JT – It’s been a couple months since our last blog. Since then, racing has concluded for most international championships including Indycar where Scott Dixon’s Ganassi Racing teammate Alex Palou won a hard fought battle for the title. Formula 1 continues apace with just two grand prix remaining. The championship battle between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton is still intense with Hamilton having cut Verstappen’s lead to 8 points after his wins in Brazil and Qatar. What’s your take on the last two Grand Prix’s and the season-long competition between the two drivers?
SJ – Mercedes definitely had everything against them in Brazil and still managed to pull out a win which was quite impressive. Lewis had the bit between his teeth but obviously Mercedes’ recent developments have made some difference and both tracks seem to have suited their car. It’s quite interesting to follow how incredibly tight it is between Red Bull Racing and Mercedes GP. One weekend one car is stronger and the next, the other car seems to have an edge. I think it’s a great battle. The teams have definitely pulled out all the stops and Max and Lewis are obviously in a different league to the rest of the drivers as they’re fighting it out every weekend. This has become a battle for the record books with both teams and the two drivers giving it all they’ve got every race. Finally, we have a proper battle that will go down to the wire. F1 in general is definitely in a good place at the moment, it seems they have finally cracked the code in the US also. Liberty has done a great job promoting the series, on a microscale I can notice just meeting people here in Los Angeles that would never know what an F1 car is a few years ago, now they are all experts!! It’s great to see a similar enthusiasm here that people have had in Europe forever. Lewis has been at the top for many years now, really getting the most out of pretty much every situation and he just keeps getting better each year it seems, and Max has really stepped up this year to a point where he’s been pretty flawless too and is now ready to be World Champion if the opportunity is there.
JT – Unfortunately, the blocking we see in Formula 1 now applies to pretty much every driver on the grid. It’s frustrating to watch and to see that apparently the drivers think it’s acceptable.
SJ – I agree. I really don’t like it and I wish it didn’t have to be that way. Unfortunately, a couple of previous drivers set the precedent and it’s the norm now. In the past there didn’t even need to be a rule for blocking because it was never an issue, there was an unwritten moral code between all the drivers and everyone kind of knew how far you would take it. Of course, the consequences back then if there was contact were potentially far more severe than they are today and as such everybody drove with a different level of respect towards each other. Then along came Senna and moved the goal post for what was acceptable. Some years later Schumacher then took it to a whole new level and unfortunately, a whole new generation of drivers then copied this style of driving in the belief that this is how you must drive in order to be successful. One of the things I admire with Lewis is that he’s brought racing back to what I believe is a far more pure and fair way to race. He won’t give anyone an inch, but he never steps out of line and tries to take someone out or block purposely more than what is acceptable. What happened in Brazil is completely confusing to me, I can’t understand what the stewards where thinking, after having handed out silly penalties for the smallest and irrelevant incidents that has been incredibly frustrating for the drivers involved as well as the viewers for years. Then, all of a sudden, when we have one of the most blatant blocking moves I’ve seen in many years they decide to not even look at it…the level of inconsistency is becoming almost comical. Max didn’t even try to turn until he was already by the white line on the outside of the track, and if Lewis had not backed out and opened up his steering they would have crashed. A huge part of the problem is the design of the tracks, had there been a wall or a gravel trap instead of the huge run off area this would of course never have happened. I wish there could be a way to redesign all the tracks where the track itself would punish drivers for stepping out of line instead of these random and incredibly inconsistent penalties or no penalties for track limits, the slightest contact, blocking etc. Get rid of these football field runoff areas that completely ruin the racing. The drivers should be able to race freely and if they screw up their day is over. This could absolutely get done without putting anyone at more risk than what is currently the case.
JT – Do you think F1 could mitigate some of the blocking by simply getting rid of the Drag Reduction Systems the cars have run for several years now? DRS makes passing without effort so inevitable in many circumstances that I wonder if it has exacerbated the tendency of drivers to try to block those who get a run on them. What do you think?
SJ – It’s been an issue ever since F1 came up with the DRS which is just a massive band-aid to try to make the racing more interesting. But of course it doesn’t make it more interesting in the end because it’s just too easy to pass in most cases with the rear wing wide open and it’s obvious to everyone. There is no strategy involved as you’re free to deploy the DRS as many times as you like as long as you’re within a 1 second range from the car in front. I still think Indycar’s “push-to-pass” system is one of the best alternatives. Drivers get X amount of time per race distance – a set number of seconds of push-to-pass - and it’s up to them how they want to distribute for the duration of the race. You can then use the extra power to overtake or to defend. Sooner or later you’re going to run out though. It’s not unlimited like DRS effectively is. So, it’s up to the driver how to save and when to use it. If you start at the back of the grid you might use push-to-pass a lot more than if you start up front. You could use it all up by half distance but maybe you improve your position quite a lot by using it. It’s tactical and strategic. The viewer can also see how much push-to-pass a driver uses and how much he has left. That adds another element to the racing that fans can follow.
