Running the risk
AUGUST 31, 2011
"If you have two cars - one is completely safe and the other is bloody dangerous, but the dangerous one is two seconds a lap quicker - you know which one a true racing driver will always choose. It's the FIA's job to make sure they don't get in the dangerous one."
Max Mosley's words came to mind on Sunday morning at Spa-Francorchamps as a potentially serious drama quickly unfolded just hours before the Belgian Grand Prix. At its heart - and not for the first time - were the actions of Red Bull Racing.
But this was not a complex issue over the fastest team's interpretation of the rules. It was much simpler - if potentially more risky - than that. Red Bull appeared to be pushing the safety envelope when it came to extracting maximum performance from their RB7 on this super-fast circuit.
Naturally, Red Bull did not see it that way. With some justification, they claimed extenuating circumstances had placed them on the horns of a dilemma. A wet track during all three free practice sessions (with a brief exception on Friday) meant the first meaningful running on slicks did not occur until the final part of qualifying. By which time, the teams were under parc ferme conditions (meaning, with the exception of minor adjustments, the cars - and, significantly for the fastest 10 drivers, the tyres - could not be changed before the start of the race).
When both Red Bulls (first and third on the grid) and Lewis Hamilton's McLaren (second fastest), finished qualifying with blistered front tyres, alarm bells started to ring. Just who was sounding those bells became the point in question.
Pirelli, F1's sole supplier, had already issued an advisory note in the usual manner, recommending such things as maximum camber angles (in this case, four degrees). Red Bull were running four degrees (some reports suggest they were, in fact, a fraction over this suggested limit), the better to extract the maximum from their car on a circuit where the RB7 was expected to struggle.
The plan worked in so far as Vettel was on pole. But at what price? The blisters in themselves were not a problem. But there was concern about stress building up on the critical point between the tread and the shoulder, particularly through high speed sections such as Eau Rouge and Blanchimont.
Now we come to the dilemma. Common sense says you back off the camber angle. But to do that means making an adjustment, which is only permitted at pain of starting from the pit lane. Red Bull had lobbied Pirelli and the FIA to have the top ten cars fitted with fresh rubber for the start rather than the blistered examples from qualifying. Safety, an emotive word at the best of times, was liberally quoted.
As a precaution, Pirelli had fresh tyres shipped to Belgium for race morning. But after due consideration by the tyre company and the FIA, it was decided not issue the new rubber. An argument was that it would be unfair to penalise teams that had heeded Pirelli's advice even though it meant being less competitive. And, with the benefit of hindsight after Vettel and Mark Webber finished one-two, allowing the tyre change would have brought the immediate accusation that Pirelli and the FIA were assisting Red Bull.
Now the responsibility lay squarely on the shoulders of Adrian Newey, Red Bull's technical director. Adrian, pale at the best of times, looked positively grey as he took his place by the pit wall. Newey is by no means cavalier over these issues, being a racer himself and also, lest we forget, having undergone the terrible aftermath of Imola 1994. Having weighed everything up, Newey decided against significant changes to the car's set-up. They would start the race as they finished qualifying.
It was no surprise to see Webber stop as early as lap three and switch from the soft (blistered) slick to the hard compound. Vettel followed two laps later - and took on a fresh set of the softer tyre. It immediately led to suggestions that perhaps Red Bull had been crying wolf.
Either way, it damaged the relationship between Red Bull and Pirelli. The tyre company, having done a superb and equitable job in their first season, did not take kindly to the original implication that their tyres were the culprit when, in fact, Red Bull had been, in the words of one rival, "chancing their arm and using safety as the excuse when it went wrong".
I suppose rivals, sick of being hammered by Red Bull, would say that. But when it comes to safety, I recall not only Mosley's words but also the even more critical quandary facing Williams as their drivers, Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet, fought with McLaren's Alain Prost for the championship during the final race of the 1986 season.
When Mansell's rear tyre suddenly let go at over 180 mph on Adelaide's main straight, Williams technical director Patrick Head then faced a very difficult decision.
Piquet was leading. If Head called in him for a precautionary change on the advice of Goodyear, it would cost Piquet and the team not just the race, but also the championship. An entire season's work had boiled down to this urgent moment of judgement. Head did not hesitate and, to Piquet's credit, the Brazilian has never criticised the decision to change tyres.
On that basis, if Red Bull really had been that worried then, with such a healthy lead in the championship, surely they would have decided to make adjustments and start from the pit lane?
With four degrees of camber, the footprint at 190 mph is extremely slender but Red Bull chose to walk an even narrower line of technical and tactical foreplay. You could say it was a case of scoring maximum points and minimum respect. Only Red Bull will know if it was worth it.
Maurice Hamilton , a freelance motor sport writer and broadcaster since 1977, is the author of more than twenty books and contributes to websites and magazines worldwide.
His weekly column for Grandprix.com was Highly Commended in the 2011 Newspress New Media Awards.