JT – Beginning with Indy Car this time, the saga of Alex Palou and his status as either a Chip Ganassi Racing driver in Indy Car or a McLaren Racing driver in 2023 has dominated racing media headlines over the last couple weeks. What are your thoughts?
SJ – it obviously caught everyone off guard, with Ganassi and then McLaren making the announcement that Palou is driving for them within an hour of each other. I don’t know what to make of it, there’s been enough speculation already and I don’t want to make any comments without knowing the facts so I will leave it at that. I think we will know relatively soon what the outcome will be.
JT – There have been several Indy Car races since the last blog, including the Indy 500 and last weekend’s Honda Indy Toronto street course race. Scott Dixon scored a terrific win, showing the pace and execution that everyone expects of the six-time Indy Car champion. The victory ended a winless streak that extended back to May 2021 and his last triumph at Texas Motor Speedway. It tied him for No. 2 all-time in Indy Car wins at 52 with Mario Andretti.
The victory was sweet in many ways, vaulting Scott to fifth in the championship and perhaps making up in a small way for the disappointment of not winning at the Indy 500.
SJ – It was great and well overdue. The whole weekend came together in a way that we haven’t seen so far this year or even last year for various reasons. It was vintage Scott/Ganassi where everything ran like clockwork. They make it look so easy when they do it that way. Scott drove flawlessly and the team did their job with giving him a quick car all weekend, quick pit stops and great strategy.
And this time, circumstances didn’t catch them out. Obviously, the hard one this year was Indy. It was tough because Scott was so dominant. (On lap 175, Dixon received a penalty, a drive-through for exceeding the pit lane speed limit by 1 mph.)
I think he’s made three mistakes in his entire career. To have it happen there is obviously unbelievably frustrating and gut-wrenching.
He’s still behind in the championship (44 points down) but I don’t think he’s much further behind than when he won the championship in the last race (2015). If you don’t score big at Indy these days it hurts because it’s the only double-points race on the schedule. It’s so big to score well at Indy because you carry that for the rest of the season
JT – Scott’s teammate, Marcus Ericsson leads the championship right now. Ericsson has been impressive this season, winning the Indy 500 and scoring five top-five finishes. What do think of his performance?
SJ – He’s improved massively this year. It actually started last year and it shows what a bit of confidence can do. You can see that he believes in himself in his driving. He’s very determined and there’s no hanging about. If there’s a gap, he’ll go for it. He’s doing a great job. Confidence is everything when you drive. If you don’t have it, you’re always going to be missing that last little bit. You either over-drive or you’re just a bit off. He’s got a great relationship with his engineer, and I think together they’ve found a set up that gives him the level of confidence that suits his style of driving.
JT – Meanwhile, Felix Rosenqvist had his best finish since his sole Indy Car victory in 2020 at Road America, taking the checkers in third place. His performance was good and obviously should help in proving his competitiveness in an Arrow McLaren Racing SP car.
SJ – Yes, he drove a great race and finally got a result. But in fairness he’s been doing it all year, but the results have just not come for a multitude of different reasons. He’s been knocking on the door pretty much all season and has been unlucky in a few circumstances. With the exception of Toronto I think he’s been the only driver to qualify in the top-six on all of the street and road courses. He’s been more than on the pace all season.
At Mid-Ohio, the engine blew up. Otherwise, I think McLaren would have had a 1-2 finish there. Felix was starting on the black, hard tires and had great pace on the red, soft tires. He’s doing all he can at the moment and under any normal circumstances there should be no doubt that he would stay with McLaren in Indycar for 2023 also. There’s not much more he can do at this point to prove he’s earned his seat for next year also.
JT – Colton Herta finished in second place, just ahead of Felix. He said that if the race had run a few laps longer, Felix might have passed him. He also revealed that he couldn’t see well in the final laps because his balaclava had somehow come apart, allowing his hair to drop in front of his eyes. I’ve heard of drivers being partly blinded by dust or sweat but never hair.
SJ – I’ve never had my hair get in the way, but I have had other situations where the vision gets impaired in the middle of a race. In my first year in IndyCar I did a couple of races wearing contacts. I have an astigmatism so the lenses have to stay in the same place on my eyes.
But when you’re racing there’s always dust and dirt that always gets in under the visor and into your eyes and you just kind of live with it. The problem with the contacts is that they sometimes moved out of position when the dirt got stuck in them. I remember racing at Nazareth [Speedway] when one of the lenses moved and I couldn’t see a bloody thing with that eye for more than half the race.
Thankfully it was an oval so there wasn’t that many corners or braking points to deal with. You have your markers that help you know when to turn-in and it’s pretty repetitive compared to being somewhere like a street circuit or a twisty road course.
