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Filtering by Tag: USGP

F1 Japanese Grand Prix, U.S. Grand Prix & Formula 1’s Penalty System

Stefan Johansson

 - #SJblog 78 -

JT – As the 2016 Formula One season races toward its conclusion, the grands prix are coming thick and fast. Here, we cover both the Japanese Grand Prix and the U.S. Grand Prix.

Last weekend Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton took their title fight to the Circuit of the Americas. The race was like most this year – not really compelling or exciting. Lewis Hamilton got away cleanly from pole and led from start to finish. Teammate Rosberg left his second-place grid position well but a good start from Daniel Ricciardo saw the Red Bull Racing driver emerge from Turn 1 in second place with Rosberg third. Ultimately, Rosberg recovered to finish second with Ricciardo third.

We’ll touch on the details momentarily but first I’d like to observe that I don’t think I’ve ever seen a race – open wheel or sports car – at COTA that was especially memorable or exciting. The track doesn’t seem to lend itself to great racing. Do you agree?

SJ – I agree. It’s the nature of the track. It’s another [Hermann] Tilke-designed track basically so it’s built to the same template as most of the rest he’s done. Unfortunately, they don’t produce very good racing in general because they all seem to have one corner followed by a kink or another corner and you can never get a proper run on a guy ahead of you as you’re going through them. The corners leading onto the long straights are all sort of aero-dependent which means that if you get somewhat close to the car in front you lose your front end which means you have to lift slightly and then the gap remains too big to have a go when you arrive to the braking zone – often even with DRS engaged. It’s the same problem you have on so many modern circuits.

JT – With his USGP win, Lewis Hamilton cuts Nico Rosberg’s point lead from 33 to 26. Rosberg did what he needed to do by finishing second, scoring enough points to limit the damage. So their championship battle continues to the next race, the Mexican Grand Prix. What did you think of the USGP?

SJ –Well, there’s not really much to report. Again, whoever gets through the mess at the first corner in the lead – that’s pretty much where they end up. With the cars at the front so closely matched it’s pretty predictable from there on.

JT – As mentioned, Daniel Ricciardo passed Nico Rosberg for second place at the first corner but lost the spot to Rosberg later in the race. Ricciardo blamed the Virtual Safety Car triggered when teammate Max Verstappen’s Red Bull car came to a halt on the circuit for his loss of position. He observed that by pitting under the VSC Rosberg lost less time and thus emerged second after his stop. VSC’s have been seen as preferable to traditional “safety car” or “yellow flag-caution” periods but a number of incidents in sports car racing have some including Audi Sport questioning whether they are consistently more equitable. What’s you view?

SJ – With a full safety car, the whole pack gets closed up and that can be unfair if you have a significant advantage. That’s what we have had in IndyCar since forever and it offers opportunities for much more interesting racing even if it’s not always fair.

If the rules state that you have a safety car when there’s an incident… then it just becomes part of the racing, it’s part of what you do and you build your strategy accordingly. It features in IndyCar pretty much every race. How often have we seen a driver go a lap down at Indianapolis and still end up winning the race by playing the strategy the right way for example?

So safety cars are good and bad. Over the course of a season, your luck with them usually evens out – sometimes good, sometimes bad. Overall, a virtual safety car can be more fair because everybody’s supposed to slow to a certain speed immediately when a VSC is called. On the other hand, I’m not sure exactly how they monitor that because it would be difficult to monitor the gaps between each car. It looks to me that you can at least gain a few seconds by simply slowing down just a fraction later than some others do and by doing so reducing their gap to the car ahead.

And Rosberg obviously took advantage of the VSC. There was nothing Ricciardo could do about when the VSC was declared, so that’s also a smart call, good strategy from Mercedes.

JT – Both Red Bull and Ferrari stumbled. Max Verstappen pitted even though he hadn’t been called to the pits by the team then succumbed to engine failure. Meanwhile, Kimi Raikkonen failed to finish due to a loose wheel after his second stop. Sebastian Vettel finished a distant fourth to both Mercedes and Ricciardo’s Red Bull.

SJ – Raikkonen’s DNF was a mishap which could happen to anyone I guess but as far as Ferrari’s progress…. well, once a season is underway it’s hard to overcome whatever car deficit you have. As deep into 2016 as they are, it is what it is now. They just have to try to regroup and get it right for next year. Also, loosing their technical director James Allison mid season obvisously does not help.

Source: Formula 1

Source: Formula 1

JT – McLaren’s Fernando Alonso and Williams’ Felipe Massa made contact as Alonso passed Massa for sixth place in the late stages of the race. They disagreed about who was at fault for the contact which punctured one of Massa’s tires but the stewards ruled it a racing incident and no penalty was administered. Later in this blog you speak about the inconsistent application of rules in F1 and the variability introduced by having a succession of different driver stewards. This incident adds to that theme, doesn’t it?

SJ – That corner (Turn 15) is probably one of the easiest corners to cover the inside on any grand prix track worldwide. It makes zero difference if you’re on the outside racing line, inside or wherever you are in that corner.

