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#SJblog (source page)

Filtering by Tag: f1top3

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

Eric Graciano

- #SJblog 85 -

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

F1 Chinese GP, Fernando Alonso gears up for Indy 500 & the Grand Prix of Long Beach

Eric Graciano

- #SJblog 84 -

JT – We haven’t had a chance to chat since before the 2017 Formula One season begin with the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne in late March. As always, the first race of the season offered opportunity for those willing seize it.

Ferrari did just that, showing pace on par with Mercedes and taking the initiative with pit strategy during the race. Sebastian Vettel got away from the grid well, just behind pole-sitter Lewis Hamilton. He then trailed Hamilton closely, forcing the Mercedes driver to use his tires hard. Hamilton pitted on lap 17 but Vettel remained on track until Lap 22.

Hamilton emerged from the pits behind Max Verstappen and was unable to pass the Red Bull Racing driver despite being on newer tires. The delay allowed Vettel to build a gap which saw him emerge from the pits well clear of Hamilton and he remained in front until the checkered flag.

The result was a widely applauded surprise and a hopeful sign for the championship. Ferrari has certainly closed most of the performance gap to Mercedes. However, on-track passing was at a premium throughout the field. Very few passes were made even during the opening laps. What did you think of the Australian Grand Prix?

SJ – Ferrari has certainly improved significantly over the winter and they proved it. Mercedes didn’t get their strategy quite right and they paid for it.

More than that, Ferrari’s pace doesn’t seem to be a flash in the pan. They were quick in pre-season testing and they backed up the promise from the tests by being right on the pace when they arrived in Melbourne. If anything, it looks like their tire management may be the best in the field at the moment, at least with Vettel.

That goes back to a conversation we had in the blog last year. At the time I said I’d bet that Ferrari would gain an advantage from Vettel’s willingness to be an integral part of all the tire testing Pirelli did in preparation for the new tire rule for 2017. He was the only driver to put aside the time to do that. I said at the time that I guarantee this would pay dividends for him going into 2017 and it certainly looks like it has.

I can’t understand why no other driver was willing to do that. If there’s one simple way to gain an advantage, it’s in understanding the tires and even better if you can have an influence on how they are built. That was one of the main reasons why Michael Schumacher was so successful. He spent every day he could pounding around Fiorano when Ferrari was using Bridgestone and they came out with a tire absolutely tailor-made for his driving style. Hardly anyone else could make the tire work but it suited him perfectly.

Every tire company always develop a kind of philosophy on how they build their tires for a certain type of car or series and if you can have an influence on that philosophy – if you can affect and learn the nuances of the construction they use – it makes a huge difference. You gain just that little bit more confidence in being able attack a fraction harder on corner entry. That affects the performance through the whole corner, the way you set the car up and everything. It might be minuscule gains but that can be all the difference you need to win.

Good for Vettel and shame on everybody else for not committing to that testing.

JT – Mercedes and Ferrari were again the main story at last weekend’s Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai. This time Mercedes gained the upper hand with Lewis Hamilton dominating the weekend, earning pole position and leading from the start without ever being challenged. Meanwhile Sebastian Vettel had to fight his way to a second place finish. The race began on a damp track with nearly all of the field on wet weather tires. Vettel gambled, pitting for slicks on Lap 2 during a virtual safety car period. Leaders Hamilton, Valterri Bottas, Daniel Ricciardo, Kimi Raikkonen and Max Verstappen remained on track. They reaped a reward on Lap 5 when Sauber’s Antonio Giovanazzi crashed exiting the final corner, bringing out a safety car.

The leaders then pitted and emerged in front of Vettel. Mired in sixth place Vettel worked for several laps to pass Ferrari teammate Kimi Raikkonen. Then he tracked down and passed Ricciardo, going outside the Red Bull Racing driver in Turn 6. Verstappen fell to Vettel’s charge on lap 28 after locking up entering Turn 14.

Vettel’s climb back to second provided some drama as did the performance of the Red Bulls on supersoft Pirellis early on. There was more passing at Shanghai - mostly on its long straights with DRS enabling some competitors to blow by those ahead. But the most interesting passing was pulled off in the corners. What did you think of the Chinese Grand Prix?

