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Filtering by Tag: Toro Rosso

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.

2016: Year In Review

Eric Graciano

#SJblog 81

JT – With 2016 coming to a close, it’s time to reflect on some of the year’s racing headlines, trends and impending changes as the new year arrives. But before we get to that, let’s chat about your first experience racing an LMP3 car earlier this month at the Gulf 12 Hours on Abu Dhabi’s Yas Marina circuit. 

You were teamed in United Autosports’ No. 22 Ligier JS P3 with Jim McGuire, Nico Rondet and Matt Keegan. Qualifying featured an average of all drivers’ lap times in each car to set the grid. The sister No. 23 Ligier of Alex Lynn, Shaun Lynn and Richard Meins lined up 7th with your car 6th. You set the fastest time among bronze drivers in qualifying and finished third in class with your teammates after both segments of the 12 Hours. 

What was it like to drive the P3 car and how did you enjoy the racing?

SJ – It was good fun. I hadn’t been in a proper car for a while. It’s been four years since I last raced a prototype. It felt a bit rusty to start with but as the weekend went on I started to get sharper. It started to feel pretty good in my last stint of the race. I guess if I had to rate myself over the weekend, I’d give myself a “5” out of 10. There’s definitely room for improvement but I really enjoyed it. It’s always been the same for me over the years when I’ve been out of a car for a longer period of time, after three races you’re more or less back to where you need to be.

The Ligier LMP3 is a great car, fantastic fun to drive. I really like the concept of the LMP3 class with economical, proper prototypes. The cars have no driver aids. They’re very pure and basic, but like all modern race cars very underpowered but certainly not easy to drive. The chassis is very reactive and because it doesn’t have driver aids it’s actually more difficult to handle than the other classes of cars. It’s not that different than a LMPC car and has a similar raw feel to it. 

JT – What did you think of the Yas Marina circuit? You hadn’t raced there before, correct?

 Correct, I have been there a few times for the F1 race but I had never raced there before. It’s another [Hermann] Tilke designed track. The facility is outstanding and visually it looks amazing when you first see it but it’s not very interesting once you drive it. There are four 1st-gear corners, ten 2nd-gear corners and one each which are 3rd, 4th and 5th-gear. So, the track is really all 1st and 2nd gear corners with the exception of turns two and three which are somewhat tricky to get right. The rest is all typical modern F1 tracks, with the identical template kerbs on every corner and although they are by no means easy to get right it’s purely another technical track where car performance and precision are the key factors to a fast laptime. Not one single corner where you have a take deep breath and go for it.

And there are three chicanes built into a track that started with a clean sheet, which is kind of strange when you can choose any combination of corners you wish? Chicanes were originally invented as a kind of last resort to slow cars down when a track was suddenly deemed too fast for certain cars. When you start from scratch designing a modern track there should be no reason to include chicanes. It’s amazing and frustrating that this trend keeps on going on almost every modern race track being built today. Why doesn’t someone at least attempt to do something really extraordinary when you have the opportunity starting from scratch. 

Source: F1

Source: F1

JT – Looking back at the 2016 F1 season, it unfolded pretty much as expected in general terms. Mercedes GP was head and shoulders above the other teams and dominated, winning 19 of the 21 races on the calendar, setting a new record in the process. 

SJ – Yes absolutely, they dominated. The only times they were beaten is when others picked up the pieces after they made errors, bad starts or had problems with reliability. Apart from that the races were pretty much a foregone conclusion before they started. 

Ultimately, Rosberg did a brilliant job winning the championship. It’s been so close between the two of them the past couple of years and this year was no different of course. Rosberg was able to turn it on mid-season to gain a big enough advantage over Lewis, where he did not have to get into a dogfight for position but merely had to maintain his points gap even if Lewis won every race towards the end. I believe this was the key to him being able to drive disciplined and error free to get the points he needed to seal the title. I don’t think there’s much left to say about his decision to retire a week after the final race, everybody interested in F1 have voiced their opinion one way or the other. In the end it’s his decision and no one else’s. I personally respect the way he bowed out of F1. When you think about it, what would a guy like that want to do next. Would he want to hang in there trying to break every record? 

