JT – The 2021 racing season is now fully underway with all the major championships having at least one race under their belt. Indy Car began its season at Barber Motorsports Park and has logged four different winners in four races so far.
At Barber Scott’s new teammate at Ganassi Racing, Alex Palou, made a strong debut, winning the race with Penske’s Will Power finishing 2nd and Dixon 3rd. Andretti Autosport’s Colton Herta dominated the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, leading 97 of the 100 laps, taking the checkered flag ahead of Penske teammates Josef Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud in 2nd and 3rd.
The third round at Texas was doubleheader with Saturday and Sunday races. Scott got his first win of the season on Saturday, leading 206 of 212 laps and taking the checkered flag ahead of fellow Kiwi Scott McLaughlin from Penske and McLaren’s Pato O’Ward. O’Ward broke through for his maiden win on Sunday ahead of Newgarden and Rahal-Letterman’s Graham Rahal.
Dixon now leads the championship with a 22-point cushion to nearest challenger Pato O’Ward. What are your thoughts on the Indy Car season so far?
SJ – It’s been a classic Indy Car start to the season. We’ve had four races and four different winners. Again, that sums up how incredibly competitive the championship is – this year, even more than before.
I think this season is the most competitive it has ever been. There are so many good drivers and every team is very good now. Whoever gets it right on the day can have a shot at winning a race with the right strategy. That said, I’ve noticed something starting to creep into Indy Car.
It’s becoming increasingly difficult to pass on pretty much all of the tracks. You get near the car in front of you and you start losing a little bit of your downforce. It’s nowhere near as bad as Formula 1 but there’s beginning to be an aero problem which is affecting the racing. At Barber, as soon as you got close to another car, you lost too much grip to really have a go at overtaking. There was hardly any passing the whole race. That makes grid position more important than ever.
If you consider how close the grid is, if you sneeze you will lose ten places. If you’re two-tenths of a second off, it’s like a lifetime. In the races, unless you can work the strategy with short-pitting and the caution flags falling at the right time, you can get stuck in a group of cars running together. Because the entire field is so close, everybody ends up doing pretty much the same lap time once the race gets settled down. If there’s one guy ahead of a group and he’s slower, he slows everyone else down as well – but only by a couple tenths per lap. Still, over a 30-lap stint those two-tenths become 10 seconds and that’s the gap you have. If there are no cautions, it’s difficult to gain the time back.
Nevertheless, it’s incredible how competitive Indy Car is and how close it is now.
Photo: Joe Skibinski
JT – Do you think the addition of the aero screens to the Dallara chassis has made a difference in aerodynamic turbulence for following cars? It would seem that the added weight and profile of the aero screen would also make a significant difference in the balance of the cars. Could both turbulence and balance impacts from the aero screens be affecting passing?
SJ – The aero screen has definitely affected the balance of the cars. That was certainly one of the complaints from drivers early on. All the teams, even now, are struggling to find the sweet spot for balance. It’s a lot more difficult and you can see in the races so far this year that at one track one team is superior and at another track a different team is quickest.
At Barber the Ganassi cars were fast. At St. Pete the Andretti cars were super quick. At Texas, Ganassi was strong again and the Penske’s and McLarens were really good.
Felix [Rosenqvist] had a phenomenal car but was unlucky in both races at Texas. He had to start by championship points so he started 18th in each race. But he got up to 2nd place for a time in the first race and in the second race he said the car was unbelievably good. He was waiting for the last stint to really start pushing. He was two feet behind Newgarden and he said it was like driving on the freeway. The car was just incredible but problems in the final pitstops dropped him back to 16th in race 2 and 13th in race 1.
Scott have started the season in his usual efficient way, making the best out of a bad day in the first two races by scoring valuable points and the striking when the car is there for maximum points in the first race in Texas. He then did his usual great job in race 2 at Texas but this time it worked against him. He started at the front and towed the field all the way around as no one wanted to lead the race, so he was just kind of stuck at the front in every stint. As there weren’t as many cautions as the team would have needed, he had to run out the fuel in every stint until the end. But by then it was too late. Overall though it added up to great points for Scott in Texas.
