#112 - Lewis vs. Max

Image: F1


JT – A couple months have passed since our last blog. The competition in Indycar in particular has been fierce and there has been renewed rivalry at the front of the F1 grid between Mercedes GP and Red Bull Racing. Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton finally has a consistent challenger. Red Bull’s Max Verstappen has won five grand prix to Hamilton’s four with four wins in the last five races. By mid-July he had a healthy lead in the championship due to his driving, and the much-improved performance of the Honda-powered Red Bull and strategy miscues by Hamilton and Mercedes. You said early in the season that Verstappen and Red Bull would give Mercedes and Hamilton a strong challenge this year. What are your thoughts on the battle so far?

SJ – I think it’s great that we have a proper battle on our hands again, not just an inter-team battle, a real battle between two top teams and clearly the two best drivers in F1 currently. We’re now seeing an intense rivalry starting to develop.

We had the years of Prost and Senna for example, Schumacher and Villeneuve and then Damon Hill. I think this one could definitely become similar if not better and that is exactly what we’ve been waiting for. It raises the interest and makes it exciting for everybody. It’s turning into a bit of a street brawl in every race, which is great in terms of both the competition and the entertainment.

There’s no doubt that Red Bull is the faster car this year. I think Lewis and Mercedes are grabbing at every straw to level the playing field including the strategy. They got away with better strategy calls a couple times at the beginning of the year. But I think at this particular moment at Silverstone, Lewis knew that if he didn’t try to get past Max in the first two laps in the grand prix then it would have been the same story as in the sprint race on Saturday.

Three years ago when McLaren dropped Honda, I said that Red Bull, Honda and Max Verstappen will dominate eventually. Of course now Honda is pulling out of F1. That seems to be the pattern with Honda, it’s the second time they’ve done that when they’ve been on the cusp of winning world championships.

But the bones of the project will remain with Red Bull, and I have the feeling that they now have the momentum for great success in the coming years. We’ve finally had rules stability for a few years and the grid is tightening up. Generally, there’s a lot less gap from the front to the back. The top ten are now within tenths rather than seconds as they were before. So it’s actually started to become interesting.

Of course, now the rules change for next season, so we’ll probably end up with one or maybe two teams being completely dominant, until everyone else eventually catches up again.

JT – Verstappen’s 33-point lead was cut to just eight points after the recent clash between him and Hamilton at the British Grand Prix. Hamilton was given a ten second penalty for colliding with Verstappen at Copse, sending the Dutch driver off track and into the barriers with a 51-G hit, ending his race. Hamilton’s car was slightly damaged but repaired during a red flag period after the incident. He continued and served the 10-second penalty at his pit stop. Then he made his way up the field from 4th, passing Lando Norris’ McLaren and teammate Valtteri Bottas when Mercedes instructed the Finn to let Hamilton pass. On lap 50 Hamilton passed Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc for the win. What did you make of the Verstappen/Hamilton incident?

SJ – A lot of the talk has been about Max being ahead and Lewis going into the corner faster. You can analyze it until you’re blue in the face but what really started it was Lewis faking a move on the outside before Copse which Max tried to block. By doing that he left the inside line wide open, and Lewis of course went for the gap as he had huge momentum at that point. Had Max stayed to the inside, or blocked the inside, I don’t think anything would have happened.

It’s very difficult to pass on the outside at Copse. It’s barely a corner anymore because it’s so easy-flat in these cars. But the fact that the door was left wide open for Lewis to go on the inside is what really started it. You can debate who you think was right or wrong but that’s the bottom line in my opinion.

It was a racing incident, where the best two guys were going for it and neither of them was willing to back off. Any time you’re on the outside you’re compromised, it’s a low percentage move to try to make the car stick and come out ahead through the corner.

Unfortunately the cars today have so much aero-grip that drivers can get away with these outside moves often. Back in the day you’d never think of passing anyone on the outside because the grip wasn’t there. The only way to make it work was to gauge it for a couple laps and be really sure that you were comfortable with it. Now it’s like every track has two lines through a corner.

We saw a similar thing with Lando Norris and Sergio Perez in Austria. Perez’s attempt to pass Lando on the outside was really low percentage. But Lando got the penalty because they touched. Well of course they’re going to touch because there wasn’t enough room for two cars once they got to the apex and the outside guy, in my opinion, is the one at a disadvantage. You’re relying totally on the guy on the inside not to hit you. Often each car is at the absolute edge of adhesion with their tires so there’s no room to play with, especially in a high-speed corner.

And when you go hard into a corner like that you can’t gauge whether the guy on the inside is going to be a foot off the apex or not. That’s when things happen. What it comes down to at that point is just instinct. I think had Lewis not backed off three or four times earlier in the year when they’ve been close like this they would have had an accident before this.

