Photo: Planet F1
JT – The recent Belgian GP has been the subject of lots of controversy. Formula 1 officials decided to bring the race to a close after just two laps behind a safety car and hours of delay due to rain and low visibility created by the cars circulating at Spa. Nevertheless, they declared it an official race and awarded points to the drivers who, with no opportunity to gain or lose positions under the safety car, finished in the order they had qualified in the day before.
That resulted in Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen taking the win with Williams’ George Russell finishing second and Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton third. Fans who had remained for hours in the downpour hoping to see racing were deprived of the opportunity. Drivers criticized F1’s decision to award points for a “race” where there had been no racing. And apparently F1 and the race organizers are now in discussion about some form of compensation for fans. After a season in which competition at the front of the grid has been fairly good, F1 seems to have tripped on its own cape with its handling of the Belgian GP. What are your thoughts?
SJ – I agree it wasn’t positive for F1. With any decision of this magnitude, there are always a million moving parts to consider. But F1 has always been an enigma in that regard. Technologically they are so advanced and on the cutting edge yet on the most basic stuff they often seem to miss the point.
The weather at Spa was obviously uncontrollable but I don’t feel it was the right decision to give out points for a race that never was. But like most things in life, if you break down the sequence of events all you have to do is follow the money and you get the answer pretty quickly.
JT – What’s bewildering is that businesses, including sporting organizations, regularly make contingency plans for all manner of interruptions – weather being a common interruption that is planned for. The Belgian GP takes place at Spa for goodness sake, globally known for its highly variable weather, particularly rain. The race has been held for decades so you would think F1, the FIA and the organizers would have had plans in place to cope with it, including racing the following day as IndyCar and NASCAR commonly do.
SJ – Yes, I’ve probably done 30 races there over the years and I’ve never, ever been there without it raining on at least one day of a race weekend or a test.
They certainly could have not declared it a race and then arranged to do a double-header somewhere else if needed, at the end of the year for example. You would imagine it would be fairly easy to do a double-header at Abu Dhabi or another track with some preparation. The series has done it before.
More than anything, you feel sorry for the fans. And I don’t think the organizers had any say in whether to call it a race or not. But the organizers are probably the one who’s on the hook and will lose money because the only income they have is really from the gate (tickets sold) or concessions. F1 owns most of the advertising around the track and the organizers pay F1 a fee to race there.
But none of that affects the drivers or the teams so from that perspective, the paddock just moves on. Unfortunately, for the moment, it’s up to the promoter to sweep up the debris and make the race happen again next year. I would imagine there are negotiations going on right now how to rectify all this.
JT – I guess the most notable feature of the action that did take place at Spa was qualifying and the biggest news from that was that George Russell qualified second, outpacing Lewis Hamilton. That led to his second place “finish” on Sunday. What do you think of his performance?
SJ – Well, we always hear about rain being “the great equalizer” and that certainly applies to F1 as well, to a degree. But nowhere near as much as to other formulas.
As in any circumstance where there’s rain on track, you still have to have a car under you to race or qualify well. And whoever has the best handling car in those conditions will generally get the best result. But when you look at the current F1 cars, even in the rain, they can go virtually flat through Eau Rouge. That says it all. The performance of these cars is amazing, and the grip level is just mind boggling.
In the past, if you managed to go flat once during the whole weekend through Eau Rouge it was the best feeling ever and everything was worth it. That’s how difficult it was to go flat even once with a qualifying set up and qualifying tires. You had to have everything on the car perfect and you had to be so precise in getting the line absolutely perfect both on entry and on change of direction from right to left halfway up the hill. If you didn’t you had to either lift or you would crash.
Now, even in the rain there’s barely a lift at Eau Rouge. Blanchimont is completely flat in the rain. It’s insane the amount of grip the cars have. In the dry, they’re not even corners anymore.
So, of course Russell did a good job, but I also think that Williams took a gamble and bolted on as much downforce as they could. After qualifying the cars are in parc ferme’ and you can’t change them. I think Williams just gambled – if you can call it a gamble - on it being wet for Sunday as well. I think had the race gone on Russell probably would have won it. He had a lot more downforce than anyone else had.
JT – Confirming speculation, Kimi Raikkonen announced recently that he would be retiring from F1 at the end of this season. That will obviously start dominoes falling in the driver market, with George Russell taking Valtteri Bottas’ seat alongside Hamilton at Mercedes and Bottas taking Kimi’s seat at Alfa Romeo-Sauber. What do you think of Kimi’s decision to bring his F1 career to a close?
