Tire debacle looms at USGP

Tire Debacle Looms at U.S.G.P. by Jonathan Ingram More questions than answers loomed over a potential tire debacle at the U.S. Grand Prix the evening before the race, starting with the issue of whether the issue will force a cancellation of the...

Tire Debacle Looms at U.S.G.P.
by Jonathan Ingram

More questions than answers loomed over a potential tire debacle at the U.S. Grand Prix the evening before the race, starting with the issue of whether the issue will force a cancellation of the event.

The teams running on the Michelin tires, which had two sudden failures on Toyotas during Friday's practice sessions, have committed themselves to the safety of their drivers. And, Michelin, which shods seven of the ten teams, has done likewise. So in the absence of a suitable replacement of the current tire stock at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway if necessary, it's conceivable the race could be postponed or cancelled entirely.

"I can assure you that like the other participants in motorsport Michelin will always propose a product respecting the needs of total security and independent of any rules," said Pierre Dupasquier, the company's motorsport director.

The French tire manufacturer is in a classic dilemma. It may not be able to confirm if the tire explosions resulted from one team's improper use of low pressures -- or if the batch of tires made for the Indy race may have a flaw compromising their safety for all teams. The rules pose a further dilemma, given the power of the Clerk of the Course to authorize different tires to be substituted on the basis of safety.

Can the Michelins used at Barcelona be shipped to Indianapolis in time for the race? With the impound procedures after qualifying, now in their third year, will teams be able to make adjustments to fit a different type of tire from practice but one they are familiar with from Round 5 of the championship in May? Also, would safety at the start of the race be compromised if the slower teams of Jordan and Minardi are moved to the front of the grid ahead of all the Michelin teams switching their tires?

Assuming Michelin believes the Indianapolis tires' composition is sound, ( they are the same construction but a different compound from Barcelona) how will the FIA enforce its regulation on tire changes during a race should teams find it necessary? The procedures introduced this season along with the requirement teams use one set of tires from the final qualifying through the entire race calls for a penalty if a team replaces a tire, or tires, during a race. But the precise penalty so far has not been confirmed, although the World Championship is on the cusp of the ninth race of the season.

The responses of the sanctioning FIA and the teams on the rival Bridgestone tires remain to be seen regarding possible outcomes of Michelin's dilemma. No official comment has been made by the FIA, which has no high-ranking media relations representative at the event authorized to speak on the record with journalists. Privately, the technical officials are taking a wait and see attitude to the ongoing research by Michelin at its facilities in Greenville, South Carolina and in Clermont-Ferrand, France. Tires have been flown to both locations, the bulk of them to the U.S. destination.

Bridgestone and its leading Ferrari team stand to gain in the points for the constructors' and the driving championships, where Ferrari trails Renault by 31 points and Michael Schumacher trails Fernando Alonso by 35 points and Kimi Raikkonen by 13. So any proposed solutions other than sticking with the current Michelin tires will be passionately fought by the Italian team.

The source of the problem is the bad luck or the bad behavior of one team -- Toyota. Either both failures occurred on the Toyotas on Friday by sheer happenstance, or, the team was improperly using the Michelins. In any event, endurance is the issue, not short runs. Toyota's Jarno Trulli won the pole from fellow Michelin runner Raikkonen of McLaren-Mercedes.

There's no question in the mind of McLaren-Mercedes' owner Ron Dennis. "This problem has been magnified by one team choosing to run low tire pressures, which are outside the recommended pressures (of Michelin)," he said, referring to Toyota.

In the post-qualifying press conference, Trulli stated that the tire problems were not related to the construction of the chassis or the set-up of the suspension, still leaving open the question of tire pressures. But Dennis said Michelin's own research pointed to low pressures. "Michelin has created a matrix of all its participating teams putting together the information on what tires have been used and at what pressures," he said. "The teams running the higher pressures are not the ones having problems."

Although unconfirmed by the manufacturer, a high-ranking Toyota team official said Michelin's examination of one of Trulli's tires from practice on Friday indicated a potential problem in the tire even though it survived without incident. That evidence could indicate both possible manufacture problems as well as a problem induced by low pressures. In a 190-mile race on one set of tires, the outcome remains very much in question.

"We are still continuing our investigations into yersterday's tire incidents," said Nick Shorrock, director of Michelin's F1 activities. "This consists of full examinations of all the tires that ran on Friday and those from Saturday morning's free practice sessions." Shorrock said no final understanding of the incidents had been gleaned as of Saturday afternoon.

Bridgestone engineers drew on the experience of their Firestone brand on the new pavement on the oval at Indy, which may be a contributing factor to Michelin's problems. Testing on the new pavement by Firestone in April during preparations for the Indy 500 resulted in uneven tire wear. The track eventually ground portions of the oval's new pavement to relieve the difficulties prior to the opening of Indy 500 practice in the month of May. Prior to building this year's tire for Indy, Bridgestone engineers conferred with their counterparts at Firestone. Neither Bridgestone nor Michelin were able to test on the new pavement on the oval portion, which is roughly half of the 2.6-mile combined infield and oval circuit.

Practice and qualifying on Saturday were carefully monitored by Michelin. "Using the latest data available, we continue to direct our teams in the usage of our products so that drivers could participate safely in today's free practice and qualifying sessions," said Shorrock. "During the build-up to the U.S. Grand Prix, engineers at our research centers will continue to focus on the product we ran today to decide if we will be able to use this specification safely in tomorrow's race."

It could well be advantageous to make a switch to the Barcelona tires for those in the running for the championship despite inevitable penalties, starting with the sacrificing of grid positions due to an equipment change. If Michelin teams are futher allowed to adjust suspensions, the adaption to the tires could be handled by the drivers relatively easily, much like any test session where different compounds are bolted on. Where Dennis said his team will make a decision based on the overnight analysis of Michelin, Renault's Flavio Briatore threatened to withdraw without a replacement tire during a television interview.

It could be to the advantage of Ferrari, Jordan and Minardi if the Michelin teams continue to use their current tires. With higher pressures likely, the Michelin runners are not expected to be as quick over the long haul -- their strong suit in getting the jump on Ferrari so far this year. It would be so hard to bring the Michelins up to operating temperature with higher pressures that a safety car period might lead to several laps of yellow at higher speeds to build heat in the tires of the Michelin participants -- a suggestion by Dennis that would require the consent of all ten teams. If that consent is not forthcoming, the Michelin teams may be left in the dust after any safety car period, a prospect that already looms large given Toyota's tire troubles.

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About this article
Series Formula 1
Drivers Jarno Trulli , Michael Schumacher , Kimi Raikkonen , Fernando Alonso , Flavio Briatore
Teams Ferrari , Mercedes , McLaren , Minardi , Jordan