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SJ Blog #108 - July 17, 2020. 

JT – We last chatted for the blog in early 2020, before the coronavirus pandemic brought racing and many other activities in the world to a halt. For most of two months there was no live racing, just virtual competition on gaming platforms among gamers and professional racers. Then in mid-May, NASCAR became the first series to go back to the track, racing at Darlington without a crowd successfully.

Indycar resumed racing in early June at Texas Motor Speedway, again without spectators but with a largely successful and smooth return to live racing. At the beginning of July, Formula 1 finally got underway for 2020 with the Austrian Grand Prix. The series also raced with no crowd on hand.

On track, the Austrian GP was less polished than one might have expected. Despite months to prepare for the first event of the year, nearly half the grid failed to finish the race with just 11 cars running at the checkered flag. Mercedes was absolutely dominant, having a large pace advantage on every other team in the field. Valtteri Bottas won the race with Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc and McLaren’s Lando Norris finishing a surprise second and third respectively. A clash between Lewis Hamilton and Red Bull’s Alex Albon sent the Red Bull driver spinning and led to a penalty for Hamilton who finished fourth.

Mechanical/electric failure struck Max Verstappen’s Red Bull early on while he was running in second position. Thereafter, Bottas and Hamilton ran away from the field. Two safety cars to retrieve Kevin Magnussen’s Haas and George Russell’s Williams were the only reason the field tightened near the finish. From car failures to contact between Hamilton and Albon, F1’s return to racing seemed rusty compared to the opening races for Indycar and NASCAR.

Last weekend, part two of the double-header at the Red Bull Ring took place, the Styrian Grand Prix. Once again Mercedes was dominant, with Lewis Hamilton winning by a wide margin from the pole and Valtteri Bottas finishing in 2nd place after starting 4th. Ferrari had an embarrassing performance when Charles Leclerc ran into Sebastian Vettel at Turn 3 on the opening lap, eliminating both cars from the race – this after Ferrari had rushed updates to the cars for the Stryian GP. Max Verstappen tried to hold second place as the race wound down but never stood a chance of holding off Bottas with his much faster Mercedes and the aid of the gimmicky DRS. Lando Norris and McLaren looked competitive in the mid-field once again. What was your take on the Austrian double-header?

SJ – The surprising part to me of the first race was the reliability. I can’t remember the last time half the field was out of the race because of mechanical failures. I don’t know if that was due to the combination of characteristics of the track – the curbs are very vicious at Spielberg, much more so than at other tracks. I think that played a big role in the failures.

Despite the big budgets and incredibly high levels of engineering, all the teams are pushing to the limit. Clearly, they pushed a little too far in some cases. There has also been an obvious lack of testing on track for the teams. I don’t think they completed all of the testing they were supposed to do before the pandemic stopped everything. Not being able to do any track running since then hasn’t helped either.

But at the level F1’s at you would expect the teams to have better reliability. This is like going back to the Turbo days (1980s) when things used to blow up every practice session. But knowing how F1 works I think you’ll find that even by next week there will be a big improvement in reliability. The rate of speed at which F1 can react to problems is very high. I’m sure that fixes to whatever issues there were will be made quickly to a large extent.

Overall, I think it was an interesting scenario given the level of competitiveness from different teams and the way race one played out made it interesting at the end. The first race of the year always has more unknowns than what follows. Ferrari was the big disappointment. Even with Leclerc finishing second, that was due to safety cars and penalties.

It’s interesting how F1 has changed in that regard. In the past, almost no matter what happened, F1 would not bring out a safety car. Indycar was the other way around and now that’s almost reversed.

It’s rare to see the safety car come out in Indycar unless it absolutely has to whereas in F1 they don’t mess around now. It’s immediate. If there’s a car parked on track they bring out the safety car. That’s something they never used to do.

Race 2 wasn’t as interesting at the front. Unfortunately for the last several years, Mercedes taking P1 and P2 is a given. But there was some good action in the race. The guy that’s impressed me massively is Lando Norris. I think he’s doing a fantastic job, racing hard and not doing any silly mistakes. It’s good to see as opposed to the Ferrari drivers for example, who both made some pretty fundamental errors that really shouldn’t happen from drivers at that level.

Things absolutely fell Leclerc’s way in race one with the safety cars and he drove a fantastic race to finish 2nd in a car that clearly didn’t belong there, but last weekend he really threw away the race on the first lap. He was quick to take the blame but nevertheless, it was a pretty bad mistake.

JT – As mentioned, Leclerc didn’t do a good job in race 2. What did you think of Ferrari’s double DNF?

SJ – Definitely not one of their best weekends. It’s hard to see how Ferrari can have much success this year, even more so because this season is so compressed and there will be very little opportunity to recover. If you start out on the wrong foot as they did before the season began and the car is not 100 percent there conceptually I don’t know how they’re going to get caught up. Right now they’re 5th in the standings (61 points behind Mercedes and behind McLaren, Red Bull Racing and Racing Point Mercedes respectively) and speed wise, it seems to be an accurate indication of where they are too.

JT – After race 2 at the Red Bull Ring, Renault lodged a protest against the legality of Racing Point’s RP20 arguing in effect that the RP20 uses a Mercedes design with Mercedes components for its 2020 cars. The accusation is that the RP20 is mainly a copy of the 2019 Mercedes and not a Racing Point-designed car. What do you think of the protest?

SJ – Well, why wouldn’t you copy as much as you could of something you know works? For example, if I were Ferrari I would make my car as much of a copy of the Mercedes as I possibly could and then maybe implement some of my own ideas along the way. Every team knows in pretty good detail what every other team is up to. So doing that would make sense to me. But never underestimate the ego of F1 designers. They are the people who make the major decisions in teams these days because the cars and the technology have gotten so complicated that the team principals don’t have a clue about the intricate details. They can’t be part of the heavy technical dialogue about the cars because they simply don’t have enough knowledge and their decision making has to be guided by the information they’re being given by their technical team.


     Image: PlanetF1.com


JT – Sebastian Vettel looked out of sorts and off the pace in the first race, and not quite there in qualifying or practice for either race. Do you think he simply had a bad race or is the situation at Ferrari – which is not renewing his contract for next year – so difficult that he has lost his confidence or desire?

SJ – With any sport at the highest level, 90 percent of the performance is really in your head, especially so in F1. Everybody that gets to that point has tremendous raw talent. But if things don’t flow right it’s very easy to struggle. We’ve seen it so many times in racing. You’re either the windshield or the bug.

You can have one season where every single move you make sticks. The next year you try to do the same thing and every time it goes wrong. After two or three times where it doesn’t go well you start analyzing and questioning yourself. Once you start thinking about it, it’s over, it has to happen instinctively and naturally. If you doubt for a fraction of a moment before you make a move you’re already on the backfoot.

With that in mind, the move that Vettel tried on Sainz was incredibly low percentage at best. If he thought that attempt would stick it really surprises me. But he’s got the pressure of driving alongside Leclerc and a mix of other pressures typical of F1. I’m sure there’s no lack of motivation but he’s clearly not in a happy space at the moment in terms of the team. And I know what that’s like as a driver. If the team’s not behind you, you have an uneasy feeling when you walk into the garage every morning.

Vettel strikes me as a driver who’s always driven on emotion more than anything. When he gets pumped up he can do magical things. You don’t become world champion four times if you’re not extremely good at what you do.

JT – Going back to Ferrari’s performance as a team, seeing their struggles over the last several years and particularly last weekend got me thinking that this is the Ferrari that has existed for most of F1 history. People still seem to think in terms of Ferrari as a dominant team with Michael Schumacher, Ross Brawn, Rory Byrne and Jean Todt making a nearly unbeatable combo. But the current Ferrari is more like the team was in the mid to late 1980s and early 1990s. In a way it seems a return to the form Ferrari has had for more periods of its F1 participation than not. Do you agree?

SJ – Like all the top teams, they’ve definitely had their ups and downs. They were only moderately successful through the 1980s and into the 1990s. Then Michael came along and they put together the dream team. It was a combination of people that made them almost unbeatable. Since then they’ve not had the chemistry they had at that time. If anything, I guess it goes to show how tough it is to be on top in F1 all the time. McLaren had a period at the top then fell way back and now they’re slowly working their way back up the grid.

I think Ferrari has put [Mattia] Binotto in a tough situation being primarily a technical director and then make him into team principal. It’s more than a full time job to do both things. As we know, being team principal of an F1 team is not for the faint of heart. They don’t call it the piranha club for nothing. The paddock is full of some pretty switched-on guys with massive egos so you’ve got to be on top of it all the time and you can never take your eye off the ball.

JT – Another off-track move affecting Ferrari is their signing of McLaren’s Carlos Sainz to replace Vettel next season. Seeing Ferrari’s current form one has to wonder if Sainz is confident he made the right decision in going to the Scuderia.

SJ – Yes, you have to wonder but what I really don’t understand is the reason they went after Sainz or anyone this early. Vettel not being re-signed started the dominos falling but why the hurry to sign someone else literally within days?