I think it would have been easy for Massa to stay to the inside of the corner. And when you leave the door wide open a driver like Alonso will always make a move. Knowing how difficult it is to pass around there the only option is really to go for the “surprise” move which is exactly what Alonso did. You have to make a move when the driver ahead least expects it because there’s hardly any other place to pass on that track.

It’s the same thing Rosberg did to Raikkonen in Malaysia but Nico got a 10-second penalty. Alonso got nothing and it’s the same old story – rulings at random. These were almost identical incidents but the stewards’ rulings were not identical. One time you get a penalty, next time you don’t.  What do you do as a driver?

I think [Mark] Blundell who was the steward in Austin did the right thing but it shows there’s no consistency whatsoever in the control tower.

JT – With five races remaining on the Formula One calendar, Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton sat anxiously on the grid at the Japanese Grand Prix knowing a good points score would be critical for both in their two-man battle for the championship. When the lights went out Rosberg (on pole) got away cleanly. Hamilton, starting second, bogged down and fell to eighth by the time the field exited the first corner. He recovered to finish third after a heated battle with Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen who finished in second place.

As you’ve said in previous blogs, the Mercedes driver who gets the start right generally wins. We saw that once again at Suzuka.

SJ – All season long, it seems that’s what it’s come down to now. More than anything else between these two, it really comes down to who gets the start right and at least in Lewis case also some reliability issues. That’s it. That’s all the difference there is between them. That’s why the situation can change so quickly. One missed start or one reliability issue on Nico’s part and a win for Lewis, and it’s all back to square one again. The championship battle won’t be over until the final race, I’m sure of it.

The press has been saying either Lewis or Nico are on form at one time or another. But if you look back to the previous race, the Malaysian Grand Prix, Lewis dominated the race until he had an engine failure. So it’s not really accurate to say one or another is on or off form. As we’ve said before, when you have two drivers who are so closely matched, whoever gets the start right on the day is going to have an edge.

JT – Max Verstappen’s move in the chicane as Lewis Hamilton was trying to pass him with two laps to go sparked some controversy. Mercedes initially protested Verstappen’s change of direction under braking but later withdrew the protest. Mercedes chairman Niki Lauda sided with Verstappen saying, "If I was him, I wouldn't have let Lewis past on the penultimate lap either.” He added, “This paragraph (rule) could be interpreted in all sorts of ways so it's worthless."

What did you think of Verstappen’s driving, and the lack of clarity in F1 rules?

SJ – This moving under braking – even if it’s just a little wiggle – makes it very difficult for the guy behind. Once you hit the brakes you’re more or less committed to one line, so if you’re the car following and you’ve decided to make an attempt to pass where there is a gap by leaving your braking to the very last moment and the driver in front of you suddenly moves across and the gap is no longer there it makes it almost impossible for the guy behind to avoid even hitting him. You either completely blow the corner or you hit the guy you’re trying to pass, which in fact we have seen numerous times lately, where parts of the front wing suddenly go flying because there was contact under braking.

We’ve talked about this many times but this blocking nonsense in racing goes back quite a few years. There’s a great video of Rene Arnoux and Gilles Villeneuve (1979 French Grand Prix at Dijon). If you watch that, it was an intense battle where they traded second place several times and you see how they raced back then. There was no blocking and that’s how everyone raced. Sadly, these dirty tactics slowly crept into the system by a few drivers who then became heroes to the generations that followed and because the FIA didn’t clamp down on it early enough it’s now become the norm and every young driver thinks that’s how you should race.

That’s where we are today. All the young drivers think that’s the way to race and it’s a pity because it’s also taken away a large part of what I call the “Art of Racing”. Even the vocabulary drivers use now is weird – the fact that now people talk about “defending my position”. “Defending” nowadays basically translates into moving in one direction or another so that the other guy can’t get past you, no matter how much faster he is.

To me, that has nothing to do with racing. If you are slower than the car behind you, and he’s started to make his move, whether it’s a corner or what often happens now even on the straights, you can’t simply move across the guy to prevent him from passing. That’s like allowing a boxer to pull out a knife or something when he’s on the ropes and about to go down. In contrast, look back to the race in Malaysia at the beginning of the month. Ricciardo and Verstappen had a great dice with no blocking. That’s racing. There was enough room for both to race hard. Ricciardo managed to keep his position without blocking at any point. He just raced hard but he gave both cars enough room. That’s how you should race – hard but fair, real racing as far as I’m concerned.

There is no skill whatsoever involved in just moving across on a competitor who’s trying to pass you because he’s faster than you. The phrase, “defending your position” didn’t exist in the past. You defended your position by braking later than the guy trying to pass you. If you could brake later and still make the corner, you successfully kept your position.

There should always be enough room for both cars to make a corner. Anything else is completely unacceptable. What drivers do on the straights now is outrageous. It’s the same thing but even worse. There should always be enough room on any straight for two cars, and if one car is faster than the other it’s his right to pass. If you have to lift on a straight because someone ahead just drives across your piece of road effectively, that’s absolutely unacceptable.

