JT – Recently, the FIA replaced Michael Masi as F1 Race Director. His position became untenable following his decisions at the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. Eduardo Freitas, the long-time WEC/ELMS race director and Niels Wittich, DTM’s race director, will team to direct F1 races this season, alternating according to their schedules. What do you think of the move?
SJ – I’m glad they did it. There seems to be mixed feelings in the F1 paddock, but I have the feeling that comes down more to what personal relationship some people had with him, rather than looking objectively at the job he did since he took on the role. It’s a firm reaction and I think it’s the right thing to do. I think it’s a positive sign from the new FIA leadership (FIA president, Mohammed Ben Sulayem) that they’re not afraid to make difficult decisions where they need to be made. I haven’t had any experience with Wittich but I’ve done countless races with Freitas and he’s very good. I can’t really recall any controversy over any of his decisions. He’s very clear in the driver’s briefings, as a driver you have a very clear understanding what you can and can’t do before the races start. He gets the job done and I think he’s a very good choice. Hopefully that will change a lot of things in how the race direction works. And maybe it will also change the way the tracks are. I still can’t wrap my head around how the track in Saudi Arabia ever got the go-ahead for example. It’s one of the fastest tracks on the calendar and it’s basically a street-circuit with a countless number of blind corners. It makes no sense, especially when you start with a clean sheet.
JT – Does splitting the duties between two race directors already busy with other series make sense?
SJ – I think it’s almost inevitable now with as big as the F1 race calendar has become. It takes an enormous toll on everybody right through the ranks. There are so many races now. I think they also understand that there aren’t any other suitable replacements available. Having said all of that, and far more importantly in the bigger picture, the bottom line is that the races shouldn’t have to be decided by the race directors for the majority of incidents that have been occurring. If you take drivers behavior for example, the racing should be more self-regulating. You achieve that by fixing the tracks first of all. That’s where the real problem lies. When you have tracks with two football fields of runoff area and there’s no direct penalty for going over the track limits in terms of losing speed or track position, the penalty has to come from somewhere, in this case from the race control tower. It makes no sense. And I don’t mean the tracks have to be dangerous when you put a wheel off. Grass, or gravel, whatever, anything that forces you to lift or slowdown in order to get the car back on the track is sufficient. If you put a wheel in the grass, you’ve got to lift for a fraction of a second just to regain control of a car. That’s all the penalty you need because if a driver has to do that, they’re going to lose two or three positions in the early part of a race, or whenever they are fighting for position. The drivers are aware of that so they won’t go over the track limits unless they make a mistake. They won’t do it on purpose like they do now. Now they just keep their foot in it and accelerate. If you had proper tracks where the limits mattered, 80 percent of these dubious calls would be gone. In Monaco for example, no one purposely goes past the limits because there are great big walls and most of the time there are no incidents because everyone knows where the limit is.
JT – One change the FIA hasn’t announced for F1 and which hasn’t been announced elsewhere, in sports car racing for example, is making rulings on in-race infringements by drivers or teams post-race. All too often incidents which are clear cut aren’t decided until after a race. In F1 this can result in grid-place penalties at future races or FIA license points for drivers, etc. Most incidents can be decided one way or another within three to four laps. Racing organizations owe it to fans, drivers and teams to avoid confusion and frustration. Deciding incidents after a race is unsatisfactory and highly prone to controversy and politics.
SJ – Absolutely and it goes hand-in-hand with everything else that has been so muddied in recent years. The other thing I don’t understand, and I don’t know if or when the rules changed, but the penalty system during races was pretty simple before. If you did something as a driver that was a bit dubious you first got a warning flag – a black and white flag with your number. That means you’ve been warned. Do it again and you get the black flag. That’s it. Your day is over. It was very simple, a good, easy way to govern the racing and very easy for the fans to understand. Now it’s, you get a 5 second penalty for this or you run over a curb and you get another one. Or if you do something else, you’re penalized two track positions for the next race. No one knows what the penalty for any infringement is until it’s been handed out, totally random it seems most of the time. We’re here now today racing. Why bother about the next race? For me, the warning flag and the black flag were easy and simple ways to control a race. And for the fans, they can see what’s happening on TV. So-and-so’s racing hard with someone else and has gotten a warning flag. If he does the same thing again he’ll get a black flag and his day is done. Then there’s no need for these random decisions on penalties. One time you get five seconds, then it’s 10 seconds or two grid places. There’s no consistency. That’s what all the drivers are frustrated over, as well as the fans of course. They don’t know where they stand. What can they do and what can’t they do? When did the rules change? When did the warning flag and black flag stop being used? I don’t remember and I certainly don’t remember the reason or logic behind the decision.
