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JUNE 19, 2005

What might happen at Indianapolis on Sunday

The tyre problems that Michelin has encountered at the United States Grand Prix have resulted in some confusion as to what is going to happen on Sunday. There are, however, a limited number of possibilities of what will occur.

The Michelin tyres being flown from France should arrive by Sunday morning. Any team that fits the new tyres will be breaking the rules. If teams do this they will be reported to the FIA Stewards, who will then make a decision as to what to do. The idea that the FIA will allow teams to switch to different tyres is one that must be treated with care. That would create a precedent that would undermine the policy of a single tyre for the race weekend. If teams try to argue that the tyres are dangerous and the FIA is forcing them into a dangerous situation, the FIA can simply exclude the cars as they will have breached the rules by entering a dangerous car. Teams would obviously like to know in advance what the penalties might be so that they can avoid taking risks unless it is really worth it.

The FIA cannot ignore the problem as Ferrari and possibly the other two Bridgestone teams will almost certainly protest if an illegal tyre change takes place. The penalties for using illegal tyres are not clear in the regulations and so could range from a drive-through penalty to exclusion from the meeting. The FIA Stewards have to be careful in this respect because it will also set a precedent and if they are too lenient teams might in the future make tyre changes to gain an advantage. Thus we do not think that many - if any - teams will actually race on the new tyres which will be arriving from France unless there is a quid pro quo for the Bridgestone runners. A solution may be found by horse-trading with the Bridgestone runners being put at the front of the grid but this too is a precedent that is best avoided. That will be difficult for the media to explain to the fans and a rather inelegant solution to the problem.

If the teams do not switch to the new rubber we then have the question of safety. Michelin has instructed the teams to run the tyres with higher pressures and this will slow the cars down. Michelin believes that the tyres will be able to go the race distance in such circumstances. Some teams are very confident that they will not have a problem but others are not. The fear is that if the tyres lose their heat (behind a Safety Car or in a pit stop) they will be damaged and this could lead to high-speed tyre failures. The major problem with the situation at the moment is that Michelin has been unable to discover what it was that caused the two Toyota failures on Friday, despite considerable rig testing at Clermont-Ferrand since the accidents occurred. There may be teams willing to take risks but one must remember also that this is North America and the legal implications of an accident could be enormous, given the ease of litigation and the scale of damages which are sometimes awarded. There are some team people who say that they are unwilling to even consider risking liability in such a situation and it is possible that we could see a number of Michelin cars doing the parade lap of the race and then retiring to the pits. This would leave a situation in which, potentially, there would be only six cars in the race. That is not very likely to happen but it could. Letting Ferrari win the race, which is in effect what such an action would do if the red cars are reliable enough to get to the finish, would make the win a hollow victory for Ferrari and for Bridgestone.

It would be a lousy advertisement for Formula 1 but with the rules as they currently are there, choices are limited.

The most likely scenario is that teams will decide that the risks of failure are minimal: there have, remember, been only two failures, both on Toyotas, and while engineers are whispering that there would have been several more if the cars had run much longer on Friday, there are others who seem to be of the opinion that they can get to the finish with the tyres running at higher pressures. That is fine except in the event of an accident and, in the worst case scenario, an accident in which spectators are involved. The risk of that is minimal but it does exist. In such a situation the tyre company, the team and the sport itself will have to answer for its decisions. The FIA may have a cast iron defence in that it is putting the responsibility for such decisions on the teams but there is no doubt that the rules would be brought into question, just as they were after Kimi Raikkonen's shunt at the Nurburgring.

The other possible scenario is that the drivers will do something to express their opinion about the situation and that could be a curved ball that F1 is not really prepared for at all.

One way or another, F1 goes into Sunday with a very difficult set of choices to be made. There are commercial, political and legal pressures on all of those involved but hopefully, sanity will prevail. And if sanity does not win the day we can only hope that luck will play a part in protecting Formula 1 against itself.

The whole process seems to us to be against the interests of the sport. Michelin has made a mistake. That is plain to see. If fixing the mistake means that there are only six cars running in the United States GP then so be it, but if that happens the powers that be must be willing to face the criticism that will inevitably come.

There is no safety net with the current F1 regulations.

What we want to see - and what all the F1 fans around the world want to see - is a safe race where everyone gets an equal chance. What we do not want to see is a Ben Hur-like competition, with cars suffering tyre failures and hitting walls.

Formula 1 goes into Sunday at Indianapolis with a loaded gun in its hand. Hopefully someone will have the sanity to make sure that the gun does not go off.