Photo: Joe Skibinski
JT – At the end of last season when it was announced that Alex Palou would join Ganassi, you predicted he would do well. That seems to have been right on the mark as he already has one win and was competitive at Texas. Felix Rosenqvist on the other hand has some bad luck and seems to be taking some time to adapt to the McLaren machine.
SJ – Much like when Felix was there at Ganassi, it’s great if Scott has another teammate like Alex who’s fast. Although Alex had a comparatively bad weekend at St. Petersburg he certainly came out racing at Barber and did well at Texas.
He’s a mega talented driver. Before he came to the U.S., the general consensus in the junior categories in Spain was that he was the new [Fernando] Alonso.
Felix is equally fast and competitive with Pato O’Ward but Pato has had a chance to become familiar with the team and the car. The McLaren is apparently quite different to the Ganassi car and Felix has had a rough time getting used to it. On the street circuits and road courses he’s still not 100 percent comfortable with the car. But it will come. The team’s performing very well and Felix is really happy with them. The team’s got great people, great engineers.
The three way fight we’ve been used to seeing the past few years will become a four-way fight among the top teams this year. I’d say McLaren is equally well-funded as the others now and they’re putting resources into development to the extent that you can in Indy Car.
JT – It has been great to see Jimmy Johnson have the spirit to take on the challenge of transitioning from NASCAR to Indy Car, particularly since he couldn’t have picked a more fiercely competitive grid to try to get up to speed with. There’s a lot to learn and the talent he’s up against is deep.
SJ – It’s such a tough time to come into Indy Car no matter what you’ve been doing before and massively more difficult if you’ve never raced a single seater in your entire career. I mean, look at Romain Grosjean coming straight from F1. I don’t think anybody can deny his speed. He’s ultra-fast, especially over a lap but he’s qualified in the mid-field mostly. That shows how brutally competitive it is. I think Jimmy is doing a terrific job and it will start to come together for him more and more as time goes by. It’s extra difficult nowadays as there is no track testing allowed apart from the 6 days before the start of the season.
Photo: Chris Jones
JT – Ganassi, and Scott in particular, performed well at the Indy 500 last year and could have won the race if a caution flag hadn’t come out near the end. Do you think the team is well positioned to go for the win this year with Scott or his teammates – Palou, Ericsson and Kanaan?
SJ – The speedway is a different kettle of fish so it’s hard to know yet. But I think they were pretty happy with the car in the testing they’ve already done there. Felix said his McLaren is pretty good too.
It really comes down to who gets it right on the day. We see that every year now. In the end it’s whoever is on the right strategy for the last 10 laps. That’s who will win it. No one’s ever going to disappear into the distance nowadays. If you’re out front, you’re saving fuel and there’s no point to building a huge gap because all you’re going to do is burn more fuel than everyone else.
You want every stint to last as long as you can make it last until it’s time to put the hammer down in the final stint. We won’t know the true story of where the teams or Honda or Chevy are until qualifying. It looked like the engines were pretty even on fuel consumption and everything else in Texas. I don’t expect to see the advantage Honda had at Indy last year again.
JT – Before we move on to F1, it’s worth noting that three-time Indy 500 winner Bobby Unser pass away in early May. He was quite a driver and personality.
SJ – It’s obviously a great loss. He was certainly one of the great characters of Indy Car, no question about it and one of the great drivers too. In his day, he was fantastic. It’s a big loss for the whole Indy Car community and all the fans.
JT – Turning to Formula 1, there was some excitement ahead of the 2021 season due to the gains Red Bull Racing showed in testing, eclipsing Mercedes’ performance generally. But with three grands prix contested so far, Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes have won two – the Bahrain GP and the Portuguese GP - to Red Bull and Max Verstappen’s single victory at Imola.
