Images courtesy of Sky Sports, Octane Photographic and The Cahier Archive

With the new season about to begin, Rob Watts spent some time with Sky Sports F1 pundits Damon Hill and Johnny Herbert to find out what 2017 has in store, and how the current era compares to when they were racing.

Pre-season testing, and who will be the team to beat in Melbourne

Damon Hill: There are at least some strong signs that Ferrari are coming good, and that’s encouraging. Some circuits are very difficult for drivers to gain an advantage on, and Barcelona’s one of them. They really do tend to line up according to the peak performance of the car, so it’s not always a good sign of how things might pan out over the season.

When we get to Melbourne, which is a slightly trickier circuit, there’s more of a driver factor there. China’s a bit more like Barcelona, but once you get to some of the slipper, bumpier tracks then you tend to mix up the order. I wouldn’t say that it’s a foregone conclusion, but Mercedes do look good again.

Johnny Herbert: Ferrari and Mercedes look very secure. I don’t think Red Bull have shown their cards yet, and that’s typical of Adrian Newey in many respects. You always know that they’re going to design a good car, but Renault (as Red Bulls’ power unit supplier) we don’t know where they’re at yet.

DH: They’ve tried to play it down because they put rather a lot of pressure on themselves last year and they’ve learned that lesson I think. They don’t want to be overconfident because they’ll get slagged off terribly when it doesn’t happen – so they are wisely not making great claims. Is this car the product of James Allison’s work? If it is, then they might have done the wrong thing in letting him go. It looks good, and the noises you hear from the drivers are positive.

Lewis Hamilton | Mercedes
Johnny believes Mercedes are concerned at Ferrari’s pace – Image Credit: Octane Photographic

JH: You hear a bit of noise where Mercedes seem to be a bit concerned, but you always know they aren’t going to be turned right up. They’re okay, it’s about Ferrari and Red Bull and seeing if they can really attack them. Damon’s right, Barcelona is one of those tracks, it doesn’t really work out like most of the others but it does give you a bit of a sign, and the sign is they’ve done a good job over the winter.

Why Formula 1 needs Ferrari to win again

JH: It would be the classic Ferrari way to give [Maurizio Arrivabene] a chance, and if that chance doesn’t work then change it all over again. I like his passion, it’s great. He’s got that typical Italian hot-headedness that I think is healthy for the sport. If they are able to turn it around, it would be good for him, and obviously, it would be good for F1. I like Sebastian [Vettel], and Kimi [Räikkönen] had a remarkable season last year, and it doesn’t look as if he’s lost any of his passion for it.

If you get those two on form, and Ferrari on form, Lewis [Hamilton] has always wanted that challenge. He wants to prove he’s the best. And that’s what he enjoys: that racing that we haven’t seen for a while because it’s been dominated by two drivers. We’ve seen a bit of racing from both of them, but you want to see it by another car, and another source, which is either of the two Red Bulls; it would be lovely to see Max [Verstappen] or Daniel [Ricciardo] battling it out.

Why dominance can be bad for Formula 1

DH: I think it’s a perennial problem with the sport. You give people a design challenge, they go away and work on it for six months, and they produce what they’ve designed. When it comes out, one of them can be considerably better than the others, and then the other has to catch up for the rest of the season, and it’s impossible. You don’t want to prevent innovation because that’s part of the attraction. The thing people like is the cleverness of design, but there needs to be a way, once they’ve demonstrated their dominance, of somehow letting other people catch up so that it doesn’t destroy the racing.

It’s great if you’ve got two teammates who are fighting it out. So you can have McLaren winning 15 or 16 races, with [Alain] Prost and [Ayrton] Senna, and we don’t care because it’s like watching Nadal and Federer. Two rivals are as good in any sport for providing entertainment, but if you’ve got one driver who dominates, which is what we had in the Schumacher era where your teammate is not able to contend, it does damage the sport, so we need to avoid that situation.