SJ – The race showed again that there isn’t much between Mercedes and Ferrari. So far the battle between the two is shaping up to be pretty good. Hopefully Raikkonen and Bottas will step it up and be able to challenge for wins too as we get further into the season.

No one really challenged Lewis at any point in China. There was more passing than we saw in Melbourne and it’s interesting because most of the really good passes were almost all two-lane overtakes. That’s something we touched on before the season began. I mentioned that one possibility resulting from the increased grip of the 2017 cars might be the capability to run more than one line through corners.

That seems to be what happened at Shanghai. In the double right-hander that follows the start/finish line there was passing on the outside and the same in Turn 6. The pass that Vettel made on Ricciardo was spectacular and good fun to watch.

But that can only happen at a track where you have extremely long corners, where you’re loading up the car for a long period of time. You’re not going to be able to do that in a traditional corner or a 90-degree corner. At the next race at Bahrain there just aren’t the type of corners that will encourage that kind of passing because one corner follows another pretty quickly. It’s unlikely.

JT – What do you think of the performance of Valterri Bottas and Kimi Raikkonen so far?

SJ – Bottas made a mistake in China, no question. But in fairness anyone can do that at some stage, they were tricky circumstances. He’s on the pace or very close it seems, the only difference is that Ferrari is much closer this year, hence the split on grid positions instead of the usual Mercedes 1-2. He certainly did a good job in Melbourne. I’m sure he’ll improve as the season goes on. I don’t think he’ll beat Lewis but I think he’ll be very close.

It’s harder to say how Kimi will do. It seems difficult for him to have everything come together at once in recent years. He’s quick and then when it really matters there’s always some little thing that trips him up, sometimes it’s just bad luck but it seems to happen to him more than it does with Vettel for sure. Time will tell.

JT – While Ferrari and Mercedes top the field, Red Bull Racing falls into a gap some distance behind them but well ahead of the rest of the teams. What do you make of their situation?

SJ – It’s a bit disappointing - for them at least. I think everyone expected more from Red Bull with the changes in the rules. They’ve obviously missed the mark somewhere. They clearly don’t have the speed or downforce to match the Ferrari or the Mercedes on a consistent basis at least. I don’t think the Renault engine is that far behind now but they seem to be lacking some performance in their overall package.

Ricciardo and Verstappen are very close in terms of speed and they’re pushing but the car’s just not there yet. However, with the crazy development curve in F1 I am sure they will eventually be on the same pace as the Mercedes and Ferrari. The Spanish GP seems to be the first race where all the big updates show up, so let’s see what happens after that.

JT – Meanwhile the best of the rest of the teams are anywhere from 1 to 1.5 seconds off the pace of Mercedes and Ferrari, and the gap expands quickly as you go further into the field. If you’re not racing with Mercedes, Ferrari or possibly Red Bull, you’re miles off the pace.

SJ – That was to be expected. Every time you have a significant rules change the teams without big resources are going to fall further back than they were before the changes took place.

The way F1 is today it’s very difficult to come up with a great and different idea. The development on these cars pretty much comes down to cubic dollars, the more you spend the faster you will go. Every now and then someone gets lucky and get it right straight out of the box, but in the big picture it will take the mid-fielders and the back-markers probably another year or two before they’re able to claw back some time to the front runners. Then the gap will be around a second between those teams and the leaders. This happens every time we have a major rule change.

JT – With rules stability costs should also fall a bit. This time around however one wonders whether the mid-field and back-marking teams can hang on financially until the situation stabilizes? There is work going on behind the scenes by the Liberty Media group to try to get teams to agree to reduce costs and spread F1 resources more equitably but will it actually happen?

SJ – There’s been a lot of talk for a while now about cost reduction and how the money will be distributed among the teams going forward. I don’t think anyone really know how to go about the cost reduction issue at the moment, mainly because there are so many opinions on how to do this and to a large degree it comes back to what I’ve been saying for some time now. If you try to accomplish this in a democratic way, there will never be a good solution, a well thought out plan has to come from the top down and if the teams want to play they will have to follow these rules. As it is currently the teams can’t even decide where to have their meetings let alone come forward with any meaningful proposal on how to accomplish any form of cost reduction.

