Q&A with Force India’s Sergio Perez

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Sergio Perez’s Formula 1 career appeared to be down in the doldrums last November. Having signed him just one year earlier, McLaren confirmed that the Mexican would be dropped at the end of the season in favor of rookie Kevin Magnussen. After such a rapid rise in his first three years in the sport, his career had come to a crossroads.

Force India came to the rescue, handing him a lifeline and a seat for 2014, and he has since proven his worth. In Bahrain, Checo scored the team’s first podium finish in five years, and he has produced a number of impressive displays in his first eight races for the team.

Ahead of this weekend’s British Grand Prix, MotorSportsTalk sat down with Perez to talk about his season so far, life at Force India, his thoughts on McLaren and how he would change the sport if he could.

You had a really good race in Austria, do you feel it made up for what happened in Canada? 

SP: Yeah, in a way, of course, but a bit unfortunate though that we had the penalty. I felt like we could have fought for more positions in the race. A bit unfortunate of course but we look forward for more. I think in the last two races we had the pace to fight for the podium, and now Silverstone I expect to be a bit different. It will be interesting to see what we can do around this place.

Different in what way? Harder?

SP: Harder because of the track layout. It has a lot of high speed corners, and that makes this place difficult for us because high speed hasn’t been our best strength in the last couple of races, here in a high speed circuit, I don’t expect great things.

Your drive through the field in Austria must give you confidence for future races if you have a difficult situation in qualifying or another grid penalty that you can fight back through. 

SP: Yeah of course, this gives you a good boost, so we need to keep pushing, keep delivering and we need points. The tight battle between us, McLaren, Williams… it’s going to be very intense and long, so we need to deliver weekend after weekend a lot of points.

And do you feel that you’re really on top of the tires at the moment?

SP: Yeah I know what to do, we know as a team what we have to do, so that gives me good confidence.

And compared to last year, obviously you were struggling with the McLaren car, and this year you’ve come to Force India and the results have improved. It must be quite a strange thing given that McLaren is such a big team, but it must also be pretty pleasing for you. 

SP: Of course. I think I came at the worst time to a team like McLaren where they were going downhill instead of uphill, so that made my adaptation to the team very difficult because we had an extremely difficult car. For the first half of the season we spent every Friday to Saturday with completely new car, so it was very difficult to adapt to that car. Pretty unfortunate, but I’m very happy here at Force India.

So would you say it’s a blessing in disguise that you got this move to Force India?

SP: Yeah definitely, yeah of course. I’m thankful that this happened.

Do you think that you’re proving a few people at McLaren wrong?

SP: I don’t feel that, I feel I’m making my team happy. It’s all that I care about, I want to make this team happy, I want to give my best possible job to the team.

And looking at what is going on at McLaren at the moment, again they’re not having a great season, there’s talk of Jenson Button retiring at the end of the year, a new driver going there… Do you have any thoughts on what is going on there? Are there still problems lingering from last season do you think?

SP: The recovery is not easy. We had a bad season last year. The rules changed a lot so everyone expected McLaren to be up there and that they should be doing a lot better than they are. Right now, I don’t know what’s going on inside the team so I don’t want to comment anything. All I know is from last year, so I don’t know really. All you know is all you read in the media, although I have good friends at McLaren. We don’t speak much about racing. Some people inside McLaren tell me sometimes what is going on, but if I’m honest I’m not very interested. I want to focus on my team.

Talking about recovery, Sauber, your old team is really having a tough season. It must be a bit difficult to see given the time you spent there?

SP: Yeah of course that’s very sad for a team like Sauber who is financially struggling so much and facing such tough times right now. They really need a good boost. Last year was already very difficult for them, but I think Nico [Hulkenberg] had an extremely good second half of the season, so that helped them so maybe this year something like that can happen for them.

You mentioned Nico then, you’re eight races into your career at Force India, how is the relationship with him?