At Portugal, the Mercedes looked to have regained lost performance. Do you think Hamilton and Verstappen will have a season-long battle or will the Mercedes performance give it the advantage once again?
SJ – I don’t know. I don’t think it’s over yet. I think it could be a good year. I’m hopeful that it’s finally going to turn the corner and we’ll have a great season. I have a feeling it will go down to the wire this time. Development will continue at a frantic pace between the two teams. Lewis is at his absolute prime. There’s no way he should have won the race in Bahrain or have finished 2nd at Imola. So I think he’s pulled two rabbits out of the hat so far. And then the way he won at Portimao - he’s performing at an optimum level, I think. Yes, Mercedes is improving the car too.
But Max is now also on top of his game and it’s clear those two are in a league of their own. Hopefully we’ve got something to look forward to every weekend when they race.
JT – There has been some improvement from other teams on the grid – McLaren most notably. But yet again, none of the remaining seven squads can touch Mercedes or Red Bull. Do you think the rules changes for 2022, including ground effects bodywork to supposedly enable closer racing by limiting turbulence behind cars along with a few other technical changes and budget caps will significantly change the grid’s current pecking order?
SJ – Can the new rules fix all of that? I doubt it. I don’t think you’re ever going to have a car that depends so heavily on aerodynamic downforce for performance that won’t affect the cars following it in some way. I just don’t think it’s possible. I drove the ground effect F1 cars with the big downforce tunnels and there was turbulence. Granted, the cars today are infinitely more advanced aerodynamically, but in my opinion that will actually make it worse as the more refined and maximized they are, the more sensitive they become if anything disturbs that ideal set up. We can see that this year very clearly where the cars are now extremely sensitive to any wind. The big discussion now seems to be that so and so got caught out by the wind and spun. That never used to happen.
I’ve said it before so many times but I think aerodynamics should contribute no more than 25 percent to the performance of the cars. And when we have one-tire or control tire championships as we do in F1 and Indy Car now, the performance of the tires never measures up to what it could potentially be. And there’s less consistency from set to set.
But getting tires to come to life is the key to performance. You can spend $150 million on aero development and gain little bits here or there. But you bolt a $2,000 set of tires on a car and it can make a huge difference.
If the focus of car performance would be shifted to 25 percent tires, 25 percent engine, 25 percent aerodynamics and 25 percent driver, that balance would shake things up. To get that done you have to start by inviting more than one tire manufacturer in my opinion. Limit aero, get performance back with more engine power and tire grip, and let the drivers make up the rest of the difference.
If you limit aero and lose five seconds per lap, you can get three seconds per lap back with good tires without too much effort. Then with the engine, if, for example, you get a 300 horsepower increase, that’s at least another two seconds per lap. You’ve got a rocketship down the straights and then you’re talking. You’ll have longer braking distances and all of the things that make racing more interesting. It’s no coincidence that any type of racing with very little aero is far more exciting to watch if we’re brutally honest.
Photo: Mclaren Instagram
JT- As usual, the teams in the middle part of the grid seem to be playing musical chairs. McLaren appears to have momentum while the Aston Martin squad looks to be on the back foot. What do you make of the midfield runners?
SJ – There always seem to be three or four teams in that segment who go back and forth, back and forth. McLaren definitely has been getting progressively better. They’re probably at the front of that pack now. The Alpines look pretty good too. The Aston Martins were strong over the last couple of years but it looks like they got it wrong for this season.
These teams don’t have the resources that Red Bull, Ferrari and Mercedes have but Ferrari can’t seem to get it right anyway. I think Zak (Brown) has done a terrific job turning McLaren around. He’s hired great people and he’s moving the team in the right direction. It’s a credit to him because the team was a shambles for a few years before he stepped in to it.
JT – Speaking of Aston Martin and Alpine, both teams now feature world champions - Sebastian Vettel and the returning Fernando Alonso. What do you make of their respective performances so far?
