ATLAS F1   Volume 7, Issue 3 Email to Friend   Printable Version

Atlas F1   Here Comes the
Michelin Man

  by Roger Horton, England

With some six weeks to go before the new Formula One season begins, Roger Horton reviews how the renewed tyre war in F1 will affect the competition, based on past experience

Making predictions about the future can be a tricky business. Back in mid-March last year, a well-known financial analyst, when questioned on television as to his advice for investors overweight with stocks listed in the mainly hi-tech NASDAQ Composite Index, waved his hands grandly in the air. Do nothing; just sit on them he urged. Well, those who followed his advice - and left their stock portfolios alone - could well have seen the value of their stocks plunge by more than fifty percent as the Bears raged through Wall Street. One can only presume that this was not what he intended.

So even the 'experts' often get it wrong when they try their hand at fortune telling. Just as no one can predict who will end up the winner in any sporting contest, no one can predict, for sure, the future levels of the stock market. Only common sense and experience can head the average pundit in the right direction.

Last year, you didn't need to be a genius to predict that the battle for the F1 titles would be a contest between Ferrari and McLaren, but stand up the pundits who predicted that Jordan would be so plagued by unreliability that they would drop to sixth place in the Constructors' standings, and take a bow whoever tipped the Jaguar team to be such a disappointment.

So who will be the winners and losers this year, or will it be a case of more of the same? It could well be, but there is one new factor in the mix this season that could make a nonsense of all the pre-season forecasts, and it's a four letter word, and a word not talked about much over the past couple of years - tyres. Yes, this season, the performance of the rival tyre makers - Bridgestone and newcomer Michelin - could see some strange looking grids and a few race upsets.

The last time a new tyre supplier came on the scene was back in the 1997 season, when Bridgestone challenged the long-time sole supplier Goodyear. This proved to be an interesting season, and it's worth looking back to see whether there are lessons that can be learned and whether these lessons can be applied to this coming year.

Bridgestone initially supplied just five teams, and all from the wrong end of the grid. The teams were Arrows, Prost, Stewart, Minardi and Lola - not exactly a line up to strike fear into the hearts of the men from Woking or Maranello. The Lola team would fold after just two races, the Stewart-Ford team was then in its first season, Arrows had then gone nearly 300 races without a win, and only the newly renamed Prost outfit had ever won a Grand Prix, when it competed under the Ligier banner.

And yet, although the record books show that Goodyear won every race in 1997, Bridgestone-shod teams could well have come away with at least four race wins had the cars using their tyres been a little more reliable. Olivier Panis, in his Prost, was well in the running in both Argentina and Spain, and his teammate Jarno Trulli had the Austrian Grand Prix well under control until engine problems intervened. Most memorable of all, perhaps, was Damon Hill's last lap disappointment for Arrows in Hungary. One more lap at racing speed would have seen him take the win and score a many racing 'firsts' for Arrows, engine supplier Yamaha, and of course, Bridgestone.

Back then, Goodyear, reacting to the challenge from their new rivals, went in for some very soft race compounds. Bridgestone, by contrast, were more conservative, and generally produced race tyres that would last longer and therefore required fewer pit stops. The fact that the two front-runners that season - Williams and Ferrari - were both using Goodyear tyres, forced them to often select the softest available compound, because they were competing fiercely against each other. Therefore, there were times when Bridgestone Tortoises almost beat the Goodyear Hares, and even though they didn't, they impressed enough team bosses in the pitlane to secure some heavyweight teams for the '98 season.

Could history repeat itself, and could we see a Michelin-shod team winning this year? The answer, of course, is who really knows. But, by any measurement standard, Williams, Benetton and Jaguar, Michelin's leading teams this year, look to be a much stronger first-year line up for the French tyre company, than the Bridgestone teams were for the Japanese newcomer back in '97. Hence, if recent history is any guide, it would be a brave soul who predicts that Michelin won't win a race this season.

For the Michelin-shod teams, the switch in tyre supplier represents the best opportunity to quickly bridge the performance gap that exists between the 'big two' and the rest. This gap was generally reckoned to be around one second per lap for most of last season. And, although there has been no major changes to the regulations this year - a factor that generally leads to the narrowing of the performance gap between the teams, closing up that last second is an enormous challenge, and this is the reason why it is so hard for the leading teams to be caught.

Quite simply, if at any given race this year the Michelin compounds are better suited to the conditions than the Bridgestone supplied ones, that one second disadvantage can disappear in an instant. If it almost worked for Prost and Arrows in 1997, how much more likely is it to work for teams like Williams and Benetton this year?

Last year, Ferrari's technical director Ross Brawn estimated that the team managed to improve the lap times for Michael Schumacher's car by around one second per lap over an entire season's development. The thought that their rivals could potentially gain this much speed just through a superior tyre compound must be a worry to both the leading teams.

It is unlikely to change the order much over the entire season, but it would be foolish to rule out the Michelin teams getting in amongst the Ferraris and McLarens on more than a few occasions, and interfering in what has recently been a private battle. This might play into the hands of Ferrari more than McLaren, given the former's rather better grip on race tactics in recent years, because any wrong strategy calls could see a potentially quicker two-stopping McLaren, caught behind a one stopping Williams, with all the resulting frustrations this could cause.

All this, of course, pre-proposes that Michelin will be as competitive in their first year as Bridgestone were in theirs, something that will not really be known until the season is well under way. So far the pre-season testing has been inconclusive, which is pretty normal, although the Michelins have looked impressive in wet conditions.

It would certainly appear that Michelin are determined not to repeat the mistakes made by the BAR team and build expectations that are beyond their capacity to deliver. Their motorsport boss Pierre Dupasquier was recently quoted as stating that he was not expecting victories until 2003 at the earliest, which is a smart move, but no one should be fooled into thinking that he has really settled on this two year time-span, before tasting the winner's champagne.

He was echoing similar sentiments aired by BMW-Williams technical director Patrick Head, who stated back in November: "Towards the end of the season Bridgestone certainly raised the performance level, and I'm certain in 2001 they will raise it even further. For Michelin it's going to be quite a steep wall that they are going to have to climb to get on the same sort of level." Yet anyone who thinks that the Williams team is not privately quietly confident of breaking their recent winless streak this year is way off the beam.

More recently, Williams's new signing Juan Montoya - who perhaps strayed a little from his prepared script - was publicly much more optimistic when assessing his new rubber: "Michelin doesn't want to come into F1 and simply match Bridgestone - they want to come in, go past them and try to blow them away. And if that happens, and we're the top Michelin team, that would be really good for us. Every time we test, the tyres are much better."

So, as the new car launch season moves into high gear, the hype and predictions will soon be in full swing, delivered with all the evangelical zeal of that nameless TV stock analyst. But, at least betting on winners and losers in the Formula One game is not as potentially costly as riding the Bears and the Bulls on the NASDAQ, although the stakes for the participants themselves can be equally high.

Roger Horton© 2007
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