JUNE 19, 2005

Is this the voice of reason?

The FIA has published an exchange of letters between itself and Michelin over the question of what should happen today with regard to tyres at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Michelin Director of F1 activities Nick Shorrock and Pierre Dupasquier wrote that Michelin has not been able to identify the root cause of the accident that befell Ralf Schumacher on Friday.

"The current rules and timescale do not permit the use of an alternative tyre solution and the race must be performed with the qualifying tyres," the letter said. "Michelin has in the sole interest of safety informed its partners that we do not have total assurance that all tyres that qualified the cars can be used unless the vehicle speed in Turn 13 can be reduced."

Shorrock added that "Michelin very much regrets this situation but has taken this decision after careful consideration and in the best interests of safety at the event. We trust that the FIA can understand our position."

The letter is a clear statement that Michelin accepts that it has made a mistake and now finds itself in an impossible position.

The FIA's response can hardly be described as helpful. The letter, attributed to Charlie Whiting and copied to Bernie Ecclestone, the 10 teams and the F1 press corps (but apparently not to FIA President Max Mosley nor to the FIA stewards) expresses surprise that the problem has arisen and says that the FIA will look at the question in relation to Article 151c of the International Sporting Code. This states that "any fraudulent conduct or any act prejudicial to the interests of any competition or to the interests of motor sport generally" will be deemed as breach of the rules.

The FIA letter goes on to say that a change of tyres will be a breach of the rules and that the punishment should be "heavy enough to ensure that no team was tempted to use qualifying tyres in the future".

The FIA suggests that a solution is that Michelin cars stop every 10 laps to change tyres.

The suggestion that there might be a chicane added was dismissed as "out of the question".

Michelin responded with a further request to find a way to reduce speeds in Turns 12 and 13.

"We will not compete with these tyres in the current configuration of the circuit," the letter said.

In response, the FIA said there was nothing to add to the previous letter.

Thus there appears to be an impasse.

What everyone seems to have forgotten in all of this is that there is a huge crowd of people arriving at Indianapolis to watch a motor race and they have paid out considerable sums of money and travelled long distances to see a full grid of F1 cars racing. Were the race to go ahead with only six cars, or the Michelin cars were pitting every 10 laps, there would be a strong argument from the crowd that the sport as a whole has breached Article 151c of the Sporting Regulations for failing to find a solution to the problem, for failure to have a back-up plan and for failing to provide value for money.

There are numerous examples of similar problems in the history of the sport, both in tyre war situations and at times when there were tyre monopolies in the given series. NASCAR has had to face the problem several times. As long ago as 1969 there was a major problem at Talladega when tyre failures led to a series of accidents. Thirty seven drivers decided that safety was more important than money and formed the Professional Drivers Association and threatened to boycott the race. NASCAR boss Bill France rounded up a new field of drivers and the race went ahead with mandatory caution periods every 20 to 25 laps to check the tyres.

In 1988 at Charlotte, when Goodyear and Hoosier were embarked on a bitter tyre war, Goodyear pushed too hard and was forced to withdraw its new tyres after a series of crashes. Hoosier stepped in and supplied the majority of the field. The same thing happened a year later at the Daytona 500. Once again the cars ran on Hoosiers instead.

The problem for Formula 1 is that the F1 regulations do not allow for any back-up plan if a tyre manufacturer makes a mistake and brings the wrong tyres to a race. Michelin did not go to Indianapolis with the intention of this problem arising and there is embarrassment aplenty for the French tyre maker already. It does no good at all for Charlie Whiting to add to that public humiliation. It does no good at all for him to be completely inflexible in the circumstances. In Indianapolis there is a considerable amount of wringing hands going on in the F1 paddock but the FIA top management is not here to understand that. Whiting can be overruled in the interests of the sport.

The FIA may argue that it is not concerned about the commercial questions in the sport but this simply adds to the argument that the sport should have one body which looks after both regulatory and commercial matters with an overall understanding about what is good for the sport.

What is happening now is very definitely not good for the sport.

The problem now is to find a practical solution in what little time is left before the race is due to start.

It is time to lay aside the sport's internecine and infantile political quibblings and think about the professional image of F1 - while it still has one.

Max Mosley has the power to do that. He should use it.