By Tony Dodgins, England
Autosport-Atlas Contributing Writer
Kimi Raikkonen's retirement on the last lap of the European Grand Prix still lingered in the Montreal paddock, and the issue of tyre safety was again a favourite topic of debate. Tony Dodgins talked to the drivers and team personnel about the effects of the 2005 regulations, and should the current situation be changed
You couldn't go very far in the Montreal paddock before the subject of tyre safety cropped up. I've got to say, my initial reaction to Kimi Raikkonen's Nurburgring accident was to wonder what the fuss was about. Every time you went through the turnstiles as a kid, your ticket had four words of warning: Motor Racing Is Dangerous. This wasn't tiddly-winks. You were there at your own risk. Things might go wrong. If they did, bad luck. And that was spectators. If you were a driver it didn't even need spelling out.
But times change. Today, if something goes wrong, it's always somebody's fault. When I was a kid, if you tripped over a wonky paving slab, your Mum sent you down to the sixties equivalent of Spec Savers and you came back looking like Elton John. These days it's game on to sue the council for a few thousand quid.
In Montreal, Raikkonen said he'd do exactly the same again. Ferrari's Rubens Barrichello said he would have stopped, not because he was frightened of a shunt, but because it wasn't going to work. Toyota's Jarno Trulli and others suggested that there was no real problem because you were just as likely to flat-spot a new tyre as an old one. As a man who'd done 500kms of testing at Monza on a Wednesday followed by 109 laps of Silverstone the following day, lack of testing safety was a bigger issue for him.
Mentally, I'd filed the subject in the bin. I'd heard Paul Stoddart's concerns and while I can see his point, I was also mindful that here was a handy political stick with which to beat FIA president Max Mosley. And what's more, the '05 tyre rules have been directly responsible for spicing up the action. Which was much needed.
But when you hear drivers like Mark Webber and David Coulthard - smart, sensible guys - suggesting that there's a problem, then you have to listen. Webber more or less mirrored Stoddart's opinion that the biggest problem is not being able to change a damaged tyre without knowing whether the change would be deemed illegal or not.
"My smallest worry is actually what happened to Kimi," Webber said. "That's a lottery. It could have happened under the old regs. But what's different this year is that if there is a lot of debris on the track around a Safety Car period, people do obviously pit in that window and if you have gone through the debris, it used to be that you'd put new rubber on at the stop, whereas now, you don't. You've got to remember how thin the tyres get as the race goes on. They don't stay the same thickness and are a lot more susceptible to damage later on. If there's carbon fibre everywhere with 10 laps to go, it's very different to when the guys have just stopped three or four laps before and put a new set of tyres on. So that's uncharted water, I think.
"The second thing is the Safety Car - it's too slow and you lose tyre pressure. It's even worse now because, again, we used to come in, put new rubber on and the tyres were correct temperature, and out we'd go behind the Safety Car. Now, when we get in behind the Safety Car, we just lose, lose, lose, because the tyres are thin and all the pressure goes. That's what caused Michael [Schumacher]'s failure at Barcelona.
"It's not specifically a temperature thing, it's that when you go back to racing the damage is done then because for the next five minutes that tyre is run at balls-out pace on low pressure and its mechanics - the casing and construction - are not designed for that load and pressure. The driver can put up with it, sure, like Fernando [Alonso] did after the Safety Car in Monaco - his tyres were thin and he was all over the place. But if it was Spa or Monza, then you know... that's a worry.
"Clearly Kimi's was a one-off. The tyre didn't fail, it was suspension and that might happen. On the flip side, the FIA issue is that we've got a choice to stop for tyres, which we have, but we are all massively competitive..."
Stoddart's point, and it's a good one, is that the risk versus reward in the Raikkonen case pointed so much towards keeping going that no serious race team, particularly with their Championship rival next on the road, would have done anything else.
"In Kimi's shoes I'd have done exactly the same," Webber confirmed. "In sixth or seventh gear at Nurburgring most places, except for after the hairpin at the bottom and the left-right, are very, very safe. But Monza, Spa, Suzuka... I just hope we don't learn the wrong way. That's all I'm worried about."
His next observation is interesting too.
"If there was no tyre war," the Australian said, "it wouldn't be such an issue because the windows and boundaries would be much more conservative on compounds and casings and you'd have more resilient tyres, as you have in Champ Cars and other categories. When I talk about the problems we have people say: okay, but the guys on the ovals follow a pick-up truck and then go straight back to green flag racing. But, being sensitive to the speedways and respecting them, there's a lot more precision involved with our tyres, in terms of the dividing line between the White House and the shithouse..."
Eloquently put. But if something does happen and there is a liability issue, as Stoddart says he fears, then the FIA will pick up that argument - that the tyre companies could build more resilient tyres if they wanted to - and run with it. But, speak to the tyre companies and they don't like the fact that their rubber is sometimes being asked to operate in circumstances for which it was not designed. And that seems fair enough to me. In a tyre war you're not going to make a bullet-proof tyre to cover every eventuality and tool in two laps behind the opposition...
So, would Webber like to see a single tyre?
"No. I don't know... I'm not against anything, I'm just saying that I think it's more dangerous as we have it now. There's certainly no way it's safer. People obviously argue that the racing is better. And that people used to do a whole race on one set of tyres. Keke Rosberg. Prost. Senna. And yes, they used to, but if they pissed off and got a massive lead, they could also come in for a new set of rubber and get going again, with no penalty involved."