SP: Yeah we have a good relationship. We work well together. We are doing a great job for the team and the team is happy, so I think the best is going to come. From now, we have to deliver every single weekend. I had many issues at the beginning of the season, and now it’s the time that we need to deliver every single point that we possibly can.

And do you feel that you’re learning anything from him and vice versa? 

SP: Nico is definitely the strongest teammate I ever had in Formula 1, a very complete driver. He has taken the best out of me. I’m very happy that I had a teammate like him who is pushing me and I believe I am also pushing him, so happy to work with him.

Is this the happiest you’ve been in F1 do you think? Are you now in your best place?

SP: The best place you can be is where you’re winning, but certainly I feel comfortable here. The team believes in me and that’s a big boost. We have great spirit as a team, a very hungry team for winning and for success. That makes me very happy. They let me do my job, they support me and as a driver that’s the best thing you can have.

In terms of the rest of the season for you, have you got any main targets? More podiums? 

SP: Yeah I’d like to score some more podiums, and I believe we can do it as a team, so hopefully in the next races we can score a podium.

And what step would need to be made for you to win a race with Force India? 

SP: Mercedes is quite far [ahead]. We need something like happened in Canada, where we were so close to the win. Nico was having some problems, so I was just running second, but then we had the brake by wire failure. That made my race very difficult. Then I had the clash with Felipe [Massa]. So yeah I think we need to close the gap a bit more to Mercedes, and be in that position, get a bit lucky, and then we can dream of a victory.

Have you and Felipe spoken about that incident yet? We obviously saw in Austria they re-opened the inquiry, and there was a lot of tension between you guys. 

SP: We spoke with the stewards, but we haven’t spoken afterwards.

But to you it’s in the past, done with?

SP: Yes to me it’s done.

Does it bother you when fellow drivers criticize you or do you just move on? 

SP: I moved on. Of course, you don’t expect that kind of things to go around, making a big deal. It is what it is, we have to move on.

There’s talk of Monza being cut from F1. As a driver, that mustn’t be good?

SP: Yeah that would be a big loss for Formula 1. Monza is one of the best grands prix, more historic, and that will be very bad for the fans as well.

And with standing starts, I don’t know your position on that but I think a lot of the drivers have expressed their dismay over this.

SP: It’s a bit unfortunate that we’re having this, but as well at the same place we have to look forward for Formula 1. We need to create more interest in the races and I think Formula 1 is looking for a way to make it more entertaining, and I think the best way to make it entertaining is to give opportunities to more teams to fight for victories. We all know who’s going to win on Sunday, 99%, unless something happens, so this makes F1 very boring. We need more teams in front. Ferrari, McLaren, Williams, teams that are capable of doing that, but you need to give the resources, ask them to come down a bit.

The rules don’t need to change so much, that stabilizes everything, so everyone can do a good job. Of course you will always have teams coming on top like Mercedes, big teams, but you need to close the gap. For example, 2012 with seven different winners happen in the first seven races – it was amazing for F1. So hopefully something like that can happen for the future.

Do you think the rule makers can discuss these ideas more with the drivers and the fans before they jump in and say “this is what is going to happen”?

SP: I think we all have to put our bit into the sport. We all live on this, and we all want to be one of the best sports in the world, which it is, but we need to keep pushing and keep putting in good ideas to make the race on Sunday very competitive, very tight, and spectacular for the fans.

We’ve also got skid blocks coming back to make some sparks, what’s your view on that is that too artificial, do we need it?

SP: Yeah, I think that’s too artificial for Formula 1. We don’t need those things. This sport is good enough itself to sell itself to the world. This is something extra. It doesn’t hurt Formula 1, it doesn’t hurt anyone, so why not? I’m not against it, but what I’m against is the fact that there is too big a difference between the teams, and I don’t think that’s good enough for Formula 1.

So maybe the budget cap that was discussed?

SP: Yes maybe that will help, and also the rules to establish more the rules and don’t change them too much so that teams can close the gap between each other and also help the smaller-medium teams like Force India, Sauber, Williams to raise their games and be in the same level.

