The SEMA Show in Las Vegas attracts newsmakers and the 2003 version was no different. Taking over Sin City for a near week of automotive adoration, manufacturers use their tie-ins with different racing series to introduce and promote new ...
The SEMA Show in Las Vegas attracts newsmakers and the 2003 version was no different. Taking over Sin City for a near week of automotive adoration, manufacturers use their tie-ins with different racing series to introduce and promote new products.
Among the motorsports stars trotted out by suppliers and sponsors at this year's SEMA Show was Kimi Raikkonen, who finished second in just his third Formula One season to six-time champion Michael Schumacher.
The West McLaren-Mercedes driver gave Schumacher a fight to the season's final race, albeit trailing by nine points once the tour docked at Suzuka. Raikkonen scored his first F1 win at Malaysia, knocked back pole position at the USGP this September at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and finished on podium ten times.
In Las Vegas for tire supplier Michelin, Raikkonen endured nearly a full day of media and attendee immersion. He had a mid-morning teleconference, followed by a photo shoot at the Michelin booth with mascot Mr. Bibb. Then it was off to a 1.5-hour media lunch with Michelin higher-ups in attendance.
The 24-year-old Finn returned to his show car on the Las Vegas Convention Center floor for an hour of autograph signing, before flying off to Germany and functions at the Mercedes-Benz factory. Most likely he can't wait until testing begins the end of the month.
West McLaren-Mercedes is in the midst of deciding what car to use next year to help Raikkonen secure his first Formula One title and Kimi isn't sure what configuration they'll choose by the time his first test is set for Valencia.
After attempting to develop the MP4-18 and race its predecessor throughout the 16-race season, Raikkonen hopes he won't have to make the same stretch in 2004. "I don't know when the new car will appear," Raikkonen shrugged, "but I do know we test for the first time the end of this month. With a new car there are always problems," so the team needs all the track time it can get. Starting in January, the bulk of pre-season work begins for all the Formula One teams.
Making his appearance for Michelin, a lot of table talk centered on tires and, in particular the controversies that raged toward the end of last season when Bridgestone and Ferrari cast doubt on the legality of Michelin's Pilot racing tires.
Chris Baker, Michelin's director of motorsports event marketing in North America gave some insight: "We did something that normally would take us several weeks" when the doubt was first cast on the precise width of Michelin's 13" front tires. The correct measurement is 270mm, and until this dissension occurred tires were always measured prior to competition.
Once the furor came about, different measurements were required and Michelin concocted new tires "within a matter of days", Baker noted. F1 treaded tires wear to the outside, not inside like slicks found on North America's open wheel racers. "We moved the outer wear mark" to meet the new regulations.
2003 was West McLaren Mercedes' second year using Michelin rubber and Kimi "didn't have many expectations after 2002. The car was quite difficult [that year]; it was not reliable or quick enough" for he or teammate David Coulthard to think of challenging for the title.
"Over the winter, the team improved the car, the engines and the tires. The package was much better together and I think a lot of that had to do with our [increased] knowledge about the tires," he said.
"Quite frankly, I wasn't expecting much in 2003 but at the beginning of season we were very quick." As is the case with most every race team, West McLaren Mercedes had a dry spell [in the middle of the campaign] yet came back to challenge when it counted, at the end.
They call him the "ice man" because Raikkonen is quite cool under pressure and this visit was no different. While he got a big kick out of his appearance with the rotund Mr. Bibb, it's clear his best work is done in the race car. At least his candor level is out front.
When asked the length of his contract with Ron Dennis, Kimi responded that he "won't answer that question." Apparently, contract lengths are as secretive as technical tidbits.
Raikkonen did allow that there's been a massive improvement in the construction and reliability of his Michelin Pilot tires from 2002 to 2003. "There was a big drop-off in performance last year but the tires were better this season. Michelin really did their homework."
West McLaren-Mercedes was able to get their year-old chassis to work better at the front end than it did the first year the team worked with the French tire giant and, the way the rules are currently written, "there's a big problem with F1 rear tire management," Baker acknowledged. "This year the McLaren team was able to get the rear end of their car to work less and their consistency improved," he noted.
Now, all they need is to keep putting a good car under Raikkonen and under Coulthard to advance in the drivers' and constructors' title fights for 2004. It's all a question mark now, but when the season begins in Adelaide next March, we'll see if they've done their homework well enough.