JT – The Rolex 24 at Daytona kicked off the 2019 season for many this year. The field was stacked with competitive cars, teams and star drivers from the DPi ranks down to the GTD cars. Just a few of the famous drivers racing included two-time F1 champion Fernando Alonso, five-time IndyCar Champion Scott Dixon, CART champion and F1 star Alex Zanardi, DTM champion Rene Rast, Rubens Barichello, Kamui Kobayashi, Helio Castroneves, Alexander Rossi, Juan Pablo Montoya, Simon Pagenaud, Sebastian Bourdais, Romain Dumas, Felipe Nasr, A.J. Allmendinger, Simona De Silvestro and Timo Bernhard with many more on hand.
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In fact, with its early season date and the quality of competition (with very few gentleman drivers these days), it’s reasonable to argue that the 24 Hours of Daytona now boasts a higher level of driving talent than the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Do you agree?
SJ – Yes, you’re absolutely right. Because it takes place in January there is no conflict for any drivers apart from the one’s racing in Formula E, which means we get some really high quality drivers from every category of racing. Daytona is always a great way to start the season, because it’s a 24 hours race you get a lot of seat time and most of the time the conditions are far from ideal which means you have to improvise quite a lot both with the handling issues of the car and also with the constant traffic between faster and slower cars.
There’s a very good mixture of single-seater guys, NASCAR guys and sports car drivers. It’s a very strong field of drivers that’s for sure, and you often find yourself in a group of 3-4 great drivers duking it out over a double or triple stint. It’s a lot of fun and it really gets you in racing mode before the real season starts.
JT – The race itself was very interesting and very competitive throughout the field until rain began falling near 5 am. Ultimately, Fernando Alonso, Jordan Taylor, Renger Van Der Zande and Kamui Kobayashi won overall. That means that Alonso now adds the Rolex 24 to his two F1 championships and his Le Mans 24 win last year. Next up for him is the Indy 500 this year.
What did you think of Alonso’s drive and the competition overall?
Unfortunately, Scott, Ryan Briscoe and Richard Westbrook lost five laps in the No. 67 Ford GT due to early contact with the wall by Briscoe. But they rallied back to 4th place overall, just a lap behind the GTLM class-winning No. 25 BMW M8 GTE. It’s a shame the race had to end under red flag.
SJ – It was a pity the rain came, it really ruined what could have been an epic race, with great battles going on in all the different categories, but it was sort of an anti-climax at the end. Alonso had some fantastic stints and really put on a clinic at one point. Being the great racer that he is, he must have been loving it out there, actually racing hard against some of the other top guys in the prototypes. It was a tough one to swallow for Scott and the guys, fighting back from where they were laps down, had they stopped one lap later for what became the last stop in the race, they would have won. Scott had a couple similar monster stints as Alonso in the middle of the night where he was just flying.
JT – In pre-season F1 news, the Formula One Promoters Association (FOPA) recently complained that Liberty Media would significantly harm the series if it proceeds with a plan to move to more pay TV for coverage of the series globally. FOPA is concerned that such a shift will dramatically decrease the number of viewers of F1 on TV.
The group also protested an apparent deal between Liberty Media and the promoter of the upcoming F1 street race in Miami. The promoter was offered a profit share partnership rather than the more traditional model where races pay tens of millions of dollars for the right to hold the event. What are your thoughts?
SJ – I have to agree with the promoters. In terms of TV, this is a dilemma that started a while back. Now the promoters are starting to feel the crunch too but I think the teams have already felt that for some time.
It may be coincidental but since F1 started being televised on pay-TV (cable TV) rather than broadcast TV the eyeballs have dropped dramatically. So has sponsorship. What used to be a $100 million title sponsorship deal is now in the range of $15 million. It’s totally changed the dynamic because sponsorship is so much harder to come by. It has completely changed how revenue flows to the teams.