As far as a single tyre supply goes, most people thought the idea had gone away after Brazil last year. Especially considering what the '05 tyre rules have done to spice up the racing. But apparently not. It's still there, and pretty strong, even if people aren't shouting too loudly. Stoddart reckons he knows why that is.
"Have we had a unilateral improvement in F1 by having a two-race engine? No, not if you're honest. Have we had a unilateral improvement in F1 by taking 20-30% off the aero? Not really. What's done it all? One thing: tyres.
"And who voted for that? Max and Jean Todt. Who's the biggest loser? Ferrari. Perhaps that's part of the reason people aren't saying much. There's an awful lot of people that won't be game enough to say it publicly but they are laughing their bloody heads off. Max and his little mate veto the whole single tyre thing and become the biggest losers.
"Max, because from a culpable liability point of view he's got his balls on the block. And Todt, because there is no doubt that he's scored the biggest own goal in the history of F1 by single-handedly voting down, with his mate Mosley's help, single tyre. And by being so against all the other teams that there's no sympathy. All the good he's done at Ferrari, he's screwed up in one go."
So, as with everything in F1, this is as much a political hot potato as a safety issue. What, I wondered, about an engineer's view?
"There is a certain amount of controlled risk in motor sport but I don't think any individual regulation in itself causes a problem," says BAR's Geoff Willis. "Specifically having to use the tyres for one whole race is something we've worked on for quite a long time and each individual team have to do their own job for the information available.
"I suppose it all comes down to the design. You know what the design targets are, and if you have set that as your engineering challenge, then you've got to go and find a solution. We do all sorts of things. For instance, we didn't particularly like having to go to narrower brakes in '98 but we put up with that and developed the technology and now, on 28mm thick brakes, we deal with what we said was impossible to do without 34mm. We've got a regulation now about the tyres which is pretty well understood and we've just got to design and operate around those conditions."
On the subject of brakes, it was interesting to note that Montreal has always been marginal and that, on Sunday, Trulli suffered an exploding disc eight laps from home. But did anyone start banging on about blaming the FIA for limiting the brakes? Nobody even thought about it.
"One of the interesting things about F1," Willis goes on, "is that some of the design problems are not very well-defined, as in you think you know what the loads are and the load conditions, but then you've got to do some more work to find out if there are other strange conditions that weren't immediately obvious, whether it's suspension, wings or indeed tyres. So I wouldn't really have a problem with it from a safety point of view. I think it's just a case of the tyre companies and teams taking it as a technical challenge and finding the right solution."
Willis evidently does not back the single tyre route.
"It's quite clear that the engineering challenge is much greater when there's competition and we have competition between all sorts of suppliers and components. We don't have this concept that we are going to have a single supplier for various other components, so there's no particular reason to choose tyres as the example. None of us particularly want to use all the same brakes, for example. It's good to have a challenge and competition."
If there is not going to be a single tyre supplier, then you have to swallow the notion that, sometimes, the ups and downs of the battle will mean that a driver of Michael Schumacher's obvious ability can't win a motor race. People will say that's daft, because it's the World Championship for drivers, not the World Championship for tyre manufacturers. And, rationally, they argue that tyres have such a hugely disproportionate effect on performance, much greater than any other component, and so should be considered separately.
If there is not to be a single supplier, then perhaps a more even spread of top teams between the two tyre companies would improve things. And that is far from impossible. You might think that anyone would be mad to be considering a switch to Bridgestone right now. But that's not necessarily the case. The company's record speaks for itself and its 2005 problems are caused almost exclusively by not being able to get sufficient heat into the rubber over one qualifying lap. Michael Schumacher once again was able to run at Raikkoinen's pace in Montreal once the Safety Car had promoted him onto the McLaren's gearbox.
If I was a team boss right now, I'd want to make sure that the qualifying regulations were changing from single lap, which is apparently on the cards, before I signed a Bridgestone contract for 2006. That would enable my bloke to run a series of qualifying laps, thereby overcoming the major problem.
Williams and Toyota are apparently considering their position quite closely, although Toyota's John Howett says they will most likely stay with Michelin, while Red Bull are almost certain to go the Bridgestone route.
Williams apparently, were close to signing up with the Japanese last year, until the idea was allegedly quashed by a small Frenchman who wears a lot of red jumpers. Suggestions that Ferrari's Bridgestone contract contains a veto clause over any team that might not meet their approval is apparently wide off the mark, although no one doubts that Maranello was able to make a lot of noise.
This year, though, Mr Watanabe, the overall Bridgestone big boss rather than a Bridgestone Motorsport man, has been less than impressed by a couple of developments. He didn't like it when Bridgestone was blamed for Michael Schumacher's Barcelona tyre failure, and he didn't like it when it was reported back that Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo had told a load of Brembo guests in Monte Carlo that if Ferrari's tyres were as good as their brakes, they'd be winning every race... Don't bet against a more equal balance between the two tyre companies next year - that's if there's no control tyre.
Personally, I'd like to see multiple tyre supply remain. And if the safety issue is a problem, how about one tyre change, elective only. That is to say, a driver can't stamp on his brakes at the last corner before his refuelling stop, arrive with square tyres and change them at the same time. But, if he genuinely flat-spots a tyre early in the race, he can elect to pit, quite separate from any refuelling stop, take on fresh rubber without any fear of penalty. And if he flat-spots them again, tough, he's a wally.