JT – 2020 proved to be a difficult year for global racing, with the pandemic exposing the sport to the same risks that hobbled nearly every aspect of life. But on the bright side most series in the U.S. and Europe were able to squeeze in a mostly full season of racing through the second half of the year with the exception of some series in Asia.
Formula 1 managed to pull off a 17-race season. Lewis Hamilton took the drivers’ championship while Mercedes GP captured the manufacturer’s championship yet again. On track it was clear that no team could challenge Mercedes for their seventh championship. There was very little racing at the front of the grid except for when the teams first returned to competition in July, an unexpected penalty at Monza or when weather intervened. Hamilton tied Michael Schumacher’s record of seven drivers’ championships, winning 11 races while his teammate Valtteri Bottas and Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen each won two grands prix. Racing Point’s Sergio Perez and Alpha Tauri Honda’s Pierre Gasly were the only other drivers to win, each scoring one victory.
What are your thoughts on the 2020 F1 season?
SJ – Lewis dominated again and in an impressive way I have to say, as you know I’m a big fan. He’s obviously in the best car but it takes a lot more than that. To win seven championships takes a bit of doing. It’s not just what happens on track, it’s all the work behind the scenes that really makes the big difference. He’s been a big part of driving the team forward and nudging them in the right direction. He was already very special in his first year in F1 and is probably the only team mate Alonso has ever had that’s been able to rattle his cage to this day, and that was in his very first year. He has since developed himself over the years into a driver who’s a cut above the rest of the current drivers.
I think he’s had a similar influence on Mercedes as Schumacher had at Ferrari. It’s clear that there’s a very good energy in the team and I’m sure he’s a large part of it. Toto [Wolff] has obviously done a fantastic job as well and Niki [Lauda] was a big part of it too when he was around. They have created a kind of “Dream Team” similar to what Ferrari had when they were dominating for several years.
When a team is winning and they keep on winning it takes a lot of effort on everybody’s part but particularly the leadership to make sure that everyone’s moving in the right direction and to keep the team intact. Only one weak link can break the chain and it’s extraordinary what they’ve accomplished.
Verstappen did an amazing job converting small opportunities and turning them into race wins, he’s getting better and better each year and is now a serious championship contender provided he has the equipment.
The most interesting battle in F1 right now is the battle for 3rd in the constructors championship, where the field is incredibly close and it wasn’t decided until the last race. It really came down to who got it right on the day between McLaren, Racing Point and Renault. If all three of those teams could get just a little closer to the front two teams it would really become a great championship again.
JT – Do you expect Mercedes and Hamilton to carry their success forward in 2021?
SJ – I’m sure they’re going to be very hard to beat again because next year will be essentially the same as this year. Red Bull might get stronger. They have one more year left with Honda as their engine supplier and the same package. They’re clearly getting closer in a lot of places. Max is on top of his game as well, so any slight glitch from Mercedes and it’s unlikely they will get away with it like they have been on many occasions in previous years. I’m sure Sergio Perez will help in many ways with his experience from the Racing Point and the Mercedes package he’s been driving. I’m sure that input will help them up their game a bit too.
I think Red Bull will be able to convince F1 to let them take over development of Honda’s engine. I don’t think F1 has many options in that case. It’s in the best interest of the series and I think it would make the most sense.
But it’s just as certain that Mercedes isn’t sleeping and doing nothing. But again, I think the most interesting battle will be between McLaren , Renault and what will now become Aston Martin, all three with what looks to be more commitment in every area.
JT – McLaren and Racing Point contended for 3rd place in the championship this year with McLaren triumphing. Next season both will be powered by Mercedes. Racing Point will see Sebastian Vettel join Lance Stroll while Daniel Ricciardo joins Lando Norris at McLaren. Who will come out on top?
SJ – That’s hard to say but I’ve got a feeling McLaren is in a good position. They’ve gotten a new injection of money so I think their developments will come at an even faster pace. They’re on the right path. I think Zak’s [Brown] done a great job hiring good people and there’s good harmony in the team now. There clearly wasn’t when he stepped in and I think they’re slowly clawing their way back to the front.
