Down with Downforce

By Karl Ludvigsen, England
Atlas F1 Senior Writer

For Michelin, it was perilously close to a disaster. The French Grand Prix found most of its cars clustered at the tail end of the field of finishers. The best finish among the back-marking Michelin teams was a tenth place for Luciano Burti in his Prost-Acer. From there, up the list of finishers, it was solid Bridgestone all the way to a single solitary Michelin runner in second. The sight of Ralf Schumacher on the podium was the sole saving grace of what had started out to be quite a good weekend for Michelin.

After its excellent tests there, Michelin had high hopes for the race at Magny Cours, not far from its base at Clermont-Ferrand and in the heart of the country in which it dominates the tyre market with more than a 50 percent share. In fact, Michelin is so strong in France that the European Commission is threatening it with a fine of 20 million Euros for alleged transgressions of its rules requiring free and open trading. The tyre maker is struggling to recover from years of losses and an injudicious purchase of Uniroyal Goodrich, in 1990, for $1.5 billion. Michelin broke back into the black in 1994 and since 1999 has been headed by Edouard Michelin, now 36.

The scion of the Michelin dynasty sees Formula One as the final confirmation of his company's comeback after its successes in rallying and lesser formulas. "Michelin is placing its competence at the service of Formula One, that's clear," the youthful Edouard declared at the launch of its campaign last year. It is anything but coincidental that in 2002 - with its tyres on the cars of Jaguar (part of Ford), Renault (with Nissan) and Toyota - Michelin will be servicing the premier sporting needs of three of the world's five largest car makers. The talk in the business is that production Jaguars will soon be rolling on Michelin tyres.

In world terms, Michelin and Bridgestone are locked in a bitter battle for share, each with exactly 19.4 percent of the tyre market. The president of Bridgestone, Shigeo Watanabe, recently confirmed that his outfit is in Formula One "indefinitely". Third behind these two is Goodyear with a market share of 16.6 percent. The American firm stepped out of Formula One after the 1998 season, but now is expected back in 2003. Goodyear just can't sit back and watch its two great rivals forge titanium-strength links with the top managers of the world's biggest auto companies. It has to get involved again.

Like that of BMW, the competitiveness of Michelin this year has been a revelation. "If we were on slicks we'd be competitive straight away," said Michelin competition director Pierre Dupasquier before the season started. "But on grooves, we have to learn. It's a new discipline for us and, seeing as testing is very limited, that makes the learning curve longer. So we don't expect anything good from 2001. We'll be making our first tour of the circuits so if we do something good this year, it proves either that we are very good or our competitor is very bad." Nobody is suggesting that Bridgestone is bad, so the conclusion is obvious. "History proves that you never stay at the top forever," Dupasquier added, "so we expect McLaren or Ferrari, or both of them, to screw up." McLaren has been the one to oblige in 2001, and indeed again at Magny Cours.

We've already seen what the Bridgestone-Michelin rivalry hath wrought. Chopping more than two seconds off laps times at Magny Cours was not down to the cars alone; tyres had a lot to do with it. Also, with two tyre makers in the field, strategies are getting harder to figure. The most respected strategist in Formula One, Ross Brawn, said at the Nurburgring that he was finding it a challenge to defend against two different scenarios, with McLaren-Mercedes on Bridgestones and BMW-Williams on Michelins. "It's not easy," admitted Brawn. What will it be like with three tyre suppliers? The mind boggles.

Involvement by three tyre makers will be a mixed blessing for the car makers who increasingly dominate the backing of Formula One teams. As noted above, it will be hell for the strategists who run their teams. For the teams that choose well, a tyre maker can offer a significant advantage. That means, of course, that other teams with lesser rubber will suffer. In fact a multiplicity of tyre suppliers introduces "wild cards" into the Grand Prix deck that are unsettling for the sport's sponsors and backers. They prefer certainty. We will have a lot less of that in the future - as we have already discovered this year with the sudden and dramatic resurgence of Michelin-shod Williams.

What concerns me most, however, is the impact of tyre development on circuit speed. Grooved tyres or not, cornering speeds will continue to rise this year and next and even more in 2003 with the arrival of Goodyear, which knows a thing or three about tyres. With its dreadful grooves the FIA has done all that it reasonably can to curtail the opportunity that is available to the tyre developers. Within whatever parameters the rule makers set, the tyre producers will have to be free to continue to advance their technology. Yet speeds through corners need to be kept under control for the sake of safety.

My conclusion is clear: the FIA and the teams must find ways to reduce aerodynamic downforce. The need is urgent. Cars for 2002 are already designed and their construction is starting. New rules that will diminish downforce must be put in place in good time to affect the design of the cars for the 2003 season. This subject is already under discussion, with most of the attention being given to the car's underbody. That's where a lot of downforce is generated and where it should ideally be diminished. Rules changes for this year have already been directed at reductions in downforce from the wings; wings should be kept for the sake of car stability and valuable advertising space. So it's the underbodies that need attention, and tout de suite.

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Print Version

Volume 7, Issue 27
July 4th 2001

Atlas F1 Exclusive

Interview with Gascoyne
by Roger Horton

Behind the Scenes of 'The Fast and the Furious'
by Fred Topel

French GP Review

The French GP Review
by Pablo Elizalde

Reflections from Magny Cours
by Roger Horton

Surprise Surprise
by Richard Barnes

Down with Downforce
by Karl Ludvigsen


The F1 Insider
by Mitch McCann

Season Strokes - the GP Cartoon
by Bruce Thomson

Qualifying Differentials
by Marcel Borsboom

The Weekly Grapevine
by the F1 Rumors Team

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