SJ – Obviously, I’ve never driven the modern F1 cars but it seems to me that Vettel has never been as quick in the current turbo-hybrid cars as he was in the previous V8 cars when he won four world championships. Those were drastically different cars. I think they’re so different to drive.
Don’t forget, the new cars weigh 50 percent more than they used to. They’re at 780 kilograms now. You’re dragging a slug around the track with all of the batteries aboard and everything. There’s also the long wheelbase and it must be completely weird to drive these cars compared to what you had been used to before - ultra-light, super nimble F1 cars with different aero and engine characteristics.
Some drivers are just better in certain generations of car than others. Lewis seems to have been able to adapt but obviously Mercedes has also had the best car all the time with the current specifications. Alonso is also having some difficulty just like Vettel but I’m sure it’s still difficult to get your head around these cars. You have to change your technique from that thing that really clicked for you with another style of car. Once you figure what works in the new car things get much easier for you. But it’s very tricky to adapt, and the problem with these cars, I don’t think you go any faster by pushing harder, it’s more of a balance of keeping the car in the window where it will allow you to extract the maximum grip the tires will allow you.
The new generation of guys like Verstappen, Lando Norris, Charles Leclerc, Esteban Ocon and George Russell – they’re all seriously good drivers and they’ve had the advantage of spending years in simulators as well as the newer cars.
JT – Many people thought Honda’s power unit would be competitive within a couple of years of joining F1. But now in its sixth season, the engine still isn’t able to match Mercedes’ power unit. Honda is exiting F1 after 2021 but will apparently support Red Bull Racing in some fashion as it presses on with the Honda powerplant. Are you surprised that Honda has not been able to get to grips with the V6 Turbo Hybrid engine formula?
SJ – I think they’ll keep on working on the engine in some way but the situation might ironically turn out like it did when they gave the whole program (Brawn GP bought the Honda F1 Team in 2009 after the maker decided to exit the series following the 2008 season.) to Ross Brawn and they’ll win the following year when they don’t have branding on the car.
(Brawn GP won the 2009 constructors’ and drivers’ championships.)
It’s hard to say why Honda hasn’t been as successful as they’d like but it would certainly be something if they invested all the effort, time and money, then once again pulled out of the sport and their engine powered Red Bull to a championship the next year.
When the big auto manufacturers have a board meeting to discuss a variety of topics including their involvement in Formula 1, there’s usually not a single person on their board that has even the slightest affinity for racing. It’s just something that they do as part of whatever their program is.
They look at their budget for F1 and see that they’re spending $500 million per year and ask, “What do we get back from that?”
Not much really at the moment. And then it’s just a board decision. “Ok, we’re done. What’s next on the agenda?”
JT – We’ve discussed the competition Band-Aids F1 has applied in the past like the DRS system. For 2021, they’re adding Saturday sprint races they’re calling “sprint qualifying” to set the grid for the Sunday grands pix at three venues – Silverstone, Monza and another event yet to be determined. What do you think of the idea?
SJ – I’m sure it will add some excitement to the Saturday efternoon but I can’t see how it will much in terms of what will happen on Sunday. Don’t forget that F1 teams are incredibly good at maximizing everything fairly quickly, so I don’t expect it will take the top teams too long to figure how to work the sprint race to their advantage. If they manage to fix the cars once and for all, we won’t need any of these band aid’s to make the races interesting and exciting to watch. Chassis, Engine, Tires and Drivers in equal parts would go a long way to do just that.
JT – A frustrating aspect of F1 in 2021 is the fact that several teams are already ceasing development of their 2021 cars even though the season is just three races old. The teams who’ve chosen to basically sit this season out competitively say they’re doing so because they need to devote time to getting their cars right for the 2022 season’s new rules package. What do you think of this?
SJ – I think something’s fundamentally wrong when you give up and can’t compete over the full season after just three races. In my opinion, it’s ridiculous to have this continuous development. What does it do at the end of the day?