JT – One more thing to say about Indy Car and the very good championship battle that is underway… It will all be over sooner than we realize. Only seven races remain on the calendar and it all concludes by September 11. It really feels like the season should be somewhat longer. Do you agree?
SJ – Yeah absolutely, I don’t really understand it. I know that football season gets going by then and all that but there’s got to be a way around it. Not only that - what is more frustrating is that the teams and drivers only get three days of testing for the entire year.
This means there’s zero track activity from September to February, almost six months. That’s way too long in my opinion. I know Indy Car is concerned about costs and this and that but there’s got to be a better way to balance that.
It’s similar to what’s going on with the tires. Now, the series runs only one practice session on the Friday of a race weekend. Couldn’t the teams have another hour and a half on Friday where you could actually test some development stuff on the race track rather than doing it in simulators all the time?
Just treat it as a test and give them one more set of tires. I’m sure all of the teams will support it. They’re already at the track and they’ve paid for the mechanics, the rooms, the flights. You may have some engine mileage issues but I can’t imagine another 30 laps would make that much difference.
JT – Turning to Formula 1, the $140 million cost-cap for the 2022 season has become an issue. The larger teams have lobbied Formula 1 for an increase in the budget cap with the big teams like Red Bull Racing, Mercedes and Ferrari warning that they would not be able to stay under the current cap because of global inflation. The F1 Commission approved a 3.1 percent increase, giving teams a cap of $145.5 million for the season.
Inflationary pressure is present globally but it seems slightly absurd that $140 million is not enough for F1 teams to go racing for a single season. What are your thoughts?
SJ – I understand that we have inflation and that it affects everyone and everything. But the complaints about the budget cap started long before the inflation really kicked into the level it is now. The teams surely knew what they could spend - $140 million. And I assume they must have budgeted accordingly for the whole season.
But now you’ve had teams saying they wouldn’t be able to do the last races of the season because they couldn’t meet the budget cap? Well, if you run any kind of business and you need to limit your spending, you make cuts in one area or another to meet the budget. But it’s like the DNA in F1 doesn’t function that way anymore.
The development rate is insane and probably even more so this year because of the new cars and the new concept for aerodynamics. Between the season’s first race and now I’d imagine they’ve been going full bore to figure out the porpoising issue, bringing new floors to every race, figuring out what works and trying to find a performance advantage from all the other areas of the car, including losing weight which has now become a big issue also.
With Formula 1 you have the “whatever it takes to win” attitude magnified a million times. It’s admirable and awesome in one way but at the same time, here’s a rule that they say they can’t follow because they won’t be able to do the last races of the season under the budget cap. Does that then mean they will stop and not finish the season? Of course not.
That’s not the way it works in F1. Like so many other wholesale rule changes in the past, when there’s a completely new concept presented. We’ve had the one where there were no more aero add-ons for the front wings allowed for example. But four races into the season, someone figures out a loophole and the rule gradually just crumbles and they’re unable to enforce it properly. Over the next three years there were more bits hanging off the car wings than there was even before the rule change.
My personal view is that the budget cap will be forgotten in another 2-3 years, no one will talk about it because it’s become too difficult to enforce, and whatever money the teams have at their disposal, they will spend. You see it in sports car racing when the manufacturers get involved, but it’s worse in F1. If you gave every team a billion dollars per year, they would still have spent every penny at the end of the year. They always find ways to spend it. The engineers will always find one great idea after another. If they can gain a tenth of a second but it costs tens of millions, they’ll go for it if they have it. That’s the nature of the beast. Formula One is truly like war without the weapons, and in many ways this is what makes it so unique and different from all other forms or racing.
JT – There’s significant prosperity in Formula 1 right now and the current teams seem intent on preserving that by closing ranks and refusing to let the grid grow with new teams. It’s as if they expect that if they maintain a firm grip on the status quo, they can guarantee it. But economic headwinds are building and will likely continue to increase over the coming years. Automakers around the world are experiencing poor sales. That will affect F1. Do you think the teams understand this?
SJ – I have to say that probably less than five years ago there were a few teams you could have probably purchased for a dollar. But now the teams aren’t interested at all. Their valuations are off the charts.
Of course, the teams are aware, but at the same time they’re obviously riding the wave and trying to capitalize on the current situation the best they can. I know there are some very large deals happening at the moment.
The danger is that auto manufacturers own or will own most of the teams now. Porsche will be coming into the series and maybe Audi as well. Honda is also talking about coming back in again. We’ve seen it many times historically where manufacturers are hungry to come into F1 – and I don’t see how the budget cap is going to work in that regard but let’s assume it does – but when the tide turns like it did some years back when Toyota, BMW and Honda all left at the same time the corporate owners just look at a balance sheet, they have no emotional attachment to the team like the old school entrepreneurial owners used to have. For them it’s just a row of numbers on a balance sheet.