There are conflicting stories of what happened between Vettel and the team but nevertheless Ferrari has a whole season ahead of them before they would have had to make any decision about who would take Vettel’s seat. It’s not like Sainz is the guy that everyone wants and you had to sign him up tomorrow otherwise someone else would grab him. I can think of five other guys on the grid that I would definitely consider along with him. I’m not saying Sainz isn’t good but he’s not world champion material yet in comparison to other people he’s been paired against in teams.

And with Sainz leaving McLaren there has been more driver market movement taking place than you’d imagine without a race even having taken place. More movement than we’ve seen within probably the last three years.

JT – Which of the mid field teams has impressed you most so far?

SJ – I guess McLaren has been the most impressive. They’ve really managed to stay closer to the front and they have a momentum now. I think Racing Point hasn’t achieved their full potential yet. They’ve been fast but for some reason little things have been happening that have set them back. And obviously there have been circumstances that have affected all of the teams.


Image: SkySports F1


JT – Max Verstappen seems to be rather frustrated after the first two races. Clearly, the Red Bull Hondas are no match for the Mercedes and as mentioned, in the battle with Bottas during race 2, there was no doubt that Valtteri would eventually pass Max for 2nd place. What are your thoughts on this?

SJ – Of course it’s frustrating for Max, but that’s what you get in F1. You’re never going to win a championship or even races unless you’re in the right team at the right time. Unfortunately in this period (since 2014) there has been only one team to be with. That’s your luck as a driver unless you have extraordinary circumstances. All things being equal you know Mercedes will win and if you’re not in that team too bad. Had he not retired in the first race he would have won, with both Mercedes cars being wounded.

JT – As a spectator it’s also frustrating knowing not just that Mercedes will win almost every race but seeing their faster cars enabled further by DRS. It’s pretty lame seeing any of the cars from different teams open a rear wing and breeze past the car in front of them without any effort in the DRS zones. But it’s even more annoying when a car like a Mercedes which already has a huge gap on the field strolls past cars ahead of it with DRS. What’s your take on this?

 SJ – It’s a band aid solution, and I’ve been saying that since the first day they introduced the idea. If you have to come up with gimmicks like that to make the racing interesting then obviously there’s a much deeper problem. If they had addressed the core of this problem ten years ago it would have looked very different today.

We all know the problem is aerodynamics. The cars are optimized Nth degree and as soon as there’s any disturbance of air, particularly in front of the car, the performance is affected. In that regard, as I’ve been saying for a long time now, Indycar has it right in terms of their competition rules.

With their push-to-pass system you can defend if someone attacking you from behind is using it. Not only that, it adds another dimension for the racing on TV because you can see the number of seconds of push to pass boost any driver has left to battle with those around him. And as a driver you have to be smart about how much you use it and when. If you use it all up trying to gain positions at the beginning of a race you could be vulnerable late in the race. So it’s not just a boost of power for passing, there’s a strategic or tactical element to how a driver uses it. And it gives the TV commentators another picture to paint, another component of the racing to talk about.

With DRS, as soon as the car behind you is within a second of your car, it’s game over. You’re just a passenger. You’re just sitting there waiting for the guy to come by. 

JT – Speaking of driver market movement, it was announced this week that Fernando Alonso is returning to F1 after his hiatus since 2018, joining Renault F1 as the replacement for Daniel Ricciardo who is headed to McLaren to replace Sainz. Alonso will be paired with Esteban Ocon. Alonso will race for McLaren in the postponed Indy 500 this season and then be back on the F1 grid in 2021. What are your thoughts on this?

SJ –  I think it’s great for F1 and racing in general. Alonso is a huge name and he’s still one of the best drivers in the world, he’s one of the few that have shown over and over that he’s capable of doing things that is way beyond what the car is capable of. It will be exciting for everyone to have him back.

JT – McLaren and Racing Point Aston Martin had competitive outings in Austria. It’s only two races but are they the best of the rest now?

SJ – At the moment they are but it’s hard to gauge. McLaren already showed a lot of promise last year and if they can continue to evolve they’ll be in good shape. Zak Brown has done a great job putting the right people in the right places. [Andreas] Seidl is running the team and he’s doing a great job moving the team forward. They look stronger and happier than they have in quite a while. I think they’re on the right path and once they transition to the Mercedes powerplant they’ll be a real force for sure.

And [Lawrence] Stroll is very impressive in his guiding Racing Point, we can see the results of that already. He’s a very intelligent and successful businessman and he’s little by little putting all the wheels in motion to move the team further up the grid . I think Racing Point will be very strong and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them eventually become what Red Bull ended up being when they came into F1.

All of the teams have been feeling a financial strain of course and there’s the budget cap that’s coming which is supposed to lower costs but even with the proposed cap there’s still an astronomical amount of money required to be competitive. As we all know, the budget cap may be ‘X’ but that doesn’t mean that ‘Y’ won’t be spent because if there’s one thing the teams are extremely good at, it’s bending the rules.

There will be all sorts of creative ways to find more resources to get more performance from the cars. I’d be shocked if everyone followed the letter of the law in the strictest way, without trying to find the unfair advantage. 

JT – The F1 stewards say they followed the letter of the law in assessing a 5-second penalty to Lewis Hamilton after his contact with Alex Albon near the end of race 1. What’s your take on the incident?

SJ – At best, I’d say it was a racing incident. If anyone should have been penalized I’d say it should’ve been Albon. He made his move on the outside which puts all of the emphasis on Lewis avoiding an accident. In other words, if Lewis left his braking to late and comes into the corner too hot, where is he going to go if Albon is already on the outside?

There’s only one way to go, straight into Albon’s car. Albon braked later by going to the outside and was a wheel ahead initially but they were only halfway around the corner. In my opinion Albon threw away a win. Both Mercedes were already limping and couldn’t really  attack and Albon was on fresh tires. Bottas was only a second and half ahead. He could have passed both of them with the time left.

I just think that was an impatient and low percentage move to try and pass on the outside. It’s not the best move to get past someone no matter what situation you’re in. If you’re going to pass on the outside you better have a lot more speed and be totally sure that you’re able to keep the car on track because chances are you’re either going to get hit by the guy inside you or not make the corner yourself.


 Image: F1


JT – Moving on to Indycar, Scott Dixon won his second race in a row in dominant fashion at Indianapolis, driving a flawless race. For a change the caution flag that fell near the midway point of the race was beneficial to Scott and he romped away from Graham Rahal by almost 20 seconds at the finish.

The racing at last weekend’s Road America double-header was absolutely fantastic – far superior to anything F1 has produced in recent years. Scott won on Saturday with some great race craft and passing. On Sunday, Felix Rosenqvist took his maiden win for Ganassi after a thrilling battle with McLaren’s Pato O’Ward. Not only has Scott won three of the four Indycar races of the season, he also won at the 24 Hours of Daytona at the beginning of the year. I’m sure he’s excited that he’s not fighting a come-back battle so far as he pursues his 6th Indycar championship. And Felix must be very excited to have scored his first victory.

SJ – Yes, what a great start to the year between Texas and Indy and totally dominating both races, and winning at Road America. And with Daytona he’s three for four so far. You can’t start off much better than that. Road America was just great. Every race in Indycar is so good. It’s amazing to watch. The racing is really hard to beat or even to match.

I think Scott’s win on Saturday and winning three in a row is the first time anyone’s done that since the old days of Indycar with A.J. Foyt when the series was a little bit different. It’s so hard to win now which makes it even more impressive. He just keeps getting better each year, the way he won these three races we’re all quite different, but all of them show the incredible race craft he’s got, where he always seems to produce whatever is necessary to fit the strategy that will work best in the circumstances. Whether it’s saving fuel and still maintain a good pace, or just put the hammer down and produce five qualifying laps when that’s what’s needed to get in front of the pack for the next pitstop.

Felix had a fantastic race on Sunday. You could tell he had the bit between his teeth and that he had a really good chance of catching O’Ward. I don’t know if people could tell, watching on television but when [Will] Power sent [Graham] Rahal spinning on the first lap and he made contact with Felix – Power had a day of being out of control, he looks desperate and ended the race for both Rahal and Hunter-Reay – he hit the wheel center on Felix’s right front.

That meant that the team couldn’t get the wheel on or off quick enough on every pit stop. They really had to force the wheel to get onto the hub. It was the same on every stop and the crew were fighting like animals to get the wheel on. That’s why he lost like four seconds on every pit stop.

O’Ward looked like he was in good shape for a while after the last pit stop but once his rear tires started to go away then it becomes really hard to maintain any pace. Then he caught traffic (Conor Daly). If you have a car that’s already marginal and you’re on your own you can handle it but when you catch traffic it becomes really tricky. That’s kind of what allowed Felix to catch Pato in the end. I think if he’d have had a clear road Felix might not have caught him in time.

But Felix drove a fantastic race and never gave up, every lap was qualifying effort and his pass was superb. He finally got the monkey off his back by winning his first Indycar race, the first one is always the hardest one.

JT – The weekend at Indy also featured Indycar and NASCAR running together with the Xfinity Series running on the road course the same afternoon as Indycar and the Cup teams running the oval on Sunday. It seemed to be a popular combination for all involved.

SJ – Yes, everyone enjoyed it and I think it was a great idea. Why wouldn’t you do it? If they could have had a crowd there it would have been a full house I’m sure.