JT – Ferrari finished just off the podium with Sebastian Vettel in 4th and Kimi Raikkonen in 5th. But Red Bull Racing has moved into second place ahead of Ferrari in the constructor’s championship. The situation at Ferrari still seems confused. Do you agree?

SJ – Well, more and more people who should know are starting to come forward with some honest assessments of the team. I don’t know enough of what really goes on to make a fair comment but I do know that F1 is probably one of the most difficult businesses to run successfully as there are so many layers to deal with. It’s hard enough to run a company profitably and do everything else correct, on top of that you then have to try and win a race every two weeks against people that are all trying to do the same thing. The top teams now employ over 1000 people and the organization required to manage those people and get the best of out them requires some very strong leadership. We have seen many extremely successful business people come into F1 over the years, but without the experience and the mindset you need to succeed in this cut throat business of Formula One, and all have ultimately failed. The only exceptions I can think of is Flavio Briatore and Dietrich Mateschitz who both were smart enough to hire the best people in the business and basically let them get on with it. Mr. Marchioni is without doubt an extremely intelligent man and his business record speak for itself. Let’s just hope that Ferrari does not end up going down the same road Jaguar did when Ford bought the Stewart F1 team and installed a bunch of car executives and engineers (Premier Automotive Group) to run the F1 team. We all saw how that ended up.

Flavio Briatore and Dietrich Mateschitz.jpg

I say it over and over. Racing is a very difficult business in general, and Formula One in particular. You can’t expect to just arrive and apply your normal business acumen and what you’ve learned in a business school or from running big public companies to running a race team at the highest level. It’s completely different. I certainly haven’t run a car company but I suspect there’s probably another 50 layers of complexity and issues you have to deal with on top of just running a successful business when you’re engaged in F1.

It’s possibly the most competitive environment you can possibly get into. If you make one or two bad strategic decisions it will take several months or even years to rectify them and get back on track. Most of all, you better hire the right people. Even with the “dream Team” of Jean Todt, Russ Brawn, Michael Schumacher and Rory Byrne it still took Ferrari several years before they became a winning team. Right now I don’t see a “dream team” in place.

JT – In other F1-related news, Nico Hulkenberg announced that he will leave Force India at the end of the season and join Renault in 2017. It’s a factory drive, something every driver covets but Hulkenberg must also hope that Renault can make significant improvement.

Meanwhile, ex-Red Bull Racing/current-Porsche LMP1 driver Mark Webber announced that he will retire from racing after the WEC season ends in November at the 6 Hours of Bahrain. What are your thoughts on these moves?

SJ – It’s a good move for Hulkenberg. I’m sure Renault will make progress, assuming the commitment is there. How much they commit and over what period of times, who knows?

It certainly opens up the driver market in a different way now, that’s for sure. An open Force India seat is definitely a desirable seat for a lot of the drivers. And there’s the second seat at Renault as well. There are plenty of very good drivers in the market, let’s hope these seats will be offered to someone that truly deserves an F1 drive.

Mark Webber’s announcement surprised me a little bit. Maybe he’s just had enough or just realized that it’s getting tougher and tougher every year to stay on top. WEC LMP 1 I would say is every bit as hard as F1 at the sharp end, there are some extremely good drivers in every one of the cars from Audi, Porsche and Toyota.

JT – Following up on your comments in the last blog about tire testing and the advantages that can be gained if a team or driver makes themselves readily available to assist Pirelli with development of next year’s new, larger tires, some seem to be waking up to that fact. Nico Rosberg recently tested the new tires on a Mercedes for the first time at Aragon.

SJ – Maybe the penny has now dropped for some of the other teams and drivers. There’s been some noise made about Vettel’s testing for Ferrari and I think the others realize the importance of being at the very cutting edge of that. It’s probably more important than car development in some ways.  We spoke about this in the last blog. I also noticed Alonso made a comments that it’s unfair that all the teams don’t have the opportunity to do the testing. My understanding is that McLaren actually turned down the opportunity to be part of the testing, which I think will ultimately hurt them next year.

JT – Recent rulings on driver/team infractions seem to have you and many other people scratching their heads about F1’s murky penalty system. What are your thoughts?

SJ – Again, we have discussed this so many times now, and if anything it just seems to get worse in fact. The penalties they issue make no sense. Take Rosberg’s penalty in Malaysia (Rosberg was penalized 10 seconds for contact with Kimi Raikkonen while passing the Ferrari driver), that was just hard racing, he went for the surprise move and he pulled it off. The door was left open enough to have a go on the entry.  Yet you get a penalty for that but don’t get penalized for moving completely across the track to block a guy from passing you on a straight line, which has happened numerous times?

The penalties are so random and willy nilly, they vary with every race depending on who is in the control tower for the weekend. For me, this makes a complete mockery of the whole system. You have teams spending hundreds of millions of dollars while some random guys in the control tower decides whether a driver should be penalized for something that is also completely random. Their decisions could have a direct effect on the championship. As it were, it made no difference in Malaysia because Rosberg gained more than 10 seconds on Raikkonen and finished where he would have finished anyway.