They sit down at board meetings and see that they weren’t competitive in the championship last season. After a bit of discussion, they determine their focus has shifted to something that will be better for the company and they decide to pull out. Boom. The end. That could very easily happen again.
In the meantime, everybody’s riding the wave of F1’s success at the moment and it is having a positive effect on every other form of motorsport. Formula 1 Group has turned this into a juggernaut and the number of employees working in it is mind-boggling. If things change, they’ll have to adapt. Formula One is bigger than it’s ever been, it’s great for motorsports in general. The new owners I think have surprised a lot of people with their vision and how they’ve turned that into reality. The on-track action is good, the image of F1 is great and sponsors/investors are lining up wanting to get involved.
But, there is another issue with all the teams being intent on keeping the status quo on the number of entries. There’s been much noise made about the Andretti attempt at getting a new entry without any success at this point at least. With only 20 cars on the grid, the graveyard of drivers that will never make it to F1 is getting bigger every year. There are a number of very talented drivers that simply can’t find their way into F1 as there are no cars or opportunities open. The latest example is Piastri, who won the F2 Championship last year, he’s now reserve driver for Alpine. If he can’t get into a car next year, I think there’s a very real chance he’ll never make it to F1, which would be tragic considering how talented this guy is. There are plenty examples of the same over the years. There is definitely a surplus of very talented drivers than there are cars.
JT – On-track, porpoising has been the number one concern for F1 teams. Drivers have complained that porpoising has caused them difficulty in seeing markers for braking, turn-in, etc. and that their backs are taking a beating. Now in mid-season, it seems that most teams have solved many of the issues with porpoising.
But recently the FIA got involved, introducing an Aerodynamic Oscillation Metric from the Belgian Grand Prix that will limit the amount of vertical movements cars can have on track. Next year they’ll make changes to the technical regulations to reduce porpoising. But if the teams are already getting on top of porpoising, why is the FIA getting involved?
SJ – The porpoising thing puzzles me. At least some of the people in F1 were around when ground effects cars were run the first time in the late 1970s, early 1980s. When I had just come into F1 I drove those cars a few times. I never raced them for a full season, but I drove them enough to know that they were porpoising pretty bad also back then.
We had cross-ply tires then which had a lot of spring in the sidewalls compared to radials. But the springs we ran on the cars were extremely stiff. You might as well have put iron rods in place of them. There was really no damping. They were like 5,000 or 7,000-pound springs. Now they run 700 or maybe 1,500-pound springs.
For this year’s new cars they’ve obviously done lots of simulation, wind tunnel testing and more. But what puzzles me is why didn’t they build a mule of the current car with the ground effects bodywork?
You could have modified a year-old car just enough to get a basic understanding of the new aero and its behavior on the cars. Just hire an F2 team or one of the sports car teams to independently build and run it and do the test privately so that none of the teams would know any of the data. That way the FIA would have known if there was anything that needed fixing before they finalized the rules.
In one test they would have found out they had a big problem. What they could have recognized is that maybe they needed to set the legal ride height 10 or 15 millimeters higher, whatever it would be, higher than it is now, to the point where the cars don’t porpoise anymore. That could then be the legal minimum ride height.
Instead, the teams had the shock of their lives when they went to the first test of the year in Barcelona. It’s classic F1. It’s so unbelievably sophisticated in terms of technology but they completely miss the basics so many times.
The reason the FIA is involved now is not because of porpoising issues specifically. It’s because the teams are finding ways around the rules with the flexible floors, they are now allegedly making which are meant to limit the porpoising, and allow the cars to run lower, which always gives you more grip. This is illegal according to the rule book. F1 engineers are absolutely brilliant at problem solving and they are now trying every which way to get around the rules in order to run the cars as low as possible.
JT – Track limits have returned as an issue lately with several drivers being penalized at the Austrian Grand Prix for going over the limits. The drivers have argued that if they exceed the limits by just a little bit they shouldn’t be penalized. They’re also asking for more consistency from F1s two stewards.
SJ – The way things are right now, you’ll never get consistency. The fact that you determine things like track limits penalties subjectively means that you’ll always have that.
I don’t understand it in this case because the fix for track limits is obvious. If you fix the tracks, the track limits issue is gone. Before the last 15 years or so there was never any argument about track limits. If you went over the limit you were in the gravel, the grass or the wall. At most of the current tracks in America there’s no problem. Does anyone ever get called for track limits at Mid-Ohio or Road America?
