JAN TEGLER: In recent IndyCar events, Simon Pagenaud dominated at Phoenix, taking his first win on an oval. Really, Penske as a whole was strong as were the Chevrolet cars in general. Seven of the top 10 finishers were in Chevys. Scott Dixon must have been fairly pleased to be the best of the Hondas with his 5th place finish.
More recently Scott finished 2nd in the Indianapolis Grand Prix, the prelude to the Indy 500. He was the best of the Honda finishers, bested only by Chevy-powered winner Will Power.
But the big news as we count the days until the Indy 500 is that Scott put in four fantastic laps at the Speedway to win his third Indy pole at 232.565mph!
STEFAN JOHANSSON: Getting the pole at Indy again is great obviously, and it was a mighty run from Scott for sure. Indy qualifying is not easy under any circumstance. But to go out cold without even one lap in practice all day – he went straight from qualifying on Saturday to qualifying on Sunday – in a car that you have no idea about in terms of how it will perform, that’s impressive.
Everybody is trying to trim their cars to the absolute limit and I think Scott and his engineer Chris Simmons went all out this time. Scott said he had a small breather in Turn 2 every lap just keep the front tight and he was still doing 232mph laps so the car must have been extremely light on downforce. Typically, if you have to lift anywhere on the four lap run the time won’t hold up.
JT: Last weekend’s action at the Speedway proved again that nowhere else is qualifying for a race more dramatic than at Indianapolis.
SJ: Indy is fantastic, the whole format, the build up and the process, everything is just magic. It’s so exciting both for the fans and the competitors. There’s nothing that comes close to it really. It’s a very special place. It’s a pity there’s not enough cars for bumping as there used to be, that was almost more exciting than the fight for pole many times. But the format is great, and the crowd was fantastic this year. You could even hear the roar on the TV when the guys were posting the big laps. Great stuff!
With Alonso being there this year as well, I think a lot more people that normally would not tune in are going to realise again how incredibly exciting it is and how great IndyCar racing and the Indy 500, in particular, are. It’s an outstanding event and qualifying is really an event in itself, apart from the race.
Alonso also mentioned that he wants to be a “complete driver” which I think is fantastic coming from him. I think his involvement this year could start a trend. I’m sure he’s loved every minute of this experience so far.
Attendance for the race this year could well be the biggest yet. It will for sure be the biggest crowd Alonso has ever raced in front of. It’s the biggest crowd anyone ever races in front of period. The whole experience is totally exceptional.
I remember the first time I raced there, walking out onto the grid for the first time after having been there all month and it’s amazing. Qualifying has a pretty good crowd but when you walk out onto the grid on Sunday morning before the start you suddenly see this mountain of people in front of you. I get goosebumps just thinking about it. It’s an incredible experience.
JT: Does the massive crowd distract you during the race, as opposed to practice when the seats are basically empty?
SJ: It’s different. You get in the car on race day and there are all these people and you find that the track has suddenly shrunk. Your view peripherally is completely different. The track feels like it’s half the size compared to what it was when the stands were empty. It’s kind of bizarre and it takes a few laps to get used to. You just have to readjust. You have visual reference points and you just have to adjust them a bit.
If you’re running in the middle of the pack during the race – or in the last 500 I raced in where I started from the back row because I qualified on Bump Day and I bumped the Penskes out of the race – when you’re behind all these other cars, and because they’re running on ethanol you literally can’t see anything the first three laps. Your eyes are watering so much, just dripping from the exhaust fumes. They’re so strong and the smell is just insane.
Then there’s the turbulence. The whole car is just dancing around all over the track. You’re basically hanging on for dear life before the field gets strung out a bit. And back then, going into Turn 1, you couldn’t even hold your head straight. We didn’t have the head rests they have now and your helmet was bouncing around all over the place which also prevented you from seeing a damn thing.
JT: Four of the five Andretti cars made the top nine with the fifth in the 10th starting position. Scott’s on pole with Tony Kanaan 7th for Ganassi. Only one of Team Penske’s drivers made it into the top nine, Will Power. This is a bit puzzling given Penske’s typical performance at the Speedway.