But let’s say Rosberg missed out on one point because of a steward’s decision. If that one point is the decider in the championship, the decision of a random steward could make all the difference.

In addition, there seems to be no consistency in the penalties. Esteban Ocon gets a 5-second penalty for speeding in pit lane (Manor Racing’s Ocon earned two penalties for speeding in pit lane in the Malaysian GP)? As far as I’m aware, the penalty for speeding in pit lane has always been a drive-through. In every type of racing I’ve ever done if you speed in pit lane you generally get a drive-through penalty. All of a sudden it’s now a 5-second penalty from one race to the next?

You’ll have a different penalty for that in the next race and then another different penalty after that…The drivers don’t know if they’re coming or going. It’s inexcusable for me that Charlie Whiting (F1 Race Director) and the FIA can pick a driver-steward at random for each and every race. Let’s hypothetically say they ask Mark Webber to be steward. He might still have a beef with Vettel, we don’t know. Or any other driver, we don’t know the full background, maybe they have a vested interest in a particular driver or they may just be mates at some level. Either way, there is a good chance that this will cloud their judgment to some degree at least.

As high level as everything is in F1, there is this opposite side of the spectrum - completely amateur. Most other series have a dedicated steward who is present at every race. It’s so poorly thought out that there’s no way to justify it in my view.

As I’ve said before, they need to get rid of the guest driver-stewards and have one guy that is respected by all the drivers and who can talk to them as peers – who can tell them clearly what the rules are and let them know that if they break these rules they get penalized. Very quickly a pattern will form and drivers will know where the line is drawn.

Every driver should know where they stand with regard to the rules. Now, no one knows. It’s up to Derek Warwick or Alan Jones or Allan McNish or Emanuele Pirro or Danny Sullivan, or whomever is there on a given weekend. No disrespect to any of them. They’re all great drivers but everybody has a different view of what’s right or wrong. And when it really comes down to crunch time, do every one of these guys, not just the guys I mentioned but all of the guys who have at some time been the guest steward over the years, really have the balls to make the right decision if a world championship is at stake. I say categorically no.

One more thing – the penalties issued to teams for engine changes – they’re also mind boggling. I guess the engine change rules were originally created to stop engine manufacturers building grenades basically as qualifying or practice session engines. You get a penalty if an engine breaks before a set number of races have been run with it. The original thinking was that you can only use a limited number of engines so it’s less costly.

In reality it’s probably pushed the cost of engines up by five times compared to what it used to be. The cost of building an engine that will only last for one race is relatively small once you’ve designed and developed it. It’s only metal, it doesn’t cost that much more to produce 200 pistons compared to say 50 for example. Compare that to what it costs to design and build engines with these super exotic materials that have to be highly durable and last over the course of several races.

The current engines produce about 950 horsepower. A NASCAR V8 produces about 900 horsepower and you could probably build 100’s of those engines compared to what it costs to design and build one F1 engine. Does it have to be this complicated, this expensive?

Back to the rules – with the current engine penalties, the teams throw everything but the kitchen sink at a car every time they get one of these penalties. That makes a mockery of the rules. And does anyone understand a 45 grid-spot penalty for an engine change? How is the public supposed to follow that?

And if you have an accident and damage your engine and have to change it out, why are you penalized for that? You’ve already been penalized by having the accident. No one’s going to go and have an accident on purpose just so they can put a new engine in.

JT- Finally, Audi just announced that they are pulling out of WEC LMP1 and the Le Mans 24 hours at the end of 2016 and will instead focus on the Formula E Championship. What are your thoughts?

SJ- We’ve been hearing these rumors for a while now and I guess it had to happen sooner or later. It marks the end of an era and I am proud to have played a small part of the program over the year, being one of their drivers the first year they entered Le Mans and then in subsequent years with my own team (Gulf Audi R8) and then with Champion Racing where we won our class at Le Mans in 2003. Of all the car manufacturers I have worked with over the years they stand out as the one who really made a big impression on me. Dr Ullrich and his team of people created something that will be hard for anyone else to ever get close to. The decision to focus on Formula E instead is a very significant sign of the times, and if they really commit fully the same way they did to sportscars I think Formula E will make a giant leap forward as the other manufacturers will have no choice but to follow. It will be very interesting to follow this development over the next three years, this could be very significant!


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SJ chats with Jan Tegler: the F1 revolution & Lewis Hamilton’s off-track lifestyle

Stefan Johansson

f1-abu-dhabi-gp-2015-stefan-johansson

JT – Last week Motorsport.com ran commentary from you on the current problems of Formula One and motorsport in general, and your proposed solutions.

Stefan Johansson's F1 revolution, Part 1 - Problems in philosophy

Your views were overwhelmingly well received, echoing many of the issues we’ve discussed in this Blog over the years.

