Rolling 'Stones

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The cessation of Goodyear’s monopoly in Indycar racing does not mark the start of a costly tyre war. Far from it, in fact…

The first skirmish of Indycar Tyre War II is in the books and Goodyear carried the day against Firestone. It was hardly a major upset. Not only did the forces of the Winged Foot have the know-how of a two decade-long monopoly behind them, they had both quality and quantity on their side.

In its first confrontation with Goodyear since 1974, Firestone mounted a four team, five car effort headlined by two born-again teams Patrick and Tasman Racing together with Payton/Coyne and Arciero/Wells, a pair of bottom-feeders currently aspiring to run mid-pack. Marshalled against the insurgents were the likes of Penske, Newman/Haas and Rahal/Hogan winners of 12 of 16 PPG Cups together with Walker, Ganassi and Foyt. And those are just the teams contractually bound to Goodyear. Throw in Team Green (winners of the race), PacWest (second place), Hall, Forsythe, Project Indy, Bettenhausen and Simon and the numbers and expertise were obviously stacked in Goodyear’s favour.

So why all the smiles at Firestone after the chequered flag?

Because against all odds Firestone and Patrick Racing finished fourth, just 2s behind Jacques Villeneuve’s winning car. Not only did Scott Pruett come from tenth on the grid to finish a couple of car lengths short of the podium, he set fastest lap in the process.

“The tyres are going to be good,” said Pruett. “This track was one of our big question marks. We’ve done as much work as we can at permanent circuits like Road America and the ovals. This was a question mark so we are cautiously optimistic. This was a one groove track. If you got out of the groove and in the marbles and dirt, you were in trouble. You just couldn’t attempt a pass without taking a big risk.”

“We knew we had to run most of the race to get the monkey off our back,” said Al Speyer, Firestone motorsports manager. “My biggest concern was that we’d get taken out on the first lap and everybody would go away with questions about our tyres. But we got through the first few laps and by two-thirds of the distance I think we’d proved our point.”

For that matter, Andre Ribeiro and the Tasman team had their moments in the bright Florida sunshine as well. In his Indycar debut, Ribeiro posted second fastest time in the opening practice session before an off in qualifying and a somewhat ragged race day performance which ended With the LCI-Reynard crashing out at mid-distance.

Oh, by the way, that was a Honda-Powered Reynard. Firestone isn’t the only manufacturer that could take pride from its Miami performance. The massaging done on the much-maligned Honda Indy V8 since Laguna Seca has obviously borne fruit.

”I’d have to say Firestone did pretty well for their first time out,” observed Tony Bettenhausen. “It should put to rest any questions about how serious they are. But it was only one race. They haven’t run at all the tracks by any means. And let’s face it, some teams that normally run up front (ie Penske) weren’t where they should be, so fourth could’ve been eighth. But that’s taking nothing away from the job Firestone did.”

Will we see a land rush to Firestones? Probably not any time soon. For as encouraging a start to the season as Miami was for Firestone, as Bettenhausen noted, it was still only one race. Surfers Paradise (which took place while Motor Sport was being printed) offers a different challenge and, more significantly, so do the upcoming ovals at Phoenix and Nazareth before the almighty Indianapolis 500.

Don’t expect to see the likes of Penske, Newman/Haas, Rahal/Hogan, Ganassi and Walker breaking their contracts with Goodyear to run ‘Stones. Nor, for that matter, is a Barry Green, a Jim Hall or a Rick Galles jumping ship either at least until Firestone shows it’s not only as good as Goodyear, but better.

“Will this mean we’ll get some new customers?” asked Speyer. “There are probably a lot of teams in their trailers thinking about our product right now. It’s more up to them than it is to us. A lot of the top guys are very loyal and we appreciate that. We’re not trying to push our way in; we want to let our tyres do the convincing and I think we did that today.”

Although the big teams have no choice but to adopt a wait and see attitude, some of the lesser teams may jump the good ship Goodyear sooner than later. Why? For starters, Firestone is still on the steep end of its learning curve – especially on temporary circuits like Miami, Surfers Paradise and Long Beach. Thus a small or midfield team switching to Firestone can probably expect more in the way of technical support than they have become accustomed to chez Goodyear.

And thanks to IndyCar’s rules requiring each manufacturer to bring enough tyres to supply 50 per cent of the field and the fact that, for now, about 75 per cent of Firestone’s tyres figure to lie fallow on a given weekend, converts can expect to get favourable prices.

“The tyre competition has made prices a lot better for the teams,” said Goodyear racing director Leo Mehl.

“I challenge you to find a car owner paying more for tyres this year than last,” said Speyer.

Indeed, the 50 per cent rule is just a piece to a rather intricate puzzle concocted by IndyCar, Firestone and Goodyear to make sure what everyone is calling a tyre “competition” does not escalate into a full tyre “war.”

In addition to the 50 per cent rule, IndyCar stipulates that each car will be limited to 28 tyres per weekend plus four “back-up” tyres of another construction and/or compound. A car can switch from the “control” to “back-up” tyres or, for that matter, brands of tyres at any time during practice, but it must stick to one or the other type and brand in qualifying. And if a switch is made from one qualifying session to the next, the previous qualifying time is voided. Further, the car must start the race on the same type of tyre used in qualifying. Finally, a car may switch between types (not brands) of tyres during the race.

It all sounds more complicated that it is, but the bottom line is that a team will be permitted to try both the “control” and “back-up” tyres in practice to determine which is best for qualifying and the start of the race. The key, however, is that all tyres will be inventoried by IndyCar and a team wishing to switch compounds will have to notify officials beforehand and the individual tyres to be used will be selected by IndyCar officials in order to eliminate the possibility of a manufacturer pulling a “fast one” by mislabelling tyres.

IndyCar racing is indeed fortunate not only to have two respected international giants competing for tyre bragging rights, but in having two very different but equally admirable men in the form of Mehl and Speyer heading their respective programmes. Witty and outspoken, Mehl has earned universal respect from IndyCar, to NASCAR, to F1, to the NHRA for the manner in which he has run Goodyear’s racing programme in a time of virtual monopoly. Speyer is, of course, less well known. But while his thoughtful, low-key demeanour stands in apparent contrast to that of his oft-irreverent counterpart, rest assured that Speyer knows his business. And like, Mehl, he is very much a credit both to his sport and to his organisation.

Together with Mehl and Speyer, IndyCar has again shown a real propensity for coming up with sensible, real world solutions to problems that have bedevilled other sanctioning bodies. The Hoosier/ Goodyear tyre wars in NASCAR in recent years, of course, were destructive in terms of equipment and long-term relationships between teams and manufacturers (read Goodyear).

In contrast, the sport of Indycar racing stands to benefit from the Firestone/Goodyear tyre competition. And not just from the marketing dollars that will be poured into the sport by both manufacturers. Because as in many other areas driver safety, rules stability and cost containment for example Indycar racing is showing everyone from Paris to Indianapolis and Daytona how simultaneously to encourage and control the conflicting forces of competition and technology.