As for Racing Point, they’ll have the same package as this year which should help, and they are investing heavily in new facilities and R&D, I am sure they will continue to be a contender just like they showed throughout 2020.
Also, let’s not forget Renault, I have a feeling they will get stronger this year also.
Photo credit: XPB Images
JT – An interesting question is who is the better hire for 2021 – Vettel for Racing Point or Ricciardo for McLaren?
SJ – That’s not easy to answer but I think Vettel will have a lot to contribute with all of his experience. He’s also a pretty good team player I think and that could definitely help. But at the end of the day in both cases generally it’s more to do with what kind of car they have to race. If the car isn’t as competitive as it could be they can only do so much.
If you go down one philosophical path in designing next year’s car you’re kind of stuck with it whether it works or not. It’s really too late now for Vettel or Ricciardo to come in and have an influence on the design. If you’re in a team like Lewis has been for so long, clearly you can have an influence on where development goes for the next season, the year after that and so on.
The cars Vettel and Ricciardo are going to get into next season have been in development for a year already so there’s nothing they can do to change them until they drive them. The drivers might be able to drive around problems and gain a few tenths or so back on track, but beyond that it really comes down to what the car is capable of.
JT – Fernando Alonso is back in F1 next season with Renault. What kind of impact can he make alongside Esteban Ocon?
SJ – That’s going to be an interesting one to watch too. Any one of those three teams - Renault, McLaren or Racing Point – could come out on top of the others. They all improved significantly last year. They’ll have a good battle in the midfield and be closer to the front as well.
As a general rule, the longer the rules stay the same the closer the grid ends up getting. That’s why Indy Car is so good. They’ve had basically the same car for many years now and that makes it almost impossible to find any technical gain that will get you an advantage over the competition. Engineers move around from team to team and they take whatever info the previous team had with them of course, which will then move the new team closer to the front. That’s why the grid is so incredibly close in Indycar. In the final race of the Championship last year neither of the two Championship contenders (Dixon and Newgarden) managed to qualify in the top 6, which I think sums up how difficult it is to get it right.
JT – The Haas F1 team will be more closely integrated with Ferrari next year with a new facility being built for them at Maranello. Part of the logic is that Scuderia will be able to reallocate staff from Ferrari to Haas in response to the $145 million budget cap from 2021 forward.
SJ – I think it makes total sense. Ferrari is clearly invested in Haas and it’s in their interest to have as good a handle on it as they can. Clearly Ferrari has slipped in its competitiveness so any help they can get by sharing information between four cars instead of two could also be beneficial in some ways. But if both cars are no good it will obviously not make that much difference regardless, which was the case last year in particular.
JT – At the back of the grid Williams F1 and Sauber Alfa Romeo have uncertain outlooks it would seem. Williams has new ownership but they’ll need a lot of funding to improve. Sauber will also need more help from Ferrari. Can they be more competitive in 2021?
SJ – At least Williams still has the Mercedes package. I don’t know anything about their new owners (American firm Dorilton Capital) and what sort of cash injection they’re bringing to the team. But I think it will be difficult to see any real lift from that next year. If they’re serious about the effort and willing to invest whatever is required then maybe there will be improvement as time goes by. But, as we have seen on several occasions throughout history, F1 is not for the faint of heart, it takes a big commitment to get to the front, but if they are prepared to do that there is no reason why they can’t eventually get out of the hole they’ve dug themselves.
JT – George Russell will remain with Williams next season but his drive, replacing Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes for the Bahrain GP, was remarkable. He looks as if he could step into the Mercedes and be competitive right away. What are your thoughts?
SJ – There’s no question he was impressive. He did a great job. And it shows the nature of the whole concept of F1. It’s vital to be in the best car on the grid. Russell did everything you could possibly ask for, grabbing the opportunity and making the most of it. It didn’t work out in the end but he showed what he could do in the best car. I think he definitely put himself on the map for bigger and better things.
I think the whole new crop of drivers are extremely good – Russell, Lando Norris, Charles Leclerc and Max of course. Between starting young in karting and getting a lot of time on simulators they’ve all learned to drive a race car fast. But we don’t know exactly how some of them would do when the pressure’s really on. Leclerc stepped up as the leader at Ferrari last year, the first of the younger batch of drivers to do so.
