#SJ Blog #107


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.