain date in the past and that’s it. They’re both stuck with what they have. That’s not really a proper way to determine a championship or even the outcome of an individual race. So whatever IndyCar’s intent was, it hasn’t worked out to be what they envisioned.

I think you have the manufacturers do the engines and you have a spec car or you free up the rules and let the designers and teams do what they want to do. It’s so hard to regulate these things fairly, which is what will happen from 2018 onwards, and how it was before this latest aero experiment with different body kits for each manufacturer.

It’s the same with all these BoP (Balance of Performance) formulas and with driver ratings we have to deal with in Sportscar Racing. Trying to regulate these things rarely works out well. I still firmly believe that it should be an open competition and may the best man win.

We kind of knew Phoenix would be a problem for the Hondas since before the season started. I think Scott’s happy with his finish – you know, best in class and good points for the season (Dixon is now 2nd in points behind Pagenaud) – there’s not much more he could have hoped for there.

JT – The Spanish Grand Prix at Barcelona was the most recent F1 contest. Again, it wasn’t the most scintillating race. In summation, it seemed that Sebastian Vettel won the race at the start going into the first corner and then Ferrari’s pit strategy lost the race, allowing winner Lewis Hamilton to gain massively on Vettel. Further aid came when Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas held Vettel up behind him.

When Stoffel Vandoorne collided with Felipe Massa in Turn 1 on the 34th lap, a Virtual Safety Car period ensued. Mercedes pitted Hamilton for soft tires but Ferrari left Vettel out. That seemed to be a tactical mistake. Do you agree?

SJ – Yes, I would agree with you. It boggles my mind why Ferrari didn’t stop when there was a VSC. That’s race strategy-101. If you have a virtual safety period and you’re in a pit stop window, you have to stop.

I am not 100% clear if the pits were closed during the safety car period or not, in which case maybe Vettel passed the pits as the track went green and Hamilton being 8 seconds behind was able to duck in just as Vettel passed the green flag.

It’s fantastic that the championship is so close and we now have two teams fighting for the title. And it’s great that Ferrari is one of them. Kimi had bad luck at the beginning, getting taken out on the first lap when he was nudged by Bottas into Verstappen. I think Verstappen’s move trying to go three wide on the outside was a pretty low percentage move. The chances of pulling that off were pretty small but I can also understand him trying as that would be his only chance of passing the guys in front as it’s virtually impossible to pass anywhere on that track under normal racing conditions.

JT – The Russian Grand Prix had a somewhat surprising result. Mercedes GP’s Valtteri Bottas won with Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen finishing 2nd and 3rd. Lewis Hamilton finished off the podium, having struggled all weekend. Bottas had a terrific start from third position on the grid, passing both Vettel and Raikkonen to take the lead into the first corners.

He led the rest of the way and drove well. His only test came from Vettel who closed on him in the final laps. But Vettel was never close enough to challenge Bottas. Otherwise, there was almost no overtaking in this processional race. What did you make of it?

SJ – The race was more or less what we’re used to seeing but I thought Bottas did a terrific job. He had a great start and was under a fair bit of pressure at the end and stayed cool and calm to win his first GP.

There wasn’t any passing but it’s the same thing we’ve been talking about for a long time now. More downforce never makes racing better and unless there are some sort of freak circumstances this won’t change until they either change the philosophy on the car designs or re design the tracks to make them more challenging so that drivers will occasionally make a mistake or simply make it possible for a more skilled driver to take a corner faster and by doing so being able to pass.

JT – Ferrari locked out the front row after qualifying in Russia and now seems able to match or exceed Mercedes’ pace over a lap depending on conditions. It’s a marked improvement for them.

SJ – I really think one of the key ingredients there is what I’ve said for months now. Vettel made the effort to be an integral part of Pirelli’s tire testing and development program for 2017. None of the other top guys made that commitment. The other teams can say what they want about the testing being done with an old and different car but it doesn’t matter. It’s the feel of the tire that matters as much as the grip for most drivers.

If you can influence that feel from the tire to get it to where you’re comfortable with it, that makes an enormous difference. The tires are the one area where you can gain or lose a massive amount of performance. Vettel has helped Ferrari get the car dialed in with the tires. And that’s where Mercedes and maybe even more Red Bull is struggling at the moment. They didn’t test the new tires with their regular guys as much and that’s in my opinion why they’re now struggling to make the car work.

JT – In other F1 news, Force India continues to impress, holding fourth in the championship behind the big three teams with double the points of Williams F1, their closest mid-pack rival. Meanwhile, Haas Ferrari has been struggling, suffering brake problems and a car which alternately suits one driver or the other but not both.

At the absolute bottom of the grid are McLaren Honda and Sauber Ferrari. Neither team has scored a point yet and McLaren has had only one finish over the opening four rounds of the championship. Ironically, the two are now linked with the recent announcement that Sauber will use Honda engines in 2018. What are your thoughts about these developments?

SJ – Force India has been quite impressive. They’re definitely punching above their weight so far, similar to how they performed last year. Haas keeps having brake problems. It’s a bit mysterious but on the other hand the braking systems today are so complicated it’s not too hard to imagine.
Sauber switching to Honda is interesting. I guess it’s a financial matter as much as anything. I personally think Honda will eventually get their engines right. It’s just a matter of when and how. If the engine formula remains essentially the same and they have enough time, there’s no doubt they’ll fix their problems and become a factor again.

And at this point it’s far better for McLaren to have another team running Honda engines to share the development load. Plus, Sauber isn’t exactly going to be a threat to McLaren. McLaren’s agreement with Honda did prevent Honda from supplying other teams and that hasn’t been helpful but I guess you could say that no one expected Honda to be as far off as they have been either.

JT –Up next for F1 is the Monaco GP. In contrast to Indy where both qualifying and the race are important, qualifying is perhaps more important than the actual race at Monaco.

SJ – Qualifying is definitely the thing that really matters at Monaco. Unless there are freak circumstances during the race with rain or something like that and there are strategy calls they can’t plan for comes into play, not too much changes after qualifying positions are established.
Otherwise, we’ll see the usual procession we are used to. The race is pretty much over after the first corner all things being equal. Even with the Formula E race there a couple weeks ago which uses only half the track, it was virtually impossible to pass. There’s really only one line around the entire track. Even if you get a run on someone coming out of a corner there’s really nowhere to go. You follow one line which applies to the entire track. There just isn’t one single spot which is really an overtaking place.

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

Stefan Johansson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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