Every team, apart from the manufacturer teams, is now 100 percent dependent on Liberty Media or the series to fund the bulk of their programs. Sponsorship used to be what kept the teams going and whoever was willing to work a bit harder was able to find more money and hire the best people, etc. The money that came from Bernie [Ecclestone] at the time was the icing on the cake. That’s definitely not the case now.
A pay-wall might help the bottom line for Liberty Media short term but at the same time the whole eco-system of the series is shrinking. The more viewers you lose – at some point a line is crossed and that model can’t work, so unless they are able to find another method, whether that is through digital media or other forms of generating real interest and growth it will be problematic.
I never understood why Liberty made it public knowledge that they’ve offered Miami a race essentially for free? No wonder the promoters are frustrated. It’s inevitable that they’re now all asking “What about us? We’ve been paying you tens of millions per year to host a race with fees on top of that.” There is most likely more to this story than we know and we have to assume they are on top of this situation.
Personally, I am not convinced all the effort of cracking the US market is really worth it in the end, they have been trying for the best part of 40 years now and things have not changed a whole lot. To me it seems like a lot of heavy lifting to try and penetrate the cultural differences between US Sports and European or Global sports in general. Soccer, or football as it’s called in Europe is still minor compared to the NFL, NBA and Baseball for example. The US have always had their “own” sports that are equally minor in most other parts of the world.
JT – Looking ahead to the 2019 F1 season with rules changes going into effect what kind of impact do you think they can make?
SJ – Well, I think the 2019 aerodynamic rules which are aimed at supposedly helping more overtaking happen will make absolutely no difference – zero percent. All it’s doing really is costing the teams another 15 million Euros each to develop their new aero packages.
There was a recent article in Autosport with Nikolas Tombazis, the FIA’s aerodynamicist, where he is attempting to explain why the FIA made this rule. And what they were trying to achieve. I read first three paragraphs of it over and over again, and just glazed over in the end, it’s so complicated to even try to understand his explanation. I even talked to a former F1 technical director and designer and he said, “yeah I read the same thing and I didn’t understand a word of it.”
I think this sums up the current situation quite well, I am a huge fan and am trying to stay in tune with what is happening in the business from both a technical and business point of view, we have a highly qualified F1 designer and we both agree that it’s now gotten so complicated that it’s impossible to make any sense of any of it. If these are the guys making the rules, we’re in serious trouble. No one, excepts the boffins that wrote it, can understand the rulebook anymore.
JT – Since the announcement that Charles Leclerc would join Sebastian Vettel at Ferrari this season was made there has been speculation about how much Leclerc will push Vettel and whether that could destabilize Vettel or the team itself. What do you think?
SJ – I think he will push Vettel, there’s no doubt. The only thing that separates the really good drivers from the rest today is race-craft. Speed has little to do with it anymore because the way the cars are engineered, drivers are going to get to the limit of the cars pretty quick. I think Leclerc will be up to speed quickly, how he will go in the races we will have to wait and see. Every indication until now would say he will do a great job, but we won’t know until the pressure is on.
One would hope that Ferrari would stay away from politics and look at the bigger picture and what the best strategy would be to win the championship. Ferrari’s been known in the past to let emotion get in the way of an objective, balanced approach. Their best hope to win the title is still with Vettel, so I believe that’s where the emphasis will be.
Leclerc has had a full season now with Sauber (Alfa Romeo) so he’s not exactly a rookie. But I think race-craft will come into play at some point. It’s a similar situation to what Max Verstappen had coming into Red Bull. He was obviously mega-quick from the start but you didn’t really see the flaws until he got into a car that could actually win races.
When you throw away a race you could have won, it’s a different story than if you’re fighting for 6th or 7th place. So that will be different for Leclerc but I think his pace will spice things up a little bit. He’ll do well. He’s got good management with Nicolas Todt who knows the business very well and that will probably help him too initially.
JT – Of course, Leclerc’s signing last year isn’t the only development at Ferrari. Shortly after this year began it was announced that Maurizio Arrivabene would be replaced as team principal by Ferrari’s technical chief, Mattia Binotto. What do you think of Ferrari’s move to put Binotto in charge?