SJ: Yes, this is highly unlike Penske. They go for it big time in qualifying normally. I don’t know if they’re struggling to find speed or what their issues were. We’ll find out on Sunday. Qualifying is a different deal though; just because you can’t find the ultimate speed in Qualifying, that doesn’t mean you won’t have a quick race car.
The other thing is that at Indy more than any other track the cars are very sensitive to any changes in track conditions. If the wind direction or speed changes or the temperature goes up it can very quickly go from a perfect car to one that is nearly undriveable in a matter of a few laps. This is why you often see someone that starts up front going backwards very quickly. Every team is spending as much time as they can running in every possible condition during practice to gather as much data as possible for race day.
JT: Getting back to the Indianapolis Grand Prix and the race at Phoenix, what did you make of those two?
SJ: I think Scott did extremely well to finish in 2nd in the Indy Grand Prix. I think the differences in the Honda and Chevy aero kits definitely gave the Chevys an advantage drag-wise in both those races, but then Honda clearly have an advantage at the Speedway so one outweighs the other I guess.
Whatever the intent was when IndyCar set out to have manufacturer-specific aero kits, I think it’s really kind of backfired. For the Indianapolis Grand Prix, Chevy had the edge. For the 500, it’s obvious that Honda has an advantage. Then again, the Chevys have a big advantage at Phoenix and other short ovals.
So the performance is not really equal for one or the other manufacturer depending on where you go. Chevy and Honda had to submit a finalised aero kit at a certain date in the past and that’s it. They’re both stuck with what they have. That’s not really a proper way to determine a championship or even the outcome of an individual race. So whatever IndyCar’s intent was, it hasn’t worked out to be what they envisioned.
I think you have the manufacturers do the engines and you have a spec car or you free up the rules and let the designers and teams do what they want to do. It’s so hard to regulate these things fairly, which is what will happen from 2018 onwards, and how it was before this latest aero experiment with different body kits for each manufacturer.
It’s the same with all these BoP (Balance of Performance) formulas and with driver ratings we have to deal with in sportscar racing. Trying to regulate these things rarely works out well. I still firmly believe that it should be an open competition and may the best man win.
We kind of knew Phoenix would be a problem for the Hondas since before the season started. I think Scott’s happy with his finish – you know, best in class and good points for the season (Dixon is now 2nd in points behind Pagenaud) – there’s not much more he could have hoped for there.
JT: The Spanish Grand Prix at Barcelona was the most recent F1 contest. Again, it wasn’t the most scintillating race. In summation, it seemed that Sebastian Vettel won the race at the start going into the first corner and then Ferrari’s pit strategy lost the race, allowing winner Lewis Hamilton to gain massively on Vettel. Further aid came when Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas held Vettel up behind him.
When Stoffel Vandoorne collided with Felipe Massa in Turn 1 on the 34th lap, a Virtual Safety Car period ensued. Mercedes pitted Hamilton for soft tyres but Ferrari left Vettel out. That seemed to be a tactical mistake. Do you agree?
SJ: Yes, I would agree with you. It boggles my mind why Ferrari didn’t stop when there was a VSC. That’s race strategy-101. If you have a virtual safety period and you’re in a pit stop window, you have to stop.
I am not 100% clear if the pits were closed during the Safety Car period or not, in which case maybe Vettel passed the pits as the track went green and Hamilton being 8 seconds behind was able to duck in just as Vettel passed the green flag.
It’s fantastic that the championship is so close and we now have two teams fighting for the title. And it’s great that Ferrari is one of them. Kimi had bad luck at the beginning, getting taken out on the first lap when he was nudged by Bottas into Verstappen. I think Verstappen’s move trying to go three wide on the outside was a pretty low percentage move. The chances of pulling that off were pretty small but I can also understand him trying as that would be his only chance of passing the guys in front as it’s virtually impossible to pass anywhere on that track under normal racing conditions.