Max has never backed off. He’s always super aggressive and that’s what makes him so great. I’m not defending Lewis or blaming Max. For me, it’s absolutely a racing incident. It was two guys going at it and they ran out of room, neither tried to take the other one out on purpose. It’s happened many, many times before.

I think it comes back to the cars having way too much grip. And there’s far too little penalty at most of the tracks for going over the limit. Let’s say you have a curb at a corner, you have about two or three feet beyond it and then there’s a big sand trap. If that was the case at most tracks, drivers wouldn’t do this because they’d know they would end up in the sand trap and it would be game over.

Alonso was complaining because he was trying to stick to what he understood were track limits and then five guys just go tearing through the runoff area at a corner, keep going full throttle and re-enter the track ahead of him. When everything has to be decided by people in the stewards’ tower you have a problem. There should be a natural consequence at a race track for going wide and things would sort themselves out like they used to.

JT – As mentioned, Hamilton was assessed a 10 second penalty. But he could take that 10-second penalty as an add-on to his pit stop. In many other series contact with another car for which a driver is penalized results in a drive-through down pit lane or sometimes even a stop-and-hold penalty for a number of seconds without the ability to do a pit stop at the same time. Hamilton’s 10-seconds – a seemingly arbitrary number – were little detriment given that he could do the pit stop simultaneously. He had enough lead to rejoin in fourth place and had to pass only two cars to win. It hardly seemed like a penalty, particularly given the Mercedes’ well known pace. What are your thoughts on the penalty?

SJ – I agree. Unfortunately, that’s typical of Formula 1 and the totally random way they have of enforcing rules. There is zero consistency from case to case. Every time it’s different, so many seconds for this or for that or something else. It makes things difficult for the drivers and confusing for us people watching as the enforcement of whatever is done wrong according to the stewards seems to change from race to race depending on who is the steward that particular weekend. I just wish there was a way that things could be sorted out on the racetrack where there would be a natural consequence for screwing up.

For instance, at every single start half the field is way off the track, going full throttle at the first corner like there’s another race track out there somewhere. Part of the problem is the difficulty of passing in F1. Everyone knows that the first few laps are the ones that matter. You’ve got to get every position you can in the first two laps because after that it’s basically down to strategy and how long your tires last, not passing on-track.

JT – At just about every grand prix this season we’ve seen instances of aggressive blocking from drivers trying to thwart the attempts of other drivers to pass them. This isn’t new. It has been going on for years now in F1 and in other racing series. We’ve spoken about blocking in the past but I’ll observe that it’s especially negative in F1 where there’s little enough passing as it is. Ironically, drivers who are happy to sail by those in front of them with the aid of DRS also try to block anyone attempting to pass them with DRS and even without it. Similarly, we now have a generation of race commentators who blithely talk about “defending position” – in other words, blocking – as if it has always been an accepted feature of auto racing.

SJ – I wish there was a way to just ban blocking altogether. Blocking has nothing to do with racing or skill. It takes zero skill to block someone. And for me, it takes the fun and more importantly, it takes the art out of racing. In the past, sometimes you were fighting with a guy in front of you for an entire race, trying to unlock that one moment when you could get him and complete a pass.

Often it was when the guy you were chasing eventually missed a gear when there were manual shifts. That was your opportunity. It was a hard fight but it was a fair fight. There’s no skill element whatsoever in blocking.

JT – McLaren’s Lando Norris has been impressive in 2021. He finished in 4th place at the British Grand Prix marking the 15th consecutive race in which he’s finished in the points. What do you think of his performance this year?

SJ – I have to say that I think this new crop of drivers – Lando, George Russell, Leclerc and many more – they’re all seriously good drivers. Lando in particular is impressive. Not only is he incredibly quick, he races really well too. Even at this stage of his career he doesn’t make silly mistakes. He’s very calculating.

I can’t think of a race this year or even last year where he’s left one point on the table. He maximizes almost every situation.



           Image: Fox Sports

JT – On the other hand, Carlos Sainz, who left McLaren for Ferrari this season, and Daniel Ricciardo who replaced him at McLaren have struggled in their new settings.

SJ – Yeah, it’s weird how cars can be so radically different to drive. Look at Red Bull. Sergio Perez has obviously had a tough time getting used to the Red Bull like [Alex] Albon before him. And with Max as your teammate it’s extra difficult because he’s clearly incredibly hard to beat.

