His son Sebastian is now on the racing ladder in the Italian and German F4 series. Juan Pablo spends much of his time today thinking about educating young drivers and how the sport needs to adapt to attract younger fans. He also believes that esports play a vital role in the future of sport and in bringing the racing community together.
Juan Pablo, let’s start by looking at the two series that you are most closely associated with Formula 1 and IndyCar. What shape do you think these series are in today?
I think they are in very good shape. Formula 1 has been very interesting since Liberty came in and there have been a lot of changes and honestly when you go to the paddock it’s shocking how much better it is these days than it used to be. .
Do you mean less political?
It’s just nicer, the people are a lot nicer. It’s a much nicer place. With IndyCar I think Roger (Penske) taking over last year was really good, especially with the pandemic. If Roger had not been there, the series would have been in serious jeopardy. Roger has a great passion for the IndyCar, the Indy 500 and its traditions. He will find ways to keep the traditions alive but make the place even better. The attention to detail with Roger is amazing.
Photo by: Richard Dole / Motorsport Images
Formula 1 makes big rule changes to bring the terrain closer together, things that would never have been imagined in your time, like the fact that the rear of the terrain teams have more time for aerodynamic development compared to the best ones. teams and budget caps that were a dream when you raced in Formula 1. But it’s now a reality. Do you think these things put Formula 1 on the right track for the future?
Yes, as long as they can control it. I’m sure people will find loopholes as always, but over time things will get better. The best teams really have no limits, they do whatever they need to do to win. Bringing everyone together will be better for the show. I think the best teams will win again; guys with the best ideas if you give them half the time, they’ll probably do an even better job, that’s the problem! It’s going to be interesting with Liberty Media and F1. You will start to realize that people’s attention span is decreasing, so you can’t expect people to sit and watch a race on TV for two hours. People like us who love sports, we do. The younger generations will struggle. I think what F1 is all about is sprint racing and that’s the way to go.
IndyCar has a slightly different challenge as they weigh where they go for the future because IndyCar’s DNA is that any number of drivers can compete for wins and be contenders, small teams can compete with big ones. bigger teams and it’s a wheel-to-wheel race. How would you like to see them develop the IndyCar product for the future?
I think IndyCar is on the right track. The two things they’re really talking about is the hybrid system which I believe is happening and they’re looking for a lot more horsepower. I think this is a must see in IndyCar. One of the main attractions of the CART era of IndyCar racing was the amount of power. Because these days it’s a fun car to drive, but it lacks that signature IndyCar that when you hit the gas it was like – “Oh my God!” – you know what I mean? So I think it will definitely help.
Photo by: Richard Dole / Motorsport Images
Your son Sebastian is now racing in F4 in Italy and Germany. Has raising a child in the ranks of racing changed your outlook on the development of young drivers?
It opened my eyes to a lot of things like why a lot of young guys now have a hard time figuring out what the car needs and in which direction to take a team forward because they are brought up even from karting to hear, “This is a setup, this is how you have to run the chassis, this is how we make it work.” And that’s a really bad thing. For the team, it’s the easiest way, they say, “Boy, you’re the problem, not the car.” But the biggest problem with this is that you might have some really good talent who hates the car. And if you adapted the car to this talent, he would probably beat everyone. But with what you give him, he will never succeed. And when you get to the upper levels; I did IndyCar and WEC tests this year, and you can see it. All young people will lead whatever is given to them and they will be able to lead it terribly. But as a team, being able to go from there to win races when you go up against a Penske or a Ganassi or Andretti, that makes it really tough because they have some experienced guys who grew up with the same theory as me. ; the car needs to run better. And the people who make the car drive better are the ones who win the races.
Today’s teens have never known a world that isn’t digital. They have never known a world without an iPhone. And their way of solving problems is very different. How does that show up in racing drivers in terms of how they solve problems – when you see how Sebastian’s mind works and some of the other young drivers you help out?
It’s interesting because they’re so young and they understand data and telemetry; you show a data diagram to a 10 or 12 year old, he understands it. They know exactly what they are looking at. And it is unbelievable. You know, the first time I saw a data graph was in 1995, my first time in Europe, I was 20 years old. So the weather is changing.
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So how are you going to train young drivers on the things that are important in terms of physique, weight transfer, etc.?
I firmly believe in simplicity. Simplify it. There is no need for the background. As you get older you begin to understand physics. If I say to a 10-year-old, “Don’t get gasoline out like that, because you’re transferring the weight to the front tires…” They don’t care. They just need to know that if they lift too much the thing is going to break and you are going to be in trouble. For me the videos seem to be a big help. Because when they’re too young, and you show them telemetry, they see speed and everything, but it’s very hard to relate the telemetry and speed to a certain place on the track. I’ve been doing this forever, so I can spend two minutes looking at the telemetry and I’ll find the same things as if I were to spend an hour. For them it is really important to tell which part of the corner it is and how you do it. So we are looking at this so that they understand it. Then you watch the videos and say, “Here’s the problem”. So that makes it a lot easier.
Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images
The other thing that’s out there now that didn’t exist when you were moving up the ranks is gaming and esports as a full-fledged platform, I mean you can have a whole parallel racing career in esport, as we see with Lando, with Max Verstappen. You are very active, Fernando Alonso is very active. But it’s also very attractive as a funnel for new racing talent and for new racing fans too. So how do you rate esports?
I think esports opens the door for someone who can’t afford to run because these days if you want to run properly you are going to spend a lot of money. With what you spend on a go-kart race, you would probably have the best simulator available. And from there, you don’t need anything else. In a year, you’re going to spend about $ 100 on games, maybe buy a few more pieces, but that’s it. But for a normal family where the parent works nine to five, they don’t have time to take the kids to a kart track or maybe don’t believe racing is a career I think the esport is a good way. When you run you realize how much time you have to spend in a simulator, how much dedication you have to do, and how that really trains the mind to be consistent, to be on time, to be on target, to do . all that way it has to be done. One of the key parts of running is making sure that everything is done right and that you can repeat it. Going fast in one turn is simple; going fast over 10 laps and doing the same is more difficult because your mind is wandering. You get to the braking point and you think, “It was easy, maybe I can try a little more” and your mind starts playing tricks on you and that’s where the error comes from. When you are under pressure, you are always looking for where you can find more. And Esports is a good base to train for all of this.
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You took part in many of these fantastic virtual events during the lockdown last year. What I really enjoyed were the unique situations like Le Mans 24 Virtual where you had combinations of drivers that you could never put together in the real world because their teams wouldn’t allow it, but also the relationships you can have with other drivers. and also with players and fans.
What I found really interesting is that you create a very close relationship with a lot of drivers that you’ve never met before, and you find yourself chatting with them and talking to them, and then you meet them in real life and you laugh at it – that’s really good. I think it brings the racing community a lot closer. A lot of guys like Leclerc or Lando or Max, they’re great players and a lot of young guys are racing against them, and they’re starting to have relationships with these guys that they would never meet otherwise and they could be their heroes. This therefore makes running much more accessible to the outside world.