The distribution of funds is another can of worms that could cause some serious problems going forward. I am sure the teams that are benefiting the most will not be willing to give up those benefits freely. This may end up being one of the biggest challenges for the new owners to untangle.

JT – McLaren continues to have a pretty disastrous start to their 2017 season, having failed to finish with either car at Australia or China. Honda’s underdeveloped power unit is the biggest issue for them and it’s costing Fernando Alonso as he languishes in another uncompetitive car for yet another year.

The upside is that there’s a silver lining for IndyCar and its fans. It was announced today that Alonso will skip the Monaco Grand Prix this year, choosing instead to drive one of Andretti Autosport’s Hondas in the 101st running of the Indy 500. This is big news for IndyCar and should be a massive boon for them.

SJ – Yes, this is the best thing that could happen to IndyCar in my opinion. It’s funny, you and I have been talking about this in the blog over the last couple years – that IndyCar really needed to try and get one of the top guys in Formula One to come over and we always mentioned Alonso as a perfect example.

This is really great news and I personally can’t wait to see him go around the Speedway, I’m very excited.

It’s worked out that he’s the driver most likely to want to do this because he’s in an uncompetitive car again. It’s marketing gold and a huge shot in the arm for IndyCar.

JT – That news must have been filtering through the paddock at the Grand Prix of Long Beach last weekend. It was another great event with some good racing, some foul luck for front-runners like Ryan Hunter Reay and Alexander Rossi, and another big dose of frustration for Scott Dixon.

On the other hand, James Hinchcliffe managed to pull off a win for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, one of the smaller teams in the series. He was followed home by Sebastian Bourdais in second place – the winner of the season-opener in St. Petersburg for Dale Coyne Racing - another of the series’ smallest outfits. Meanwhile Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden finished third.
Scott finished fourth and it was obvious that he could have topped the podium if the team’s strategy had been different. They switched to a three-stop pit strategy during the race.

SJ - Scott really should have won, again. He was far quicker than anyone else most of the weekend, just as he was at St. Petersburg. The team chose to go to a three-stop strategy because of the way they thought the yellow flag was going to fall early in the race. The yellow never came and it screwed his strategy completely.

But as frustrating as IndyCar can be with their closed-pit rule during cautions, the racing is still very exciting and I still claim it’s the best racing out there of any major Championship, certainly better than anything else in single seater racing. The first two races show that almost everyone in the series has a chance of winning and the gap between the top teams and the smaller ones is very tight. It was frustrating for Scott to be on the wrong end of the stick again but that stuff usually evens out over the season.

JT – You raced in the Grand Prix of Long Beach in CART from 1993-1996. What are your memories of racing there?

SJ – I always enjoyed racing at Long Beach. The first race I did there, I think I qualified on the second row. But it didn’t turn out to be a particularly fond memory in the race because Mario Andretti put me into the wall at the hairpin before I even got to the start-finish line!

They waved the green flag, we hit each other coming out of the hairpin and it was over before I even got to the flag!

But Long Beach is a great event and it seems to get bigger each year, the crowd is great and the atmosphere is terrific.

JT – Scuderia Corsa has a good finish in Saturday’s IMSA Sports Car Grand Prix at Long Beach. Christina Nielsen and Alessandro Balzan drove their Ferrari 488 GT3 to third place.

SJ – Everybody did a great job. Christina did a great job starting the race and had a good stint. Balzan was very spectacular in his stint and showed some really good race craft. He passed a lot of cars toward the end of the race. He was driving hard and it was a good finish. And the team did their usual brilliant job on the strategy, we gained something like 5 places with the pit strategy we used. We have one of the best teams out there on the scoring stand.

JT – In other news it appears that Felix Rosenqvist will make his debut at the 24 Hours of Le Mans this year with DragonSpeed Racing in their LMP2 Oreca 07 Gibson. He’ll share the car with Ben Hanley and Henrik Hedman.

SJ – Yes, he tested the car for the first time this week in England and he really liked it. It will be a great experience for him to do Le Mans also. It’s a track every driver should experience, along with the Indianapolis Speedway. They are both iconic race tracks and still as difficult and dangerous to master as they have ever been.

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

Stefan Johansson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: F1 Fanatic

Source: F1 Fanatic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did you enjoy driving the Ferrari again?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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