I’m glad the racing season is back on track again. It’s exciting and the racing has been great so far. Strangely, the pandemic has led to more activity on the business and political sides of racing with changes in budgets and more instability in the driver’s market than there has been in any regular season this early in the year. With the long break I think everyone has had some time to reflect on the bigger issues of what really matters and what doesn’t in terms of what the future of racing will look like. Let’s hope we will see some good and sensible plans going forward so that we can all enjoy many more years of spectacular racing with interesting technological solutions to the problems the sport is facing.




SJ Blog #107   -   January 22, 2020. 

JT – With the calendar just turned to 2020, it’s time to take a look back at the Indy Car, F1 and sports car racing news and events that made the biggest impacts in 2019.  I’ll kick things off by asking what you think is the single biggest story of last year?

SJ – Roger Penske buying Indy Car, I think, has to be the biggest story. It’s very significant and everyone’s very excited about it. You really couldn’t ask for a better leader for any racing series and I think you’ll see him start adding some exciting things to Indy Car quickly. It’s the best thing that could have happened to Indycar in my opinion. It’s interesting that it’s pretty much the only major racing series left that is run by someone from inside the industry, most other championships have migrated away from being run by the founders or have been bought out by larger groups who then put their own people from the outside in charge of running the business. Roger Penske is the only leader that I can think of that has not only built a colossal global business empire, but also has the background, experience and detail knowledge in motorsports that will prevent many of the costly and often wrong decisions we see being repeated in some of the other major series in the world.

JT – Looking back at Indy Car’s year seems the best place to start. It continued to gain momentum in 2019 and remained the most competitive open wheel racing series in the world. Field size averaged 22-24 cars and drivers among ten teams with several more drivers and teams appearing in single or multiple races. Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden won the 2019 driver’s championship, his second Indy Car title.

He was chased closely all year by teammate Simon Pagenaud (who won the 2019 Indy 500), Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi and Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon. These drivers finished 2nd, 3rd, and 4th in the championship.

A strong rookie class included Felix Rosenqvist (the top rookie) Colton Herta (who won two races), Santino Ferrucci, Marcus Ericsson and Pato O’Ward. O’Ward raced only a partial season in 2019 but joins the series full time in 2020 with rookie-teammate Oliver Askew in the newly formed Arrow McLaren SP team.

Apart from the Penske news, what most impressed you about the 2019 season and what did Scott Dixon think of it?

SJ – By Scott’s standards it wasn’t the greatest year. It always seems to be that way the year after he wins a championship (Scott won the 2018 championship). It’s always an average kind of year for him. Things just don’t fall into place quite right. But last year really came down to mechanical failures more than anything. That’s what really dropped him out of the championship.

But then it seems the same for almost anyone who’s won the championship the previous year, they always seem to have an average season following the Championship win. This just shows how difficult it is to win in this series. No one will ever have a huge car advantage, all the teams are good today, and the level of drivers is getting stronger each year.

Indy Car is really about execution and consistency. It’s hard to break away from anyone except if you score wins in the double-points races. If you keep scoring at every race you’ll be high up in the championship but it means you have to be near the front every single race weekend.

JT – Does Scott think the level of competition in Indy Car is continuing to increase?

SJ – it’s obvious, I think he can see the competition getting tougher and tougher. The level of drivers keeps getting better and it’s high already, and all the teams are catching up as well.

It’s what I’ve been harping on about for years – if you have the same rules over a long period of time it’s inevitable that everyone will end up with very closely matched equipment, especially in a series like Indy Car where there’s not a huge amount that you’re allowed to do to the cars in the first place. Sooner or later every team figures out the stuff that works and the stuff that doesn’t, and the margin between the top teams and the smaller one’s keep shrinking each year the rules stay the same, it’s the same in every series.

JT – One of the ongoing stories of 2019 was the development of the cockpit aeroscreen that the series will mandate for cars this year. It’s a change that every team will have to manage with impacts on handling and car set-up. Scott has been involved in on-track testing of the aeroscreen since its inception. What’s his view of it as the new season approaches?

SJ – As far as the visibility, it doesn’t seem to bother Scott or anyone else who’s driven with it much so far. They all seem pretty happy with it. The main thing is the same thing that applies to the Halo in F1, the aesthetics.  The handling however is another story, adding almost 65lbs to the top of the car will definitely make for some strange handling issues that I am sure every team is already working hard to overcome. Typically, if you only move a few pounds around the car, you can feel it immediately as a driver, so to have that much weight that high up will definitely take some getting used to.

But it’s something we have to accept. The Halo has been on the F1 cars for a while now and you don’t tend to think about it much anymore. I think it will be the same with the aeroscreen after three or four races. It’s just there and it’s part of the program after that.

JT – As mentioned, Felix Rosenqvist earned top rookie honors in Indy Car this year with some terrific performances. Felix has a wealth of experience in open wheel cars from F3 and Indy Lights to Formula E. He also raced in Japan’s Super Formula in 2017. Pato O’Ward raced in Super Formula last year and returns to Indy Car for 2020. He’s joined by 2019 Super Formula rookie of the year, Alex Palou who signed with Dale Coyne Racing with Team Goh for the 2020 season. It looks like there’s beginning to be a pathway to Indy Car from Super Formula.

SJ – Yes definitely, there are guys from Super Formula looking at Indy Car and guys from F2 as well. Indy Car is definitely making more noise everywhere and why wouldn’t it?

Unfortunately, if you’re not part of one of the manufacturer’s main programs or their B-team program in F1, you have virtually no chance of making it into the series. Ferrari has their junior program. Mercedes has their junior program. There’s Red Bull and McLaren as well but what’s left after that? Again, the Indycar ladder system is quite well structured in that it allows whomever wins the Junior category through the ladder system to progress to the next step via the prizemoney being awarded for winning the championship. It’s not enough for a full budget but at least it get’s you quite far down the road to secure a seat. And besides, the good teams always want the best drivers in their cars and are often prepared to subsidize some of their budgets in order to make it happen. In the European system, you could win every race and the championship and you’re pretty much on your own trying to move forward from there, unless of course, you’re locked into one of the junior systems with one of the big teams.

JT – There were some very good performances from Indy Car drivers this year including some of those already mentioned. Who do you think was the driver of the year in 2019?

SJ – Yes, there were great performances from several of the drivers on various occasions, but in the end, it would have to be Newgarden I guess because he won the championship. It wasn’t like he lucked into many races. The team and Newgarden won it together with good strategy, having fast cars pretty much everywhere and Newgarden’s speed and consistency. He did a top job.

JT – Turning to the 2019 Formula 1 season, the championship had moments of excitement here and there but it was clear after the first few races that Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes were going to wrap up a sixth championship. Hamilton won eleven of the season’s 21 races, ending the season nearly 100 points clear of teammate Valterri Bottas who finished second in the driver’s championship followed by Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen.

Mercedes won the first eight races of 2019 and for a period it looked like no one else would win. Ultimately Ferrari and Red Bull won three races each. But Mercedes won 15, capturing its sixth manufacturer’s championship 235 points ahead of Ferrari. Bottas won four grand prix while Verstappen won three. Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc won two races with teammate Sebastian Vettel scoring just one win. McLaren finished fourth in the championship, improving considerably to occupy the “best of the rest” position. Renault, which scored a fourth-place finish at the end of the 2018 season, fell to fifth in the constructors standings last year.

As we’ve just discussed who you thought was Indy Car’s driver of the year. Now I’ll ask who you think was 2019’s standout driver in F1?

SJ – Well, I think Lewis is in another league compared to the rest of the drivers at the moment. He’s elevated his game and every year he gets a bit better. When it matters he always seems to find that little bit extra. As I said in a recent blog, I think if he carries on the way he is now he could end up being the best driver in history.

I hold him in the same league as Senna and Schumacher already. Everybody keeps saying he’s in the best car. And yes, he is but no one said that when he left McLaren to go to Mercedes. That’s part of your job as a driver – to look at the bigger picture and find out enough background and information to know which team to choose, when you are in the luxury position to do that, which maybe only 2 drivers in any given period does. We have a long list of the very best drivers from each generation that always managed to get with the wrong team at the wrong time.

Mercedes didn’t look like an obvious choice when he went there but between Niki Lauda and Toto Wolff convincing him and showing him the resources, their game plan and everything Mercedes had to offer it was clearly the right move. And making that choice is maybe a more important part of the job than driving the car in the end. You constantly hear the other drivers complaining that anyone could win in Lewis car, which may be true, but they’re not in his car which means he’s played the game better than the rest of them. Prost did the same when he snookered everybody by going to Williams which then ended up being the championship winning car, Senna was stuck at Mclaren with a car that was nowhere as good as the Williams, which then allowed Prost to win yet another Championship.

JT – Who was the most improved driver of the 2019 in F1?

SJ – It has to be Verstappen, he really stepped up his game last year and is now a serious contender for a championship. I think all the rough edges are now rounded out and he’s become a real threat on a consistent basis. He had some spectacular races last year. The races he won weren’t easy races to win. He did it by being fast and with smart racecraft he recognized situations he could turn into race wins and did so with perfect execution.

JT – Which team improved most in F1 in 2019?

