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#117 - Miami GP coming up...

#117 - Miami GP coming up...

JT – The 2022 Formula 1 and Indy Car seasons had yet to get underway when we last chatted for the blog. Four grand prix have now been raced in F1 as well as the first four races on the Indy Car calendar. Beginning with F1, the first races seem to have confirmed that cars can follow each other more closely. That has arguably made the racing a bit better although many would observe that any time there’s a new rules package as there is for 2022, the status quo is disturbed and the racing is more interesting for a period of time. Nevertheless, there does seem to have been some more passing, albeit aided by DRS which may actually be too powerful now, making many of the passes a foregone conclusion. And at the front, two out of the four rounds were led from the green flag to the checkered flag by the winning driver. What are your thoughts on the new rules and the racing so far?


         Image: Eurosport

SJ – Clearly, they’ve made improvements in the cars being able to follow each other which was the intent of the new rules, so I think they did a good job with that overall. I quite like the look of the new cars too, compared to the most recent versions at least. But it looks like we’re almost at a point now where the DRS has just become a tactic and unless you use it at the right point on the track it works against you. As we saw in the first two races with Leclerc and Verstappen, both drivers held off on passing each other at different points so that they would get the DRS at the right place on track. They actually let the other guy lead until they were sure they could use the DRS in the right spot. I think it’s become a burden on the outcome of the races because drivers are now playing the tactic of when and when not to use the DRS. Instead of out-braking each other they’re doing something else... It’s like you want to brake as early as possible so you don’t pass the guy in front of you going into a corner. Otherwise he passes you right back down the next straight. It’s weird to watch and obviously defeats the object of the exercise to some degree. The way the DRS is deployed, there’s no way for the leading driver to defend or race with the guy trying to pass. You just can’t keep them behind you. So, it’s critical to be in the right place when you deploy.

JT – Interestingly at the most recent grand prix at Imola, the first part of the race was run in wet to partially-wet conditions and thus, DRS was not activated. But there were still a couple of passes made and they were much more interesting battles to watch than one driver simply sailing by another with their rear wing open.

SJ – Obviously it depends on the track but I think it’s at a point now with the new aero packages and the DRS where it would be at least worth trying a race where no DRS was available. The racing would be so much better if drivers had to figure out how to pass a guy in front instead of just having the rear wing open up. You might not get as many passes but I don’t think more passing always makes it better. A real battle between two guys where one outfoxes the other is great. That’s what you used to have to do. You had to use all of your skill and cunning and every trick in the box to figure out a way to pass the guy. That could last 30 laps but eventually, if you kept at it, the driver in front would eventually crack and make a small mistake and you could get by. I think F1 is at least at the point now where there could be less DRS, where the difference between a car with DRS and one with the rear wing closed could be half what it is now. Maybe meet in the middle somewhere.

JT – One of the other things complicating the racing is a side effect of the new ground effects aero-package. Most of the cars are porpoising now as they gain speed on straights and approach corners. Some, like Mercedes, are more affected than others. The teams seem to think it’s a novel situation but as you point out, this has been seen before in F1.

SJ - The cars are obviously a nightmare to drive with all the porpoising, but it makes me laugh in a way because as I came into F1 in the 1980s, that was the era when the ground effects cars were still there. We had the same problems then as they do now. Porpoising was always a problem. It seems strange to me that there was no prior on track testing done with some kind of mule car to see what the characteristics of the ground effects car would be considering how drastic this rule change was. I don’t know what made F1 think the cars suddenly weren’t going to porpoise when the basic concept is the same, where the whole underbody serves as a big wing basically. Interestingly, good old Rory Bryne (ex-Benetton and Ferrari designer during the Michael Schumacher era) who’s in his 70s now and lives down in Thailand still consults with Ferrari and is in very close contact with them. He and [Adrian] Newey may be the only designers still around from that era and while all the teams have been complaining about the porpoising, When the team brought it up, Byrne said, “Well, yeah I kind of expected that might happen, but we used to do this and that and the other, and it seemed to help a bit.” Who knows if that helped or not in this case, but Rory is in my opinion one of the best designers in F1 history and never got anywhere near the credit he deserved for all the championship winning cars he was involved with. The development rate for the teams is going to be insane until the end of the season and I think they’ll get the porpoising figured out quite soon. One thing they’re extremely good at in F1 is solving any big problems very quickly. At least in this early part of the season it’s been great to see that both Haas and Alfa Romeo have been near the front. But you can sort of see already that the front runners may be moving further away from them even with the first batches of development parts that showed up in Imola.

