The Tyre Men
AT the moment the tyre situation in Formula One is very healthy, with four companies in direct competition. We went through the stage where Dunlop had a total monopoly, and design stagnated, then Goodyear achieved a total monopoly and design actually took a step backwards, but now everyone is thrusting forwards. We have Goodyear, Michelin, Avon and Pirelli all supplying Formula One teams and all striving to produce better tyres than their rivals, and as competition is the keynote of motor racing, this has to be a good state of affairs.
All four tyre companies work more or less to the same system, so that what applies to the men of Avon also applies to the men of Pirelli. Apart from the races in far off lands like South Africa and South America, the tyre firm transports all the new tyres to the circuit, in vehicles ranging from 2-axle vans to 32-ton articulated lorries, with a complement of smaller vehicles as required, so straight away a vast part of the paddock area is taken up. Wherever possible the planning of the layout of the pits and the paddock takes into account the needs of the tyre companies, for a firm looking after two teams does not want one at one end of the pits and the other at the other end. All this transport is planned to arrive at the circuit the day, or even two days, before practice begins, for apart from unloading and setting up equipment, the team mechanics will be “champing at the bit” to get new tyres fitted to all their wheels, and a team with two race-cars and two spare cars could have as many as two dozen wheels waiting for tyres. The tyre fitters try to get all this done by the end of the day before practice begins, for once practice starts there is a continual flow of tyre changing to keep up with wear and tear and changes in choice, for a tyre company may have three different types available with a variety in size and construction.
Once testing and qualifying is under way the tyre men are kept very busy in the pit lane, taking temperatures, checking wear rates and noting wear patterns, for every team wants to use a tyre that is particularly suitable to their car or their driver’s style of driving, to give the best lap times and to last the race and no more. Carrying more rubber on a tyre than is really necessary is something that upsets the average designer who is weight conscious. Tyre temperatures are all important during testing as they indicate how the tyre is working and as soon as a car stops you will see the tyre men probing the tyre tread with a needle-thermometer, taking readings on the inner and outer edge, and in the centre of the wide tread, and writing them down on a standardised form which gives a plan view of a racing car with three small boxes by each wheel. Into these boxes are written the temperatures recorded and the aim is to get a consistent temperature reading across the width of each tyre. A high temperature on the outside edge indicates that the tyre has been trying to run unevenly, due to the suspension geometry, and the outside edge is being overworked, or conversely, the inner edge is not doing its fair share of the work. While the tyre technicians are looking after the scene in the pit lane the tyre fitters are hard at work behind the pits, keeping their teams supplied with what they need, and if it looks like rain there is increased activity to mount-up sets of deep-tread wet-weather tyres. Every time a tyre is fitted the assembly of wheel and tyre has to be put on a machine and be dynamically balanced, pressures have to be set, and when it is fitted to a car pressures are checked once again. Most modern racing tyres are run at around 12 to 15 p.s.i., so pressure checks have to be scrupulous for a pound either way is a big percentage difference. During the fitting, security screws are put in through the rim and checks have to be made on their seals, and balance weights have to be secured in place with adhesive and taped over for security. The tyre fitter’s job is never ending, and at the same time the tyre managers and technicans have to deal with the team owners, the car designers, the drivers and the head mechanics, so that there are a lot of people in the pit lane thinking and worrying about tyres. On race day all the required tyres need to be mounted and ready early in the morning and further checks and consultations are carried on during the 30 minute warm-up test session. Even when the race has started the tyre people cannot relax, for they have to be ready for any eventuality, especially if the weather is dodgy, either blisteringly hot or freezing cold with rain imminent. If all goes well you may see the tyre men contentedly watching the race and relaxing, but they are not really relaxed for in racing anything can happen, and often does, as we saw in South Africa recently. The leader was cruising round contentedly when he had a rear tyre deflate and by the time he limped round to the pits the punctured tyre had disintegrated on the rim. In a matter of seconds a new set of wheels and tyres were put on the car and he was back in the race, but the Michelin men were then very busy with the Renault people. They could not find out what caused the deflation because they did not have all the old tyre, but they could check on the wear rate of the remaining three and estimate the situation. Renault needed to know because their second car was now leading the race on similar tyres, so it was imperative to know whether the tyres would last the distance. While the other tyre men were contentedly watching the race the Michelin men were very busy. I have stood with tyre men out on the circuit, watching a race, when a look of concern comes over their faces and they say “Oh dear, I’d better get back.” Sure enough one of their customers is heading for the pits with a flat tyre on his car, or they will have heard the loud-speakers announce that car number 18 has a puncture on the far side of the circuit.
When the race is finished and won or lost, the work is not finished for all the tyres have to be taken off the rims and stored back in the transporters. Under various trade agreements and customs agreements shipments of tyres, and there might be 1,500 of them, worth something like £25,000, travel from country to country on special paperwork, but basically if you take 1,500 tyres out you must bring 1,500 back, so there is a lot of paperwork involved to keep the books in order. Long after most people have left the paddock or are in the beer tent, the tyre fitters are still at work dismounting worn tyres and loading them in the transporters. Most racing teams have a net of slave wheels and normal road-tyres for wheeling the racing car about and when they are in the transporter, which is why you might come across a Ferrari in the paddock standing on a set of wheels and tyres that look as if they came off a Fiat 127. When the last racing tyre has been taken off its alloy wheel the equipment can be loaded into the transporter and it is usually very late on race-day evening before the tyre company transporters trundle off out of the paddock to return to Milan, Melksham, Clermont-Ferrand or Luxembourg.
At the moment there is quite an even spread of work among the tyre companies, with Goodyear looking after Williams, Lotus, Brabham, Ferrari and Tyrrell, Michelin looking after Renault, McLaren, Talbot, and Alfa Romeo, Avon looking after ATS, Ensign and Theodore, and Pirelli looking after March, Fittipaldi, Arrows, Osella and Toleman. For all four firms the work and problems are the same and like so many people behind the scenes, without them there would be no racing. — D.S.J.