Source: F1

Source: F1

I think it really comes down to the goals you set for yourself. His goal was to win the Formula One World Championship and he did that. Other drivers – Senna, Schumacher, Hamilton – they have different goals perhaps. And then some drivers simply love racing and can look beyond what the goals are and just enjoy the moment, enjoy racing for what it is and still do a great job by doing that. Bottom line is that every driver is different and it would have been a much easier decision for Nico to say I carry on for a few more years rather than make a decision that is completely life changing to him in every aspect, it takes someone with a lot of courage and will power that reach that conclusion. 

JT – For the last couple decades F1 has focused on Senna, Schumacher and Hamilton – all guys who share a determination to be relentless in their pursuit of winning races and championships - sometimes to an unhealthy degree. I think Rosberg has demonstrated that there’s another way. It may not be a new idea but his outlook is refreshing and perhaps good for Formula One. Do you agree?

SJ – I agree entirely. There is a fine balance between doing the right thing and being relentlessly obsessed with winning at any cost, including cheating if that is an available option – and the notion that we should somehow admire that without questioning the means of how the winning is achieved.

In the end, the relatively brief moments we spend fighting to win races and championships are miniscule relative to the bigger picture of life in general but also in the life of a racing driver. I think we all evolve as human beings to appreciate that at some point later in life. Everyone has their own morals, desires and ambitions in life but I think what Rosberg did was classy and graceful. 

He figured out what he had to do, did it his way and succeeded. That’s very admirable. 

JT – The Formula One cars we’ve known for the last few years are changing for 2017. Most fans won’t miss the cars that have raced in recent seasons but as you’ve said repeatedly, though the formula is changing somewhat, the direction chosen probably won’t improve competition.

SJ – Yes, we’ll have a completely new style of cars for better or worse. The cars will probably look a lot better but whether they’re going to be better in terms of racing remains to be seen. I doubt it very much personally. We have gradually over the years arrived at a situation, primarily thanks to the designs of the cars with these incredibly complex front wings and the amount of downforce they produce, where we then have to create an artificial device (DRS) that will enable overtaking with the purpose of making the racing more exciting or interesting. Add to that the tires which have been mandated to be much worse than they could or should be, again with the purpose to spice up the show with a very short life span and low grip levels. Yet we are now adding even more downforce to the cars, granted it’s supposed to be generated from the bottom of the car and not the front which will help the turbulence for sure, but the fact remains that the cars are already almost in the corners when they brake so I can’t see how by adding a very significant amount of downforce will be helpful in this regard. The cars will be on rails literally and there will be even less opportunity to pass than there currently is. Some argue that it will only be the brave drivers that will be fast which is complete nonsense in my opinion, anyone can drive a car with a lot of downforce as long as they are fit enough to handle the forces, it’s when you start taking it off to a significant degree the difference between the great and not so good will start to show.

Technical Analysis Sketch by Giorgio Piola

Technical Analysis Sketch by Giorgio Piola

You have to assume that Mercedes will maintain some kind of advantage but whenever there’s a reset like this there is an opportunity for someone else to get it more right than the others and that advantage then tends to stay for a while as we’ve seen with Mercedes the past few years. There are also a lot of changes within Mercedes for next year. Rosberg has left and Paddy Lowe (technical director) is apparently leaving too. I have a feeling that Red Bull will be in the strongest position to challenge Mercedes next season. The engines are all getting closer to each other every year and we can assume that starting next year there will be very little difference in terms of power between the different engine manufacturers, so the emphasis will be moving back more towards the chassis and who can get the best out of the tires. The cars will have a massive increase in downforce, and it will be a somewhat new frontier for the teams to find the best package for the start of the season, and this is why I think Red Bull will be very strong as they already had arguably the best chassis this year and with Adrian Newey fully focused on the F1 program again. 

Also, all the teams that have a “B” team or a satellite team or whatever you want to label them, Red Bull/Toro Rosso, Ferrari/HAAS and Mercedes with the teams they support will most likely have an advantage in the early stages as they will have 4 cars or more to collect certain data from during the initial testing.

JT – Mercedes GP is still lining up a replacement for Nico Rosberg. Williams F1’s Valtteri Bottas is seen as a leading candidate. No matter who is chosen, they will likely experience friction with Lewis Hamilton.

