Stefan Johansson’s latest blog: Addressing fixes for F1, IndyCar

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Stefan Johansson’s had a busy couple weeks as the 2016 racing season has commenced.

The F1 and CART veteran, who now serves as sporting director for Scuderia Corsa as well as continuing in his role as driver manager for Scott Dixon and Felix Rosenqvist, has penned his latest blog – an interview with Jan Tegler following the respective season openers at St. Petersburg (IndyCar) and Melbourne (F1).

Scuderia Corsa also secured its first win with the debuting Ferrari 488 GT3, driven by Alessandro Balzan, Christina Nielsen and Jeff Segal, at the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring last weekend.

For Johansson, the big issues after the respective St. Petersburg and Melbourne races in both series were that both IndyCar and F1 are looking at the wrong fixes, making unnecessary tweaks rather than full scale changes.

“The problem is larger than F1 really. IndyCar is suffering from the same problems with this aero kit adventure that is now about to get canned. Instead of getting to the root of the problem and looking at racing from a philosophical point of view, they’re flailing around and taking advice from all the wrong places.

“They should be asking, ‘What is it we are trying to fix?'” he writes.

“But they wind up trying to fix problems they’ve themselves created in the first place rather than going to the root of their difficulties. To get things back on track, I think there’s going to have to be a big change at some stage. You’re never going to improve the racing with a bunch of artificial cures. That has been tried time after time in so many championships and it doesn’t work. All these “band aid” fixes is like trying to cure cancer with an aspirin.”

That was the bigger picture story. In F1 specifically, Johansson praised Ferrari’s start at Melbourne, although he noted their botched tire strategy likely cost them the chance at winning.

“If Vettel had been leading, I think his pace was good enough that it would be unlikely that either Mercedes could have gotten by even if they were quicker. Given Ferrari’s pace, the first few races could be more entertaining,” he said.

Johansson also praised the debut effort from Haas F1 Team, although he made a key point that points are often easier to come by in the opening races of the year.

“It was a fantastic result for Haas F1 – very impressive,” he said. “To score at all – let alone score that many points first time out – is incredible. The hard part now is going to be repeating that success. But as I always say, the easy points are scored in the first three races of the season for anyone – no matter what championship you’re in.”

He called the Fernando Alonso-Esteban Gutierrez contact a “classic case of misunderstanding” but was thankful Alonso emerged unharmed.

“I’m glad to see everybody was OK and it’s really a testament on how good the safety is in F1 now to be able to walk away from accident like that without even a scratch,” he said.

The ‘Halo’ device, which merited a lot of traction and discussion in preseason, Johansson says seems inevitable. Drivers didn’t necessarily like the HANS Device at first, either, and it has now become part of the racing fabric.

“I think the halo or some form of cockpit protection is now inevitability in F1 and also in IndyCar. If it can save someone’s life of course it’s worth doing.”

Shifting to IndyCar, Johansson praised the respective Team Penske and Scott Dixon efforts during the race, while also noting that Will Power was likely running on pure adrenaline when he qualified on pole, despite not feeling well.

“It’s amazing though, once the adrenalin kicks in it’s like the best cure for everything,” Johansson explained. “I wish we could tap into on command. I’ve experienced situations where I’ve been so sick I couldn’t even stand up but you get into the racecar and you don’t even think about it. You’re totally focused and you’re feeling completely fine.

“Then when you get out of the car you can barely stand up again. It’s the state of mind you’re in when you race – adrenalin and 100 percent focus. It’s an incredible feeling. I haven’t found anything yet that comes close to it.”

Johansson’s earlier point about the aero kits potentially going away makes more sense when he addresses what’s been the result of their presence with now two very similar looking cars. As ever, the call for more power and less downforce is the resonating message.

“I really wish they would go in the other direction. That would make the cars more interesting to drive and even out the playing field. Just like in F1, after all the money that’s been spent on these aero kits, all the cars now look the same. Unless you get really close up it’s hard to tell the difference between a Honda or Chevy car. At the end of the day, it’s done nothing to add to the show. It certainly hasn’t improved the racing, if anything the other way around as it’s now become even harder to follow the car in front due to all the aero bits that on top of the car,” Johansson wrote.

He also noted Alexander Rossi’s performance was hard to gauge, other than showing it’s difficult for an F1 driver to transition into IndyCar.

Lastly, while also touching on how Rosenqvist could have won both races in Indy Lights, he moved to Sebring and Scuderia Corsa’s win. Even with the win, which he put down to perfect team execution, Johansson asks the question whether it feels great because of BoP (Balance of Performance).

“I wish there was a different way of monitoring or policing performance. Or even, just forget about it and let everyone go at it,” he wrote. “A few manufacturers might drop out but there’s really no good answer right now with the BoP. No one’s ever happy with it unless they’re standing on top of the podium. Everybody else thinks they’re getting screwed.

“The GT cars would be much quicker if you simply unrestricted them. A GTLM Ferrari has almost 200 less horsepower than the road car counterpart you can buy at a dealership. It’s ridiculous. Give the cars that horsepower back and you would be able to run at the speeds the ACO says it wants to restrict prototypes to at Le Mans – these random lap times that they say are “safe”. I don’t understand who decides what lap time is safe and what they base that on but it’s a silly argument in my opinion.

“The cars are so good today, they can go much faster if they unrestrict them. If you’re instead going to restrict the Prototype cars that much (to be in the “safe” laptime zone), why not get rid of them altogether and just run GT cars at those target lap times? Let the GT cars be the main class for manufacturers with a set of rules that were the same for everyone with no BoP or other gimmicks – the quickest car wins, end of story.