SJ – I don’t think it’s necessarily a good move. To put all of the responsibility on Binotto I don’t think is a good idea. He’s been the technical director and he’s obviously very good at that. Why would you distract him from doing what he’s good at? He’s too valuable as technical director in my opinion.
They had a car last year that was, at least for a while, the best car on the grid. Now Binotto is going to have to clutter his brain with all of the other nonsense, sitting in the FOM meetings, dealing with all of the politics and the daily dramas of running a top level F1 team. It’s a tough responsibility and a lot for one guy to handle.
JT – One of the most significant changes to the F1 grid for 2019 is the transition of Force India to “Racing Point F1 Team”. Canadian billionaire businessman Lawrence Stroll and a group of investors acquired the team last summer and are taking it into a new era with Sergio Perez returning as a driver alongside Stroll’s son Lance who moves from Williams to Racing Point. How do you think the re-made team will perform in 2019?
SJ – I think they will go very well. If they keep doing what they’ve been doing in recent years and just add the better resources and stability that Lawrence will bring, I think they’ll be very competitive. Lawrence is successful for a reason as he’s proven in all his other business endeavors. He hires good people and lets them get on with it – a bit like Flavio Briatore was when he ran Benetton and Renault. I think they’ll be very strong.
JT – How do you think Haas F1 will perform this season? Though they continue to receive criticism from other F1 teams for their mode of entry into the series as a client of Ferrari, they’ve been solidly in the mid-pack.
SJ – Haas hasn’t done anything that wasn’t in the rules. I’ve been advocating that path for years. That’s what I tried to do when I had a stab at creating a new Formula 1 team some years ago - the “B team” principle if you like.
Why wouldn’t you do that if the rules allow it? I think it’s going in that direction across the board now anyway. Teams like Williams and McLaren will find it harder and harder to stay competitive being independent. When you look at the resources Mercedes and Ferrari have, not only do they have money, the best people and equipment, they now have two extra teams of cars running. That’s more data, more of everything at a time when testing is basically banned. They can utilize every possible opportunity they have to gather data.
I think Haas has the potential to improve but they’re dependent on what Ferrari gives them. If Ferrari’s good, particularly on the engine side, I’d say they’ll be good too. The engine is the big leap for Haas and for Sauber as well obviously. Last year Sauber all of a sudden leapt from the back to the front of the mid-pack.
JT – Sauber has been the stand-out of the F1 paddock since Alfa Romeo/FIAT took an interest in them and installed Frederic Vasseur as team principle. They also have Kimi Raikkonen driving for them this season alongside Antonio Giovinazzi. How do you think they will perform?
SJ – With Alfa Romeo now taking a bigger stake in the team I think they will be the favorite underdog now. Kimi has such an incredible following and his fans will be pumped up. And Vasseur is very good. He has a winning mentality and he knows the business inside and out. You can see that he has definitely lifted the whole team since he joined last season with his approach and discipline and how driven he is.
JT – Renault has also experienced significant change with Daniel Ricciardo having joined the team and the manufacturer having ended its relationship as engine supplier to Red Bull Racing. Now the team has one of the top drivers on the grid and can focus more on its own philosophy for engine development. Where do you think they will figure in the 2019 season?
SJ – I think if Renault is still committed to delivering the resources they’ve promised – and I think they are – they have a pretty good engineering group to rely on. The leadership of the team isn’t really F1 or racing people and that can lead to the wrong decision being made here or there. But I think they’ll be pretty strong.
JT – Further back on the grid are McLaren and Williams F1. McLaren made what some consider positive news with the hiring of Andreas Seidl, the ex-boss of Porsche in the WEC, as its new managing director. His arrival along with new drivers Carlos Sainz and rookie Lando Norris has created a small amount of momentum.
At Williams F1, the return of Robert Kubica to F1 alongside rookie George Russell is the main news. How do you think both teams will perform this year?