SJ – I think Red Bull and Honda pushed forward a lot but I suppose McLaren made the biggest jump forward. Honda has made some gains in performance and they’ve had more reliability. As I’ve said many times, if they stay committed long enough I’m sure they will eventually get on top of it and end up dominating. Red Bull/Honda/Verstappen is my bet for the next period of domination in F1.

McLaren has definitely turned the corner. With the budget cap coming in after next year, the playing field will be slightly more level. Another year with [Andreas] Seidl in charge (Seidl is McLaren Team principal) and with them getting Mercedes engines again in 2021 could make them pretty strong.

JT – F1’s biggest off-track story in 2019 was the definition and approval of its 2021 rules package which combines changes in aerodynamics aimed at reducing downforce and a $175 million budget cap for teams. While Liberty Media and the FIA contend the new rules are a significant change for F1, the team chiefs have begun to acknowledge that very little will change in the competitive order of the series. Do you agree?

SJ – I agree with that. I think as long as aerodynamics are the primary factor for car performance it’s never going to change. There will just be costly new rules to try to band-aid a problem which I don’t think can be fixed.

If you made aero and tires equal in importance to the performance of a car or aero and engine equally contributory to the performance then I think you’d have a chance to really level things. But when aerodynamics is still streets ahead of any other factor for the ultimate performance you’ll just have the same teams in roughly the same order.

JT – The likelihood that the 2021 rules package will not change the pecking order in F1 competitively has some teams considering whether they should continue beyond 2021. Haas F1 has indicated it is weighing its future. Last week, team boss Gunter Steiner said it would be wrong to try to persuade team owner Gene Haas that the new rules for 2021 will give the team the opportunity to compete at the front of the grid.

"It's very naive. It's not going to happen," Steiner told Motorsport.com about the prospect of smaller teams fighting for wins in 2021.

Haas is one of the four remaining independent teams in F1. Independents have a long history of coming and going in Formula 1 but losing independent teams now would be different to the departures of the past. Attracting new independents to F1 would be much more difficult now given the extreme expense involved with racing in the series. This presents a real problem for the series, do you agree?

SJ – Anyone that goes into Formula One thinking it’s a good business must have forgot to bring their calculator. There are clearly other factors that come into the equation. Partly it’s the seductive environment of F1, it’s glamorous and it’s definitely a club for the big boys only. If you look through history, Haas has lasted about as long as most of the independent entrants that is basically funding the program out of their own pocket. They stay around for an average of maybe five years. Frank Williams is an exception of course, because he’s been there almost since the beginning, and most of the other teams that are still around that started out like Williams have since either been sold or migrated into another entity.

But yes, it’s definitely harder to replace or add new independents now. The barrier of entry to F1 has gotten so high that it’s virtually impossible for anyone to start a new team, unless you do what Haas did and effectively become a B-team, utilizing the resources and R&D from one of the main teams. The system in it’s current format is built with the manufacturers in mind more than anything, as they are the people that effectively call the shots.

But there needs to be a system in place because otherwise every Tom, Dick and Harry would show up. You need to have a relatively high barrier of entry – not like what it is currently – but high enough to make sure efforts are credible. That’s kind of what happened in the 1980s when we had pre-qualifying.

(In the late 1980s/early 1990s, as many as 39 cars would enter each race. The dangers of having so many cars on track led F1 to introduce a pre-qualifying session for teams with the worst records over the previous six months or teams new to the series. Only the four fastest cars in pre-qualifying were able to join the regular qualifying session where 30 cars would compete for 26 places on the grid.) 

I was a part of that with Onyx (the Onyx Grand Prix team competed in the 1989 and 1990 seasons in 26 grand prix) and that’s not good either. I think you need to have the franchise formula with 20 cars or 24 on the grid at each race, whatever the number is decided to be. It needs to be justified and teams can’t go in and expect to get a hand-out from the governing body without proving themselves to be serious first.

The real problem now for the independents and all the teams really is that the rules are so restrictive that they have driven the costs to the extreme. It’s insane and it means you’re paying exorbitant sums to develop exactly the same type of car everybody else is building. It’s inevitable you’re going to be on the back foot both financially and more importantly also on the competition side.

If you had a more open set of rules and you were a manufacturer with the money to spend to prove a new technology and market it in F1 then I think that would encourage a lot of manufacturers to step in. Hypothetically, If a manufacturer could race with hydrogen power or whatever concept they wanted to pioneer – I’m sure that would attract more manufacturers to enter the championship.

JT – A continuing story on and off-track in F1 was the tires from series supplier Pirelli. Made to work within a very tight window of temperatures and pressures at the request of F1, the 2019 tires were nevertheless criticized by many of the teams in the field. But ironically, a new compound designed by Pirelli for 2020 was tested post season in Abu Dhabi was unanimously rejected by the teams. All 10 F1 teams voted to keep the 2019 Pirellis for next season.

SJ – Again, it just leaves you scratching your head. As I’ve said, my view is that F1 should open up tire competition. We already have engine competition between four manufacturers. Why not let the tire be a component of competition as well?

That would fix the problems you mention very quickly because the tire manufacturers would actually have to make the best tire they can. That’s not the case now. Pirelli is obviously stuck between a rock and a hard place because they have every team wanting a tire that will work with their particular car. Some teams get their cars to work with the tires Pirelli is required to make now and some don’t.

And it’s the irony I’ve been talking about for two years now. The teams spend hundreds of millions of dollars on aerodynamics and everything else but if their tire pressures are two pounds off or if they can’t get the tires to light up at the right temperature, their race is ruined.

JT – In the sports car racing world, the World Endurance Championship finally acknowledged in 2019 that the era of extremely expensive, manufacturer-developed hybrid LMP1 cars it had relied upon was dead. Privateer hybrid P1 efforts had no chance of competing with the machines from Toyota, the sole manufacturer left for the 2018-2019 season.

After a long delay, the ACO and WEC announced they would field a new “hypercar class”. The still-expensive concept had to be changed several times as it failed to attract significant manufacturer interest. But late in the year Peugeot Sport announced it would join the hypercar class from 2022 onward with a hybrid hypercar. Peugeot will thus join Toyota and Aston Martin in the class. Nevertheless, the efforts all seem disjointed with different timelines and varying budgets. The hypercar class will be expensive and it doesn’t seem to have stirred much excitement. It’s not clear that this murky formula will be successful. What do you think?

SJ – Yes, I am not sure I still fully understand where it will end up. What is the difference going to be in the end? How competitive will it be, how many cars in the top category? The fact that Peugeot committed to it is a big help to WEC but it remains to be seen how the hypercar class will work out.

As I’ve already said, why do they need to mess with creating a whole new class yet again? The GT cars today are so good that they could easily take the role of the top class if you took all restrictors off them. They would be spectacular. Give them 10 percent more aero, one-inch wider tires with wider wheel arches so they will look really racy and take the restrictors off the engines. Most of the cars racing in the GTLM category have 2-300HP less power than the same road car version, which is ridiculous. If you did those changes to the existing GT cars they would soon run in the mid 3-minute, 30-second range at Le Mans (the 2019 LMP2 pole winning lap was 3:28.8), which seems to be the sweetspot for what the ACO considers to be a safe laptime around Le Mans.

All the manufacturers would be out there in full force fighting for the overall win of the Le Mans 24 hours, and if privateer teams could buy the same car as the manufacturer teams and run in the pro or pro-am categories you would have huge fields with spectacular looking cars and all the best drivers representing the manufacturers. The homologated LM roadcar version of each car would be sold out in no time for almost every manufacturer so it would also generate an income stream for the manufacturers to amortize the R&D and other auxiliary costs in manufacturing the race cars. 

As it is now, you will again have maybe 8-10 cars at best for the hypercar category and they will again be the only cars with any chance of winning overall.




November 15, 2019

#SJblog 106. 

JT – The 2019 racing season is winding to a close for most major championships but the biggest racing news of the year broke unexpectedly at the beginning of November when it was announced that Roger Penske’s Penske Corporation will purchase the Indy Car Series, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and IMS Productions.

It’s a hugely significant development for Indy Car. What are your thoughts on one of racing’s legendary figures buying the series and the Speedway?

SJ – It’s absolutely the best thing that could ever happen to Indy Car. Roger Penske is a legend within the Racing and Automotive Industry. Everything he’s ever done, he’s been impeccable and successful in every way. If there’s anyone who has the integrity to put to rest any concerns that he also owns a team in the series, it’s Roger. Tony George has been involved in a team for years and owned the series and no one’s ever mentioned it, Bernie Ecclestone owned Brabham for years while he also owned and ran Formula One very successfully, so I don’t think that’s even an issue. Besides, the competition side of the series is run by a group of very competent people and it’s obviously in everyone’s best interest to run things strictly by the rules.

This is very positive for the series in particular. It’s good for the Speedway too but the track and the Indy 500 has and will always be a success, just like the Monaco GP, thanks to its history. On the flip-side I think this is a very interesting development because most other championships have migrated away from leadership that have any form of background in racing, and more towards business or marketing people that often don’t even have a particular strong interest or passion for the sport. Most series are now led by people who have no history in racing or any intimate understanding of motorsport in general. There is no one that I can think of that have a better overall understanding of how the sport work on every level, that is also a hugely successful businessman than Roger Penske, I think this is a very crucial quality for the leadership of any Championship. 