JT – Some have observed that the new for 2022 18-inch wheels that F1 cars will be racing with this season may create considerable turbulence - perhaps enough to undo some of the aero changes the series has made to supposedly permit cars to follow each other more closely and improve F1’s processional racing. It’s hard to say what the new cars wakes will be like until they race but do you think the new wheel/tire package could produce turbulence?
SJ – It seems the technical team at F1 have done a huge amount of research and simulations before implementing this big rule change, so one has to assume that they are pretty confident that it’s far better than what we’ve had until now. But I’ve never driven an aero-dependent car, and these cars are still massively aero-dependent, that wasn’t affected by the car ahead. I don’t think you can ever eliminate it completely, but I am sure it will be a huge step in the right direction. I’ve driven lots of sports cars where the wheels aren’t even exposed. They don’t create anything near the amount of turbulence modern F1 cars make but even so as soon as you get close to them from behind your front end just washes out.
JT – Ahead of the recent testing, there were a number of car launches by F1 teams. I remember how different they were 15 to 20 years ago when the launches were big money, glitzy affairs with all kinds of accompanying showbiz and large public audiences. Today, and for some time now, they’ve been much more muted affairs, attended primarily by the media with little to no public visibility otherwise. It’s an interesting evolution.
SJ – I assume that all the teams at some point must have agreed that it was a waste of time and money and did not bring much value to the teams or sponsors. There is also the timing of it, everybody is working until the last minute to finish the design and then the build of the car, to then cart them off to some fancy location with all the manpower and effort involved they probably decided it was better to scrap the idea and do something more simple at their own base. F1 is funny that way because a lot of it is just an ego contest. Whenever someone starts a new thing, it doesn’t matter what it is, everybody seems to follow. For years we had the motorhome competition. Everybody had to have the biggest, flashiest motorhome. They still have their Gin Palace’s, but for how long I don’t know. The cost of carting those things around for only 8 races out of the full calendar is obviously not cheap, and as all the other races are flyaway events, they seem to be happy with whatever facilities the promoters provide them in the various locations they go. In some ways it’s great because it typifies F1 – the ultimate of everything. I think now with the budget caps, I’m sure there will be a more sensible level of spending with the focus more on things that really matter.
JT – The budget caps are now fully in force supposedly. But how much confidence can anyone have that they’ll actually be adhered to by those who have the means to spend more?
SJ – It’s hard to say. I don’t know how they are planning on enforcing the spending cap and how to control it, but I do know how good the teams are on bending the technical rules and finding loopholes in the rules. If that is anything to go by, the FIA will have a job on their hands to stay on top of budget cap too. One would think with all the tools available today compared to what teams used to have they should be able to get their cars right or closer to right than they did in the past. Time will tell. The longer you have the same set of rules the closer the grid gets. Rules stability is always the best way to close up the grid. Now, with these radical new rules it will most likely take some time to get to that point. I think there will be the odd dark horse this year that will get their car right. Some will probably get it terribly wrong. The biggest worry with that is that the rules are now pretty much frozen. So, there’s not a whole lot you can do once you’ve presented the car you’re going to race with, if the basic philosophy of how the car is designed is wrong. Having said that, at least from what I’ve seen so far, the best-looking car in my opinion is the Ferrari. It’s a beautiful car. Visually, I think the new cars look a lot better than the previous cars with the exception of the odd long wheelbase they all have now, which makes them look weird in my opinion. But it’s obviously faster! JT – Word emerged recently via Mario Andretti that Michael Andretti is trying gain a new entry to F1, indicating that Michael has formed a group with the financial resources to pay the series’ entry fee and fund a competitive team. But many existing team bosses and as well as F1 managing director of motorsport Ross Brawn seem opposed to an Andretti entry saying the series’ 10 current teams are enough for now. Toto Wolff says an Andretti team would have to “prove its worth” to join F1. The prospect of an Andretti entry doesn’t seem popular with F1’s established players. Why do you think that is?