JT – An interesting and potentially frustrating thing to consider is how the tires Pirelli has been producing for the last several years has severely limited the amount of racing F1 fans get to see. For the past few seasons all of the drivers have spent the largest part of the races lifting and coasting - merely lapping, not racing - at a reduced pace to try and save their tires over the course of a stint. Because the tires are so sensitive to changes in temperature in particular, the drivers can only really push for two or three laps at a time. Otherwise they destroy the tires and their grip falls off a cliff. Moreover, what affect might this kind of tire performance – or lack thereof – have on the new cars that will debut next season? Even if the changes to the cars aerodynamically somehow magically pay off – a tall order indeed – they could be made irrelevant by tires that only allow the cars to achieve their performance potential for two or three laps at a time. The reality is, fans get to see very little racing in F1. And if the tires aren’t significantly changed, they still may not get to see much racing next year.
SJ – I couldn’t agree with you more. The whole tire situation has become a complete nightmare. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on all the development of the cars and engines and then they spend most of the race driving at 80%, it makes no sense to me. If the drivers can’t utilize the equipment that the engineers, mechanics and team members – literally thousands of people at the big teams – work on relentlessly because the performance of the cars is being dictated by tires, which ironically is probably one of the cheapest components on the car, that can’t last over the course of a stint at actual race pace, then what’s the point? I think the best thing that could happen to Formula 1 is another tire war. That would force the tire manufacturers to make a good tire, a tire that can last all through a stint or a race distance or that they can drive flat out on for however many laps or whatever strategy works best on a weekend. The manufacturers would soon figure out which construction and compounds are the best way to go. One tire would be better in qualifying and the other might have a better race tire, it would help to shake up the grid and each of the manufacturers would pour money into the series both on development and marketing. If there were more than one manufacturer the laptimes would drop by probably 5 seconds within the first year and probably a lot more as time goes by, which would mean they could limit the amount of downforce the cars would carry which in turn would help the racing as it’s far easier to follow and pass a car with a lot of tire grip rather than aero grip which is currently the case. The bottom line is if the tires don’t change or improve, then the changes to the cars for next year may not make a lot of difference either. And even with all the new changes coming for next year, I’ve never driven an aero-dependent car that does not get affected by the car in front of it. The new cars are going to have these tunnels and everything else –Ross, Pat and the rest of the technical team are all incredibly competent people and I really hope they have got it figured out this time.
JT – In off-track F1 news, Michael Andretti’s effort to buy a controlling interest in the Sauber-Alfa Romeo F1 team fell through late last month when a deal between Sauber’s ownership and Andretti could not be reached. F1’s owner, Liberty Media was said to be enthusiastic about having another American team (and potentially an American driver, Colton Herta) join F1. Andretti has said that finances were not an issue and that the special acquisition company or SPAC he had stood up to purchase Sauber had the capital needed to make the buy. He said ultimately Sauber’s owners did not want to turn over control of the team to Andretti. What do you make of the situation?
SJ – It’s been interesting to follow. I don’t know any of the details but they said they wouldn’t have gotten enough control and that may be the case. But whatever the number was for buying the team or buying into it, assuming it was somewhere in the $250 million range as that is normally what a SPAC requires, one thing is certain, the easiest part of buying a Formula 1 team is the purchase. Once you’ve got the tiger by the tail, that’s when the fun starts. You’ve got to feed that beast with millions and millions of dollars every week. That’s not for the faint of heart. It takes a serious commitment over a long period of time. Whatever the details were it didn’t work out.
JT – The battle for third and fourth in the constructor’s championship between McLaren and Ferrari has been overshadowed by the Hamilton/Verstappen fight for the driver’s championship but it’s being hotly contested as well. Until the Russian GP, McLaren had the edge but since then, Ferrari has come back, now more than 30 points clear of McLaren. Still, McLaren seems to be continuing to show improvement.
SJ – They’ve obviously made a massive step forward from the depths of despair they were in a few years ago. Their recovery has been quite impressive. Ferrari has obviously raised their performance quite significantly too in the last several races. But I think McLaren as a whole, the F1 team and the rest of the company, has been doing a great job. They’re involved in a lot more business activities and different racing series now and they’re doing pretty well everywhere they go. Zak’s [Brown] obviously made some good decisions. And it’s the people they’ve hired that are the key.