Of course not. If you go over the track limit you automatically get punished. You may not crash but you’re definitely going to have to lift enough that the guy behind you will probably pass you or you’ll lose time to the guy in front of you or just lose lap time. With the exception of COTA, the tracks all have physical limits here that will automatically cost you if you exceed them.
Going to the style of tracks F1 went to over the last couple decades is one of the biggest mistakes they’ve made. I understand it from the safety point of view but if you looked at what happened before all of the most serious accidents were freak accidents. And you can still have freak accidents with the tracks they race now.
Another thing is that track limits don’t seem to exist at the start of races. Half of the field is four car lengths past the track limit at the first corner. When are the rules enforced and when aren’t they?
Now if you just go over the limit by centimeters, I can understand that. When you’re on the limit you use every inch you can get. And conditions one lap to another will change. There can be a gust of wind, some dirt on track or your front tire’s just a little bit off. You’re right on the edge and you can’t lift. Sometimes the adhesion’s not there and the car just takes you over the limit. You’re 100 percent committed and you literally can’t do anything about it.
The bottom line is that if you fix the tracks then these endless arguments go away because the track sorts everything out. It’s one less thing for the stewards to be involved in.
JT – This season the mid-pack teams seem to alternately struggle at one track then succeed at another. That keeps the championship order shuffling among McLaren, Alpine, Alfa Romeo and Haas. That track-dependent performance has an impact on all of the drivers although McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo seems to have been more consistently off the pace.
SJ – Yes, every weekend it seems that there’s a different mid-pack team that gets their act together. Then the next week they’re nowhere. It’s a good battle right now.
Ricciardo’s situation is a bit hard to understand but I also think Lando Norris is extremely good, which obviously is not helping Ricciardo. Lando is part of the new crop of drivers that have come into F1 along with Verstappen, Leclerc and George Russell. They’re all seriously good.
Certain generations of cars also suit certain drivers better than others. And if you’ve been fast in one configuration it can be hard sometimes to adapt to a new car. As we’ve said before, Vettel was well suited to the blown-diffuser era cars. It was the same for Schumacher at Ferrari with the tires from Bridgestone he helped develop around his driving style. The car was a dream for him because it was exactly the way he wanted it, none of his teammates were able to get truly comfortable in the same car.
When Michael came back with Mercedes some years later, he could never get the car to that point. It was a different generation car with different aero and he was never able to make it suit his style of driving to the point where he could extract that magic, he had before.
I remember driving the Zytek LMP that I raced in sports car racing for a number of years. It was such a great car for me, for my driving style. Unfortunately we never got a good result because we kept having mechanical issues. But I remember at Petit Le Mans one year, I un-lapped myself like three times against the Audis. We led the race and had a tire blow out, so we lost a lap and then got it back again and finished 2nd. We were in a different league, I could pass the Audi’s on the outside, inside, under braking.
The car was phenomenal. But the next year they made one small change to it in the front geometry to satisfy a new rule and it was never ever the same. We never got that perfect feel back. But that’s what can happen when a car or a rule set changes. You never find that perfect sweet spot again.
JT – The one exception to that tendency as far as drivers go could be Fernando Alonso. No matter the generation of car, he seems to be able to adapt his style and be competitive. It’s a shame that he seems to have mostly been in the wrong car at the wrong time.
SJ – Alonso is, maybe even today, the best driver. He’s exceptional. But for some reason he always seems to end up with the right team at the wrong time. Had he had a dominant car, it’s clear he would have won a lot more championships. But that is part of the package of being a great driver. There are maybe 1 or 2 drivers at the most in every generation that have the luxury of being able to choose what team to go with, and I think unfortunately he went the wrong direction a couple of times. If Lewis had stayed at McLaren when he went to Mercedes and everyone thought he was crazy at the time, he would obviously not have anything near the success he’s had. Ayrton was a little the same in that he missed the boat on going to Williams too late, Prost saw the potential before it was too late for Ayrton to make the move. There’s never been a World Champion that did not have the best car, so a huge portion of a drivers success is being able to choose the right team when they have the option to do so.
JT – One last bit of F1 news worth talking about is the reported behavior of some of the crowd at the Austrian Grand Prix. What’s your take?
SJ – I think it’s sort of the football crowd mentality. For better or worse Bernie [Ecclestone] always targeted a more exclusive, knowledgeable crowd for racing. Now there’s the Tik-Tok crowd who are F1 fans all of a sudden.
Unfortunately, there were probably only a handful of people who behaved badly but they brought down the whole experience for all of the genuine fans that went just to enjoy the race. There is always a small amount of knuckleheads in every crowd it seems. Unfortunately, those are also always the people we hear about if anything bad happens.