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Opinion
WEC Spa-Francorchamps

How Spa showed the folly of the WEC's self-defeating tyre rules

OPINION: Multiple incidents during the course of the Spa World Endurance Championship round can be attributed to the difficulties of running on cold rubber following the pre-season ban on tyre heaters. The move designed to improve the championship's environmental credentials was laudable, but the impact of replacing damaged parts shows a clear flaw

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I'm not sure I’ve ever headed to the Le Mans 24 Hours hoping for high temperatures and sunny weather. I’m no sun worshipper, and too much heat doesn’t make life any easier for a pasty-faced Englishman over the busiest week of my year. But this time I’m praying that the 24 Hours next month is a hot one. That’s not for my benefit, you understand, but for the sake of driver safety, the workload of hard-pressed mechanics, and the environment.

Some decent temperatures during the night are what I’m really hoping for. The ban on tyre warmers - traditionally diesel-heated ovens in endurance racing - in the World Endurance Championship for this year has created a situation that to my mind is dangerous and doesn’t yield the intended environmental gains. The sight of drivers struggling to warm up the rubber underneath them on an out-lap at Spa last weekend, and then spinning, wasn’t comfortable for me. Seeing cars spearing off into the barriers was somewhere between very concerning and bloody frightening.

The same can be said of the closing speeds at Eau Rouge. Just watch Kamui Kobayashi sweep around fellow Toyota driver Brendon Hartley - all four wheels off the track - as he took the lead in the final hour. It was a heart in the mouth moment.

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If you’ve already seen that moment then you’ve probably watched the race, so I hope you’ll understand my worries. If you didn’t tune in, I’ll just mention a couple of the incidents on cold rubber over the course of the three days of the Spa 6 Hours meeting. Hartley went off at the top of Eau Rouge in qualifying and, more worrying, Antonio Fuoco crashed his Ferrari on the kink on the old start-finish straight right after the pit exit during the race. It was a significant impact that ended his day there and then.

Temperatures rose from 8 to 11 degrees over the course of the Belgian round of the WEC on Saturday. It could be colder than that in the night and through to dawn at Le Mans. And nor should we forget that it tends to rain more often than not during Le Mans week. Wet tyres lacking temperature on a damp track were responsible for any number of spins on the formation laps at Spa.

I’m fearful that the Dunlop Chicane is going to become some kind of racing car graveyard, that the massive speed differential between cars on cold rubber and those on tyres already up to temperature is going to cause high-speed accidents through the Esses, at Tertre Rouge and perhaps further into the long Le Mans lap. Most of all, I’m worried that someone is going to get hurt.

The dangers of running on unheated tyres weren’t suddenly thrown up by the weather conditions at Spa. They have been on the agenda since the beginning of the season: Ferrari driver James Calado, remember, was highly critical of the tyre warmer move after crashing in the Prologue pre-test at Sebring back in March.

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Fuoco crashed his Ferrari 499P LMH exiting the pits on fresh tyres

Fuoco crashed his Ferrari 499P LMH exiting the pits on fresh tyres

Photo by: Ferrari

It disappeared from the radar to some extent because the first two races of the season were held in the sunny climes of Florida and the Algarve. But I had put a marker in my mental diary for Spa. A track that sits 600 metres up in the Ardennes and is known for its fickle weather: it’s only four years ago that it snowed during the WEC race there!

I understand the message that the FIA is trying to project at a time when sanctioning bodies need to be seen to be regulating themselves from within rather than waiting for a clampdown from outside. And clearly doing away with all those diesel-powered tyre heaters at the back of the pits sends out the correct one.

Yet I can’t believe that the carbon footprint of the damage caused by drivers going off on cold rubber over the course of the Spa 6 Hours meeting last weekend hasn’t already undone any gains the new-for-2023 rule might have produced so far, or will have over the races or perhaps seasons to come. The manufacture of every component of a racing car creates emissions, and so does shipping them around the world. Put simply, crashed cars have an environmental impact because they have to be repaired.

The gains just aren’t there to justify a situation that for now looks highly dangerous. The new policy might have already increased the emissions from the WEC paddock

AF Corse had to bring a Ferrari 488 shell in from Italy, around which to rebuild a GTE Am class car damaged in an accident during practice. I laid the finger of blame for the incident firmly on the new ruling: Thomas Flohr was on an out-lap when he was hit by AF team-mate Diego Alessi at the top of Eau Rouge. So the rule has been at least partially responsible for however many tankfuls of diesel were required to get that chassis to Belgium.

The FIA points out that there are many series around the world that don’t allow tyre warmers. It doesn’t mention the IMSA SportsCar Championship by name, but that is the series to which it is primarily referring. But rarely do the races in North America take place in the kind of conditions we saw at Spa or may see at Le Mans. Single digit temperatures at night — that’s in our European Celsius, not America’s Fahrenheit — are not even the norm during the night at the Daytona 24 Hours.

Tyre warmers are not part of the culture of North American sportscar racing and clearly teams and drivers are on top of running without them. I concede that there is a learning process going on in the WEC right now and we all have to admit that a lack of pre-heating doesn’t seem to be a problem in LMP2 where the cars, unlike in Hypercar, are running tyres that weren’t developed to run unheated. I don’t have an answer as to why, but can only point to the fact that the P2 cars have been progressively robbed of power since the start of the Hypercar era in 2021.

I understand that over time there is going to be a greater understanding of using the tyres from cold, but my argument is that the gains just aren’t there to justify a situation that for now looks highly dangerous. Or, as I’ve said, the new policy might have already increased the emissions associated with the WEC paddock.

The FIA has a tyre road map for the WEC that’s part of its drive for sustainability, of which the ban on pre-heating rubber is part. It wants to do it in Formula 1, too. There’ll be try-out runs without the use of warmers in the two days of testing at Silverstone after the British Grand Prix in July. Tyre blankets could be a thing of the past in F1 as early as next year.

Alessi's #21 Ferrari was only able to start the race after a second tub was brought from Italy after its crash in FP2

Alessi's #21 Ferrari was only able to start the race after a second tub was brought from Italy after its crash in FP2

Photo by: Eric Le Galliot

The plan is also to reduce the number of specifications available at each race in the WEC. I wouldn’t argue against that. Don’t forget Michelin has made much of the environmental benefits of increasing the life of its racing tyres for years. It’s particularly proud of the set that did a quintuple stint on the winning Audi R18 TDI in 2011. It’s even had one of the covers put on display at its Clermont-Ferrand museum.

Using fewer tyres is clearly a good idea, as is bringing fewer of the things to each race by limiting the number of specs. Those moves offer a significant benefit in terms of sustainability.

But saving a few litres of diesel with the ban on tyre heaters is merely paying lip service to the environment.

Should the WEC revert to using tyre heaters for Le Mans?

Should the WEC revert to using tyre heaters for Le Mans?

Photo by: Toyota

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