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       Images: Chris Owens (Indycar.com)

      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.