Photo by Motorsport.com

Photo by Motorsport.com

SJ – There was friction between the drivers before so why should it be any different in 2017? 

How much friction depends on how big a threat Lewis’ new teammate could be. That’s normal and not a bad reflection on Lewis in particular but merely the way it is, especially in a team where you have two driver with an equal chance to fight for the championship. We had the same scenario between Vettel and Webber when they were dominating and both had a real chance of winning the title, Prost and Senna, Mansell and Piquet. It was war without weapons and no different to what we have seen between Lewis and Nico the past few years. Unless you have a clear number one driver like Ferrari had with Schumacher you will always have that dynamic if the title is at stake. 

JT – At McLaren, Fernando Alonso will have Stoffel Vandoorne as a new teammate. Vandoorne spent 2016 racing in the Japanese Super Formula. The series features 2 liter turbocharged engines from Toyota and Honda in Dallara SF14 single-seater chassis. Comparable to current IndyCars in terms of pace, the Super Formula cars are challenging to master and the generally experienced field of drivers assures stiff competition. One would imagine that racing in Japan in 2016 was probably good for Vandoorne in terms of experience.

SJ – The racing in Japan is super competitive and those cars are on a very high level of performance. It’s a great training ground for sure and it shows how competitive it is when someone like Vandoorne goes there and struggles to win races. (Vandoorne won two races in 2016.) And it’s the same for every European who goes there. It’s a very tough series.

JT – The 2017 Formula One calendar is firm and it shows that F1 events are always in flux. For the first time in many years there will be no German Grand Prix. Other events which have struggled recently including the Malaysian GP were able to secure a date. But attendance has been off at many venues, including at European races like the Austrian GP at Red Bull Ring which has seen a precipitous drop and financial losses. F1’s mix of circuits globally is always a point of debate.

But F1 will always have problems in one region or another. Typically they go to places where money is, although the European races are not big spenders. But I think it’s worthwhile to retain some of the classic venues to mix with new circuits. 

JT – A proposal for a budget cap for F1 teams has surfaced again, this time from Liberty Media, the new group taking control of F1. The budget cap idea has been put before the teams several times in recent years but has never gained support because the top teams claim that the caps cannot be enforced. What do you think of the latest move to try to institute some kind of spending limit?

SJ – I agree 100 percent that you can never really truly enforce a cost cap. The teams will always find ways to spend money, and the creativity they have to accomplish this will just make it even more expensive in the end in my opinion.  I think what should be done with that in mind is to limit the areas where large amounts of money are currently being spent.

The number one area by far to focus on is Aerodynamics because everything on a current race car evolves from the Aero package. This is the single most important area for car performance, yet it has very little benefit if any at all outside the realm of making a race car go faster. The amount of money each team is spending on aero development is astronomical. I spoke to one of the Senior Management guys in one of the top teams recently, he told me they have a total of 250 people in the Design and Engineering department, of which half are aerodynamicists. Then bear in mind that each team probably have a similar ratio of staff depending on how big their budgets are. And all they are free to do is basically just fine tuning of a very restricted package, hence nearly every car looking identical. There is no innovation, just an enormous amount of money being spent on gaining ½ percent here and another ¼ percent there which all adds up in the end. 

Almost every single driver and many designers I speak to today is in agreement that aerodynamics or downforce is not the way to go. It’s a point I’ve been making for some time now, it’s killing the racing in every category and is making the average drivers look much better than they really are. Even Adrian Newey, who is the best Aerodynamicist in F1 history came out this week and said he is in favor of a Wind Tunnel ban. 

The best and only solution in my opinion in order to keep the costs down and to make the racing more interesting but still give teams the freedom to innovate in other ways is to set a fixed limit on the downforce the cars can produce. Whatever the number is, something significantly less than what they’re getting right now, the focus would go from how much aerodynamic downforce cars make to how much grip the teams could gain back in other areas. It would be easy to monitor the level of downforce through the ECU and the load sensors in the suspension. 

It sounds controversial as it requires a complete rethink but it’s in my view it’s no different than limiting the size of the tires, the engine size, or the amount of fuel the cars can carry. We have limits and restrictions in almost every area of the car so why not limit the amount of downforce to a level that is sensible and that will also improve the racing.

