ATLAS F1   Volume 7, Issue 12 Email to Friend   Printable Version

Atlas F1   Tire Wars Episode III

  by Robert Butsch, U.S.A.

A few years ago the FIA mandated that Formula One tires be detuned by having grooves cut into the tread in an effort to lower cornering speeds. Jump to 2001, and it's most obvious the goal was not achieved. Robert Butsch looks into the reasons behind the predictable failure, and what the FIA could do to find the balance between speed and safety

'When you are up to your ass in alligators, it is difficult to remember'... Well, everyone is probably familiar with this hoary old saying. It was used by Jaguar technical director Steve Nichols in the off-season in a candid, and probably accurate, assessment of that team's predicament. It may also be sounding uncomfortably relevant to the Formula One community at large.

Formula One TiresA few years ago the FIA mandated that Formula One tires be detuned by having grooves cut into the tread in an effort to lower cornering speeds. Jump to 2001. At Melbourne, pole speed beat the old record (set on slicks, mind you) by over a second. Fastest race lap beat it too. And, tragically, a track worker was killed as a result of a ferocious high speed accident. Two weeks later at Sepang, the pole record (this one only five months old) took another thrashing, and Michelin found itself on the qualifying podium at only its second race back. Somewhere along the way the FIA appears to have lost track of draining the swamp.

What happened? Although the increased speeds may have played a role, the death of the track worker was probably more the result of the inherent danger that is never far from racing. As for the significantly faster qualifying and lap times, there is universal agreement that they are a result of Michelin's return to Formula One and the subsequent revival of Tire Wars. What is truly amazing - and revealing - is just how quickly this old ghost has come back to haunt the sport.

About a year ago, I claimed in an article titled All Tired Out that tires are the single most confounding piece of hardware in Formula One. I still believe that. Forget arcane aerodynamics and engines with horsepower ratings four times their weight in pounds; tires are what cause the sport the most trouble.

To place the present situation in context, we should recall that this wasn't used to be the case. The only real virtue of very early racing tires was that they were round. Until about 1966, Grand Prix cars used relatively narrow tires. Until 1971, the gap between tire performance and car performance was sufficiently large to allow patterns to be cut into the tread to provide some immediate help in case of rain. The main tire concern was getting the things replaced, or getting to the end of the race before they wore out completely and came apart.

The advent of sophisticated aerodynamics at the end of the Sixties changed all of this. Cars began producing incredible amounts of so-called aerodynamic grip. This stuff was, of course, completely useless until it was turned into actual grip by the tires. Suddenly tires became stars of the sport. They got wider and softer. Patterns were removed from dries in an effort to get the maximum amount of tread in contact with the pavement. Teams obsessed over tire temperatures, debris pickup, and one pound adjustments in pressure. Major compound alchemy was worked by manufacturers in an unceasing effort to produce flypaper treads under racing conditions. Special, super-gluey qualifying tires appeared. The "horses for courses" theory was adopted, and the manufacturers began producing particular designs and compounds for particular tracks. The teams turned the vice of having to change short-lived soft tires into the virtue of winning races with clever pitstop strategy. All of this was carried out in an atmosphere of almost paranoid secrecy, particularly when more than one tire manufacturer was involved.

We have seen a degree of respite in most of this over the past few years. The FIA mandated a form of patterned tread by way of grooves (this has even helped in wet conditions; witness Rubens Barrichello's performance at Hockenheim last season). Bridgestone, as the only tire supplier to F1 for the past two seasons, felt no pressure to push the tire development envelope. However, as Melbourne showed with a vengeance, the respite is over. The qualifying and the racing at Albert Park revealed (how wonderful hindsight is) just how much Bridgestone held back when they were the monopoly tire source. Whatever control over cornering speed grooves had provided - and they certainly had provided some - has now evaporated.

Actually, out of all the changes to the regulations made over the past few years, the grooved tire may have been the only one that came close to working the way it was intended. All the other stuff - reducing the width of the cars, tinkering with the aerodynamics - was probably counter-productive. David Coulthard was recently quoted as observing that "we are arriving at corners, the potential scene of accidents, at higher speeds because we have less downforce, narrower cars and less drag."

Even wheel tethering has not lived up to its advanced billing. If the FIA's efforts at regulating the performance end of the sport have been spotty in the past, they seem to be worse for 2001. The new aerodynamic rules raised the ends of the front wings and reduced the allowable number of rear wing elements. It now appears that these changes reduced drag too much, while not reducing downforce enough to offset Bridgestone's and Michelin's extra efforts. Re-introduction of traction control will probably mean less tire wear, particularly on the rears, which will mean softer compounds and thus higher cornering speeds.

There should be no disagreement that the FIA need to control the speed of the cars, and they need to do it better than they have up to now. The reasons for this are more complicated than just making sure cars aren't going too fast when they run into something.

Take wheel tethering as an example. Each of a wheel's two tethers is supposed to be able to sustain a 5 ton load in tension. However, in case of an accident not all loads on the tethers will be in tension. Also, the tethers' attach points need to stand up to nearly a 5 ton load, and what the attach points are attached to in turn need to stand up to nearly that, etc., to make the whole scheme work. Although from an engineering view this is a simplistic analysis, it should be apparent that ensuring that all 4 wheels stay attached to the car under any and all racing circumstances would mean reducing a car's ability to disintegrate in a crash, thus reducing its ability to dissipate energy.

Drivers coming up on the scene of Villeneuve's Melbourne crash spoke of debris falling out of the sky. Three of the BAR Honda's wheels became detached from the chassis. This may very well have been vital in allowing Jacques to walk away from the accident, but it did no good for the track worker even with substantial catch fencing in place. Cars must carry less energy that needs to be dissipated when they are involved in a crash. Lower speeds is the way to get less energy. Of course, we need to remember that this is motor racing, which means fast cars. Coulthard and Michael Schumacher have recently pointed this out. Perhaps, however, events have been hinting to us that we do not need what we are now getting: faster cars.

So what should the FIA do? Should they send good money chasing after bad by taking away even more downforce? Then you have even less aerodynamic drag and faster straight line speeds. Should they add downforce to recover some drag? Then the cars will corner faster, particularly on Tire Wars tires, which works against the swamp-draining that everybody was originally trying to accomplish during the grooved tire debate. Should they reduce engine power as has been suggested by Eddie Irvine, among others? This won't effectively address the cornering speed issue, and unless it is a drastic change in the formula, the engine manufacturers will make it up soon enough (25,000 rpm at $1,000 per rev, anyone?). Should they do all of the above? This sounds like NASCAR.

It seems evident that a Pandora's Box has been opened by attempts to tweak aerodynamics while letting the tire guys run loose. I will suggest again that the FIA should contract out tires to a single manufacturer, and then regulate the product so as to reduce cornering speed (yes, more grooves, if necessary). Only after they have some control over the tires should they mess with aerodynamics, and they should do this with an eye toward reducing straight line speed, not cornering speed. Short of an outright ban on all aerodynamic devices (and remember, a car's body is an aerodynamic device these days) or a major change in the formula, there doesn't seem to be another good way to rein in Formula One's continuing increases in speed.

Robert Butsch© 2007
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