SJ – I think it was the right decision for Kimi, he’s done everything he can and has had an incredible career in F1. He’s a Superstar and I’m sure he will have several options available to him to keep himself busy in the years to come. Both Russell and Bottas announcements were just a formality as it’s been expected for quite some time that this was already a done deal. It’s a great opportunity for George and I’m sure he will be extremely fast; the big question mark will be how he handles the pressure and politics of being at the sharp end throughout a full season. It’s a huge difference being fast in a small team when there are no expectations and no one notices or cares if you have a bad couple of races, whereas in a top team, the media and everyone is all over you if you have one bad practice session. Similarly, I am sure Bottas will be relieved and excited to join a team where the pressure might not be the same as he’s been used to the past 5 years.
JT – One side effect of competition at the top of the F1 grid this year for Stefan Johansson fans is that it has been harder for them to guess the podium finishing order in your F1 Top 3 contest.
SJ – Yeah, it’s been pretty hard actually, predicting the podium. So we haven’t had anyone predict correctly for the last few races. At Spa of course, no one would have gotten Russell in second. And even more so at Hungary, no would have thought Ocon would win. But it’s good. I like it. We’ve actually added to our first prize for winning. (Enter your predictions on the website’s F1 Top 3 page)
JT – As mentioned, the reason the Belgian GP was curtailed was visibility - not the amount of water on track. Max Verstappen was quoted in a story afterward, advocating for F1 to find some way of reducing the amount of spray the cars produce in wet running. But he didn’t mention the chief contributor to the mist the cars produce in their wake – the downforce they produce.
SJ – It comes back to the same old thing I’ve been talking about for years now, optimizing aerodynamics to the umpteenth degree. Until they get a handle on that and figure out that they should let the smart guys figure out other ways to go fast rather than just endless aero development they will always have problems like this. The ripple effect from high downforce is affecting so many other parts that all relate to the quality of the racing, traffic being the most obvious one but also things like the spray coming off the cars in the rain. More downforce pushes the car further into the ground and as such more water is being disbursed and that’s what’s causing the huge amount of spray.
JT – The racing in Indy Car continues to be the best in the world bar none. Over the last several races the complexion of the championship has changed massively. Alex Palou’s big lead over the rest of the field has vanished and he now trails Pato O’Ward by ten points with Joseph Newgarden just 13 points behind him in third in championship. No one can predict what will happen in the season’s final races and the championship is up for grabs. Scott Dixon has suffered some bad luck but even he has a shot if he can win consistently.
SJ – It’s so hard to get everything right in Indy Car now. Every week someone different rolls a car out of their truck and is completely dialed in. It’s constantly changing.
Scott and his crew have definitely had a hard time nailing everything they need to win on a weekend, especially in qualifying which is so important now. At Indy, (the August road course race) he said he was struggling the whole weekend with the car. It wasn’t hooked up at any point.
From the Indy 500 on, it’s not that they haven’t had the pace in a lot of the races. It’s that the strategy went sideways for them. In other races where they were close to the front Scott just didn’t have the car underneath him when he really needed it.
The closer Indy Car gets with more really competitive drivers and teams, the more not getting it right on a day ends up costing you. What might have been a 5th place finish is now 10th place or even worse. It’s just a sign of how crazy competitive Indy Car is now. It also shows how the longer you keep rules the same, the more competitive and tighter the racing gets, it’s the same in any series. The smaller teams with fewer resources are catching up because the rules are stable and there’s so little you can do to gain an advantage with a car once everyone has figured them out. Engineers and crew chiefs move from team to team, and they take the information with them, that’s what happens.
JT – It’s so competitive now that we’re seeing a level of aggressiveness that sometimes results in mistakes. At the most recent round on the oval at St. Louis Rinus VeeKay attempted to dive under Scott and Alex Palou and wound up wrecking all three cars. Some of the drivers including Joseph Newgarden are saying that they and their competitors need to be smarter. On the other hand, Newgarden says if you’re not aggressive enough you end up getting run over. What do you think?
SJ – That’s probably a first for me, seeing someone (VeeKay) do a banzai dive and lock up the brakes on an oval. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before.
But yes, you can get taken advantage of if you’re not pushing. I was talking with Felix [Rosenqvist] about that the other day. You have to be sort of passive-aggressive at least. You can’t sit back and wait. You have to be assertive or you just get overwhelmed.