I’ve been saying for some time now that the only thing that’s been missing from Indy Car to this point has been a strong marketing team that can promote what I believe is the best racing series in the world in terms of competition and at the same time develop the business alliances that are required to make the series grow. If we can now add all of these other components it could be massive, this is the best news ever for Indy Car.

I don’t think it will be long before we will see a third Engine Manufacturer being announced, followed by new marketing partners and sponsors. Selling or promoting the series becomes much easier when he’s involved because he’s well known and respected as a very serious player in the Automotive world. 

JT – Penske’s buy of Indy Car adds more excitement to a 2020 season that already had good buzz with McLaren joining the series full time, Meyer-Shank partnering with Andretti Autosport to run full time, the return of fast rookies Pato O’Ward, Colton Herta and Santino Ferrucci, and driver shuffles like the move made by Marcus Ericsson to join Chip Ganassi Racing.

SJ – Yes, Ericsson will join Scott and Felix. It makes sense for Ganassi because the guys who had been part of the Ford GT program in IMSA for Chip can now form the team for Marcus. And obviously it’s a great opportunity for Marcus. It’s good to have three cars on track too, that’s more data to share between all the cars in the team. 

There’s no doubt, next year should be exciting, very interesting. 

JT – Turning to Formula One, the season is nearly over and Lewis Hamilton scored his sixth F1 title at the U.S. Grand Prix while Mercedes GP had already wrapped up its sixth manufacturer’s championship. Obviously Hamilton is in top form but his achievement was something of an anti-climax as it was quite clear from early in the season that he and Mercedes would triumph again such was the domination of the car and its driver this year. What are your thoughts on his championship and the season?

SJ – Well, for Lewis and Mercedes it’s kind of the same as it was for Schumacher and Ferrari back in the day. That’s just F1 isn’t it? You have one team which sometimes finds that magic bullet. Mercedes sort of has the same kind of dream team that Ferrari had back when they were dominant. Toto [Wolff] is obviously doing a great job with Niki’s [Lauda] help before that, and then Lewis being the amazing driver that he is. He’s definitely a step above the rest now and is able to pull out that little bit extra when it really matters and sometime win races he shouldn’t really be able to win under normal circumstances, and he has the technical team to back him up.

I am sure that Lewis plays a much bigger role outside the cockpit than we know.  I think he’s a big motivator and factor in the direction of the team, pushing everybody and getting the best from them. I think he’s really stepped up to the role of team leader, in the same way Schumacher was with Ferrari. I hold him on the same level as Schumacher and Senna now, maybe even more.

I say that because he’s done it all the way with grace and dignity in a sportsman like manner. He’s never pulled a dirty trick on anyone and always raced hard but fair. That’s what I like more than anything. Both Senna and Schumacher were not always fair players as we all know. What Senna did to Prost for instance, taking him off track at the first corner at Suzuka (1990 Japanese Grand Prix - with both cars retired, Senna clinched his second world championship) was completely unacceptable. To basically pre-plan before the event to take out your main rival on purpose with zero consideration to what could happen to the other 20 cars following you into a 5th gear 180mph corner is something I don’t think any other driver would ever think about. I wonder what would have happened today with the endless penalties for every little infraction a drivers does if someone pulled the same stunt. 

I really hope that the way Lewis races will now become an inspiration to the new generation of drivers, to bring back pure racing with respect where you race hard but fair. Then we wouldn’t have to worry so much about blocking or all of this other nonsense we now have to constantly make up new rules and penalties for. 

I think Lewis has driven with great maturity this year. He’s at that point in his career where he has the confidence and experience to know that you don’t necessarily have to win every battle to win the war. He has the capacity to back off when you need to back off but pounce when you need to pounce, and map out the race accordingly. 

That’s what has made Lewis so good, especially this year. He wasn’t always on pole but he has the ability to figure the race out, to save tires when he needs to or attack at the right moment. He’s been at the top since his days in junior categories and pretty much beat Alonso in his first year in F1. That takes a bit of doing. No one else has done that to this day. I think he’s exceptional and will probably go on to break every record if he and the team continue in the way they have until now, and I can’t see any reason why they wouldn’t. No one can beat Mercedes in terms of resources, they have an incredibly strong group of people and the best driver on the grid.

JT – On the other hand, Hamilton’s rivals, particularly Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari, have been stumbling. Vettel has made several mistakes in 2019 that cost him good finishing positions. Likewise, Ferrari – and the rest of the grid – have lacked performance compared to Mercedes. And it could be said that other top drivers including Vettel’s teammate Charles Leclerc, have made mistakes as well.

SJ – Yes, that’s true. With Leclerc you sort of expect it because he’s new to Ferrari and still quite inexperienced, especially in terms of being at the sharp end of the grip where you’re not allowed to make mistakes because they will always be more costly and noticed than if you’re somewhere in the mid pack. It’s inevitable that you’re going to make the odd mistake here and there. But he has won twice this year. Vettel has been struggling a bit there’s no doubt, and it’s evident to me that he is not comfortable with the car, or maybe even with this type of car that the current rules mandate. I don’t think it suits his style of driving and what often then happens is that you keep pushing harder and then end up overdriving the car, which makes you go even slower. It’s a tricky balance to find and I don’t think he’s found the setup that gives him the feedback and confidence he needs to consistently stay on the limit without going over it.

JT – In October, Liberty Media and the FIA unveiled new technical, sporting and financial rules for the 2021 Formula 1 season. They include simplified front wings, restrictions on barge boards and other aerodynamic devices, and an emphasis on underbody ground effects for downforce. A $175 million cost cap per team will be in place for budgets (however driver salaries and salaries of the top three employees at each team are exempt from the cap, along with other exemptions) but will not be enforced until March 2022 when F1 teams will finally be required to turn in their financial data to the FIA. 

The aerodynamic restrictions are intended to allow cars to follow each other more closely and promote more opportunities for passing. But by 2021 the teams’ aerodynamicists may gain back a significant proportion of the downforce lost to the rules. On the financial side, the $175 million as a cost cap isn’t really much of a reduction in spending for the majority of the teams. In fact, only the top teams actually spend $175 or more million currently.

All in all the 2021 rules – some of which still are under negotiation with the F1 teams – don’t seem to move F1 away from its current form much. What’s your take?

SJ –  I don’t see a lot of difference when you look at things like the cost cap. There’s only three teams that are spending more than that already and I still have serious doubts about how you can police the budget. I think there are so many ways around it that you can’t control it. When you add in the driver salaries, top three executives etc. it’s still going to end up with a significant difference in budget between the top teams and the also rans. I’m having a hard time understanding how these rules are going to bring the costs down, if anything I can see a big increase in the budget as it always happens when you have a major rule change, the R&D costs go through the roof until things stabilize after a period of time of rules stability. 

More than that, I think if you had a set of rules that would actually discourage excessive spending on aerodynamics in particular, that might be significant. But I don’t think that will stop with the new rules. They say they’re hopefully going to find a way to differentiate the cars too but I can’t see that happening. They may look a little bit different the first year but there’s only one way the air likes to travel and everyone will find out pretty soon which way that is under the new rules. Then every car will look exactly the same again. As long as aero is the key differentiator, it’s inevitable that the cars will eventually end up looking the same. However, it’s great news that they’re getting rid of the barge boards and all the bits and pieces that are currently hanging off every flat surface there is on the car.

The only difference again is that all of the teams have to make nearly every part themselves, again at a huge cost. People keep saying the DNA of F1 will be gone if you standardize areas or parts of the car. But the DNA was gone 35 years ago! Before that you had V8s, V12s, V16s, V6s, turbos, naturally-aspirated engines – radiators in front or in back. It’s all gone. The romantic notion of the DNA of F1 doesn’t exist. It hasn’t existed for decades. There is no room for any conceptual creativity, it’s already determined by the rules and as such it’s inevitable that every car will look and sound exactly the same.

Will the racing get better? We’ll see. Maybe it will improve a little for a small period of time but I think as long as you have high downforce cars it will be extremely difficult to avoid all of the current issues. And it’s one thing to test wakes and aerodynamics in a sterile environment but it’s completely different in the real on world on track in a racing situation. When you’re following cars and constantly turning there are so many other variables, I think it will be hard to make any real change to the racing with cars that are still primarily dependent on aerodynamics for the majority of their performance. But you can certainly see that they have been trying very hard to make the right changes, so hopefully it will be heading in the right direction. The car certainly looks much better visually.

JT- It was announced today that Peugeot have committed to the new Hypercar program for the WEC series, what are your thoughts around this?

SJ- First of all this will probably cement that it will in fact become a reality. We now have two or maybe three major manufacturers committed if we count Aston Martin also. Most likely we will now see one or two more join once they know it will definitely happen. It’s good news for the WEC and the ACO for sure and it will remain to be seen how this will pan out in the bigger picture between the current teams running prototypes of different kinds, and some of the GT teams. Will any of them commit to the Hypercar or will it only be Factory run teams. Hopefully it will turn into a good formula with several manufacturers and teams being represented. 





#SJblog 105. 