JT – Are you surprised by Mercedes’ struggles with their car so far?

SJ – Yes, I guess how wrong Mercedes got it is the big surprise so far. It’s a pretty radical concept and if they can make it work it will probably be incredible, the question is how long they are prepared to stick with it until they switch to plan B and abandon the whole idea and go with something that is more conventional. I think one of the advantages a team like Ferrari had coming into this year is that they obviously gave up on developing their cars last year very early because they were so far out of the championship battle. Ferrari probably started on this year’s car way earlier than anyone else or put more effort into this year’s car throughout last season. But total respect to them because as bad as they’ve looked the last two years, to come out and blow the doors off everybody in the first couple of races is pretty impressive. Plus, their car is just gorgeous, the best-looking car on the grid I think.

JT – Do you think the significant amount of people Red Bull was able to hire away from Mercedes affected them?

SJ – At some point it’s got to have an effect. Mercedes obviously has a massive talent pool but you’re going to feel the pain at some point. Still, as it always is in racing, it’s never one thing. It’s a combination of several small developments that eventually make a huge difference. You can see it in Indy Car where even though all the teams run the same cars, Penske and Ganassi will take one item, something you may not even notice, and refine it. Then they do the same with some other small thing and you add it all up and it makes quite a difference. For Red Bull, there’s no question that having Newey is an advantage. I think he’s still very much on top of things and their car looks very good. I have a feeling that over the course of the year they will get better and better. I still have my money on Verstappen winning the championship. Like I said at the end of last year, this is the start of a 5-10-year Red Bull/Verstappen domination.

JT – Apparently F1 fans have been pretty enthusiastic about the sprint race format that we saw at Imola and F1 teams are generally supportive. Liberty Media has three sprint races scheduled for 2022 and proposed as many as six for 2023. But the FIA is opposed to the idea and basically killed that expansion at a recent meeting of the F1 commission. What’s your take on the sprint races?

SJ – I’m kind of neither here nor there to be honest when it comes to the sprint races. I don’t find them that interesting and for the points available, no one’s going to put it on the line. There’s the usual incident at the start as a few people get tangled up but aside from that no one’s really risking a lot to win them. Obviously, if they had a sprint race at Monaco, that’s different. The drivers would do whatever they could to get on pole because it’s so likely that you’ll win the race if you start on the pole. But otherwise I don’t think the sprint races make for a lot of action.

 Photo credit: Sky Sports

 

JT – Some teams have a lot of catching up to do in terms of their pace under the 2022 rules. Surprisingly, McLaren is one of them. Lando Norris was able to score a podium at Imola but otherwise the team has struggled to match other outfits that have been well adrift of it in recent seasons. What’s your take on McLaren?

SJ – They were surprisingly strong at Imola which is interesting considering how much they’ve struggled before then, but it’s quite possible they had a major breakthrough with some of the new parts they brought to Imola. Apart from Ferrari and Red Bull, at every race so far there has been a different team that has been really quick even if they were nowhere before. I think it’s just part of what we’ll see with a rapid rate of development until the end of the season. The big breakthroughs are going to come for almost every team going forward until they get to the point where there’s saturation in development and then it gets down to the details. But I think with this new aero package there are still so many things for all the teams to understand.

JT – The upcoming Miami Grand Prix is brand new for F1, the series’ second race in America along with the existing race at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas. Next year there will be a third round in the U.S. with the addition of the Las Vegas Grand Prix. What are your thoughts on Miami and a trio of races here in 2023?

SJ – I think Miami will be fantastic. Formula 1 is really on fire now. It’s unbelievable how popular it’s become especially here in the U.S. I never in a million years thought a TV show (“Drive to Survive”, Netflix) would make such a big difference but it’s elevated the series to a whole different level. The amount of people I see daily now who are just addicted to Formula 1 is amazing. And they didn’t even know what F1 was two years ago. It’s great for motorsport in general because it helps everything. Indy Car is on a big upswing too - not for the same reasons - but just the general trajectory is brilliant. I think the energy and the buzz around Miami will be phenomenal. No one knows what the race will be like but they seem to have done a pretty good job with the track. Apex (Apex Circuit Design), I did a little work with them a few years ago on a couple of track projects and they’re really good guys. They know what they’re doing and hopefully the track will at least be a departure from the Tilke (designer Hermann Tilke) tracks. We will find out very shortly if they got it right or not. And then Vegas will be crazy, I’m sure. It’s all positive. It’s exactly what we need. We’ve only really had one crown jewel before in F1 - Monaco. These two races are both going to be huge. Austin was already big last year. But the advantage with the new races is that they’re in the cities, Miami and Vegas. That’s the way to go. We all know that. Abu Dhabi has turned into a great race and Singapore has always been fantastic so F1 now has some really great venues. You have to say that Liberty [Media] has figured it out and taken the series to a whole new level. And the crowds Indy Car is getting are great too. St. Pete (the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg) was sold out and Long Beach (Long Beach Grand Prix) had the biggest crowd it’s had in years. It’s exciting. All of this is going in the right direction.

