The Case for Slicks

Atlas F1

The Case for Slicks

by Ewan M. Tytler, U.S.A.

Grooved tyres were introduced to Grand Prix racing in 1998 as an experiment to improve the safety and quality of Grand Prix racing. It is impossible to make scientifically valid conclusions about the impact of grooved tyres on Formula One from the 1998 race statistics, as the FIA changed more than one variable at a time by also restricting the vehicle width. It's certain that the F1 teams know exactly how grooved tyres affect their vehicles performance, from pre-season testing. Their pre-season testing cannot determine how the grooved tyres affect Grand Prix safety under race conditions. Thus, we are left to judge the impact of grooved tyres with subjective benchmarks like "quality" of racing.

Bernie Ecclestone's FOA is promoting Formula one globally as the ultimate form of motor racing. He is arguing that Formula one has the best drivers driving the best cars on the best circuits in the world. With grooved tyres (or worse, all-weather tyres), can he really argue this? Shouldn't F1 cars be using the highest performing and most technologically advanced tyres? He will also have problems promoting F1 if, for example, CART, running slick tyres, becomes more popular with drivers than F1.

Do groove tyres improve safety?

One of the FIA missions is to improve the safety of F1. They believe they can do this by reducing cornering speeds of F1 cars by introducing grooved tyres and ultimately all-weather tyres in 2001. Will the changes in tyre regulations since 1997 and the future changes achieve this goal? Max Mosely is not a fool, but his logic may be distorted by the tragic events of Imola in 1994. The logical conclusion of his thinking is that Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenburger would have lived if they had been using grooved tyres, because they would have left the circuit at lower speeds. Sorry, I don't buy that. The racing line at Imola should not have pointed towards solid, unprotected walls. Furthermore, the Senna's Williams FW16 was, by all accounts, very unstable. The last thing it needed was less traction.

Actually, all other things being equal, the advances in slick tyre technology improved the safety of F1 racing because this gave the drivers greater control over their vehicles, especially under braking, and thus reduced the number of times that they left the circuit or collided with another vehicle. The grooved tyres were introduced to reverse tyre evolution and actually made the F1 cars less controllable and thus more accident-prone. It seems that the FIA are primarily considering single vehicles leaving the track.

Grooved tyres may be more dangerous due to the multiple-vehicle accidents that will happen as traction is reduced. Eventually someone will lose control on a very fast corner. Under extreme oversteer a car could end up sideways across the track and will be in the path of cars with grooved tyres that cannot stop effectively. Imagine the opening lap accident at Spa with everyone going much faster; maybe next time they won't be so lucky.

Something unexpected happened in 1998: the lap speeds did not drop as much as the FIA expected. Rolling resistance and air resistance were two factors that contributed to this. The 1998 F1 tyres had reduced rolling resistance since there was less rubber on the road. The 1998 cars had lower air resistance because the vehicles were narrower and because fluid dynamicists, like McLaren's Adrian Newey, improved the air-flow around the cars. These factors resulted in higher top speeds.

Since no one was killed or seriously injured in F1 during 1998, the FIA can argue that grooved tyres have improved safety. But the lap-times did not drop as far as they wanted, hence the extra groove for 1999.

Do groove tyres improve competition?

Most people would agree that a good Grand Prix includes skillful driving, overtaking on the circuit, a high percentage of vehicles going the distance and an exciting finish. Only the Luxembourg and Japanese Grands Prix in 1998 fitted that description. Grooved tyres were only one factor in this equation, but I don't think they helped. Grooved tyres appear to have failed to improve the quality of racing in 1998.

Most overtaking during 1998 took place during pit stops. For the majority of overtaking to take place on the circuit two things must change:

There must be more incentive to overtake a competitor on the circuit. Currently, it is often tactically better to wait for the next pit stop than to risk going off trying to overtake. To achieve this, the number of regular pit-stops could be reduced to one during a Grand Prix (emergency pit stops to replace punctured tyres could still be allowed.) Multiple pit-stops are a fact of life since the introduction of grooved tyres as they have such a short useful life (under 100 Km). This could be a realistic goal if hard compound slicks were used that were good for 200 Km.