Limiting downforce and putting the emphasis on other areas of development would also assist in the prevailing debate of political correctness which says that Formula One should benefit automotive technology for the street somehow. If you take all the effort, brain power and money that’s been spent in wind tunnels for the past 25 years and concentrate those resources in other areas, I guarantee you that in five years there will be breakthroughs in technology that we haven’t even seen yet. 

This could include technology that gives cars a massive leap in mechanical grip, a lot less drag, greatly improved tires and much more. At the least, it could open up new areas of exploration instead of endlessly focusing and fine-tuning the aero within this very defined box. New materials we never knew existed and other technologies would be discovered and developed at a pace we can’t imagine. 

If you free up the engine restrictions you can make similar gains as well. Set a certain parameter regarding how much energy consumption is allowed but let the engines make as much horsepower as they can get within those parameters. Make the engines powerful and not just efficient. If they can get 1500hp by only using the allowed criteria of energy consumption that’s great. Allow any technology that people want to try, remember the turbine Lotus in the 70’s, pioneering stuff that is also exciting and interesting for the fans.

Make the cars spectacular looking and difficult to drive, a car with 1500hp and half or less of the current levels of downforce will be a beast to drive, and that’s what the fans and the drivers want. 

Again, in that kind of competitive environment there would be new engine technology pioneered or developed that could be infinitely better than any hybrid or electric power plants that are currently being mandated as the only option for a power plant. Changing this focus will bring on new innovations that no one has thought of yet just because they have now been challenged to think of them. Motor racing in general and F1 in particular is the most competitive environment you can find, and if you unchain these guys and really allow their creativity to come out I guarantee you that we will see some incredible stuff in the future. 

There are more scientist and engineers alive in the world today than have lived in all previous human history put together, this is an important fact. In the past 20 years there have been literally new discoveries in Science and technology every week and this is increasing at an exponential rate. Radical new technologies are coming into existence all the time. If the emphasis of F1 or motor racing in general is to stay relevant, maybe it’s time to do a reset and allow some new and radical thinking instead of rehashing the same old Aerodynamics concept over and over at an astronomical cost each time there’s a new rule change. 

JT- With the announcement that Audi is pulling out of WEC we are now down to two manufacturers racing each other for the Championship and the overall win at Le Mans. What are the likelihood of more manufacturers joining the series and what effect do you think it will have on WEC going forward?

SJ- It’s hard to say, but I find it nearly impossible for a new manufacturer to join in the current situation and with the current rules the way they are. LMP1 is now on a level of F1, maybe even more in some aspects. The budgets are certainly very close to a top team in F1 and for a new team to join with a genuine attempt at winning would be a monumental task. We may see some half serious attempts like the Nissan project last year but I would be very surprised to see any manufacturer mount a serious effort at winning the 24 hours under the current system.

Much like F1, the development of the cars have reached a point where the racing is not very interesting any longer, the GTLM and LMP2 categories are far more interesting to follow than the LMP1 is now, with great drivers in both categories and great teams running the cars. It’s hard racing all the way.

I personally think we’re at a point now where we could take the GTLM cars and make them the main category. The goal for the ACO has always been for the fastest cars to be in the 3 min 30sec laptime bracket, they seem to think this is the safe area to be in for overall laptimes. The GT’s are in the low 50’s now and if you took of all the restrictors they would gain a significant amount of horsepower which could translate to a laptime somewhere in the mid 40’s probably. Allow each manufacturer to then develop the cars bit further, add some wider tires and wider wheel arches which would make the cars look a lot more cool and aggressive and the laptimes would be in the 30’s in a couple of years. The racing would be awesome with a whole grid full of the same cars essentially. The manufacturers would be going for it and the customer teams could buy the same car as the one winning the race. They wouldn’t be as quick, but not that far off, certainly not 10 seconds or more which is currently the case between the manufacturers and the privateers. The fans will be watching the same cars they can buy in the showroom and we would probably have 7-8 Manufacturers represented, maybe more. If you take away the BOP restrictions, it’s up to each manufacturer to make a road car that is good enough to compete for overall victory. We would see some incredibly cool looking cars, that will then also be available for people to buy. Like we have seen with the Ford GT, there will be a line of people wanting to get their hands on these when they become available to the public.