It’s just wasting money with endless aero widgets and small bits on the cars that no one can see or appreciate with the exception of the people inside the teams. Even teams like Ferrari are contemplating ending development of their cars for this season already. If making a car is so resource-intensive and complicated that even a team like Ferrari can’t develop the car they’re currently racing and the car for next season in parallel, I think they need to look at more than budgets to comprehend what’s wrong.
And the budget caps? I still maintain firmly that there’s no way to control them. The FIA’s tries to bring out the most bullet-proof rules they can every year but it doesn’t take more than a few races for teams to get around most of them. If it’s aero, the teams just move the stuff to somewhere else on the cars for example.
Before, all the aero bits were at the front of the cars. Now everything’s in the middle of the cars. Next time they’ll be somewhere else. That’s where NASCAR’s great. They don’t take any prisoners. If they see something that’s even a tiny bit beyond the rules it’s done. There’s no interpreting the rule book or whatever, just get it off the car and move on.
In F1, every team has an army of people just reading the rule books every day, scouring them to find loopholes. Unfortunately, when the Manufacturers get involved in any series, they eventually seem to ruin it, as they become too powerful and at the same time drive the costs through the roof. Racing isn’t the manufacturers’ livelihood like it is or was for Williams, Tyrrell or McLaren for example, or a numner of other teams that have since dissapeared. Racing is what those teams did primarily. For Mercedes, Renault and Honda… racing is just a rounding error for them mostly. But they drive up costs at every level.
It’s the same thing in sports car racing now. The ACO had a chance this time around like they’ve never had before to get it right but it’s already become a mess with the arguments over BoP (Balance of Performance) with the Hypercar versus the LMdh and LMP2 cars.
JT – The World Endurance Championship’s first race of the 2021 season recently took place at Spa-Francorchamps. Toyota’s two new GR010 Hybrid Hypercars were on hand along with a single V8-powered Hypercar from Alpine. These were the only three entries in the class. Fourteen LMP2 machines along with 16 GTE cars rounded out the grid.
The LPM2 machines were actually able to lap faster than the Hypercars in practice sessions but ultimately the three Hypercars finished on the podium. Toyota in particular was unhappy with the new class’ pace compared to the LMP2 cars, complaining that the ACO should slow the P2 cars down more. But the LMP2s had already been handed a 65 horsepower power reduction and a roughly 40-pound increase in minimum weight. The performance of the Hypercars in slow sections of the track was lazy enough that the GTE cars could keep up with them.
The ACO has said they wanted the new class to be 5 seconds slower per lap than the previous hybrid LMP1 cars at Le Mans. Based on the Hypercars’ pace at Spa it looks like the WEC/ACO have created a slow, yet still expensive new top class and a lot of headaches for themselves.
SJ – Exactly, if they slow down the LMP2 cars much more they will be doing the same laptimes the LMP3 are doing now, so it’s just a bad ripple effect throughout the entire field. This emphasis on aerodynamics has effects across all forms of racing. In sports car racing the prototypes used to be pretty exciting to drive. But if you look at the LMP2 cars now, they’re so underpowered it’s ridiculous.
Everything is about momentum. If you think about lifting you lose two-tenths of a second in a corner. It’s all about maximum speed mid-corner. That’s what matters now. And it’s the same with all of the downforce cars now at every track. It’s not about being the bravest guy or the last of the late brakers. That’s all irrelevant now.
Straight-line speeds are relatively low but the corner speeds are ridiculously high. If you put a little more grip in the tires, a lot more power into the engines and reduced the aero downforce then you’d have a car you have to drive more, and you’d soon see the difference. It’s the same Formula as for F1.
In the LMP2s and LMP3s now, older amateur gentlemen drivers with enough coaching are able to get up to speed and be pretty close to the pro drivers. In the past there was like a 5-second gap between the gentlemen and the pros.