SJ – Yes, it was great to have the positive feedback. I think everyone feels the same way, the last few major rule changes have definitely sent F1 in the wrong direction. My proposal is only one of many out there and it’s only a generalization of some of the basic things that I feel we really need to have a close look at.

Rather than attacking Formula One’s fundamental problems it seems the focus is either on being politically correct or some form of band aid solution in order to spice up the show. Apparently they were discussing changes including refueling? How many times have we been down that road and what good would going back to refueling do? If this is the best they can come up with it will only prolong the pain before the inevitable will happen. 

Bringing back refueling would just add more cost to something that is already straining the limits financially for most of its participants. New fuel rigs would be exorbitantly expensive. Anyway, it’s an irrelevant argument as it’s nothing more than another poor band aid to a much more fundamental problem.

f1-renault-1.6-turbo-engine-designboom

JT – Apparently F1’s four manufacturers have a preliminary agreement in place this week to reduce engine supply costs and guarantee that no team is left without power units in exchange for keeping the current V6 turbo formula until at least 2020. The manufacturers were solidly against the less expensive independent or “customer” engine that had been proposed. To cut costs the manufacturers are said to be planning for more standardized parts in the makeup of their respective power units by 2018. Do you think this will be of help?

SJ – It will help the customer teams of course. It will drop the cost by about $6 million apparently, which is great, but in the end it amounts to less than 10 percent of even the smallest team’s budget. No one seems to want to rock the boat and really attack the problems from the bottom up. All we see are little snippets of this or that in the interest of either improving the show or reduce the costs. As I’ve said over and over, I don’t believe you can have a democratic system of governing F1. It just doesn’t work.

The rules being talked about for 2017 are just nuanced adaptations of the ridiculously costly format they use now but they’re enough to make team budgets go through the roof again as they reset. The big teams will spend a fortune and the small teams will struggle even more as they will all have to basically design brand new cars to suit the new rules.

If things continue as they are F1 could end up like DTM (the German Touring Car Championship) - run by three or four manufacturers with six spec cars from each brand using their respective engines and drivers chosen by the automakers.

f1-spanish-gp-2015-nico-hulkenberg-sahara-force-india-f1-with-fans

JT – The madness we’ve been talking about in the blog here for at least three years now is unquestionably harming F1 and racing in general. Fans have strongly expressed their displeasure and, worryingly, that fan base is aging. Younger racing fans are not being made in significant enough numbers to replace those that will depart in coming years.

SJ – That’s an interesting feature of all this. I don’t know the exact data on this, but if you read the racing blogs and comments from fans you realize that basically it’s the racing “anoraks” who are still engaged. You rarely hear a comment from 20-year-olds or teenagers. Fans are getting older and the younger generations seems completely detached from racing, not just F1.

JT – Ironically, that’s occurring at a time when modern motorsport - particularly Formula One - is more technologically complex and technologically-driven than ever. It demonstrates that despite the fascination of younger consumers with technology, they don’t view technology in racing as relevant or interesting.

SJ – Exactly, the entertainment side of F1 is difficult and very complicated right now. Think about it. The drivers are in ultra-complex, ultra-sophisticated cars now yet they get radio messages from their teams in the pits telling them to drive way below the limit to save the tires. Engineering is taking the driver right out of the equation.

2015-usgp- ferrari

That’s why when F1 has a race affected by weather like we had in Austin (USGP) last year the racing suddenly improves. The teams probably had every scenario for a dry race already mapped out and simulated in minute detail. But it was such a terrible weekend weather-wise that no one could simulate the race beforehand and plan for every eventuality. That’s why it became a good race. It was unpredictable.

The racing doesn’t have to go back to what it was 30 years ago but somehow the driver has to be brought back to the center of it. When you can take an 18-year-old test driver, bolt him into an F1 car and he’s within two-tenths of Fernando Alonso’s best time in less than 20 laps, something is seriously wrong.

Sadly, this world of political correctness we now live in has well and truly found its way into Formula 1 and motor racing in general. In the interest of saving a planet that’s been around for something like four billion years we have super-efficient engines - but at a cost that is about to drive half the F1 grid out of business.

We now have race cars that are incredibly sophisticated and advanced technically, but as a result, they are boring to watch as the drivers don’t have to fight the car to get the most out of it. That’s done by the engineers in the pit lane - again, at a cost that is mind boggling to anyone outside of F1.

cota-f1

We have race-tracks which are so sanitized that there is literally no punishment for going over the limit. All this has crept in little by little over a period of time. So now we are in a situation where we have to create artificial ways to “improve” the show. This is done by creating even more expensive and complicated systems, and worse of all, by mandating a tire that essentially is bad from the beginning.

Think about it, all this insane money is being spent on producing amazing cars that can then only be driven at 80 percent or less of their potential. It’s a bit like buying the most beautiful Siamese cat in the world then taking it home and strangling it!  None of it makes any sense.