I think the verdict is still out on whether he has what it takes to deliver a championship. He can’t do it with the car he has at the moment and last season he definitely made a few mistakes. You just don’t know what any young fast driver can do until the pressure is really on in a role like that. That’s when you see the true value of a world champion. It’s one thing to be quick but it’s another thing altogether to lead a team to a world championship.
Photo credit: Indycar
JT – Now that Arrow McLaren is entering its third year in Indy Car and with the new pairing of Pato O’Ward and Felix Rosenqvist could the team now be considered as competitive as the Ganassi, Penske and Andretti teams that have been at the top of Indy Car for years?
SJ – At the moment in Indy Car you have so much competition. You have Penske, Ganassi, Andretti, Rahal, McLaren and Dale Coyne. Literally any of them can win on a given day. In terms of talent and engineering every one of them is so good now.
It comes down to minute details, a botched pit stop, the wrong strategy or just bad luck. It’s so tight all of the time. That’s what makes Scott’s [Dixon] sixth championship that much more impressive. Indy Car is just incredibly competitive. It’s so hard to win I don’t think anyone can appreciate it unless they see it up close. What’s frustrating to me is the limited amount of recognition Scott gets in comparison to others.
His continuing motivation and ability to push every aspect of the team in every area is amazing. I can see it first hand and I know what goes on behind the scenes. The effort that goes into it… The driving is really the easy part when you’re born with the talent that all the top guys have in all the major categories of racing. It’s all the other bits and pieces that take a lot of work.
That’s even more important now when even the small differences between teams that used to exist – like one was on Goodyears and the other was on Firestones – are really even smaller than they were. Indy Car is a fight at every level.
JT – Scott will have new teammates next year at Ganassi with the addition of Alex Palou and seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson and the return of Tony Kanaan for the oval races. I assume that won’t impact him too much?
SJ – No, but he definitely wants teammates who can push him. The better a teammate he’s got the happier he is. He knows how good he is. He’s not afraid of anyone, he’d just like to have someone on the same level who can compete and share data. If you have one or two more cars sharing data it’s an advantage.
I think Palou was quite impressive last year. I think he’s very good. He had some pretty impressive races, especially for a rookie.
JT – The world of sports car racing has seen some interesting developments through 2020. The most notable came last January when IMSA and the Automobile Club de l’Ouest announced the creation of the LMDh joint prototype formula, enabling a convergence in the rules for the two sanctioning bodies. Now WEC-derived Le Mans Hypercar prototypes can race the IMSA-derived LMDhs globally on a level playing field under a common set of rules.
Toyota and Peugeot have committed to Hypercar along with privateer squads like Glickenhaus and Bykolles while Audi and Porsche have said they will race LMDh prototypes. Honda is said to be planning to race LMDh prototypes and there have been unconfirmed rumors that Ferrari is interested as well. It will take perhaps four years until all of these brands can be on the grid but there seems to be some momentum. What are your thoughts on this?
SJ – I’m quite positive about this for sports car racing. I think it could end up working with a common rule-set. There does seem to be a lot of interest from manufacturers and there are quite a few drivers who could benefit from more factory seats being available.
For me, the best part is that after about 30 years we’ll finally have the same rules in America as in Europe again. It defies all logic why that hasn’t existed for so long but it could work well.
JT – The manufacturer interest in the convergence formula is exciting but one wonders if the entry of four or more brands might inevitably drive up costs in the prototype ranks and lead to the economic implosion cycle that sports car racing has seen so many times in the past.
SJ – Maybe. It really just depends on how firm the governing bodies are in enforcing the spirit of the original rules. If they let it slide and let the manufacturers get away with bending the rules it will escalate very quickly. If they can be really strict and enforce the rules it could be quite successful for a period of time.
Everyone understands the original intent of rules but then everybody tries to find loopholes. That’s always been a weakness in F1 with all of the different aero changes they’ve made over the years at an astronomical expense. But it only takes half a season and the teams are back to where they were before in terms of performance. If sports car racing can manage to keep a lid on that kind of thing and enforce the rules they’re starting with there’s a chance it can not only last but really grow into something like it was back the glory days of Sportscar racing.