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JUNE 2, 2005

The question of tyres and accidents

The FIA has sent a letter to the two Formula 1 tyre companies with a copy to each team principal, which reminds all concerned of their responsibilities in relation to tyres. The note says that the FIA does not want to feed what is calls "hysteria" on this matter.

Kimi Raikkonen's accident in Germany last weekend has led to considerable discussion about the F1 tyre regulations and whether they are the best thing for the sport at the moment. The most important point to make, however, is that Raikkonen's accident was not directly due to a tyre failure but rather the failure of the McLaren suspension because of the vibration of a flat-spotted tyre. According to our sources, clarifications from the FIA state that a driver can change a flat-spotted tyre but there is a danger in doing this because the FIA, quite rightly, is worried that drivers with tyre problems will deliberately flat-spot their tyres in order to get new tyres.

The rules are thus less than perfect on the subject and are open to interpretation, which can lead to very serious troubles.

Thus perhaps the Raikkonen accident is not really the right incident over which to discuss the tyre rules. What we can say, however, is that Raikkonen would not have had this accident with the old rules. The flat-spotted tyre would have been changed during a pit stop, before a dangerous situation developed. Now, teams have to wait until a dangerous situation has developed before they can change tyres. Thus, it is fair to say, that in the competitive world of F1, the rule leads teams to take risks they would not have taken in the past.

The question of a tyre war is quite another matter.

At Monaco in 2004 FIA President Max Mosley was arguing that there should be control tyres.

"The arguments in favour of the single tyre from the point of view of Formula 1 as a whole are so overwhelming that I don't think anyone apart from the tyre companies would really argue very seriously with the single tyre rule," he said. "In a nutshell, the argument is safety - that you can control the amount of grip and the amount of grip is directly related to safety. On top of that you have cost, you would eliminate the test teams and all this massive testing which costs just as much to run a test team as it does a Formula 1 team but nobody watches, it is just, effectively, money thrown away."

If the major issue then was safety, surely safety should still be the major issue now? There is little difference in the lap times from then to now. But now it seems it is not about safety. Nor cost-saving.

So what is it about?

Last autumn nine of the 10 teams asked the FIA to introduce a single tyre for F1 - a control tyre. The FIA has refused to do that, arguing that the single tyre rule was voted in by the teams and they must now stick to it. It is clear that the whole issue is bogged down in politics.

Safety should not be a political issue.

The question is whether or not a tyre war is dangerous? Rapid tyre development by competing tyre companies makes racing cars go faster. Tyres move from harder, slower rubber to softer, faster rubber. But does harder mean safer and softer mean more dangerous? There is no question that a tyre war adds an extra variable to the racing and so usually provides more interesting races as one company looks for an edge over another. And tyre competition is as old as the sport. Let us not forget that back in 1895 Andre Michelin used the first major motor race, the Paris-Bordeaux-Paris, to showcase his pneumatic tyres. Prior to that tyres were solid.

Tyres have been an important part of World Championship history since 1950. After early Pirelli domination there was a period in the mid-1950s when Dunlop, Continental and Englebert were all involved, fighting for success. The frequency of tyre-related accidents appears to have increased but accurate data is hard to find as the difference between a tyre failure and a puncture was not widely reported. It is worth noting, however, that Englebert left the sport after the deaths of Alfonso de Portago, his co-driver Edmund Nelson and 10 spectators in an accident on the 1957 Mille Miglia after which Enzo Ferrari and Englebert were charged with manslaughter, the accident having been caused by a tyre failure.

In the years that followed Dunlop enjoyed a virtual monopoly until Goodyear and Firestone joined the fray in the late 1960s. Once again there were some worrying tyre failures, notably when Richie Ginther had a miraculous escape at Monza after a tyre failure sent his car off the track and into the trees. Dunlop dropped out of the sport in 1970 but Goodyear and Firestone went on fighting until 1975, during which time slick racing tyres were first introduced. That year Mark Donohue was killed in an accident in Austria. His widow sued Goodyear and in 1984 won a major settlement from the tyre company.

Michelin arrived in F1 in 1977 and a new tyre war gradually built up and Pirelli later joined the fray as well. There were some spectacular and significant accidents which were put down to tyre failures: notably in 1980 at Imola when Gilles Villeneuve had an enormous accident but was unhurt. That same year a tyre failure robbed Jean-Pierre Jabouille of victory in the South African GP at Kyalami.