JT – Indy Car’s season finale at Laguna Seca – the series’ first trip to the circuit since 2004 – was an interesting, tension filled race. Josef Newgarden ran a conservative pace, finishing 8th but close enough to championship rivals Scott Dixon (3rd), Alexander Rossi (6th) and teammate Simon Pagenaud (4th) to secure the title. 

Scott had a good race but had to battle for his podium finish, fighting with winner Colton Herta, 2nd place finisher Will Power and Pagenaud from the drop of the green flag to the checkers. Felix Rosenqvist had a terrific race, finishing 5th after starting 14th. Rosenqvist claimed the Rookie of the Year title and 6th in the championship standings. Scott finished 4th in the championship.  

What did you think of the race and the season for Scott and Felix?

SJ – There was a great energy and a lot of action in the paddock all weekend with lots fans coming to see the cars and teams. Overall the event was great and the racing was pretty good – better than expected as Laguna Seca is notorious for being a very difficult place to overtake. Due to the flowing nature of the corners and no real straights it’s never been an easy place to pass.  With that in mind I thought Felix did a great job, he pretty much passed every car he got by on-track. It wasn’t strategy calls that got him to 5th place. 

Had he not made the small mistake in the first round of qualifying and then receiving a very strange penalty, and instead started where he could have – I’m sure he could have been on the front row because he was super quick all weekend – in which case he would have been in with a shot to get his first win. But the little things make a big difference in Indy Car, everyone has to execute perfectly to get a good result, drivers, pit crew and the guys on the scoring stand. If any one of them messes up it’s very hard to recover because the racing is always so close. In my opinion, Indycar is by far the most difficult series in the world to get consistently good results. This is why you rarely see anyone win more than 3 or maybe 4 races in one season, it’s nearly impossible to get a consistent edge on the rest of the competition.

Scott did a superb job in qualifying getting on the front row, he wasn’t that happy with the car all weekend up to that point, but he seems to always find that little bit more when it really matters. He fought hard first with Herta and then both Power and Pagenaud, it was a great battle throughout the race, with really close racing but no blocking or touching from either of them. It’s great to see when three really good and professional drivers are racing hard, and they showed how it can be done without contact or penalties, great stuff. Overall it was a pretty good season for Scott and Felix but it wasn’t great for either of them, it could have definitely been a lot better. At Indy, Felix had his accident and then in the race, neither he nor Scott had a good day with both of them getting caught up in the Rahal/Bourdais accident (Scott finished 17th, Felix 28th) and that hurts at Indy because it’s a double-points race. Anyone that scores well at Indy carries that points advantage the whole year. If you don’t score well, or at all at Indy, that really puts you on the back foot for the rest of the season. 

Scott had kind of an unlucky year with two mechanical failures in a row right at the tail end of the season (at St. Louis and Portland). Again, that meant no points at all and when you don’t score in Indy Car it really hurts you. If you keep scoring at every race you pick up decent points and you stay in contention.

And all of the teams in Indy Car are catching up to the top teams. Scott agrees that the competition is tougher now than it’s ever been. When you have a car design where it’s relatively difficult to make any big gains, it’s difficult to gain an edge. Any small gain one team or another has soon gets caught up to by the other teams. But that’s one of the great things with Indy Car. It’s incredibly hard to win consistently because there are so many good cars and drivers. 

JT – It’s now official that McLaren will be a full time team in Indy Car next season with the merger of McLaren and Arrow Schmidt Peterson for 2020. 

SJ – I think it’s great news for the series, to have a team of that caliber and history to enter Indycar is good sign in every aspect. If they could get one or two more and some big name drivers they will be right back where they were in the early 90’s when Mansell came over. Big sponsors and a lot of manufacturers pouring big money into the series. I think it’s a smart move for them to join forces with SPM as they are already a well established team with a good engineering group, if they can add more resources and some of their F1 engineering expertise they will be a real threat to rest of the top teams.

JT – There were 24 cars on the grid at Laguna Seca and as you’ve said there’s a possibility there could be even more at many races on the 2020 Indy Car schedule. That’s a possibility Formula 1 does not have. FIA chief Jean Todt recently said he does not expect any new manufacturers to enter F1 in 2021 and he has not seen “solid” contenders to become new teams in F1 in 2021. “At the moment we are happy in having ten teams,” Todt says. “Time will tell if things will change in the future, knowing that the good figure is between 10 and 12 teams.”

Those aren’t encouraging statements. F1 not only needs an overhaul of its technical formula, it needs to cut the cost of participating sharply. Shouldn’t the series be looking to attract new blood? New competitors?

SJ – Not necessarily, I think if you have 22 really strong cars you don’t need more. On the other hand, yes, the barrier of entry has become almost impossible now to start a team from scratch. You either buy one that’s on the brink of going out of business, like Racing Point did with Force India, or you have to spend an insane amount to launch a new entry. It’s no surprise that manufacturers or teams aren’t lining up to give F1 a shot. 

It’s clear that the teams are no closer to agreeing on anything regarding the new rules package so the chances of seeing any new teams before that get’s sorted out are virtually nil. 

Some teams are worried about losing the “technical freedom” of Formula 1 and then there are others who are in favor of more standard parts, but no one seems sure how to formulate that and what parts should be standardized or not. As far as the argument about technical freedom, there really is no technical freedom, the rules are so strict that every team essentially is making the same thing, at an enormous cost of course. Every now and then, one of the top teams, who can afford to spend the money on R&D will discover some version or angle within those rules that gives them an edge for a while until everybody catches up again. But conceptually, there is zero room for innovation, everyone is using the exact same engine layout and they are all powered by the same energy source. The cars all look the same except for minor aero widgets that are different at every race, but again there is no room for innovation, just fine tuning the same concept. As I’ve said repeatedly, the only difference is that in F1 the teams have to make everything themselves rather than buying it from a supplier. But you end up with components that are only slightly different from one another between teams. One of the arguments I keep hearing is that if they all use the same components from one manufacturer, and there is a failure, then all the cars will fail. It’s strange in that case that they manage to make that work in pretty much every other championship without any real problems.

JT – The most recent F1 round was Russian Grand Prix, a race which Ferrari seemed to have in its control. Sebastian Vettel leapt ahead of teammate Charles Leclerc and Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton at the start and lead until his first pit stop. Leclerc, having pitted earlier and setting fast laps, looked set to undercut Vettel and take the lead. But on his first lap out of the pits the hybrid energy recovery system in Vettel’s Ferrari failed, causing him to stop on-track and trigger a Virtual Safety Car. Hamilton and teammate Valterri Bottas who had been unable to challenge the Ferraris had not pitted yet. The VSC effectively gave the two free pit stops and they both leap-frogged Leclerc. The order remained unchanged to the finish with Mercedes scoring an unlikely 1-2 (Hamilton/Bottas) and Leclerc relegated to 3rd. 

There was also controversy after the start when Vettel – with the aid of the slipstream he gained from Leclerc – continued to increase the gap over his teammate without handing the lead back to Leclerc as had supposedly been agreed before the race. The controversy dominated TV coverage of the first half of the race. Among the top four cars - the Ferraris and Mercedes -  there were no passes for position on-track throughout the race. Changes of position only occurred via the pit stops. What did you think of the Russian GP?

SJ – Well, it was certainly a perfect example of how to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. I can relate to what happened before the race. I don’t know how many times I’ve sat in meetings before races where the engineers and also some drivers are trying to plan out the start and the first lap. Every single time that I can recall, by the time you let the clutch out at the start, whatever plan was in place went out the window. 

There are so many variables that you just cannot predict what will actually happen. To try to make a plan like Ferrari did with the slipstream for Vettel and then what would come next with Leclerc, it’s doomed to fail. Then there are all the permutations of what was agreed and what wasn’t agreed. But what was Vettel supposed to do? He got a blinding start and got a great run by everyone. Was he supposed to back off immediately? 

And so Ferrari’s race went completely pear shaped from then on. It looked early on like Leclerc had the race pace. I would have thought he could’ve gotten into DRS range with Vettel. And you would have thought he could draw into DRS range of Hamilton or Bottas later on. But it looked like he just didn’t have the pace when he needed it this time. Vettel looked like he really had the bit between his teeth and was back to being the guy we’re used to seeing so it was a shame he didn’t have the car to take it to the end. 

It looked like whoever was following the lead car had a really hard time staying close in turbulence. I think it’s partly just the nature of that track. 

JT - Watching the situation between Vettel and Leclerc unfold and hearing the TV commentators wheeze on at length about whether Vettel would or should give the lead to Leclerc quickly became annoying for me as a spectator. Yes, F1 is a manufacturer’s championship and there are intra-team dynamics because of that. 

But as a fan, those team or manufacturer dynamics make zero difference to me. I do not watch racing to see competition decided by agreements made before or during a race. That’s not what racing is supposed to be about for spectators and team orders have never been popular with fans. Yet they still persist in F1 and it makes the series look extremely weak. Shouldn’t this be embarrassing for what is supposed to be the world’s top category of racing? 

SJ – I think it’s part of the show. Since they added the radio communications to the TV feed we get to hear all this, but it’s always been the same more or less.  What confuses me with F1 is, wasn’t there a rule several years ago that no team orders were allowed? Did that just fade away or did they actually change it? I can’t recall if, why and when they took that rule out. In a way I think it’s a good thing they did, it’s better to be transparent about it and make it a part of the show, because the teams will always find a way to make it work either way. Remember Multi 21 with Red Bull a few years back?