JT – VW Group looks likely to enter F1 in 2026 with Porsche and Audi possibly. But both brands have publicly stated that they won’t fully commit until they see what the new regulations for 2026 look like. Obviously, F1 would like to have two more manufacturers on the grid. Do you think Porsche and Audi are looking for leverage with regard to the regulations?

SJ – I’m sure there’s some jockeying there. There always is. I’m sure they want to test the water a little bit and see how much their influence weighs in the scheme of things. That’s where the FIA and Formula 1 really need to be strong. I think they can be stronger than ever now because it’s clear that the value of the teams is climbing just from the increased interest in F1. Every day there’s another team that wants to join the series - from Andretti to car manufacturers to rich guys.

JT – There have been comments from some of the existing teams expressing concern that Porsche and Audi might share knowledge and resources, not operating as truly separate manufacturers. Do you think that concern is warranted?

SJ – If their sports car project (Audi and Porsche raced against each other in the WEC between 2014 and 2016 in prototypes) is anything to go by I’d say there’s no problem. There was no sharing between those two in the WEC. They were very competitive internally.

 

JT – Another commercial trend in F1 that you’ve observed is increasing sponsorship from crypto-currency businesses.

SJ – Every single team apart from Haas is now sponsored by a crypto-currency company and it’s not small money. They’re all pretty serious sponsors. I think the crypto firms are turning into the new tobacco sponsors – like the cigarette companies the series had sponsorship from years ago for about three decades. It’s serious involvement and I think it’s going to get bigger and bigger.

JT – Turning to Indy Car, Scott Dixon just raced to a 5th place finish at the Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park. He finished 8th at the season opener in St. Pete, 5th on the oval at Texas and 6th at Long Beach. His finishes have been solid but he’s yet to score a podium. It looks like the competition in Indy Car has gone up yet another notch. Scott and the Ganassi team are being pushed hard it seems.

SJ – Indy Car is always great racing but the level of competition amongst all the teams and drivers is just off the charts. Almost every single car has a shot of winning. You can see it in qualifying too. It’s just brutal. You can’t leave anything on the table anymore. At St. Pete, Scott and the team went for the alternative strategy, stopping early, which proved to not work out in this case. But even so, in a typical year in the past, he would have still recovered to a podium. This year all he could do was 8th. That’s the difference. On a bad day in the past, Scott was never worse than 5th. But there are just so many more really good drivers and cars now. You have to be on top of it every weekend. Any little issue is magnified now more than ever.

JT – The month of May at Indy is almost upon us, and everyone will be pushing hard. Penske has looked strong at every race so far with Scott McLaughlin winning at St. Pete followed by two wins for Josef Newgarden at Texas and Long Beach. And while Penke’s performance wasn’t as stout at Alabama, Will Power still scored a 4th place finish ahead of Scott with McLaughlin just behind in 6th.

SJ – Yes, Penske has been strong at every race. I think they’re obviously doing a good job, but it also looks like the Chevrolets are a bit stronger too this year comparatively. That’s going to show at Indy I think. It’ll be interesting to see and I’m sure there will be a record crowd for the 500 this year.

JT – In other news your artwork is getting lots of attention and not all of it is on a traditional canvas.

SJ – Yes, it’s starting to gain some good traction now. I’m doing a show here in Santa Monica that’s going to run for a full year in a place called the Water Garden. I will have one building for my art and I will exhibit six paintings, all quite large-scale portraits from the series I call “Friends, Heroes and Wankers”. It’s quite a prestigious exhibit here that has been running for years. Then I’m flying to Sweden next week to do a show there that’s going to have 14 paintings in it. And then I’m working on some very cool merchandise that will have my art incorporated in the design. Last year I designed a couple wraps for Porsches racing in Porsche Cup. And I’m currently working on doing some cars running at this year’s Le Mans in different colors with my art wrapped on the cars for the race. We will make an announcement soon on that project. All very exciting stuff!

