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MAY 30, 2005

Risk analysis in Formula 1

The European Grand Prix has raised questions about the safety of Formula 1 tyres with the current tyre regulations. Kimi Raikkonen's crash at the start of the final lap of the event was not caused by a tyre failure as such but the Finn's tyres were vibrating so badly by the end of the race that the front suspension of the McLaren failed under the battering.

After the race a number of people admitted to worries about the current situation, although McLaren itself was rather muted in its comments. Ron Dennis said it would be hypocritical of the team to criticise the rules given that McLaren has enjoyed success thanks to the problems encountered by other teams. In other words, he dodged the question and decided not to get involved in any controversy. It was a pragmatic decision: keep quiet and the team has more chance to win the World Championship. The results of the team will not improve by making any remarks about safety.

David Coulthard, one of the leading figures in the Grand Prix Drivers' Association, however felt less restrained and argued that restricting teams to one set of tyres in races means that accidents are more likely.

"It is a major worry," Coulthard said. "In one way the rules have been good for overtaking and entertainment, but there is no question that it is more dangerous. The FIA position is that the drivers make the decision, but they are asking us to throw away our races by coming in to change tyres. I could hardly see from the vibrations late in the race, but I couldn't afford to lose my fourth position."

On Monday Minardi boss Paul Stoddart joined the argument.

"What happened at the Nurburgring on Sunday was completely predictable, given the current, FIA-enforced tyre regulation," he said. "On this occasion it did not result in serious injury or a fatality, but how any regulator can argue that the rule change with regard to tyres is in the interests of safety, defies all logic. The regulation needs to be changed. If it is not changed and there is another, more serious incident, then the whole world will know where to lay the blame - fairly and squarely at the feet of the FIA President. Nine out of the 10 Formula 1 teams did not want this regulation. In fact, we implored Max Mosley to move forward with a single control tyre for Formula 1. Both he and Ferrari refused to do so."

The logic is entirely reasonable, even if the relationship between Stoddart and Mosley is not. Last autumn in Brazil nine of the 10 F1 teams signed the "Cost Saving Initiative", which included a request for a control tyre. It would have cut costs, reduced testing and cut performance. Ferrari refused to sign and over the winter the FIA refused to ignore Ferrari and impose a control tyre. The federation is entrusted to be the arbiter of safety in F1 and, quite rightly, takes the credit for doing important safety work in the past. It must also take criticism if things do not go right and this argument is often used when the FIA forces through safety changes which others do not believe are necessary. This was the case last year with the switch to V8 engines for 2006.

The rules in their current form allow tyre companies, teams and drivers to push tyres to the limit and sometimes beyond. The competitors go as far as they dare and sometimes they go too far in their efforts to win.

What else can a serious competitor do?

Kimi Raikkonen could have stopped and taken on a new tyre without the vibration problem. He might have salvaged some points by doing that, but then again he might have then faced the possibility that the change would not be deemed as being "a punctured or damaged tyre", which is necessary for a team to be allowed to change a tyre.

If it had been taken off the car the tyre would have been black, almost round and in one piece and it would have been a matter of interpretation as to whether it was punctured or damaged. The fact that it was the suspension that failed on the McLaren backs up this interpretation so a pit stop was a risk that the team might fall victim to post-race penalties which would have deprived Raikkonen of more points. One has to be very careful when interpreting the rules in F1 these days, as BAR-Honda recently found out.

All things considered, therefore, McLaren's decision was the correct one for a racing team to make. It was better to stay out and go for the finish. There was only one lap left. The chances were that Kimi would make it and would win. To have stopped would have risked no points at all. Staying on the track and suffering a failure offered the same penalty but also offered the chance of maximum points. It was, therefore, entirely logical to go for the victory.

The big question is not whether McLaren did the right thing or the wrong thing but whether it is right to put competitors in a position where they must make such decisions.

The FIA deems this to be acceptable and we can only hope that the federation is right.

One might argue that the risk being taken by the federation is not dissimilar to Raikkonen setting off on that final risky lap.

It may be all right - but then again it may not be all right.

The option is to change the rules and protect the sport from such a danger. Such a decision would save money, reduce lap times, reduce the need to test as much as is now the case. And it would reduce the bad feeling between Ferrari and the other teams over the Italian team's policy of testing.

That seems like a lot of positive points.

It would be interesting, in fact, to hear why the FIA thinks this would be a bad idea.