His son Sebastian is now on the racing ladder in the Italian and German F4 series. Juan Pablo spends a lot of his time today thinking about the education of young drivers and how the sport needs to adapt to attract younger fans. He also believes that Esports plays a vital role in the future of the sport and in bringing the racing community closer.
Juan Pablo, let’s start by looking at the two series that you are most closely associated with Formula 1 and IndyCar. What kind of shape do you think these series are in today?
I think they’re in really 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 nicer it is nowadays than it used to be.
You mean less political?
It’s just nicer, people are way friendlier. It’s a much nicer place to be. With IndyCar, I think Roger (Penske) taking over last year was really good, especially with the pandemic. If Roger hadn’t been there the series would have been in major jeopardy. Roger has a big passion for IndyCar, the Indy 500, and its traditions. He’ll find ways to maintain traditions but make the place even better. The attention to detail with Roger is incredible.
Photo by: Richard Dole / Motorsport Images
Formula 1 is making some big rule changes to bring the field closer together, things that could never have been imagined during your time, like that the back of the field teams getting more time for aero development compared to the top teams and budget caps which were a dream when you were racing in Formula 1. But it’s a reality now. 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 like always, but as time goes on it is going to get better. The top teams really have no limit, they do whatever they need to do to win. Getting everybody closer together is going to be better for the show. I believe the better teams will still win; the guys with the best ideas if you give them half of the time they will probably do an even better job, that’s the problem! It’s going to be interesting with Liberty Media and F1. You’re going to start realising that the attention span of people gets smaller so you can’t hope people sit down and watch one race on TV for two hours. People like us that love the sport, we do it. The younger generations are going to struggle. I think what F1 is talking about is sprint races and this is the way forward.
IndyCar has a slightly different challenge as they weigh up where they go for the future because the DNA of IndyCar is any number of drivers can compete for wins and be contenders, little teams can compete with the bigger teams and it’s wheel to wheel racing. How would you like to see them develop the IndyCar product for the future?
I think IndyCar is on the right path. The two things they are really talking about is the hybrid system that I believe is coming and they’re looking at a lot more power. I think that’s a must in IndyCar. One of the main attractions of the CART era of IndyCar racing was the amount of power. Because nowadays it’s a fun car to drive, but it lacks that signature of an IndyCar that when you got on the gas it was like – “Oh my God!” – you know what I mean? So I think that that will definitely help.
Photo by: Richard Dole / Motorsport Images
Your son Sebastian is now racing in F4 in Italy and Germany. Has bringing a child up through the ranks of racing changed your view on the development of young drivers?
It has opened my eyes to a lot of things, like why a lot of the younger guys now struggle with understanding what the car needs and understanding which direction to drive a team forward because they’re brought up even from karting to hear: “This is a setup, this is how you need to run the chassis, this is how we run it.” And that’s a really bad thing. For the team it is the easiest way, they say: “Boy, you’re the problem, not the car.” But the biggest problem with that is you might have a really good talent that hates the car. And if you would adjust the car for that talent, he would probably beat everybody else. But with what you’re giving him he’ll never succeed. And when you get to the top levels; I’ve done IndyCar and WEC testing this year, and you see it. Everybody that is young will drive whatever they are given and they can drive it terribly. But as a team to be able to go from there to win races when you’re going against a Penske or a Ganassi or Andretti, it makes it really difficult, because they’ve got experienced guys that grew up with the same theory as me; you’ve got to make the car drive better. And the people that make the car drive better are the people that win the races.
Today’s teenagers have never known a world that wasn’t digital. They’ve never known a world that didn’t have iPhones. And the way they go about problem-solving is very different. How does that manifest itself with racing drivers in terms of the way they solve problems – when you see how Sebastian’s mind works and some of the other young drivers that you’re helping?
It’s interesting because they’re so young, and they understand data and telemetry; you show a 10- or 12-year-old a data plot, they understand it. They know exactly what they’re looking at. And that’s unbelievable. You know, the first time I saw a data plot was 1995, my first time in Europe, I was 20 years old. So time changes.
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So how do you go about coaching young drivers the things that are important in terms of physics, weight transfer, and so on?
I’m a big believer in simplicity. Simplify things. There’s no need for the background. As you get older, you start understanding physics. If I tell a 10-year old, “Don’t get out of the gas like this, 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’s going to snap and you’re going to get in trouble. For me, videos seem to be a big help. Because when they’re too young, and you show them telemetry, they see the speed and everything, but it’s very hard to relate the telemetry and the speed to a certain place on the track. I’ve done it forever, so I can spend two minutes looking at telemetry and I’ll find the same things as if I were to spend an hour. For them, it’s really important to relate what part of the corner it is and how you do it. So we look at it so they understand it. Then you look at the videos and you say, “Here is the problem.” So that makes it a lot easier.
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The other thing that exists now that didn’t exist when you were coming through the ranks is gaming and Esports as a platform in its own right, I mean, you can have a whole parallel racing career in Esports, as we see with Lando, with Max Verstappen. You’re very active, Fernando Alonso’s very active. But it’s also very attractive as a funnel for new talent in racing and for new fans of racing as well. So how do you evaluate esports?
I think esports open the door for somebody that doesn’t have the means to race because nowadays if you’re going to race properly, you’re going to spend a lot of money. With what you spend for one go-kart race, you’d have probably the best simulator available. And from there on, you don’t need anything else. In a year you’re going to spend about 100 bucks on games, maybe buy a couple more tracks, but that’s it. But for a normal family where the parent works from nine to five, they don’t have time to take the kids to a kart track or maybe don’t believe that racing is a career, I think Esports is a good way. When you race you realise how much time you have to spend in a simulator, how much dedication you’ve got to put in, and how it really trains the mind to be consistent, to be on time, to be on target, to do everything that way it needs to be done. One of the key things with racing is making sure everything is done right and you can repeat it. Going fast in a lap is simple; going fast over 10 laps and doing the same thing is harder because your mind wanders. You get to the braking point and think, “That was easy maybe I can try a little more” and your mind starts playing tricks on you and that’s where the mistake comes. When you’re under pressure you always look for where you can find more. And Esports is a good base to train all that.
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
You competed last year in many of those fantastic virtual events during the lockdown. What I really appreciated was the unique situations like the Le Mans 24 Virtual where you had driver combinations you could never put together in the real world because their teams wouldn’t allow it, but also the relationships you’re able to have with other drivers and also with gamers and fans.
The thing that I found really interesting is you create a really close relationship with a lot of drivers you never met before, and you end up in chats with them and talking to them and then you meet them in real life and you laugh about it – it’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 gamers big time and a lot of the younger guys race against them, and they start having relationships with these guys that they would never meet otherwise and they may be their heroes. So it makes racing a lot more approachable for the outside world.