JT: The Russian Grand Prix had a somewhat surprising result. Mercedes GP’s Valtteri Bottas won with Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen finishing 2nd and 3rd. Lewis Hamilton finished off the podium, having struggled all weekend. Bottas had a terrific start from third position on the grid, passing both Vettel and Raikkonen to take the lead into the first corners.
He led the rest of the way and drove well. His only test came from Vettel who closed on him in the final laps. But Vettel was never close enough to challenge Bottas. Otherwise, there was almost no overtaking in this processional race. What did you make of it?
SJ: The race was more or less what we’re used to seeing but I thought Bottas did a terrific job. He had a great start and was under a fair bit of pressure at the end and stayed cool and calm to win his first GP.
There wasn’t any passing but it’s the same thing we’ve been talking about for a long time now. More downforce never makes racing better and unless there are some sort of freak circumstances this won’t change until they either change the philosophy on the car designs or re design the tracks to make them more challenging so that drivers will occasionally make a mistake or simply make it possible for a more skilled driver to take a corner faster and by doing so being able to pass.
JT: Ferrari locked out the front row after qualifying in Russia and now seems able to match or exceed Mercedes’ pace over a lap depending on conditions. It’s a marked improvement for them.
SJ: I really think one of the key ingredients there is what I’ve said for months now. Vettel made the effort to be an integral part of Pirelli’s tyre testing and development program for 2017. None of the other top guys made that commitment. The other teams can say what they want about the testing being done with an old and different car but it doesn’t matter. It’s the feel of the tyre that matters as much as the grip for most drivers.
If you can influence that feel from the tyre to get it to where you’re comfortable with it, that makes an enormous difference. The tyres are the one area where you can gain or lose a massive amount of performance. Vettel has helped Ferrari get the car dialled in with the tyres. And that’s where Mercedes and maybe even more Red Bull is struggling at the moment. They didn’t test the new tyres with their regular guys as much and that’s in my opinion why they’re now struggling to make the car work.
JT: In other F1 news, Force India continues to impress, holding fourth in the championship behind the big three teams with double the points of Williams F1, their closest mid-pack rival. Meanwhile, Haas Ferrari has been struggling, suffering brake problems and a car which alternately suits one driver or the other but not both.
At the absolute bottom of the grid are McLaren Honda and Sauber Ferrari. Neither team has scored a point yet and McLaren has had only one finish over the opening four rounds of the championship. Ironically, the two are now linked with the recent announcement that Sauber will use Honda engines in 2018. What are your thoughts about these developments?
SJ: Force India has been quite impressive. They’re definitely punching above their weight so far, similar to how they performed last year. Haas keeps having brake problems. It’s a bit mysterious but on the other hand the braking systems today are so complicated it’s not too hard to imagine.
Sauber switching to Honda is interesting. I guess it’s a financial matter as much as anything. I personally think Honda will eventually get their engines right. It’s just a matter of when and how. If the engine formula remains essentially the same and they have enough time, there’s no doubt they’ll fix their problems and become a factor again.
And at this point it’s far better for McLaren to have another team running Honda engines to share the development load. Plus, Sauber isn’t exactly going to be a threat to McLaren. McLaren’s agreement with Honda did prevent Honda from supplying other teams and that hasn’t been helpful but I guess you could say that no one expected Honda to be as far off as they have been either.
JT: Up next for F1 is the Monaco GP. In contrast to Indy where both qualifying and the race are important, qualifying is perhaps more important than the actual race at Monaco.
SJ: Qualifying is definitely the thing that really matters at Monaco. Unless there are freak circumstances during the race with rain or something like that and there are strategy calls they can’t plan for comes into play, not too much changes after qualifying positions are established.
Otherwise, we’ll see the usual procession we are used to. The race is pretty much over after the first corner all things being equal. Even with the Formula E race there a couple weeks ago which uses only half the track, it was virtually impossible to pass. There’s really only one line around the entire track. Even if you get a run on someone coming out of a corner there’s really nowhere to go. You follow one line which applies to the entire track. There just isn’t one single spot which is really an overtaking place.