Somewhere along the way it seems that everyone forgot what it is that makes motor racing so attractive to a lot of people around the world, to watch a group of the most talented and brave young men in the world, fighting each other in cars that are visibly fast and outrageously difficult to handle. I don’t care what anyone says, the gladiatorial aspect of our sport is definitely one the main things that people associate with auto racing in general.

Lewis-Hamilton-GQ

JT – There’s been much made of Lewis Hamilton’s off-track lifestyle and activities lately. Your view is that he’s simply doing what drivers have done over many eras of the sport, correct?

SJ – As far as I’m concerned, if we didn’t have Lewis enjoying his life away from F1 we’d have no one interesting to talk about off-track. He does a flawless job on the race track and has the guts to do his own thing and live his own life away from it.

I think it’s great. Really, he’s getting better and better each year and I don’t think he’s even close to hitting his peak just yet. He’s one of the very rare drivers capable of digging a little bit deeper when it really matters. The fact that he’s able to combine that with his very high profile private life makes him a true Mega star. We haven’t had a World Champion that had the level of publicity that Lewis is getting in a very long time. I’m sure both his team and F1 in general are grateful.

Felix-Rosenqvist-f3

JT – You have been helping current FIA F3 champion and fellow Swede Felix Rosenqvist. Any news on his plans for 2016?

SJ – He’s going to drive a PC (prototype challenge) car with Starworks Motorsports at the upcoming Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona. He’s working hard to find the right place for 2016, looking at a range of alternatives. But unfortunately, unless you have a decent budget to bring there is not a lot you can do. It’s a sign of the times today.

ford-gt-imsa

JT – Speaking of Daytona, there will be a number of significant debuts at the 24 Hours including the first race for the new Ford GT program. What are your thoughts on their effort?

SJ – It looks very impressive. There’s the BoP (balance of performance) under which everyone has to work but if it weren’t for that I think the car would be blindingly quick. They will do well.

I really wish sports car racing could come up with a better formula than the BoP. I was chatting with Sebastian Bourdais recently and he’s in agreement with my contention that we should just un-restrict the GTLM cars and they would easily go ten seconds per lap quicker than they do now with the restrictors they have to use.

Give them just a little bit more aero and better tires and they would be awesome. If the ACO wants to get lap times at Le Mans back into the high 3 minute-30s/low 3:40s, the GTLM cars are already doing high 40s. You’d be in the 30s in no time if you just took the restrictors off those cars.

SJ chats with Jan Tegler: Abu Dhabi GP, Felix Rosenqvist's GP2 test, Haas F1 & IndyCar

Stefan Johansson

Abu Dhabi GP 2015 - Rosberg.jpg

Jan Tegler – The F1 season concluded with the recent Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. Nico Rosberg beat teammate and 2015 World Champion Lewis Hamilton for his third consecutive win. You were on hand at Yas Marina, what was your impression of the race and the championship this year?

Stefan Johansson – It was a typical Yas Marina race I would say, this track doesn’t seem to lend itself to great racing for some reason. The combination of its layout and the aerodynamics of the current F1 cars makes it very difficult to get close enough to someone to get a good run on them.

The season overall was pretty much as expected with just a few exceptions. Mercedes totally dominated the competition again. Lewis did a superb job the whole year until he won the championship (at the USGP). What happened after that is hard to say, whether it was his performance falling off or maybe Nico found the magic bullet on his car set up towards the end of the year. We won’t know that until next season starts I suppose.

I think Ferrari had a better year than many people expected. Aside from that, Force India would be the team that stands out. I think they did a fantastic job under the circumstances they were in. They were probably the only team that made a really big improvement over the course of the season. And as critical as I’ve been of Sergio Perez in the past, I thought he did a very good job and blossomed together with the team. He made [Nico] Hulkenberg look pretty average in a lot of the races from mid-season forward.

Also, you have to admit that Max Verstappen did a very good job as a rookie. The Toro Rosso car was obviously very good too because Carlos Sainz was equally quick in the car as well. He just had a lot of bad luck. Had his luck held, I think he would have had equal results with Verstappen. 

JT – What did you think of the quality of racing in F1 in general in 2015?

SJ – In a lot of ways it’s the same as it’s always been. Out of the whole season you get maybe four races that are exciting, usually when something happens that’s unexpected – when weather conditions are weird or something else unpredictable influences the racing. But if things are as normal, i.e. racing on a Tilke-designed circuit with normal weather conditions, the races are mostly processional events.

Unfortunately, F1 has become an engineering race. It has always been about technology of course so someone’s always going to have an edge. But now engineering is at such a premium that if you get one thing wrong with design of your car, or it’s not fully optimized, there’s no way to recover quickly. It’s fascinating if you’re an engineer and also as a driver inside the sport to be part of this never ending development war, but it doesn’t make the racing compelling for the fans.

JT - You remained in Abu Dhabi for the week following the grand prix to be on hand for the GP2 test with 2015 F3 champion and Macau GP-winner Felix Rosenqvist. Felix had a fairly good test and seeing the GP2 series up close again gave you an interesting perspective.

