To listen to some people these days you would think that the racing tyre has only recently been discovered, similar to those people who have the impression that Grand Prix racing started in 1950 with the FIA World Championship series. The tyre has always been the limiting factor in ultimate performance, whether it be acceleration, maximum speed or cornering power. The four contact patches of rubber connect the racing car to the road, all else in design is subsidiary and aimed to assist the contact patches in doing whatever is asked of them. In Formula One racing all four have to work to a common end when the car is braking or cornering, while the rear ones have to do all the work under acceleration. It is not surprising that tyres have always been a serious part of motor racing and there are so many technical lessons to be learnt from the extreme conditions supplied by a racing car that there has never been a lack of interest among tyre manufacturers to support racing to whatever degree they could afford.
For a long time Dunlop were the foremost racing tyre, challenged by various other makes such as Avon, India; Englebert and Pirelli. In the age of the Mercedes-Benz and Auto-Union in the nineteen-thirties, Continental ruled the roost. In the fifties it was Pirelli, Englebert, Avon and Dunlop, with the Birmingham firm coming out on top, ending up with a monopoly in the early sixties. Then Firestone and Goodyear joined in and with Dunlop formed a fierce trio of competition from which Goodyear lasted the longest and achieved the sort of monopoly that Dunlop had held previously. Last year Michelin arrived on the scene with the Renault Formula One team, and this year have challenged Goodyear’s monopoly with a fair measure of success, thanks to the Ferrari team.
All through the monopoly days, and indeed up to the end of this season, Goodyear have been giving tyres to anyone involved in Formula One racing. Successful teams like Tyrrell, McLaren, Brabham and Lotus have more than justified this free supply of tyres by winning races for Goodyear; not so important when they had a monopoly, but vitally important in this last season when the Michelin challenge became strong. Unsuccessful teams still received free tyres, riding along on the strength of the successful teams, but as competition grew more intense and experimental tyres became more frequent, and in consequence less in number due simply to production limitations, only the likely winners were getting these special tyres. Even though the situation was obvious some of the people who were natural non-winners, yet had free tyres, were complaining because the Lotus or Brabham drivers were getting special treatment. This caused Goodyear to make a hard and firm statement about who they thought were of use to them in their battle against Michelin and who they considered to be “background” material, but nevertheless were still getting free tyres. Now they have taken the next obvious step and named nine teams (as mentioned last month) who will get free tyres and full support, and anyone else will have to buy tyres (at a great discount even so), or look elsewhere. In short the chips are down, and Goodyear has some serious competition their hands in the form of the Michelin-shod Ferraris, who won five races this season in the Grand Prix series, while the Michelin-shod Renault is beginning to look like a winner. Whether the also-rans continue to use Goodyear tyres, at about £80 a cover, or try to find other sources remains to be seen. It’s a known fact that Pirelli are ready and keen to return to Formula One, and will do so when the Alfa-Alfa is ready to race, while it would occasion no surprise if Dunlop were to return, for they have never lost contact with racing tyre development thanks to their activities with the Porsche racing team. The small firm of M & H comprising some of the ex-Firestone racing people are already in F3 and a Japanese company keep looking at Formula One through narrowed eyes. The future might become very interesting.
At present Goodyear still have an enormous undertaking in supplying tyres to the bulk of the Formula One field, and at a Grand Prix all the tyres have to be fitted by their staff before the meeting begins, and removed when the meeting is over, to say nothing of the fitting and removal of tyres during practice. If the Goodyear vans take 1,500 tyres to Austria, for example, then they have to bring 1,500 tyres back, to satisfy the customs authorities at the various frontiers they have to cross. No matter whether the tyres are new, worn out or scrap, the correct number has to be bought back, and it is not unusual to see a team member handing back a mutilated and mangled mess of rubber and nylon cord after a car has been in an accident. Most teams take their cars to meetings on “slave” wheels and tyres and transport all their racing wheels bare. When they arrive in the paddock these racing wheels are taken to the temporary Goodyear depot and racing tyres are fitted to them. As each car may have six sets of wheels, that is 24 tyres to be mounted for each car, and there might be 30 cars running on Goodyear tyres. On the day before practice the tyre fitters are hard at work, dealing on a “first come, first served” basis so there is keen competition among the teams to get into the paddock early.
In each major team there are one or two mechanics who are solely involved with tyres, and you see these chaps continually traversing the paddock area with a trolley load of wheels going to Goodyear, or returning with a trolley load of wheels with tyres mounted. In a two-car team with two spare cars there might be as many as 50 wheels in and around that team’s paddock and pit area, and keeping a check on them all is a full-time job. Practice days are long ones for the tyre fitters and the compressed air plants built into the Goodyear vans can be heard running all day, as mounted tyres are inflated. When the race is over and the winners are celebrating, the Press are trying to transmit their stories around the world and the public are trying to go home, the tyre fitters are still hard at work removing all the racing tyres, unused or scrap, no matter, in order to repack their vans with the requisite number of covers, and each team’s tyre mechanics can still be seen trundling barrow-loads of wheels and tyres across the paddock.
With only two teams to look after, Ferrari and Renault, with a maximum between them of five cars, the Michelin people have an easier task from the purely physical aspect. Their hard work is trying to produce tyres that will enable Ferrari to challenge the top Goodyear teams. When you see the vast undertaking in which Goodyear are involved in Formula One it is not surprising that they are drawing in their horns a little for 1979. — DSJ