The other one that confuses me is that there always used to be the rule that you cannot rejoin the track after going off without a flag marshal waiving you back onto the track. But it seems there are cars flying all over the place now like a swarm of bees and they just come back on track wherever they choose. Leclerc went off in the chicane at Monza, rejoined and won the race. He clearly made a big mistake and should have been penalized but nothing was done. Whereas Vettel who went off in Montreal and also rejoined without waiting for a clear track got penalized.

What’s really worrying though when you look at the upcoming rules for 2021 is that the teams all disagree. They all have their own interests at heart not surprisingly but as long as they’re allowed to be part of the rule-making, nothing will change in Formula 1. When I look at my crystal ball, I can see ten years in the future and basically nothing’s changed. We’re still complaining about no one being able to pass, the racing’s still boring and the budgets are even higher than they’ve been before. And we’ll have about three to five big rule changes on the cars, all in the interest of making the racing more interesting, all based around Aerodynamics of course. But none of them will change anything. The events will get bigger with more celebrities, concerts and other gimmicks to attract a big crowd. The actual race will become the side show to the whole GP event. They’re already talking about qualifying races and reverse-grids instead of getting to the root of the problem which is the cars. Fix the cars and everything will sort itself out.

JT – McLaren has announced that it will switch engine suppliers for 2021. Next year, the team will fulfill the last year of its contract with Renault but will once again have Mercedes power in 2021. It’s slightly surprising given that previous McLaren leadership said a customer engine deal would never enjoy the same kind of performance as the works team. What do you make of it?

SJ –  I think it makes sense, they will finally have a proven race winning engine, along with the rest of the packaging to build a race winning car. It’s now up to them to get their part back to where they used to be. The wheels are already in motion and new team principal Andreas Seidl is clearly doing a great job getting the team back on track. 

JT – Prior to the Russian round, the Singapore Grand Prix was won by Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel (his first win of 2019). At the front, Ferrari turned the tables on Mercedes with better strategy, pitting Vettel early. He undercut Mercedes’ Hamilton and Bottas and his teammate Charles Leclerc. When the others pitted he emerged in the lead - a lead he never relinquished. But the passing was done in the pits, not on-track. Prior to that Leclerc led, lapping at such a slow pace that everyone, including the back-markers, bunched up behind him.

There was some passing among the midfield contenders with Daniel Ricciardo making his way up the order early in the race but then making contact that ended his night. Others made passes as well but it was a bit hard to follow on the TV coverage. What did you think of the race?

SJ – The beginning of the race was just ridiculous. The last place car in the field had the fastest lap. How is that even possible? All the drivers were on their team radio asking, “When can I go, when can I go?!”

I think Vettel’s win may help put him back in his groove a little bit. He drove a good race and Ferrari made the right call for him. What I don’t understand is how Mercedes could get their strategy that wrong. You would have thought that they’d split the strategy between their two cars and have one mark Vettel and the other mark Leclerc. 

It’s crazy when you consider there’s 40 people sitting behind computers at each of the top team’s home base and they’re all looking at endless streams of data and they still manage to get it wrong, not just once, but quite consistently in fact. Not just Mercedes but generally speaking across all the top teams. Had they just had an engineer on pit lane and the driver evaluating the situation you would never have made the decision Mercedes made. Either the drivers would have said, “I’m coming in because Vettel’s coming in.” Or the engineer would have made to the call to pit immediately. 

You have about five seconds at best to make that decision and you just have to go from experience by the seat of the pants sometimes and make the call. That’s what Ross Brawn and Michael Schumacher were so good at back in the day. A lot of that comes from doing sports car racing for a while. You get used to strategy calls like that because you can’t mess around during an endurance race where you have to pit multiple times. You’ve just got to go for it. 

If you try to look at all of the data and factor every single scenario in, it’s already too late. That was clearly the case here. Mercedes blew it because they didn’t or couldn’t react quickly enough. 

When everybody was going that slowly it was obvious to me just sitting at home watching on the TV, that whomever came in first would get a huge jump on the rest, so when Vettel pulled the trigger you would have thought at least one of the Mercs would follow asap.

Leclerc clearly wasn’t happy with the decision to pit Vettel first and I can definitely understand why as it was obviously the right choice to go after the win. It’s hard to say if that was a team-wide decision or just made on the spur of the moment by Vettel’s side of the garage. 

JT – Sadly, the lack of race craft of several drivers was on display again at Singapore. There were at least three instances of contact that seemed easily avoidable including Haas’ Romain Grosjean’s collision with Williams’ George Russell. 

SJ – Yes, it’s sometimes mind-boggling how poor the race craft is among these guys. You’re almost lost for words. You see stupid moves you don’t see in a Formula 1 race at times. And it just keeps happening over and over again. They’re blindingly quick on a lap but their race craft is non-existent, but somehow that seems to be enough to keep the team owners happy. I would have thought points, as valuable as they are for the teams, would have more emphasis than a few quick qualifying laps. Interestingly though, the new crop of drivers that has come along in the last couple of years all look extremely good, which makes me think that in 3 years or so when they have the experience and are ready to be champions assuming they’re in the right car, the racing could become really good.



August 23, 2019

#SJblog 104. 

JT – Formula 1 is in the midst of its summer break. With on-track action paused, the break frequently kicks off silly season speculation about where drivers will be the following season. As yet, there doesn’t appear to be much movement for 2020 but there has been a driver promotion/demotion this month. Red Bull Racing surprised some observers by announcing that halfway through his first season with the team Pierre Gasly would be demoted and sent back down to Toro Rosso while F1 rookie Alex Albon would be promoted from Toro Rosso to take Gasly’s seat. What are your thoughts on the driver shuffle?

SJ – It’s interesting that in the last blog we chatted about the growing graveyard of F1 drivers who weren’t ready for prime time yet. And here’s another example of guys who are put in positions with F1 teams way too early in their careers in my opinion. Racing at this level takes a lot more than a driving a car fast – which they can all do – it’s all of the other stuff you need time and experience to learn and master. Dealing with the pressure of the whole thing and especially race-craft – you only get good at those things over time. 

With that in mind, this is just another chapter of the same thing I suppose. I don’t think there’s too much between Gasly and Albon in terms of their skills. They’re both talented drivers, it’s just how they cope with the situation. I think Albon will have a bit less pressure on him because he’s getting thrown in the deep end so it may be excusable for him not to perform at the same level as Verstappen. 

But really, anyone who comes up against Verstappen or Lewis Hamilton or Alonso before – they’ve got their work cut out. Those guys are at the top of their game and they’re all unicorns to begin with. They’ve got a little more talent than the others do to start with but they’ve also got a work ethic that is relentless and enough years of experience to know what they need to do in pretty much every situation. To come up against that as a teammate is very difficult. I don’t think there will be a lot of difference between Albon and Gasly. 

It’s very rare that you get a situation in a single team where you have a Prost and a Senna or Lewis Hamilton and a Nico Rosberg who are both extremely good and also have the experience to execute over a full season. It’s a difficult balance for a top team like Red Bull for example, to either take a chance in the hope of finding another Verstappen, or hire a solid experienced driver as number two. Someone who will contribute to the team and always score points without being a real threat to the main guy. We can see this with Ferrari this year, where Leclerc clearly has the speed, but at the same time have made several errors that have cost them valuable constructor points. Would they have been better off to keep Kimi and let Leclerc stay another year at Sauber to gain more experience, I don’t know?

Also, the situation in F1 at the moment is that there is no driver in the current field that you can put next to Max or Lewis with the expectation to match them in speed and race craft. The only driver I can think that would fit that bill is Alonso, and for whatever reason it seems difficult for him to find a place in any of the top teams, but he’s the only obvious choice that I can think of.

JT - Former Jordan, Stewart and Jaguar F1 technical director Gary Anderson recently spoke out about five areas he thinks F1 should address to improve its competition. He chatted about F1 budgets, the development war, tires, a reverse-grid format and the ability of drivers to push flat out over a race distance. Like others close to the series, his suggestions for fixing F1 seem to fall well short of what’s needed. What’s your take?

SJ – I read it also. I think the main thing is that we have to cut through the clutter somehow. Right now, every suggestion I have seen just keep adding layer after layer of fixes and you never cure the underlying problem. That’s the core of the difficulty and people just seem to want to add more layers of fixes without addressing what’s really wrong. Every year it gets more complicated than the one before, and the problem still persist or it’s even worse. 

As long as aerodynamics dominate the performance of the cars you’ll always have a central problem and it’s my belief that the only way to fix that is to eliminate the importance of aero by either using standard parts in all the areas that matter the most and at the same time reduce the downforce levels drastically. You offset the lack of aero grip with much better tires, more horsepower and less weight.

He is suggesting to have tires with a bigger drop off so that teams are forced to make more stops in order to make the races more interesting. I thought we already tried that some years ago and it turned into a farce where the drop off was so big after only a few laps that it became almost impossible to even drive the car at any speed. It’s yet another band aid fix that will be near impossible to get right.