Pato O’Ward has done a terrific job but I can’t help but feel bad for Felix. He’s just had the worst luck this year. Everything that can go wrong has gone wrong. Some years are just like that, you’re either the windshield or the bug. He’s had the speed and especially from the middle of the season he’s gotten far more comfortable with the car.
And when you don’t qualify up front you get mired in the middle of the pack and it’s hard to move forward.
If strategy had gone Scott’s way since the two races at Detroit, I think he’d be right up front in the points. And Palou has had some bad luck too of course. The sort of surprise in the team is Ericsson. Things have gone his way a bit but his engineers have done a terrific job with strategy. Marcus has done a great job in the races. He has much more confidence now and he’s using it.
JT – In other Indy Car news, it has been reported that Romain Grosjean will leave Dale Coyne Racing next year to join Andretti Autosport, replacing Ryan Hunter-Reay in the #28 car. We also learned this week that Ferrari F1 test driver/Alfa Romeo reserve driver Callum Ilott will race for Juncos-Hollinger Racing at the next round at Portland. Grosjean seems to be enjoying the hot competition in Indy Car and it looks like lots of drivers are keen to join in.
SJ – I’m sure Grosjean will fit in well at Andretti, he’s a pretty smart guy and I think he’ll figure out how to work well in the team. It should help the team a bit. Herta has been fast, but the other drivers have definitely struggled a bit this season.
JT – One more thing that has made the 2021 season entertaining is watching Jimmie Johnson’s progress. He’s been very open about how he’s trying to adapt to really fast, high downforce Indy Cars and what a challenge it is coming from NASCAR driving completely different cars. But he’s getting better and better and he is sharing that journey with the public. I think it’s been fun and eye-opening to a lot of people, including NASCAR drivers. In fact, it’s illustrative of the struggles Scott Pruett, Robby Gordon and Juan Pablo Montoya faced going in the opposite direction from Indy Car to NASCAR.
SJ – Every race Jimmie gets closer and closer to the field in lap time. He’s not far off now really. I’m very impressed with him. Think about it. He’d never driven a single seater in his entire career, and he jumps into the most competitive series in the world. That’s a massive undertaking.
He’s a great guy, super humble. But you can tell he’s very focused. I think he’ll be right in the pack mixing it up with everyone by the start of next season. Obviously, he has great race-craft. Once he gets within a tenth or two I think he’ll be somebody to reckon with.
JT – Only three races remain in the 2021 season – Portland, Laguna Seca and Long Beach. What’s the outlook for Scott? Does he just need to go for wins at every race?
SJ – Yes, I think it’s been like that for a while now and it just hasn’t worked out. But at this point you just have to go for it. Really, that’s true for all the guys racing for the championship. Everyone’s going to have to give all they’ve got. Anything can happen in Indy Car at every race.
And I think it will be even more competitive next year with more cars, more drivers, more teams and an even higher quality grid. It will just get even better and hopefully will get some more recognition for that. It’s already astounding how competitive it is.
JT – In sports car racing all eyes seem to be on the integration of ACO-based hypercars and IMSA’s LMDh hybrids in 2023. The prospect of the two prototype versions racing each other in the WEC and IMSA on both sides of the Atlantic has been widely advertised. There will be some LMDh manufacturers who will race in the WEC apparently but so far, it doesn’t seem the manufacturers involved on the hypercar side are that interested in racing in IMSA. Lots of people are touting the potential of the new generation of prototypes but actually balancing their performance, keeping costs down and having a truly global formula may be tougher than advertised. Do you agree?
SJ – It’s going to be tough to have actual parity. One car is four wheel drive (hypercar) and the other’s not (LMDh). I don’t see how you can ever get parity in that regard. For instance, how do you control that in varying weather conditions?
As soon as it starts raining at Le Mans the four-wheel drive cars are going to be in another league.
For the first time in 30 years, sports car racing had the opportunity to get it right with a new prototype formula. Why do we need the hypercar? Why couldn’t everyone just go with the LMDh? Do we need two versions of the Prototype cars again, especially when so many manufacturers are now embracing the LMDh category. If it was one category for the overall win, it would be so much easier to write a set of rules for all competitors, without BoP, here’s the formula. These are the rules. If you want to compete - great - if not, end of story.
Now we’re stuck with yet another compromised formula where there will be endless lobbying and politics from every manufacturer, with teams of engineers just focusing on how to cheat the system to get the best possible BoP.