It seems that philosophically, the cars are designed in certain ways that take a lot to get your head around. Take Ricciardo for example. He’s obviously programmed to drive a certain way to get the maximum speed he can. He’s incredibly good at maximizing the braking and can outbrake guys in situations that look impossible from the outside. But if the car you’re switching to is designed with even a slightly different philosophy, then you have to reprogram your brain completely and that’s a massive undertaking.

When you’ve done something naturally your whole career – the way you drive into a corner, how you get to the apex or downshift, the trail braking or whatever it is – and you have to make a big change or several big changes to the way you drive it’s really hard to adapt. As a driver you always want comfort with a car.

If a car is not comfortable it’s very difficult to get the most out of it. You’re either too slow because you’re not sure where the limit is or you’re pushing too hard, and you go over the limit and lose even more time. You always want to be right on that razor blade edge to get the most from a car. But if you’re not comfortable with it, it’s extremely difficult to do that.

JT – Adapting to a new car is something some drivers like Fernando Alonso have done time after time in F1. This season, he seems to have adapted to the Alpine Renault quite well. In fact, he’s been outperforming teammate Esteban Ocon consistently. Meanwhile it looks like Sebastian Vettel is continuing to struggle with the Aston Martin.

SJ – I don’t think this generation of cars has ever suited Vettel for some reason. I don’t think he’s comfortable with the Aston Martin, although he definitely looks more at ease with the car in recent races than he did in the beginning of the season, and I think it was the same thing with the Ferrari. The current cars with their hybrid power units are obviously quite different to the cars Vettel won consistently in.

Don’t forget, they’re almost 50 percent heavier than they were in the era that preceded this one. And the size of the cars now is ridiculous. The wheel base is over one meter longer than it used to be! When you see the cars in person it’s crazy how big they are. And that’s the way they’re getting more aerodynamic performance from them – basically by adding more surface area to get downforce.

If you put a limit on maximum downforce you would see some very different designs and solve a lot of the problems we always talk about. It’s ironic that before this season they banned a lot of the aerodynamic devices that have been on the cars’ front wings. So, what happens? Now there are a billion things hanging on the middle of the cars.

Let’s hope the new car will be different and that the FIA will be stricter in how they regulate the new rules, so we don’t end with yet another car with an endless amount of aero bits added wherever they allow them to.

JT – One side effect of the Verstappen-Hamilton clash at Silverstone is the issue of crash damage and the cost to teams under the $150 million budget cap. Red Bull Racing has said the damage to Verstappen’s car amounts to $1.8 million and that this extra cost could put them close to exceeding the budget cap. There have been other teams making this point as well. What do you think of that notion?

SJ – This is part of the problem of how Formula 1 has developed. If the teams can’t run two cars with a budget of $150 million, something’s fundamentally wrong. When you spend so much money on research and development it gets out of hand quickly.

If you look at Indycar which is at the other end of the spectrum because you can do very few things to the car except for developing damper packages, you pretty quickly end up at the point where spending more money doesn’t make any difference. When there’s no point in spending more you get the incredibly competitive grid that you have in Indycar. That’s why it has closed up as much as it has.

All the teams in Indycar have been able to do the maximum you can do to get performance from the cars. At every race the grid is completely shaken up. Dale Coyne’s cars are often the quickest cars now. Look at what they did with Romain Grosjean on pole at the Indianapolis Grand Prix, Rinus VeeKay winning the race for Carpenter Racing and Grosjean finishing in 2nd place.

Ironically, when I first saw the new F1 car for 2022 I thought, “Hmm… that looks like a nice Indycar.”

But what confuses me the most about Formula 1 right now is the tire situation. Every race comes down to the tires which is again, ironic. They now have a budget cap allegedly of $150 million. They spend all of this money on developing the cars and primarily the aerodynamics. But just about every race is basically decided by the tires. Who’s got the tires at the end of the race to have a chance to win?

If your tires are done you’re just a sitting duck and with the DRS there’s absolutely nothing a driver can do. But the tires, as I’ve said many times, are the cheapest component on the whole car by a long shot. A set of tires probably costs less than the fasteners for the bodywork on an F1 car.

You spend all of this money to make a technological wonder of a car that is an absolute beast. But you end up using only 75 to 80 percent of it because that’s about all the tires will let you do. You spend most of a race tootling around making sure you don’t wear the tires out. You can run them off in the first three laps of a stint if you go too hard.

Why shouldn’t tire manufacturers be able to make a tire that can be raced hard from start to finish? The teams compete at other levels, from chassis manufacturers to engine manufacturers. Why not open it up for the tires as well?

If you had multiple tire makers, you’d have more money flowing into F1 because the tire manufacturers are big companies with financial and technical support for all the teams. Back in the day when we had Goodyear, Michelin and even Pirelli at the same time it was great. It was the same in Indycar with Goodyear and Firestone. It added another element to the racing.