In 1984 Michelin departed the sport and two years later Pirelli followed. In the last race of 1986 we saw probably the most dramatic example of a tyre failure affecting a race when Nigel Mansell suffered a failure at 180mph as he was racing to win the World Championship in Adelaide. The Williams team took the decision to bring in Nelson Piquet and that meant that the team lost the Drivers' title to Alain Prost.

It is worth noting at this point that there were also tyre failures when there was no tyre war going on, notably in 1987 when Piquet had a huge crash at Imola and Ayrton Senna was the victim of a major failure at Hockenheim and was lucky to escape unharmed.

Pirelli returned to F1 between 1989 and 1991 but there were no obvious tyre-related crashes. Goodyear then enjoyed a monopoly until the arrival of Bridgestone in 1997 and the competition began to ramp up again.

The FIA decision to switch to treaded tyres in 1998 was designed to slow the cars down.

At the end of 1998 Goodyear quit, leaving Bridgestone alone in F1 for several seasons. In this period there were still tyre failures as teams strove to get the maximum performance, notably in 1999 when Mika Hakkinen suffered a Bridgestone tyre failure at Hockenheim. Prior to that the team had suffered two other similar failures (one for David Coulthard in qualifying and another for Hakkinen) which went largely unreported. On all three occasions the failure occurred when the tyres were new it was concluded that the grip level of the McLaren MP4-14 created forces which were greater than expected. This is a good illustration of how the close to the limit the tyre companies operate, even when there is no tyre war.

Since the return of Michelin in 2001 the tyre war has been building up gradually. There were very clear signs this time last year that the tyre war could be getting into dangerous territory when there were high-speed blow-outs at Indianapolis, including the crash which put Ralf Schumacher into hospital, and there were a series of problems at the Belgian Grand Prix, most of them probably caused by punctures resulting from previous incidents. However two high-speed tyre failures in the Monza testing resulted in heavy crashes for Michael Schumacher and Olivier Panis.

By October the teams - except Ferrari - were asking for control tyres.

A study of NASCAR reveals a similar but more dramatic story. The Winston Cup had a single tyre supplier for most of the 1970s and 1980s but then in 1988 Hoosier decided to challenge Goodyear. Neil Bonnett won Hoosier's second race and Goodyear responded with new tyres. There were that summer a series of big crashes all caused by tyre failures and drivers were soon calling for NASCAR to step in. NASCAR argued that it was not possible and would violate anti-trust laws. Throughout 1988, the tyre war continued. Hoosier won nine of the 29 races but by the end of that year 12 drivers had been injured in tyre-related crashes.

In 1989 the year began with Bill Elliott and Dale Earnhardt both hitting the walls at Daytona because of tyre failures. Goodyear withdrew from the event but as the year went on Goodyear fought back and by midseason Hoosier folded. It could not afford to compete.

Hoosier did return in 1994 and that year won three races but two tyre-related crashes at Daytona claimed the lives of Bonnett and Rodney Orr.

NASCAR signed an exclusive deal for tyres in 1995 with Goodyear, arguing that a single tyre made racing safer. There are, however, no guarantees. At Daytona in February this year, for example, several NASCAR drivers suffered tyre failures in testing for the Budweiser Shootout.

Are there any conclusions that one can draw from any of this? One cannot blame the tyre companies for wanting to compete. They do the best that they can but in a tyre war situation the limits are bound to be pushed. One cannot condemn a tyre company for trying as hard as it can. No tyre company sends out a driver worrying that the tyres will fail. But sometimes they do and commercial pressures these days are such that the pressure is always on the competitors. Often in the past a tyre war has been quickly over because the losing company departs, hoping that the lack of competition will reduce the coverage of tyres. However when two companies are committed to staying in the sport, the risks inevitably do increase.

The imposition of a control tyre in F1 would cut lap times and cornering speeds instantly. It would cut costs because tyre development is a major part of the testing debate. By introducing such a change the FIA would also end the unfair situation that currently exists with Ferrari doing more testing than anyone else - admittedly with little effect - and it might also help towards solving some of the political problems in F1, ending Ferrari's less than splendid isolation of the last eight months.

Those opposed to the idea of a single tyre supplier argue that the racing will suffer. Perhaps that is true but then one could also argue that the rules today restrict the racing for much of the time as drivers hold back and do not take risks because they are worried about their tyres. It is worth noting that this year there have been almost no big accidents because a lot of the time (particularly in qualifying) drivers are driving well within their capabilities because they dare not risk the penalties of making a mistake.

There is much discussion needed. The conclusion that one reaches in all of this is that the people in the sport should be talking to one another about such matters. Talk is cheap. Lives are not.