SJ – I think hiring Seidl is a very good move for McLaren. That should definitely help the whole program. But it will still take more time to rebuild everything there, even with Seidl coming aboard. An F1 team is like a big ocean-liner these days in terms of how long it takes to respond or change course. Once you make a policy decision or a philosophical decision on the design of a car it’s very hard to change direction. You kind of have to stick with what you’ve got which is what happened last year to McLaren with their aerodynamics. They discovered at some point early on that they went down the wrong avenue with aero and they were stuck.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to see Williams improving much. They made some poor decisions in previous years and I don’t think they have the resources or the budget to crawl out of the hole they are now in.
JT – Back at the front, Mercedes goes into 2019 with the same basic cast of people and will likely be strong again. Red Bull now has Max Verstappen as its clear number one driver with the departure of Ricciardo. They also have Honda stepping up, supplying them as well as Toro Rosso. How do you think these two will fare?
SJ – It will be the usual suspects up front, no question. Mercedes will be right there. Lewis is getting better and better every year and I don’t think he’s even close to his peak yet, which should be a huge concern to all the other teams and drivers. He’s the one driver who at the moment you can say with 100% certainty is really making the difference when it matters. I think Red Bull, not necessarily this season but maybe by 2020, will be very strong. I’ve got a feeling as long as Honda is fully committed, and as I’ve been saying for three years now, they will eventually get it right. And when they get it right they will dominate.
With Red Bull it will only be a matter of time before they crack the code. I think we’ll see Red Bull, Honda and Verstappen totally dominating at some point in the next five years.
I think Verstappen really blossomed last year. He had a couple of bad races at the beginning of the season with some silly mistakes. But along the way it seems like something clicked and he’s now kind of figured it out. I think he’s at the point now where he can see the big picture. I think you’ll find that next to Lewis he’ll be the most complete driver among the guys out there. He’s going to be very hard to beat.
JT – In more refreshing racing news, IndyCar is looking stronger and stronger for 2019 and beyond. The series has signed a new title sponsor – Japanese tech firm NTT - continues its multi-year TV deal with NBC/NBC Sports which will now televise all IndyCar races including the Indy 500 and has gained a new presenting sponsor for the Indy 500 - insurance provider Gainbridge.
There’s talk of additional races with a return to Australia in 2020 and possibly Japan as well. Car count is up with grid numbers likely to be in the mid-20s. Ex-Formula One drivers and hot-shoes like Felix Rosenqvist are joining the series, and the level of competition should be higher than ever. What are your thoughts looking ahead to the 2019 season?
SJ – I’m excited about IndyCar. Jay Frye (IndyCar president) and his guys are doing a great job. They’re racers and they know the business inside and out. They’re pragmatic in their approach and I think the competition decisions that have been made have been great. It’s going from strength to strength.
And they’re doing it in increments. It’s not like knee-jerk wholesale changes. It’s just fine tuning it a little to make it better every year. I know they’ve also been trying hard to get a third manufacturer onboard. They’ve talked to everybody and I’m pretty confident that at some stage one of them will join, which would be great.
Amongst the top level racing series in the world, IndyCar is relatively affordable in the overall scheme of things and a very attractive proposition for any team or manufacturer to join. The support the manufacturers give definitely helps. If a third manufacturer joined in, then I think IndyCar would really take off. We are seeing more and more teams joining, and the grid is now limited by the engine supply more than anything. If there was a third engine manufacturer we would see even more teams joining.
We now also have two Swede’s in the series which is great for all the fans back home, I know both Felix and Markus are both fully committed to IndyCar and it will be exciting to see how they get on.
Scott in the meantime is quietly preparing to defend his title for the fifth time, and I fully expect him to come out just a little better than he was the previous year. He never stops to amaze me, the discipline and work ethic is incredible after so many years. He’s definitely one of the best in history in my opinion. The competition is getting stronger every year and he just keeps grinding away, racking up points and wins.