March 19, 2007

A (really) Brief Look At 'The Tire Wars'

In the comments section of F1 UPDATE!: Australia, Steven asks:

"What are you talking about regarding Bridgestone and Michelin?"

Well, I'm not a F1 historian, so I won't be able to go REALLY in-depth on that question, but I'll give answering it a shot anyways.

For the past (insert number here) years, Formula 1 had two tire providers: Michelin and Bridgestone (This is in marked contrast to NASCAR, which has only one exclusive tire maker, Goodyear, or IRL with Firestone).

'So what?' I hear you asking. Well, each tire manufacturer had it's own stable of F1 teams, and desperately wanted to beat the other manufacturer. After all, with F1 being the world's most-watched seasonal sport, having the tire contract for the team that wins the Constructor's Championship or the Driver's Championship could easily mean Multi-Megabucks in improved sales.

So, in striving to beat the other manufacturer, the tire companies poured hundreds of millions of dollars per SEASON into improving such things as grip in dry and wet, wear patterns, rubber compounds and the like.

How much difference can the tires make? By all reports, the 2005 Ferrari was a pretty decent car, but for some reason Bridgestone's tires pretty much stunk up the joint. As a result, Ferrari had the worst season they'd had in years, winning only once. Meanwhile, Michelin had a tire that performed well across the board.

Except for one race. That race? The 2005 US Grand Prix debacle, when only six cars out of 20 cars raced. The Michelin tires for the race were unsuitable for conditions (the final turn at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which is the first turn for the Indy 500, is the only banked turn in F1. This causes extreme stress on the tires). As a result, both Toyota cars crashed in practice, with Ralf Schumacher suffering a broken back.

And so Michelin withdrew from the race. Now, that's an extreme example of the differences in tires, to be sure, but it IS a valid one. Usually, though, it's more a question of THIS company's tires having to build up X amount of heat before they get good, where THAT company's tires get best results when the track is at 115 degrees, or whatever.

Sounds minor, right? It's not. I don't think anybody would disagree with me when I say that last year, the Renault and the Ferrari were pretty much identical in all respects regarding speed, handling, braking and aerodynamics... and even the top drivers were identical (Alonso and Slappy had differing styles, but were both still fast and evenly matched).

It really DID come down to which tire manufacturer had the edge for that particular track at that particular time... which, to me, was dull as dishwater.

I know Steve Matchett, the gearhead of the Legendary Announce Team, disagrees with me. He believes that technical innovation is the soul of F1, and having two or more tire makers competing with each other is good for the sport. I can understand that, but to my eyes, they became the deciding factor of the race. And that's NOT exciting.

This season, of course, the battles between Michelin and Bridgestone are gone. Everybody has the same tires for the races, courtesy of Bridgestone, so everybody is (theoretically) even. We could go into how Ferrari has been Bridgestone's main customer for umpty-ump years, so they've got a leg up on the rest, but each car has the same shoes.

So... that answer your question, Steven?

Posted by: Wonderduck at 02:20 PM | Comments (3) | Add Comment
Post contains 589 words, total size 4 kb.

1 That makes sense. Thanks!

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at March 20, 2007 01:17 PM (+rSRq)

2 I'm afraid I agree with Steve Matchett. Having a single tire supplier means the tires will be relatively conservative, i.e. hard compounds, which translates to slower cars (although that also means safer cars, I suppose). In fact, I'd want more than two tire manufacturers--perhaps Goodyear and Pirelli, which also made tires for Formula 1 back in the day, as well as Bridgestone and Michelin. I'd also like to see F1 go back to true slicks as opposed to those silly grooved tires. (I could carry on about how too much aerodynamic grip and not enough mechanical grip is ruining the sport, but that's a topic for another comment.)

As for Michelin at Indy, they also had some problems back in 2004 with sudden deflations; Alonso crashed out at Turn 1 because of that, and I think Ralf's crash (scarily similar to his 2005 USGP crash) was caused by that, too. At the time it was blamed on punctures caused by carbon fibre debris on the track, but ISTR that only Michelin runners were affected. I wonder if it was the same problem that ultimately sunk the 2005 USGP, and that it wasn't recognized at the time.

Posted by: Peter the Not-so-Great at March 20, 2007 02:08 PM (XoZtz)

3 Peter, I seem to remember that in 2004 there WAS an accident that left carbonfibre shards lying around, but it could be that there was a problem with the tires that wasn't noticed.

Remember, Michelin had 70% of the cars on the track. That makes it much more likely that they'd hit sharp things than a Bridgestone car... but your point is clear. It could have been a tire problem.

And a slight correction on my part: 2004 was when Ralf broke his back in practice at the USGP. 2005 was the accident in almost the same place that got debris in his eyes... and began the horrible chain of events that ruined the race.

Posted by: Wonderduck at March 20, 2007 02:25 PM (YadGF)

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