SJ – To some degree I do understand their reticence because if you look at the history of F1 it’s littered with teams and people with big egos who fancied owning a Formula 1 team. Then they end up with egg on their faces two races into the season when they don’t have money to go to the next race and they had to go to Bernie [Ecclestone] with their hand out. I get that part of it. The way Formula One has developed, a new team must be something with absolute substance. If you look at what’s happening now, I think it’s going to be only a matter of time before Audi and Porsche will announce deals to be in F1, which will make almost the entire grid filled with major car manufacturers competing. I think that because of the value of F1 franchises now and because there are relatively many very wealthy people in the world who have an interest in it, the series is being inundated with requests for the remaining two team slots on the grid. Personally, I think it would be great to see Andretti on the grid, it’s a great name and it would elevate the interest in the US even more than what we are seeing right now. But, to start a new team from scratch today, good luck. It’s a monumental exercise, no matter how big your resources are.
JT – The engine or power unit rules for the new cars in F1 are fundamentally similar to what has been in place for years now. You’ve mentioned that you find it ironic that the series is promoting the powerplants in its cars as the most efficient engines in the world, particularly given that the F1 hasn’t explored other types of powerplants in any meaningful way.
SJ – Maybe the engines they use are the most efficient. But does that mean they represent what could be the most efficient engine of any type? We don’t know that until someone tries, and under the current rules that is impossible. Everyone basically has to build the same engine the way the rules are written. There are no options for any different concept on anything that matter in terms of how efficient the engine is. Their hybrid ICE engine is the only option in F1 so we don’t know if other types or combinations could be better. That’s what’s lacking in F1 in my opinion. As I outlined a few years ago, and I think F1 is absolutely the right platform for it, with an open formula for engines you could find out what is indeed the best source of energy, the best combination to propel a car. If F1 had rules that asked for a fixed X-amount of energy limit from an array of sources with a fixed thermal efficiency limit of X, and a very strict but open criteria allowing for the use of diesel, hydrogen, electric, Gasoline, biofuel, or whatever else that may not yet be invented even, we would find out within three years what the actual best formula to propel a car is. And it would be very interesting because you would have a variety of engine configurations until there is a clear concept that has the best efficiency, power and practical use. If for example, someone could achieve the same efficiency as the current cars, but without the battery component, the cars would weigh massively less than they do now, and they would basically destroy the current competition. In my opinion F1 is big enough to do that and the world would listen. Right now we’re basically dealing with a formula that’s the product of a political agenda that a few people have decided is the right way to go. I think if Formula 1 was brave enough to open up the rules the manufacturers would follow. It would be a great and legitimate challenge for all of them and it would be really interesting to see what would come out of that.
JT – Indycar is headed in the direction of hybrid ICE engine/electric powerplants as well. But even before they arrive in the series, Scott Dixon and many of the other drivers are warning that Indycars are becoming too heavy and underpowered. Adding hybrid engines to already heavy chassis will only make the situation worse. What’s your take?
SJ – It’s the direction all racing is headed now, I don’t think many people in the paddock particularly like it, but we’re stuck with it for now. With the added weight of the aero screen and spec tires that aren’t as good as they could be because there’s only one tire manufacturer, things aren’t what they should be in a high-level category like Indycar. Driving an Indy car today is like driving a big, heavy Formula 3 car. You can’t push the car anymore; it just won’t take. The cars really need another 200-300 horsepower to make them exciting and hard to drive. That’s what used to be so great as you climbed up through open wheel categories. You could push the cars harder and harder and they would respond to it. But that doesn’t happen anymore and I think it’s the same in F1. Once you get used to the grip, it is what it is.
JT – One other challenge for Indycar drivers and teams is the very limited time they’re allowed for testing this year. That seems counterproductive. SJ – They only have three days for on-track testing over the whole season this year. It makes no sense. I have a pretty rough idea of what it costs to run an Indycar for a day. I don’t know if it’s a cost issue or if there are other factors involved. Maybe the engine manufacturers don’t have the capacity to run more but it seems strange. There’s no time for testing during the sessions on race weekends. You can’t be relaxed and try three or four different things without stressing over lap times or have a program in place where you run different things.