Is this something you and the other drivers talk about and is it worth the GPDA maybe going to the FIA and putting your thoughts forwards?

SP: No, we don’t. Every driver has different interests. The ones that are running in the big teams, they want obviously a big margin to the medium teams, and that’s very normal. Because I love Formula 1, I want this sport to keep succeeding for the next generations and stuff. I think we need more teams able to win, and more teams able to fight for podiums. It was great to see Williams on the podium after so long, it was great to see Force India on the podium after so long – we need more of that.

You talk about loving the sport so much, so if there was one thing you could change about the sport, what would that be?

SP: In my opinion, we need this [cost cut]. I really hate that one team is winning every race as a fan, I’m talking as a fan right now. I don’t like that as a fan. I mean, of course every single driver would love to be in the position of Lewis and Nico, having a team that is dominating. But as a fan I don’t like that because it just gets boring. I like to see a couple of teams fighting for the victory, and I think you can do that with reducing the budget gap and also establishing a bit more the rules, and a bit more what you can do on the cars.

In the future it will be great to have Force India, Williams, Sauber fighting against a team like Mercedes. I’m not saying that Force India has to be a champion, but it would be great if they had the opportunity to at least fight for a big result, like one victory, something like that. It’s a big boost for Formula 1, not only for the team but it’s also a boost for Formula 1 to have these kind of results.

Castroneves is second in Indy 500, but jumps to No. 1 in IndyCar standings

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Second-place may be the first loser, but for Helio Castroneves, finishing second in Sunday’s 101st Running of the Indianapolis 500 left him with a very nice consolation prize:

He’s now No. 1 in the Verizon IndyCar Series standings.

Castroneves took over the top spot in the IndyCar rankings from Team Penske teammate Simon Pagenaud, who dropped to a three-way tie for second place with Sunday’s 500 race winner Takuma Sato and 500 pole-sitter Scott Dixon, who was involved in a terrible crash about one-fourth of the way through the race.

Castroneves has 249 points, while Pagenaud, Sato and Dixon are all 15 points back with 234 points each.

Last year’s Indy 500 winner, Alexander Rossi, is fifth in the standings with 190 points.

Tony Kanaan, who finished fifth in Sunday’s race, is sixth in the IndyCar standings with 188 points. Rounding out the top-10 are teammates Will Power and Josef Newgarden, who are both tied with 186 points.

IndyCar rookie Ed Jones, who finished a very strong third in the 500, is ninth in the rankings with 185 points, and James Hinchcliffe is 10th with 170 points.

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With third-place showing, Ed Jones is highest-finishing Indy 500 rookie

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Verizon IndyCar Series rookie Ed Jones had been overshadowed much of the Month of May by Fernando Alonso, a fellow rookie at the 101st Indianapolis 500 Presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. With Alonso garnering much of the media attention, Jones was somewhat of a forgotten man.

However, he had been impressive in the opening rounds of the 2017 season, scoring consecutive top tens to begin the year, and he was quick during practice at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway before eventually qualifying 11th.

He was then vaulted into the role of team leader on the driving front after Sebastien Bourdais’ accident and subsequent injury, but Jones remained overshadowed in the rookie battle by the aforementioned Alonso.

And, while Alonso led laps and ran amongst the leaders for most of Sunday’s Indianapolis 500, it was Jones who emerged as the best-finishing rookie at race’s end, with strategy and timely cautions putting him in position to do so even before Alonso fell out with an engine failure.

However, the race took a turn for the chaotic for the Dale Coyne Racing driver on lap 52 following Scott Dixon’s horrifying crash, one which saw Jones hit debris and suffer damage. “It damaged the floor and also the rear wing. We had to change the rear wing. That sent me to the back of the field. We had to claw our way back up again,” he said of the incident.

He also revealed that the car had wing damage in the final stint, which created several issues for the 22-year-old driver. “I actually damaged my front wing, had a big hole in it. My legs got pretty cold, to be honest. I had wind blowing into them like crazy. (It) also created a lot of drag,” he explained.