#116 -Masi out, Freitas and Wittich in

#116 -Masi out, Freitas and Wittich in

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.

#115 - Season Finale

#115 - Season Finale

JT – The season finale, the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix was set to be a battle between Red Bull’s Max Verstappen and Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton for the championship.  Max Verstappen ended up winning the world title on the last lap of the race, overtaking Hamilton in the wake of a safety car to win the grand prix.

On lap 53, Williams’ Nicholas Latifi crashed bringing out the safety car. Hamilton stayed out without pitting, while Verstappen pitted behind him for a fresh set of soft tires. Following Verstappen's pit stop, he remained in second place with five lapped cars - Lando Norris, Fernando Alonso, Esteban Ocon, Charles Leclerc, and Sebastian Vettel - between himself and leader Hamilton. Lapped drivers were initially informed that they would not be permitted to overtake during the safety car. On lap 57, Red Bull team principal Christian Horner asked race director Michael Masi why the lapped cars were not instructed to overtake. Masi then directed that only the five cars between Hamilton and Verstappen were to un-lap themselves.

Just after Vettel passed the safety car to join the lead lap, race control announced the safety car would enter the pits at the end of the lap to allow for a final lap of green-flag racing, leading to angry radio comments from Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff.

Much has been made of Masi’s decision to allow the lapped cars to overtake the leader and put Max right behind Lewis on new, soft tires with the restart taking place on the penultimate lap. Fans are divided on the outcome and Mercedes protested the decisions made by Masi. But the result stands. What’s your take on the race?

SJ – First, I guess it’s positive for F1 that everyone is chiming in, that there’s so much passion for either side, Lewis or Max. Whether it’s intentional or not, the entertainment value of this controversy has gone through the roof.

But I think there has to be a balance somewhere because the decisions Masi made make no sense on any level. His decision completely ignored any level of common sense as to what would have been a fair way to handle the situation.

The only way it should have been done was by doing what you’d normally do and indeed what he did in the race prior. As soon as they deployed the safety car with five laps to go they should have red flagged the race. That’s the only way to keep it level and keep the excitement until the end. You would have had everyone come into the pits while they clear the track, put new tires on and go from there like they did at the Saudi Grand Prix when Red Bull rebuilt half their car and put new tires on.

Had that been done you could have had a fair five-lap shootout for the championship. Making the decisions he did and then changing his mind completely at the very last moment absolutely handed the race on a plate to Max and Red Bull after Lewis had done a flawless race. He did everything he had to do to secure the championship, including making a perfect start.

I did some interviews before the race where people were asking me to predict the results, and my comments were that I hoped I would be wrong, but my prediction was that the race would not be decided between the drivers but rather by race control, making yet another random call, as we have now seen far too often in the past seasons. This last race was just the culmination of a series of incredibly bad calls that somehow seem to have escalated as the year went on.

 

I appreciate that race control is under a huge amount of pressure and the decisions must be made within a very short time frame, but the job of being race director is not for the faint of heart and it obviously takes a pretty special character, with a deep understanding of the dynamics of racing both from a driver’s perspective and from a team perspective. I don’t know much about the background of Masi, but it’s clear to me that he lacks a fundamental understanding of the basic dynamics of wheel-to-wheel racing and what is acceptable as far as racing lines go. Some of the moves in the past four races were disturbing and it’s hard to watch this happening in F1, which is meant to be the pinnacle of Motor Sports. Charlie [Whiting] (ex-race director) had been around the block a few times and knew every trick in the book, there’s just no way he would have allowed things to escalate to the point where we are now where every race seems to end up in controversy of some kind.

With that in mind, the way Lewis drove the last four races, basically not putting a foot out of line and maximizing every situation, including having the discipline and patience to avoid any altercations with Max, of which there was obviously plenty of opportunity to do so, and then basically have the title taken away from him on the very last lap is gut wrenching. The way he handled it in the aftermath is even more impressive and I think it shows his real character both in and out of the car. I read this quote many years ago and I always kept it to remind myself at times when things may not have gone the way I felt was fair at the time. “Sports do not build character, they reveal it”. I think the last four races absolutely highlighted this. Like I have mentioned many times in the past, win or lose, I really admire the way Lewis has brought the purity and fairness but hard racing back, I just hope that more of the new generation of drivers coming up will try to emulate that style of driving, it’s a lot harder to be successful doing it the right way rather than driving dirty. Blocking is easy and pushing someone off the track is easy, anyone can do that.