“In every category there are these crazy-sophisticated, expensive cars with terrific performance potential and then they slow them down to a point where they become ridiculous to drive. They have monster grip and no power so it’s all about corner speed. You’re literally in the corner by the time you have to brake and none of it makes any sense.”

Heather Lyne, Dennis Erb Jr. make history in the World of Outlaws Late Model Series

Lyne Erb Outlaws Late
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws
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More than two decades in the making, the pairing of Heather Lyne and Dennis Erb Jr. produced a historical milestone in Dirt Late Model.

Last month, Erb and his long-time crew chief Lyne won their first World of Outlaws Late Model Championship and with this achievement, Lyne became the first female crew chief to win in a national late model series. Their journey together goes back 21 years and tells the story of hard work, persistence and belief in oneself.

After a career-best season with the World of Outlaws, Erb and Lyne secured the points championship at US 36 Raceway in Osborn, Mo. with three races remaining in the season. The consistency and success of their season came down to pinpoint focus. Lyne and Erb are a team of two living out a David vs. Goliath tale. In order to be as successful as possible this year the duo knew they had to do as much as possible with the resources they had.

“It’s always a challenge when you only have two people, both at the racetrack and at the shop,” Lyne told NBC Sports. “I also work full time, so during the day, Dennis has to do a significant amount of work so that when I get down there I can start working and maintaining. It’s planning ahead. It’s having that system in place and making sure that you’re prepared ahead of time.

“When you have a problem at the track, making sure you have all that stuff ready so it’s a quick change and not a lengthy process to make a repair. We had zero DNFs in the World of Outlaws, we had only one DNF out of 96 races [combined among all series].”

Dennis Erb clinched his 2022 championship before the World of Outlaws World Finals. Jacy Norgaard – World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Taming Time

This was not an easy feat. Between a full travel schedule and Lyne’s full-time job as an engineer, time comes at a premium. What they lack in time and resources they made up for in patience and planning.

“We buckled down, and we got all the equipment that we needed back, motors freshened, and things of that nature,” Lyne said about the mid-point of last season. “We were able to keep up with that. We just had a higher focus. I tried to reduce my hours at my day job as much as I possibly could while still maintaining what I need to get done at work. I got rid of a lot of the other distractions and got a more refined system in place at the shop.

“We did certain tasks on certain days so we had time to recover. We were on the road a little bit more, as opposed to coming home to the shop. So we had to be more prepared to stay out on those longer runs. It was just really staying on top of things a little more. It was a heightened sense.”

This was Lyne and Erb’s fourth full season with the Outlaws, but they’ve been on the road together for the last 21 seasons starting in 2001. Their partnership began with Lyne’s bravery. When one door closed, she was quick to open another. In 2001, Lyne’s dad was ready to stop racing. Her mother wanted to regain her weekends, but Lyne knew this was her life path and wasn’t prepared to lose it.

“I’ve always been a tomboy at heart,” Lyne said. “I watched racing with my dad. Growing up he watched NASCAR. In high school, I got tired of playing at the lake house, so I went to the local dirt track and fell in love with it. I just couldn’t get enough. It took a year for me to convince my dad to come to the track with me. He finally did and we sponsored a car that year, the following year he started to race limited cars. He ran hobby stocks and limited late models.”

At some point, Lyne and her father’s level of commitment drifted apart.

“He did it for about five years,” Lyne said. “And then my mom said: ‘I’m done racing. I want my weekends back. It’s just not fun anymore.’ I wasn’t ready to hang up my wenches and Dennis raced out of the same hometown so I, on a dare, went down and introduced myself; told him if you ever need any help, I’ll drill out rivets, I’ll help wash, whatever you need. Twenty-one years later here I am.”

Heather Lyne became the first female crew chief to secure a national touring late model championship in 2022. Paul Arch / World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Breaking Through

Lyne entered a male-dominated job in a field that is also male-dominated – and where there were few examples of women creating these places for themselves. In this way, Lyne became a blueprint for other women as they strive to find a place for themselves in racing and in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) overall. She has her mother to thank for providing a strong role model, her father for sharing her passion, Erb for taking a chance on an unknow entity and most importantly herself.

“I was raised to believe that I can do anything, I want to do, as long as I put my heart and soul into it.” Lyne replied when asked about role models in the sport growing up. “My parents did not raise me to have that limitation. But from a racing role model perspective, I went in there completely green and just introduced myself to Dennis, the fact that he was brave enough to take that risk and bring a girl to the racetrack. Someone he didn’t know at all speaks volumes for him.”

Lyne and Erb have learned how to survive and succeed with each other on the road. They do this by leveraging decades of combined experience and an ability to adapt to the everchanging landscape of dirt late models. Next year the World of Outlaws visits nearly a dozen new tracks and Lyne sees it as an opportunity for continued success.

“I just want to do it again,” Lyne says going into next season, “I’m looking forward to the competition, I always do. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t competitively driven.

“There are some new tracks on the schedule that I’m looking forward to trying for the first time that I haven’t been to myself,” Lyne said of the 2023 season, “Dennis seems to do well on those first timers. We won out at Marion center, we finished second at Bloomsburg. We have a good solid notebook of information to tackle them over the last three years with these rocket race cars that we’re running. It’s good to have that information and leverage it to try some new things.”