There are four things that make a race car go fast or slow, it’s the chassis, engine, tires and the driver. In an ideal world all four should be equally important in my opinion. Right now this is far from the case, where the chassis and engine are by far the most dominant factors. 

The tires are at least as important as any other factor on the car. If you can’t get the tires to work even the best car isn’t competitive. I still believe it would benefit everybody if we opened up the competition for several tire manufacturers. I can’t see why it wouldn’t be great to have three or four different tire manufacturers competing along with three or four engine manufacturers and different chassis manufacturers. You’ll end up with one tire that will be particularly good in qualifying. So all the guys on those tires will be at the front when a race begins but maybe it’s not as good over a stint or race distance as other tires. That will make the racing much more interesting. Rather than yet another artificial fix, why not let everybody make the best product possible and reap the rewards. When you see the effort teams put into both the chassis and engine I think the tires would add a huge component to that equation and it will bring a new level of unpredictability that F1 is desperately lacking at the moment.

The reverse-grid idea is to me unfathomable. If they’ve already got 40 people back at the factory doing race strategy analysis of every lap, weather etc –  I can only imagine what will happen if they had a reverse grid. There would be 300 scientists and engineers strategizing over what qualifying time they should aim for to optimize their position on the grid. Every possible permutation would be calculated to the umpteenth degree, and there would be even more devices on the car in order to manage the ideal lap-time to maximise the starting position for the race. Or the top teams would find ways to qualify at the back and then blitz everybody in the race. I can’t even begin to imagine all of the implications that would arise if they actually considered a reverse-grid. It’s yet another layer of band aid fixes rather than getting to the bottom of the problem, and yet another reason why engineers and designer need to be as far away from the rule making process as possible. 

JT – Your point about bringing tire competition into F1 is well made from another perspective. For example, if two or more tire brands were in competition, one or the other might have an advantage at a particular track based on performance. At a different track another brand might perform better. That variability distributed across the grid, in theory, would help reduce the dominance of one team or manufacturer. Right now, Mercedes is dominant, followed by Ferrari and Red Bull and then the rest. With multiple brands available, the performance advantage the top three enjoy could be diminished. Likewise, their power and influence in the series could be checked.

SJ – I think that’s what the big teams are afraid of and I think there’s massive pressure from the manufacturers on the governing bodies for that very reason. It goes back to my core point. You cannot let the manufacturers, engineers or designers be in control of the rulemaking. If they are, you will not be able to make any significant changes, it will just be more of the same.

JT – Amidst continuing talk of some kind of budget-cap for F1 in 2021, there has been reporting that notes that the top teams - the richest, most heavily resourced outfits - are spending huge sums on further development of their already lavish technical facilities and staff. Even Racing Point, now flush with investment from the Lawrence Stroll group which purchased the former Force India team, is apparently spending like crazy, pouring concrete and building its new Silverstone factory around the clock. As has been noted, this is a race against time. Those with deep pockets are spending now before any budget cap is introduced. 

With this in progress, shouldn’t it be obvious to Liberty Media and the FIA that the current top teams will have an even more massive advantage after any budget cap is initiated? Once a cap is in place, the other teams will not be able to spend at that level even if they could afford to do so. And how will Formula 1 be able to attract any new teams if they are barred from investing the incredible sums Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull have been burning through for most of a decade?

SJ – There’s just no way a budget cap will ever work. What you have to do in my opinion is eliminate the areas the teams spend most on. Allow for design freedom but limit the areas where we know the most money is spent. Restrict them to the point that any gain is not worth the money spent on them. 

A general budget cap, I just don’t see how you can control it. It’s better to eliminate the most costly avenues for spending. One thing I’ve noticed is that little by little more people in F1 are chiming in with some of the same observations I’ve had, I think we all have been thinking the same for quite some time now. It’s just common sense. I hope things will move in the right direction.

JT – I hope so too but it’s hard to imagine they will with statements like those that came from Ferrari’s team boss Mattia Binotto earlier this week. He said Ferrari is “not happy yet” with the regulations proposed for 2021, adding that plans for standardizing some car components including wheels and brake systems are “too much”

“I think since the very beginning we always said that we are against the standardization, and I feel we are going too much in the direction of standardization,” Binotto argued. 

Binotto feels that standardization will not save money and is against the “DNA” of the sport. It sounds like a point of view designed purely to maintain the status quo in F1. What’s you take?

SJ -  I disagree on several points. First of all, whatever the DNA of F1 is, was lost a long time ago. Every car today is the same, it’s just made by different teams rather than one supplier. The rules are so restrictive that there is almost zero room for any form or innovation apart from detail work within that framework. When F1 started we had all sorts of different concepts and ideas on both engine, chassis and even tires. There were V8, V12 and even V16 engines at one point. Today everyone is making the same engine, at an exorbitant cost, you can’t make anything different even if you wanted to, they’re all exactly the same spec, size and concept. The same with the chassis, they are all the same, again at an exorbitant cost. Who cares what brake system the cars use along with several other components on the cars. The brake budget alone for an F1 team is almost equivalent to a winning Indycar budget, just to put things in perspective, so I don’t really follow the logic that it won’t save money by using standard components.  Would anyone care if all the cars had the same front wing, no one call tell the difference anyway. If it will help the competition and even up the playing field surely it’s a better solution than having teams spend 10s or even 100s of millions each year on an endless development war. 

JT – The Indy Car round at Pocono Raceway was unfortunately affected by a combination of weather and a scary crash on the first lap of the race. Exiting Turn 2, Ryan Hunter-Reay and teammate Alexander Rossi were side-by-side as Hunter-Reay got a run on Rossi and moved to the inside. Then Takuma Sato with a run of his own moved to the outside of Rossi, making it three-wide. Sato’s car appeared to turn down the track into the path of Rossi’s car. The resulting collision involved all three cars initially then swept up James Hinchcliffe’s car and Felix Rosenqvist’s machine, sending it skidding along atop the wall on the back straight and into the catch-fence. Fortunately all of the drivers involved were uninjured. 

SJ – A lot of the drivers have already weighed in and voiced their opinion and apart from Sato himself, it was pretty clear to everyone that it was an incredibly stupid and poorly timed move. It’s a shame because all the drivers have been united and in agreement to take care of each other, particularly on the ovals and Pocono in particular. Unfortunately, there’s always one in every series, and yet again Sato seemed to think it was a good idea to compromise everyone else by keeping his foot in it and go three abreast into the second corner on the first lap of a 500 mile race, rather than just roll out of it and get in line for the following lap. This is the kind of move you maybe make when there’s a couple of laps left on the Indy 500 and you’re going for the win, certainly not on the first lap of a 500 mile race. It’s unfathomable to me, and thank God no one got hurt. These kind of moves leave the guys you pass no option but to avoid an accident, which is an incredibly low percentage situation even with a few laps to go, to try something like that on the first lap tells me there’s a serious lack of brain capacity and a complete lack of race craft. A guy like Sato who’s been racing for so long should be smarter than putting himself and more importantly his fellow competitors in that position.

Of course he claims complete innocence, and his team is defending his move, which I don’t think they have any choice but to do, at least in public.  But what he seems to fail to recognize is that the accident didn’t start when they made contact, it started when he decided to go for a three abreast move with two other guys who were already side-by-side. Ryan was already on the inside alongside Rossi. But if you decide to make it three-abreast at that point you’re putting everyone below you in a very marginal position, and if you look a Rossi’s onboard he was totally squeezed between the two of them and couldn’t go either up or down. This time, thankfully no one got hurt but it could very easily have gone the other way. However, there was car damage in the region of $1,5 million which is something the car owners will have to carry and I’m sure they’re not very happy about that. 

JT – The accident along with a 5th place finish by Josef Newgarden and Scott Dixon’s 2nd place run has tightened up the championship considerably. Three races back, Scott was 98 points behind championship leader Newgarden. After Pocono he’s just 52 points behind, in 4th place overall behind Alexander Rossi (35 points behind) and Simon Pagenaud (40 points behind). With three races remaining, the championship fight is alive and Scott’s definitely in range.

SJ – Yes, it’s going to be an interesting end of the season that’s for sure. I’m certain it will go right down to the wire again and I hope Scott will have a couple more good races so that he’s still in with a shot for the final one. Indycar is amazing, every year it’s at least three different drivers and teams who’s still in the fight for the championship by the final round. There is no Championship in the world that have better competition than Indycar right now, and I have the feeling that more and more people even abroad is starting to tune in as they have now started to realize how much fun and exciting it is to watch these races. 

JT – Some have questioned whether Pocono Raceway should remain on the Indy Car schedule after the serious accidents involving Justin Wilson and Robert Wickens, and the near miss last weekend. But as Scott and most of the other drivers have observed, the incidents at Pocono could have happened anywhere and are not necessarily due to the track itself. There’s some great history at Pocono and it would be good to see it stay on the calendar. What’s your take? 

 SJ – It’s hard to say whether the track has any influence or if it’s just a string of very unfortunate circumstances. I’ve never been there so I can’t say for certain but talking to Scott and most of the top guys, they all love the track. It’s very challenging because of the variety of the three corners which makes it difficult to set up the car correctly and to keep the balance in the car over the length of a stint.