#SJBlog #106


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.