Dating back to his days in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, Jones now has five podium finishes on ovals. But, victory continues to allude him, a fact that disappointed him in spite of an otherwise strong performance. “I’ve had five podiums or five top 3’s on ovals now and I haven’t won one. It’s really frustrating not to get one. I’m working my hardest to get it the next time,” he asserted.

However, Jones earned the praise of his peers, most notably from Helio Castroneves, who was sure to compliment him during the post-race press conference. “I have to say he did a very good job. When we ran side-by-side, he was very smart,” Castroneves said of Jones’ performance.

Jones’ third place is his best career IndyCar finish to date and his first career podium in the series. His prior best was a sixth-place finish in April’s Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.

 

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Team Penske has bittersweet overall finish in Indianapolis 500

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Even though it had five drivers – just under one-seventh of the 33 cars in the field – Team Penske had a bittersweet overall showing in Sunday’s Indianapolis 500.

Celebrating its 51st season in motorsports, Team Penske was searching to extend its record 16 wins in the Greatest Spectacle In Racing, but came up real short — as well as not so short.

The good aspect was Helio Castroneves finishing a close second to race winner Takuma Sato. Castroneves came so close to winning a fourth time at Indianapolis, which would have tied one of the most elite records in motorsports history shared by A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears.

Instead, Castroneves finished second for the third time in his career at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“It’s tough to accept,” Castroneves said. “I did my best. I really pushed it. The guys did a phenomenal job. We drove our heart, no question.

“The good news, sounds like we’re leading the points (he leads teammate Simon Pagenaud — who is also tied with 500 winner Takuma Sato and 500 polesitter Scott Dixon — by a 245 to 234 point margin. Hey, there is always a positive note. I think that it is very positive.

“Yes, finishing second again sucks. So close to get the fourth. I really am trying. I will not give up this dream. I know it’s going to happen.”

Castroneves almost ran head-on into disaster on Lap 53, when Jay Howard and Scott Dixon crashed. Somehow, Castroneves was able to sail under Dixon, whose car went airborne after contact with Howard’s car, and continued on.

“What can I say? My race was pretty adventurous,” Castroneves said with a smile. “We have a lot of things. We started from the back. I knew I had a good balance. Then we went to the front about lap 50, then were in the top 10.

“Unfortunately with the accident with Dixon and (Howard), we broke a winglet and broke the front wing because it went off the track. I don’t know how to be honest. It was a good save, I have to say that. This place brings the best out of me. It was pretty good.”

Sato passed Castroneves for the lead heading into Lap 196. Castroneves rallied to pull even with Sato with three laps to go, but couldn’t complete the pass.

“I tried everything I could with three laps to go, two laps to go,” Castroneves said. “I went outside. Unfortunately my tires were overshot a little bit. I would have ended up in the wall. I thought it was good timing because I would try to make a move again. Man, he just took off and that’s it. That was my last chance.

“Really disappointed for the fans, for obviously my team. They gave me a great car. I did everything I could, trust me, everything I could. Unfortunately, second place is the best for us today.”

Castroneves said he’ll once again go for No. 4 in 2018: “Sorry, next year, then.”

Also having a good day was former 500 champ Juan Pablo Montoya, who finished sixth in a one-off Verizon IndyCar Series start.

Defending IndyCar champion Simon Pagenaud finished 14th.

Then came the bittersweet aspect. Two drivers that many felt would win Sunday – Will Power and the latest addition to Team Penske, Josef Newgarden – were involved in the same wreck late in the race that ended their days.

Newgarden finished 20th, while Power finished 23rd.

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Takuma Sato captures 101st Indianapolis 500

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INDIANAPOLIS – Similar to last year, an Andretti Autosport driver that wasn’t the most discussed or fastest has won the Indianapolis 500.

But like Alexander Rossi last year, Takuma Sato flew under-the-radar all month, then delivered the goods when it mattered most.

After his best month yet at Indianapolis, bravery and tenacity has won Sato the 2017 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, driving the No. 26 Ruoff Home Mortgage Honda for Andretti Autosport.