SJ – Yes, to start with, the cost is very high for a feeder series, something like $2 million per year in competitive team. Stoffel Vandoorne absolutely cleaned up this year (Vandoorne captured the 2015 GP2 championship by a wide margin) and will end up doing Super Formula in Japan next year under a testing contract (Vandoorne is part of McLaren’s Young Driver Program). But those contracts have little meaning these days.

Another thing that struck me while attending the test was the tire situation in GP2. They are using Pirellis just like in F1 and for some reason that is beyond me whoever is in charge of the series has decided the GP2 tires should mimic the characteristics of the F1 tires.

Basically, the tires are good for about 5 hot laps then they just fall of a cliff. So all these young drivers who need as much seat time as they can get and need to hone their race craft by racing hard from start to finish are basically cruising around - several seconds off the pace - for most of the race trying to save their tires. It doesn’t make any sense to me on any level and I feel sorry for these guys. I spoke to a couple of the current GP2 stars and they all agree. One of them is 20 years old and very promising and he told me he’s sitting there in the middle of a race asking himself if this is really what he was hoping to do when he became a professional driver, cruising around at eighty percent just to make it to the end of the race?

JT- So, if you have to spend two years in GP2 to have a chance of winning the Championship - which equates to around $4 million - and have very little to show for it at the end of the day, what do you do as a driver?

SJ - It’s a big dilemma. I talked to several driver managers and F1 managers while in Abu Dhabi and it seems the general consensus is that most of them have in fact given up on the idea of pushing their drivers all the way to F1.

The path to get there is too expensive and it’s getting more and more difficult to find sponsorship for both the teams and the drivers. Instead people are starting to focus on DTM and sports cars as alternative routes for a career as a professional driver. It’s a sad situation when even the people in F1 admit that the best drivers don’t have a chance to ever drive an F1 car, or at least not race one.

The only open wheel series that makes any sense in my opinion right now is IndyCar. There is a good ladder system in place in America where the winner in the Indy Lights Championship will get a good portion of the budget towards an Indycar program plus a guaranteed drive in the Indy 500 as the reward for winning the series.

The racing is outstanding in Indycar. Every race goes down to the wire and you can never count out anyone until after the last pitstop. Six drivers had a chance to win the Championship going into the last round this year, I don’t know any other series that comes even close to that. But as I’ve said so many times, unfortunately the IndyCar people don’t seem know what a great product they have and they certainly don’t know how to market it.

JT- So, if you have to spend two years in GP2 to have a chance of winning the Championship - which equates to around $4 million - and have very little to show for it at the end of the day, what do you do as a driver?

SJ - It’s a big dilemma. I talked to several driver managers and F1 managers while in Abu Dhabi and it seems the general consensus is that most of them have in fact given up on the idea of pushing their drivers all the way to F1.

The path to get there is too expensive and it’s getting more and more difficult to find sponsorship for both the teams and the drivers. Instead people are starting to focus on DTM and sports cars as alternative routes for a career as a professional driver. It’s a sad situation when even the people in F1 admit that the best drivers don’t have a chance to ever drive an F1 car, or at least not race one.

The only open wheel series that makes any sense in my opinion right now is IndyCar. There is a good ladder system in place in America where the winner in the Indy Lights Championship will get a good portion of the budget towards an Indycar program plus a guaranteed drive in the Indy 500 as the reward for winning the series.

The racing is outstanding in Indycar. Every race goes down to the wire and you can never count out anyone until after the last pitstop. Six drivers had a chance to win the Championship going into the last round this year, I don’t know any other series that comes even close to that. But as I’ve said so many times, unfortunately the IndyCar people don’t seem know what a great product they have and they certainly don’t know how to market it.

JT – In off-season Formula One news, several ex-F1 team principals including Colin Kolles, Norbert Haug and David Richards have suggested that Gene Haas’ new American F1 team, Haas F1 is in for a “rude awakening”. They contend that Haas will face financial strains quickly, struggle to find sponsorship and have problems a result of their operation being split between England, Italy and the UK.

David Richards said, “It's December now and the first test is at the end of February, but we haven't seen anything yet. We haven't seen the little snippet picture you normally see of a wind tunnel model. I haven't really heard of a group of people behind it all either. It's been very quiet and they definitely have a rude awakening coming up about what F1 is.”

What are your thoughts?

SJ – I think Haas has actually done his homework remarkably well. So far, I’d say everything they’ve done has been done the right way. By going the route of shared resources they are reducing the financial strains. If you can outsource aspects of the operation, why not do that? There’s no need to reinvent the wheel with every single part of the car as most teams do. All the other start-up teams and even the smaller teams that have been bought by various entities over the years, they all have their own facilities and they choose to build everything themselves.

I actually think Haas F1 could surprise a few people. They have the powertrain sorted (with Ferrari) which is crucial these days. If they keep their package relatively simple I think they could do a very good job and I have a feeling they may do a lot better than people seem to think.

JT – Revisiting the subject of McLaren Honda’s lack of form, do you think they will make progress and be competitive in 2016?