Classic Grand Prix races of the slick era, such as the Gilles Villeneuve/ René Arnoux duel at the 1979 French Grand Prix, happened because open circuits like Dijon allowed that type of racing to take place and because the drivers had absolute confidence in themselves, their machines and each other. Reducing traction and making the F1 car more unstable will make competitive driving of this standard less likely as the drivers have less confidence in their machinery. The closest we have seen to this on grooved tyres was the battle between Michael Schumacher and Alexander Wurz at Monaco. The Schumacher/Wurz battle was carried out at much lower speed and for a much shorter time than the Dijon race.

Many F1 fans tend to lose interest when their favourite driver or team drops out of the race. Having cars going off the circuit and getting caught in sand traps is obviously bad for business. The best argument against the introduction of all-weather tyres is the 1998 Belgian GP. Even shod with the best wet-weather tyres available, most drivers were struggling to keep their cars out of the sand traps, only 8 drivers finished.

Do grooved tyres lower the cost of F1?

Costs have been reduced by having only one option for grooved, dry tyres. Conversely, the costs of testing and racing has risen as a grooved tyre is good for less than 100 Km. The addition of an extra groove will reduce the life of the 1999 tyre even further as more engine and braking power will be wasted as heat.

Another less obvious effect of grooved tyres on the teams' budgets is the increased likelihood of accidents. The Canadian and Belgian Grand Prix were very expensive, especially for the smaller teams.

Do grooved tyres level the playing field?

Max Mosely wishes to use grooved tyres simulate wet conditions on a dry track, because he believes the conventional wisdom that:

1) wet weather is the "Great Equaliser" that will promote closer racing.
2) driving in the wet requires more skill than driving in the dry.

Is this really so?

Wet weather does level the playing field to a certain extent. Higher powered vehicles cannot use all of their engine or braking power, so lower powered vehicles may have a better chance of keeping up with the top teams. Grooved tyres should also have the same effect. The gap between Ferrari and Tyrrell, the fastest and the slowest Goodyear-equipped teams, did not change much from 1997 to 1998. A single choice of dry tyre in 1999 should level the playing field. This seems unlikely since Bridgestone are providing personalized technical support to McLaren and Ferrari. It was unreasonable to expect tyres alone to bring the F1 field closer together. Aerodynamics, in particular, has given teams like McLaren and Ferrari a big advantage over the low-budget teams.

Most current F1 drivers have used slick tyres throughout their motor racing careers. Michael Schumacher, Jacques Villeneuve and David Coulthard have been very vocal in criticising the 1998 and 1999 tyre regulations. However, Mika Hakkinen has been quiet about the tyre controversy, probably because grooved tyres gave him an advantage over his competitors. Similarly, Damon Hill is not complaining loudly about the addition of an extra groove to the 1999 tyre. Perhaps it's all down to their driving styles?

One could argue that the wet-driving skills are different from dry-driving skills but not necessarily better. There are plenty of examples of drivers who were brilliant in the wet but mediocre in the dry and vice versa. Grooved tyres have simply shifted the advantage towards drivers who are more comfortable driving with low traction rather than improving the overall standard of driving.

In Conclusion:

Since the addition of an extra groove to the F1 tyre is the only major change introduced for 1999, we are now more likely to get an accurate picture of how the grooves really affect lap times, spin-offs, collisions and pit-stop frequency.

It would be wrong to use grooved tyres as a scapegoat for dull races or mediocre driving. I hope that I'm wrong, but I can't see an extra groove helping in 1999. Overtaking may increase during 1999 - but only due to more pit stops. Viva slicks!

Ewan M. Tytler© 1999 Atlas Formula One Journal.
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