And for Helio Castroneves, finishing second leaves him again, one spot short of his elusive fourth victory with Team Penske in the No. 3 Shell Fuel Rewards Chevrolet

Rookie Ed Jones was third ahead of Max Chilton, the former Carlin teammates in Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires showing impressively well in their first and second ‘500s with Dale Coyne Racing and Chip Ganassi Racing, respectively. Tony Kanaan completed the top five for Ganassi.

Meanwhile Fernando Alonso had an engine issue that took him out from a star drive, and Scott Dixon survived a crazy accident early on despite going airborne.

This was a crazy race because it had 11 yellow flag periods and 15 different leaders, a record.

Sato started fourth and was one of four Andretti Autosport cars that seemed poised to contend for the race win, as he, Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Fernando Alonso all led – with Hunter-Reay 28 laps, Alonso 27, Rossi 23 and Sato 17 – for a total of 95 laps.

One of the race’s primary contenders was out early, when on Lap 53, polesitter Dixon was caught in the wrong place at the wrong time at Turn 1. After fighting an ill-handling race car in his first stint, Dixon came upon Jay Howard’s slowing and crashing car in Turn 1. Dixon dove low, but unfortunately went right into Howard’s path. That launched the New Zealander airborne in a terrifying accident. While he was seen limping later in the day, Dixon had been checked, cleared and released after the biggest crash of his career.

A red flag followed for repairs to the catch-fencing, which had a hole torn in it as a result of the impact. Alonso was leading at the time of the red flag, which lasted 19 minutes.

The crash set in motion a crazy chain of events that seemed to follow the rest of the day, and saw the phrase “yellows breed yellows” influence the race.

Alonso was clearly proving his race craft in his first oval race, racing against Rossi, Sato, Hunter-Reay and others – initially Ed Carpenter and JR Hildebrand for Ed Carpenter Racing – and later the Team Penske contingent, which was trying to move forward from poor qualifying positions.

A crash that took out both Conor Daly and Jack Harvey in separate incidents also brought out the third yellow, second actual yellow following a yellow continuation after the restart. A separate debris yellow from Laps 81 to 83 meant there were four within a 30-lap window on Laps 53 to 83 after going the first 53 laps at caution-free pace of more than 219 mph.

Within this segment, Castroneves had been issued a drive-through penalty on Lap 75 for jumping a restart, which knocked him back outside the top 20. It would also set the stage for his comeback.

Indeed by the halfway mark, Castroneves had the overall lead from Hunter-Reay, Rossi, Alonso, Kanaan and Graham Rahal, withle two different strategy plays emerging – Chilton in seventh and Will Power in ninth were not running the same strategy as the leaders.

There seemed a chance at the halfway mark that these two could run the final 100 laps on just two stops and not the three expected by others. But a rash of yellows from Lap 122 onwards changed that play.

After the stops near the halfway point of the race, on Lap 115, Hunter-Reay led Rossi, Alonso, Castroneves, Power, Josef Newgarden, Graham Rahal, Tony Kanaan, Chilton and Sato.

However for the second straight year it was Buddy Lazier who caused a yellow – this time a crash on Lap 128 – that would change the complexion of the race. Lazier was the only driver transported to a hospital on the day, complaining of chest pains.

Chilton went for another off-strategy play here along with Hildebrand, Simon Pagenaud, Marco Andretti, Charlie Kimball, Jones, James Davison (started last as Sebastien Bourdais’ replacement) and Pippa Mann. It took the one fewer stop strategy out of play.

One thing that hadn’t yet entered the equation was reliability, the pre-race storyline, as Honda’s engines were under the microscope.

And suddenly on Lap 137, the first blew. Hunter-Reay was the first one to go, after running second having just lost the lead to Alonso, and that took him out of the race.

On Lap 167, a second pivotal engine issue occurred – this time Kimball’s had some smoke, and it brought out the ninth caution of the race. Crucially, it put everyone on the same strategy to the end after a period when he, Chilton, Davison and Hildebrand all took turns leading, Davison having completed a 33rd-to-first run at that stage.