In the end, I think both Max and Lewis deserved to win the title this year, they both drove at such a high level and both their teams operated at equally high levels, and it would have been such an incredible ending to the year to have it decided fair and square on the racetrack. Instead, we now have this endless controversy and polarization. I’m sure the folks at Liberty are not complaining as this has lifted F1 to a whole new level in terms of people following.

But, if this is the direction it will continue, where the entertainment comes before the sport, I think we’re getting into a very dangerous territory, I would hate to see F1 turning into the Motorsports version of the WWF, where it’s just a show and the sport is secondary to the entertainment. The Netflix show has obviously helped lift the profile of F1 immensely, especially in the US. I know how many of the teams and drivers feel about, but you still can’t deny the impact it’s had. Personally, I had to tune out after 15 minutes. I think it’s important to find a good balance going forward, I appreciate social media and marketing from every possible angle is important, but I would hate to see the drivers turning into some sort of comedians and clowns rather than brave young men doing their thing on Sunday afternoons.

The other thing I’m totally perplexed about is what happened in the Saudi race, where race control is suddenly starting a negotiation with the teams during a safety car period, where did that come from! I’ve never in all my years of racing in just about every category worth mentioning ever seen that happen before. I didn’t know that was even possible, or legal for that matter. The only logical answer to me is that there may be pressure from above to spice up the show, which may also explain the equally illogical decision to finish the race the way they did in Abu Dhabi.

JT – The FIA has stated that it will set up a commission to look into the decisions made at Abu Dhabi. That doesn’t seem to hold much promise for reforming the rules or at least requiring consistency in their enforcement. Do you think the drivers could somehow enforce a code of driving standards among themselves?

SJ – The issue we have right now on track is that Max has taken the Senna playbook and the Schumacher playbook to a whole new level. Generally, I think there’s a good code of conduct between the drivers. Most of the current crop of the new generation of drivers are racing very clean but hard, there’s been some really great battles this year but they’re not at the front and therefore it goes un-noticed for the most part. No one cares about the guys in fifth or sixth place.

I don’t have a lot of optimism for the changes from the officials. Every year decisions about driving standards and enforcement are getting worse, more and more muddy with more grey areas. If Max can get away with what he’s gotten away with in certain cases this year, then like Leclerc said, ‘Ok, fine. If that’s how we’re going to race, then that’s how we have to race.’

However, a lot of these incidents would automatically be avoided if they changed the design of the tracks and got rid of the huge run off areas, we currently have on nearly all the tracks. This sanitization of the tracks has brought on more problems than the one’s they were trying to solve in the first place. It’s ironic that we don’t seem to have anywhere near the number of incidents in Monaco for example, where the track limit is basically the guardrail. If the drivers know where the limit is, they will obviously stay within that limit, because if you go past, it you will end up in the guardrail and your day is over. But when you have a run off area the size of two football fields, and no clear rule of what is or is not allowed it becomes a complete joke. Seemingly it’s ok for anyone to go past the track limit on the starts for example, likewise it seems ok to not even attempt to turn until you’re actually on the white line or even past it, when you’re fighting for position. It’s then up to the guys in race control to decide what is right or wrong. It’s a horribly flawed system and there must be a way to avoid this going forward.

Anything except the asphalt that is currently used would be better in my opinion, whether it’s grass, gravel or anything that would actually slow the car down enough to force the driver to lift in order to get back on the track again, or risk damaging the car and he won’t be able to continue. 80% of all the incidents race control has to get involved with at the moment would automatically be avoided.

The drivers will always go to the limit of what is possible, and the way the tracks are currently designed is an open invitation for trouble. None of the drivers have a clear understanding of the rules, even less so the people in race control it seems. It’s frustrating and annoying for everyone involved and could be fixed very easily.

Interestingly, we seem to have similar complaints from the MotoGP people now, where the large run off areas have done nothing to solve the safety issues, if anything, it’s made it worse. I think it’s time for a drastic rethink of the track designs in general and especially the run off areas that are currently being implemented.

 

JT – Taking Indycar as an alternate example, it’s a top level open wheel series that races not only on road and street courses but on ovals as well with competition that’s unheard of in Formula 1. And yet, there are relatively few controversies about penalties or driving standards in Indycar and certainly none that rise to the level of those we saw in Formula 1 this season or in recent seasons. That suggests that F1 could do a far better job than they have been on race direction and rules.