JT – Turning to Indycar, now that the season has concluded how does Scott Dixon look back on it? He finished 4th in the championship standings but was in the championship battle throughout the season. However, for the first time in quite a while he wasn’t Ganassi Racing’s leading point scorer or race winner. Teammates Alex Palou and Marcus Ericsson scored three and two wins respectively to Scott’s single victory. And of course Palou won the series championship.
SJ – It was obviously a frustrating year for him. The Indy 500 was the one race that really had the biggest effect on his championship. I think this year more than ever before his car was so fast and he was so fast. Had everything gone the way it should have at Indy – but of course it never does – it would have made a huge difference. It’s a double-point race so his finish (Scott finished 17th) really put him behind. Then he had a bad series of races after that – four races in a row where strategy and circumstances went completely the wrong way for him. There were races where he went from being in the top three and looking good on strategy to win the race to then something happens, completely out if his control, that turns things upside down. There were races where you had guys running in like 15th or 18th place, nowhere close to being in contact with the front and the race just fell in their lap and they end up winning the race. But that’s Indycar and that’s how it goes sometimes. It’s something you don’t always have control over. Palou obviously did a great job all year. He’s very methodical and calm as well as being very quick and he drove well all year. I think it’s a very strong combination with the two of them in the same team and I think it will help the team tremendously with the two pushing each other for next year also.
JT – It seems that to win a championship in Indycar now you need to finish in the top-five consistently. It’s that competitive. For instance, over the 16-race schedule, Palou finished out of the top five on only six occasions. And on two of those six occasions he finished 7th.
SJ – The field has tightened up so much that you have to be finishing that well. Before, you could get away with not being up front in several races but now it’s such a fight that you have to be in the top five probably to really be in the hunt. You need that consistency.
JT – Next season Kyle Kirkwood will drive for A.J. Foyt Racing, replacing Sebastian Bourdais in the No. 14 and Devlin DeFrancesco will drive the Andretti-Steinbrenner No. 29, replacing James Hinchliffe, will join the series. David Malukas, who finished second behind Kirkwood in the 2021 Indy Lights championship, looks likely to be racing next year as well. All three seem to be fast already in testing and I suppose they could make the grid even more competitive. SJ – Kirkwood has won everything he’s been in so far so it’s going to be interesting to see how he performs in Indycar. I don’t know as much about DeFrancesco or Malukas but they’re all talented, no question. But when you get to the top level it’s a different experience. You don’t really know how good a driver is until they’re in the thick of it. In Indycar, every guy out there is as good as you are. In the junior categories – Indy Lights, F2 or F3 for example – you only really need to beat three or maybe four guys in any season. The rest are sort of there but not quite. Once you reach a top series like F1 or Indycar there’s a constant battle trying to improve yourself – with your engineer, your team, all the toys and tools a team’s resources will give you. You need every little bit you can gain in every area. If you’re a tenth off in qualifying now in Indycar, that’s ten positions at some places, whereas in the past if you were a second off the pace that was ten positions. To get into the top six in qualifying now is a battle on its own. There are so many details to getting it right, from how you get the tires to come in to finding the right set-up combination with your engineer. If you join a team that rolls a car off the truck with the right stuff to be fast immediately, that’s one thing. But if you’re struggling a bit on the set-up side, or whatever, that has an effect on you sooner or later. That’s when you start doubting yourself or the team and you start over-driving. Then it’s this or that putting you behind and you start to lose that natural flow you have which has been your advantage in all of the junior categories. When that’s not working all of a sudden it starts playing with you mentally. You gamble on set-up to try to find that extra few tenths. But when you start gambling on set-up it may work one time in ten and the rest of the time you’re going to go even slower. It gets to be a spiral and it’s very hard to stop. It’s also a situation where now the difference between the best teams in Indycar and the worst teams is so small. That’s where the series has done such a great job on the sporting side with the rules. It’s pretty much as good as it’s going to get.
JT – Switching gears, you were on hand at Laguna Seca last weekend for the Velocity Invitational vintage racing event. You had the chance to get behind the wheel of one of the Porsche 917s in the exhibition group. Obviously you have tons of experience with the later Porsche 956 and 962 prototypes. What was it like to drive the 917?
SJ – It was a great event. The main reason for me being there this time was to show a full collection of my art to the general public, I had 35 paintings on display over the weekend.
I’d never driven the 917 before. I didn’t push very hard obviously because it was just an exhibition but the car felt incredibly nimble and light. It has no aero really so you feel the car more and it’s not as twitchy and nervous like an aero-dependent car is before you have full grip.
It was fun. I really enjoyed it. The engine was fabulous with really good grunt even though the car has only a four-speed gearbox it had a good power band.
And then, 5 minutes later I got to drive the 1955 Mercedes 300SL, the same car Stirling Moss won the Targa Florio in, it was a totally surreal experience to drive two of the most iconic cars in racing history within a 15-minute time span!