Chilton had pitted just before the yellow but didn’t lose a lap. As he had enough fuel to finish, he then leap-frogged back to the lead when others pitted under the caution, and he held off several advances from his competitors when racing resumed.

Alonso’s star debut came to an end on Lap 180, almost poetically, as a Honda-powered McLaren entry, with the traditionally star-crossed Andretti name at Indianapolis, slowed to a halt with smoke out of the back on the front straight. Gone too were his win chances, leaving him an unrepresentative 24th.

After this restart came another crash. This time, it saw Davison’s star run come to an end after contact with Servia, doing his typically under-the-radar drive through the field for Rahal – and second on the same strategy to Castroneves – while Power and Hinchcliffe were also caught up. Newgarden hit the wall but continued.

Sato, who’d been good but not quite delivered his standard “no attack, no chance” style, would restart second on Lap 189 before unleashing “vintage Takuma” from there.

A ballsy pass around the outside of Castroneves and Jones had moved Sato up to second and in position to attack Chilton on the final restart.

With a power advantage still to play in the Honda vs. Chevrolet battle, Castroneves’ car was no match for Sato’s, and the Japanese driver moved past Castroneves on the outside into Turn 1 on Lap 195.

The drama from there was whether Castroneves could counter. Castroneves had a run with two laps to go, but Sato defended against him on the inside.

From there his last best chance was gone, and Sato had his second career IndyCar win – albeit a slightly bigger one than his first and thus far only prior victory at Long Beach in 2013, then driving for A.J. Foyt Racing. He also started fourth in that race, as he did today.

Castroneves’ runner-up here after starting in 19th adds to past missed opportunities in 2014, losing to Hunter-Reay (who started 19th) and in 2003, losing to then-teammate Gil de Ferran. One wonders how many more opportunities he’ll have to get number four.

In finishing third, Jones actually didn’t lead a lap – he ran as high as second – and came up two spots short of emulating Rossi as a rookie winner from 11th on the grid in the No. 19 Boy Scouts of America Honda. The Indy Lights champion capped off a roller coaster month for Dale Coyne Racing with the team’s best ever Indy 500 finish, which beat Alex Lloyd’s fourth place in 2010. Jones is the first driver from the United Arab Emirates to race at Indy, although he’s a Dubai-based Brit who now lives in Miami.

Chilton led the most laps – 50 – which were the first he led all year and his first since leading just two at Iowa Speedway last year, his only prior laps led in IndyCar. The driver of the No. 8 Gallagher Honda has now delivered back-to-back career best results after also coming seventh at the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the IMS road course, although one must think this will sting after a career drive.

Kanaan was a somewhat under-the-radar fifth, leading 22 laps early but never making it back to the point in the No. 10 NTT Data Honda after Lap 27.

In sixth and never really a factor was Juan Pablo Montoya, in the fifth Penske entry, ahead of Rossi, who fell back with a similar fuel hose issue that affected him last year too. Marco Andretti was an anonymous eighth, Gabby Chaves an excellent and career-best equaling ninth in his first start of 2017 and Harding Racing’s debut, after starting 25th, while Carlos Munoz avoided the trouble for Foyt and brought that car home in 10th after starting 24th.

A heavy day of attrition meant that only 18 of the 33 starters finished. The finishers through from 11 to 17 were Carpenter, Rahal, Mikhail Aleshin, Simon Pagenaud, Sebastian Saavedra, Hildebrand, Pippa Mann and Spencer Pigot. Carpenter lost a front wing late in the day. Hildebrand fell back late after a drive-through penalty for jumping the second-to-last restart. Both Juncos Racing entries finished their debuts (Saavedra in 15th and Pigot in 18th), and Mann finished her seventh straight 500-mile race start in IndyCar, dating to 2011 (she skipped the 2012 race, bu has raced in every Indy 500 since 2013).

Unofficial results are below.