Tire war controversy brews up as Michelin flexes its muscles

IT is ironic that at a time when grand prix racing has become one of the great international televised sporting spectaculars, the outcome of the 2001 world championship could be decided simply by what tires the winning car is contracted to race on.

Since 1998, when Goodyear bowed off the scene, the F1 business has enjoyed Bridgestone's tire supply monopoly. This ensured that everybody had the same equipment in an area of grand prix car performance is technically complex and unpredictable.

Moreover, F1 insiders are concerned that the recent accidents during testing which befell Jacques Villeneuve's BAR 003 at Jerez and Luca Badoer's Ferrari F1-2000 at Barcelona recently, could conceivably have been related to the added pressure of a tire war now that Michelin is returning to the F1 fray for the first time since 1984 to square-up to Bridgestone, the "sitting tenants" of the Grand Prix game. As yet, there is no firm evidence that this is actually the case, but it is certainly a potential issue which remains in the back of the minds of the sport's top F1 engineers.

This year Bridgestone will continue supplying McLaren, Ferrari, Sauber, Arrows, Jordan and British American Racing. Michelin are taking over the job of supplying Williams, Jaguar, Benetton, Prost and Minardi.

The regulations governing the use of tires throughout a Grand Prix weekend oblige a team to select the rubber it intends to use for both qualifying and the race itself immediately after Saturday free practice. So if you get it wrong, you have to live with the consequences of that incorrect decision until it is time to pack the transporter on Sunday evening.

The rules governing tire use over a grand prix weekend have been carefully framed to ensure as far as possible that neither company gains an unfair advantage.

For the free practice sessions on Friday and Saturday mornings, drivers may use a choice of the two tire compounds available from his supplying company

However, crunch time comes before Saturday afternoon's hour-long qualifying session which determines the starting grid order.

Of increasing concern is the prospect of lap speeds spiralling out of control as both tire companies put their shoulder to the competitive wheel. Treaded tires have been obligatory from the start of the 1998 season, but the teams are worried that the FIA will require them to slow the cars by imposing further costly changes to the chassis regulations over the next few seasons.

"I think from a personal viewpoint, I would rather not have a tire war," says McLaren technical director Adrian Newey. "But from a theatre viewpoint, it can throw up wild cards, such as the occasion in 1997 when Damon Hill's Arrows outbraked Michael Schumacher to take the lead in Hungary.

"But the problem, of course, is that when the lap times start to spiral downwards as a result, it's always the chassis designer who gets the task of taking the speed out of the cars."

Yet if one takes the view that the appearance of another global player as a commercial supporter of F1 is a positive development, then Michelin's arrival is to be welcomed. The company's reputation goes before it, although anybody who believes that Bridgestone is going to roll over and allow the incomer to tickle its corporate underbelly has probably got another think coming.

The development of racing tire technology holds the ultimate key to the success or failure of a grand prix car design. The effectiveness of that tiny elliptical contact patch between the tire and track performance can make the difference between a winning performance and a disappointing midfield showing.

A racing tire is a complex technical package. Most tires used for competition were of 'cross ply' construction until Michelin arrived in on the grand prix scene in 1977 with the first 'radial' construction F1 tires.

The fundamental difference between a cross-ply and a radial tire is the positioning of the nylon cords which go into making the tire's basic carcass. The practical performance benefits conferred by a radial include reduced tread distortion under load - in other words, the tread is kept in firmer contact with the track surface.

Yet the most crucial element in a racing tire's performance can be found in its tread compound, a complex blend of more than fifty ingredients including polymers, fillers, oils, accelerators and sulphurs. All these have varying physical characteristics which are mixed together at specific levels in order to obtain particular physical properties.

When the tires are then delivered to the competing teams, the question of chassis set-up then becomes a priority. Tires generate grip through friction with the track surface, but friction necessarily means a build up of heat on the tire surface. The trick is to find the right compromise.

Thus the teams are always balancing on a narrow technical tightrope, trying to ensure that their cars generate sufficient aerodynamic downforce from their aerofoils to gain sufficient grip without over-heating the tires, causing them to 'blister' which in turn means a dramatic deterioration in their performance.

Bearing in mind the complexity of all the issues involved, an F1 tire war can be regarded from one of two directions. Either one sees it as another high-tech dimension which adds to the spectacle. Or a state of affairs which blurs and obfuscates the overall picture, unrealistically distorting the comparative performance of established Grand Prix teams.

Either way, F1 is stuck with such a confrontation for the foreseeable future.

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