SJ – I agree and with the right team in race direction I don’t think there should be a problem, even in F1. One of the differences in Indycar is that they always have the same team at every race, the ex-driver stewards are Max Papis and Arie Luyendik, both are well respected and obviously know what they’re doing. By having the same guys in race control for many years now, there is a level of consistency, and all the drivers know more or less what to expect. The other factor that eliminates the interference from race control is exactly the point I brought up before, where the nature of the tracks takes care of most of the problems F1 is dealing with. If you put a wheel off the track, you will get punished immediately as there is no grip once you leave the track limit, it’s either grass or gravel or a dip that’s big enough to force you to lift to avoid a spin, and by doing that you will run the risk of losing position or at least a few tenths in lap time which you will then have to work hard to get back.

JT – If you separate results from the controversy in F1 this year, it stacks up this way for Hamilton vs. Verstappen. Poles – Max 10, Lewis 5. Wins – Max 10, Lewis 8. Podiums – Max 18, Lewis 17. Laps led – Max 652, Lewis 297. Fastest laps – Max 6, Lewis 6. DNFs – Max 3, Lewis 1.

SJ – Like I said earlier, Max deserves the title as much as Lewis, or the other way around. They both were spectacularly good this year in how they raised their game. It was incredible to watch, to see how deep both of them dug in to do what they did.

If you had asked me halfway through the year, I’d have said Max was going to win the championship hands down. Red Bull clearly started the season with a superior car. They were well ahead at the beginning of the year. It was only through a bit of cunning race craft, some bad luck for Red Bull and Mercedes playing strategy better that Lewis got some big points early on, points maybe they shouldn’t have gotten.

Obviously, Mercedes was able to get the car working better and better, certainly in the last third of the season. And I think Lewis was spectacular in the last four races. If he had won the title it may have been the first time I can recall that the best car didn’t necessarily win.

When McLaren and Honda went separate ways and Honda went to Red Bull, I said that Max, Honda and Red Bull would dominate sooner or later… maybe for the next 10 years. I think we’re seeing the start of that now. Max won the Championship in his first real attempt, where he had a car that gave him the opportunity to win, this should worry the rest of the field as he will only get better and better, and he’s got at least a ten-year runway to get it done. I believe this is the start of a new era.

I just wish this season could have been decided in a fair way. I’ve had messages from so many people within the racing industry and they mostly say that was the last F1 race they’ll ever watch. We all love the sport but it’s hard to get enthusiastic when stupid things like this keep happening. There is a definite split though, the people watching that are more fans than actually in the business, they all loved the way it finished, and all the people that’s in the business are really upset and are all talking about tuning out and not bother watching anymore. From the point of view of Liberty, I think it’s quite clear who the winner of the two will be, I just hope there will be a sensible balance going forward.

JT – Though it was overshadowed by the battle between Max/Red Bull and Lewis/Mercedes, McLaren and Ferrari fought all year to be best of the rest. It looked as if McLaren would finish third in the constructors championship but they faltered near the end of the season and Ferrari overtook them. Behind them a fairly large group of closely-matched midfield teams scrapped over the other positions. With new rules for 2022, it seems doubtful that the grid will be as close next year performance-wise as it was this year. Do you agree?

SJ – The midfield was certainly bigger this year than it has been for a long time. There are quite a few cars that, when they get it right on the day, can be up there. We saw this with both McLaren and Alpine who won a race each when all the stars lined up perfectly for them.

Had the rules remained the same for next season, I think the grid would be even tighter. I keep saying it but the easiest way to even up the field and get close racing is rules stability. Eventually the smaller, less well-resourced teams will catch up. We’ve seen that many times over the years. But as soon as the rules change, you’ll have one, maybe two teams that have the resources and talent to get it right out of the gate.  The rest spend the next three years catching up again.

I’m worried we’re going to have the same scenario again. My gut tells me that with the drastic changes in aerodynamics for next season Red Bull will probably be the team that gets closest to where it needs to be the fastest. 

#114 - Stefan in the 917, Max and Lewis and more!

#114 - Stefan in the 917, Max and Lewis and more!

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!







#113 -Belgian GP, Kimi's retirement and thoughts on the rest of the Indycar season. And some more...

#113 -Belgian GP, Kimi's retirement and thoughts on the rest of the Indycar season. And some more...

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.

 

Photo: WR12

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.

 

Photo: Mike Dinovo

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.