SJ – Yes, I think they will make a big leap next year. Their performance has been so bad in 2015 that it’s not going to be difficult for them to make a pretty giant gain. With their combined resources I am sure they will bypass a number of teams to get back to being one of the top five teams easily.

I think they’ll be regular points-scorers next year but then of course the closer you get to the front, the harder it gets to be a regular winner like they used to be.

JT – The FIA recently released the latest update to its controversial Driver Ratings. The update applies to 2016 and has come under heavy criticism. Well known sports car stars like Scott Pruett have had their ratings downgraded (from Gold to Silver in Pruett’s case). Many, including pro drivers, have opined that the FIA’s system is flawed, open to manipulation and is hurting the careers of both experienced and up-and-coming drivers. What’s your view?

SJ – I think they should throw the whole ratings system out the window. The main purpose of that ratings system when it first came out was to give gentlemen drivers with funding a chance to race and to help teams attract funding. It was also supposed to generate bigger grids.

But all of that tends to work itself out naturally just as it always has. Now all of the teams are vacuuming the market for 18-year-old drivers with talent and a bit of money who haven’t been graded yet. So the purpose of their idea is completely out the window. In the process, there are a lot of unfortunate guys who are now Gold rated that simply can’t get a drive as the rules require at least one Silver driver per car. Their careers are completely screwed up. Most have little chance of getting a drive anywhere.

As a result, you wouldn’t believe the lengths some of these drivers go to get downgraded to Silver. You need a degree in understanding the system to know how to submit the 30-some pages of evidence they send to the FIA, making the case why they should be a Silver, not a Gold driver. 

The bottom line is, driver ratings should be thrown out. It was dumb idea to begin with and it didn’t exist in prior decades and there was never a problem. A journalist I was speaking with said, “But what about gentlemen drivers? They want to have a certain amount of seat time.”

I replied that it will sort itself out naturally. If a team only puts a gentleman driver in for half an hour under a full course yellow, that driver won’t be happy and he’ll leave that team for another. If he is happy with the decision the team made then there is no problem to begin with. The free market will always work these things out by themselves. The more rules or gimmicks you put in place the more complicated it gets and it rarely ever works.

The rich guys have always been around in racing. They’ve always funded teams and naturally they like to surround themselves with guys that make them look good. This is completely normal. They race for a while then they either get bored or the money runs out and there’s another one that comes along. It’s never been any different, particularly in sports cars – it’s always been a mixture between manufacturers and rich guys.

Seldom do you see a big sponsor that entirely funds a privateer team with pro drivers. Rebellion is like that in WEC but they’re the exception. Even when you have a team like that, most of the time the owner is driving one of the cars and funds the rest of the program.  There are plenty of teams in sports car racing that operate this way, and always have been, long before the driver ratings system was put in place.

For most private teams in any category of racing, it’s a matter of survival today. The manufacturers are throwing obscene money at every level, whether it’s F1, WEC, etc. The money’s getting completely out of hand. The rest are trying to keep up and are picking up the straws. The cost for those who aren’t manufacturers is so high now that it’s just about impossible for any privateer team to make decent money. If you can get by and break even you’ve done a pretty good job.

JT – IndyCar named a new president of Competition and Operations in November. Jay Frye was tapped to fill the role vacated by Derrick Walker in August (Walker has now taken the helm at SCCA Pro). Any thoughts on the change?

SJ – It’s hard to say. All of this is just moving pieces around in small circles. Personally I don’t think there’s that much wrong with the Competition and Operations to begin with. What IndyCar needs to do more than anything is to have a good look at the bigger picture and figure out how to market itself. They have the best competition of any racing series in the world in my opinion but they are still struggling to get a decent TV audience.

I think all of their effort should be put on marketing and figuring out how to attract a much broader audience. The rest of the package is adequate. Whatever they’re doing now is just polishing and fine-tuning what’s already a good product.

JT – Audi has been testing their latest R18 e-tron Quattro LMP1 racer, updated for 2016. Both Porsche and Audi have confirmed that their efforts at Le Mans in 2016 will be scaled back to two cars apiece for the 24 hour race. Toyota meanwhile is at work on their 2016 P1 car, a platform that will move up to the 8-megajoule class with a new turbocharged engine replacing the TS040 Hybrid’s naturally-aspirated V8. What do you think of these developments and what of Nissan?

SJ – Audi’s gap to Porsche wasn’t particularly big this year. Yes, Porsche dominated but I think Audi’s new car looks like a weapon. These P1s are the coolest looking cars out there. The Audi looks so aggressive and futuristic like a race should. I love it.

It’s hard to say if Toyota has the right combination to get back to the front. I guess it depends on whether they’re willing to invest the same kind of money Audi and Porsche are investing, which is now in F1 territory.

It looks like Nissan are definitely going ahead with the project (the GTR-LM) again. They seem to be committed for 2016 so I guess we’ll see what they come up with. I don’t think the car will ever be competitive though. They will probably close the gap which is not hard considering how far behind they were this year but they will never be in a position to win.