JT – We haven’t spoken about Indycar since before the Indy 500 but the season has been incredibly competitive. For instance, Team Penske hadn’t had a victory until the most recent race at Mid-Ohio won by Joseph Newgarden. Scott Dixon has had a very competitive season but some uneven luck, including at the Indy 500 where the combination of an early caution flag that led to him running out of gas sent him to the back of the very tight field. With very few yellow flags he could only recover to 17th in a race he could have won. Tires too have played a role in the hot competition. There have been eight different winners of the season’s 10 races so far.

SJ – Absolutely. Getting the tires to work has turned into a bit of a black art. The tires are making the difference, not only in qualifying but in the races. Whoever can get them to work in the right window at all times can win. They’ve become they key component of performance.

Most of the time, your weekend will be dependent on how well the car is set up when it rolls off the truck for the first practice. It’s either hooked up or it’s not. But the drivers who get their cars working seem to change every weekend. It’s someone else almost every race and it’s so unpredictable.

And like in F1, the new generation of drivers in Indycar is impressive as well. I don’t know where their performance is coming from – if it’s because they have more access to simulators – but they’re all very good.

JT – In our preseason blog you mentioned that you thought Alex Palou who had just joined Ganassi Racing would be fast and competitive. But could you have guessed that Palou would be leading the championship, 39 points ahead of Pato O’Ward, 56 points ahead of Scott and 69 points ahead of Newgarden – his closest rivals with six races remaining?

SJ – Palou has done a terrific job without question. But from the Indy 500 and over the next three or four races, the racing has been so variable. In Scott’s case, he couldn’t have had worse outcomes with strategy and running out of gas at the first pit stop at Indy where he probably had the best car he’s ever had for the race.

That’s a double-points race and he came out of it with very few points. That hurt tremendously. Both races in Detroit were a disaster (Scott finished 8th in race 1 and 7th in race 2). Mid-Ohio was just damage control, getting whatever points he could get from a bad weekend. (He finished 4th.)

But of course, Scott hasn’t been the only one with bad luck or outcomes at some races. In race 1 at Detroit it was Will Power (his car failed to start after he pitted from the lead) and then Newgarden at Road America (Newgarden’s gearbox failed while he was leading with two laps remaining). That’s how it goes in Indycar.

JT – Tough though the season has been, I imagine Scott is enjoying the amazing level of competition.

SJ – That part of it is all good. He’s loving it and he’s comfortable with his performance. He still feels he has a good chance to win the Championship.

JT – Felix Rosenqvist has had a tough season at McLaren after switching from Ganassi last year. He sits 25th in points after struggling to adapt to the McLaren and a scary collision with the barriers at Detroit when his brakes failed during race 1. The accident forced him to miss race 2 at Detroit and the Road America round.

SJ – The accident at Detroit had a lucky outcome fortunately with his injuries not being as bad as they could have been. Thank God it happened in that corner and not the one at the end of the front straight. I think it’s every driver’s nightmare to have complete brake failure or a stuck throttle. You’re just a passenger.

At McLaren, Pato has obviously done a great job. He’s very talented and has very fast hands. Felix had a tough time to start with but I think he’s got his head around the car now. I think he’s been extremely unlucky as well. At Texas for example, he could have won both races because his car was really fast. He was waiting for the last stint to go for the win from 3rd or 4th position. And he led for quite a while too.

The tiniest details make such a big difference in Indycar now. Not just for the driver but for the team, on-track and at every pit stop. And it’s quite interesting that even though the cars are all the same there are a multitude of combinations you can use in terms of geometry set-up and steering set up and so many things that can make a radical difference to how a car feels to drive.

And some teams have significant philosophical differences in how they try to get performance out of a car. Some engineers or teams maybe look more at getting the front end really pinned down, relying on the front being completely stuck. Others will have a more compliant car. There are so many different things and you always have to find the right balance.

And that’s why at some tracks one team is mega quick right away and at some tracks they’re nowhere. And then another team is right on top of it. It’s really interesting how Indycar has developed this year particularly. Every single team is the quickest team at some place. Look at Penske. They were nowhere for the first five or six races. Now they’ve kind of got their speed back.

JT – Speaking of Penske, let’s talk about Scott McLaughlin. He has had an up and down season too but he’s been fast and competitive. That’s amazing for a guy who’s spent the bulk of his career in comparatively heavy closed top touring cars. What do you think of his performance?

SJ – He’s definitely very impressive. To do what he’s done with really no single-seater experience, that takes a lot of adapting and it’s not easy by any stretch.

Leave a comment