Michael Schumacher | Ferrari
Damon believes another period of dominance, like the Schumacher era, would be bad for F1 – Image Credit:

How do you achieve that? This is one of the perennial problems that Formula 1 has, and nobody yet has come up with a workable solution. Max [Mosley] wanted a resource restriction, but no one has properly tried it, and we do have a kind of resource restriction thing now because we have a limited number of engines and so forth.

Why the sport was so different when Damon and Johnny were racing

JH: It’s only the ones with the big budgets who can develop faster than the Force Indias and Williams — you want them to be involved. My thing is still distribution should be even across the board, and then big teams have to work a bit harder. Will they still have the extra resources because it’s Mercedes Benz? Probably. Will they still win? Maybe. But at least there is a chance of the underdog to get into play.

DH: We were so lucky because when we were racing, they used to throw away money. A lot of it was tobacco sponsorship, and the teams were owned by individuals – they wanted to win, and they would throw money away at things. You had 150 people maybe, so they were able to make decisions – now, you’ve got 800 people or more, and you’re dealing with the reputation of major motor manufacturers, like Renault and Mercedes. That’s an issue for our sport because drivers can’t be the charismatic people the fans want them to be because they’ve got this huge responsibility to the workforce and to the reputation of the brand.

JH: That’s where it goes wrong, because the brand is bigger than anything else. Everybody I meet who goes to Silverstone to sit on the bank, to sit in the grandstand and watch, and, yes, they might have a Mercedes, Ferrari, Red Bull cap on, but to me they always say they’re there to see Lewis [Hamilton], or Kimi [Raikkonen], or whoever. They’re there for the drivers, but everything is geared for the team.

DH: It used to be more like drag racing where there would be engines they would use once for qualifying that would kind of melt after one lap. That was the entertainment – so they’d turn the boost up and be like ‘we don’t know how much horsepower we’ve got because we haven’t got anything to measure it with’. So these engines would be blowing up and that was the profligacy of the sport. They could take the decision and say ’we are now going to waste a lot of money on entertainment’.

Damon Hill | Jordan
Damon feels him and Johnny were lucky to have raced when they did – Image Credit:

It’s like fireworks; you can have a firework display, and someone could come along and say, ‘we can’t waste too much money on this, and we don’t want it to leave a lot of litter’, but you want to say, ‘no, f**k that, we want £10 million to go up in smoke!’ – that’s what you’re talking about with Formula 1. We’re talking about nearly a billion dollars of fireworks; you should be able to have a pretty good display!

Why F1 should do more to promote overtaking, but DRS is not the answer

DH: I think someone made the point, which is quite correct; as long as you’ve got cars racing for position closely on the track then actually overtaking itself is not necessarily a measure of how good a race is. Lots of overtaking doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good, we have lots of overtaking with DRS [Drag Reduction System] and it’s all artificial, so it’s the closeness of the cars to each other on the track which is the key thing. In my view, that’s the thing we should be aiming to achieve.

JH: You should also allow the drivers’ skill of the drivers to show. With the ‘Verstappen rule’ (moving in the braking zone) we’ve actually started to lose the possibility of overtaking. We’ve got rules for how you overtake, but that’s a skill, it’s not a rule, and there are certain ways of doing it. But to actually say when under braking you can’t move because it’s dangerous, personally I don’t get that. That’s what a driver, who is in the front trying to defend, makes it difficult for the guy who goes for it, but it’s also the skill of the guy behind to get the other guy in a position that he can get past.

DH: I blocked Senna once, and he told me off (Damon pumps his fist and jokingly says ’Yes, I blocked Senna!). Nowadays, I would have probably got a ten place grid penalty and a $20,000 fine!

Sky Sports F1® will show all 20 races this season, live in UHD for the first time with Sky Q, starting with the Australian GP, 26 March.

Many thanks to Damon and Johnny for their time.