Modern times

The fine summer enjoyed by much of the Northern Hemisphere this year duly had its effect on agriculture, commerce, horticulture — and Formula One. Every single European race in the world championship was run in rainless conditions, in a season when Bridgestone’s wet-weather tyres were expected to be superior, but Michelin’s dry-weather rubber was generally better. Ferrari, of course, is the only front-running team contracted to the Japanese tyre company, with the rest of the Top Four on Michelin.

When the circus came to Italy for the final European race it was looking like the closest fight for the drivers’ title for many years. Just two points covered Ferrari’s Michael Schumacher, Williams’ Juan Pablo Montoya and McLaren’s Kimi Raikkonen. The only wet race of the season had been the Brazilian pantomime five months earlier, when both Schumacher and Montoya crashed and Raikkonen was declared the winner — until the timekeepers unscrambled their screens, and realised that Giancarlo Fisichella’s Bridgestone-shod Jordan had passed the slithering McLaren just before the race was stopped.

It was dry at Monza, but still tyres played their part in Schumacher’s start-to-finish victory. After its humiliation in Hungary, when Schumacher was lapped by Fernando Alonso’s winning Renault, Ferrari protested to the FIA that, even if the Michelin fronts were within the 270mm maximum contact width rule when fresh, they wore to an illegal width during use. This smacked of post-Hungary desperation by Maranello, and did Jean Todt, Ross Brawn & Co little credit, for Michelin rubber had followed the same profile since Imola 2001; Ferrari’s Bridgestones are deliberately narrower in any case, in search of reduced frontal area. However, the FIA responded by “reinterpreting” the tyre width rule, and decreed that widths would now be measured after rather than before the race. Ferrari also refused to rule out an attempt to invoke Article 179b of the Sporting Code, which allows retrospective examination of earlier results. This would clearly make a mockery of the entire 2003 championship, and move F1 once again from the track to the courtroom, which has never done it any good in the past.

As it was, Michelin met the challenge by designing and producing, within days, a narrower front tyre in time for Monza. Schumacher beat Montoya to pole by 0.05sec, and in the race, after shutting out a brave lunge from the Columbian on the first lap, he was able to move serenely out of reach. There was talk that Williams experienced a loss of grip, not because of the narrower tyres per se but because there hadn’t been enough time to optimise set-up on the new rubber.

Europe done with, the circus went to Indy: and at last, to Bridgestone’s and Schumacher’s delight, it rained. Montoya, in a disastrous race which included a collision with Rubens Barrichello, a drive-through penalty and being on the wrong tyres at the wrong time, was only able to salvage sixth, which ended his championship hopes. Raikkonen was simply superb all weekend with the carefully revised MP17D McLaren: he took pole, and surely would have won had it stayed dry. As it was, he led the race from the start and stayed ahead when it drizzled, for dry Michelins cope with light rain better than dry Bridgestones. When it got properly wet he struggled for grip, but he still climbed brilliantly back to second.

Once full wets became essential, all sorts of Bridgestone-shod cars and drivers whom we don’t usually see running near the front began to shine. Chief among these was Jenson Button, who put on a superb display for BAR and led the race for 141aps. He was in a strong second behind Schumacher and looked set for his first podium — until BAR’s perennial unreliability struck again. Heinz-Harald Frentzen briefly led, ran second and finished on the podium, with Sauber team-mate Nick Heidfeld fifth, which at a stroke lifted the team from ninth to fifth in the constructors’ championship.

Of course, rubber — and rain — have played a major role in racing’s drama since the sport began. In his autobiography Le Mie Gioie Terribile, Enzo Ferrari described playing the tyre game in the 1934 Mille Miglia, when Achille Varzi, in a Scuderia Ferrari-entered Alfa, was running a distant second to Nuvolari’s rival works Alfa. On the return leg Enzo himself was at the Imola refuelling stop, and telephoned ahead to learn that rain was sweeping down from Brescia. His version of the story was that he’d had a set of tyres experimentally hand-cut with deeper grooves for better wet-weather grip, and when Varzi arrived, in still dry conditions, Ferrari told the mechanics to fit them. Varzi protested, and time was wasted while they argued, but the tyres were fitted, and as Achille accelerated away it began to rain. Disinterested researchers have since pointed out that all the Scuderia runners that year were using the new Pirelli Pneugrippa tyres, with their cross-cut tread, while Tazio was on less effective Dunlops. In any case, Varzi made up enough time on Nuvolari through the rain to win by almost 9min.

Rain has frequently allowed a skilful driver with good rubber to rise head and shoulders above the rest Stirling Moss’ final championship grand prix win came at the Nurburgring in 1961, after he tried Dunlop’s new softer D12 rain tyres in practice. He found they gave excellent grip, but on a dry track they wore rapidly. Needing something special to beat the Ferraris with his old Rob Walker Lotus, Stirling gambled on rain. Against Dunlop’s advice, he started on the D12s (having first got Alf Francis to paint tyre black over the identifying Green Spots on the sidewalls). But it stubbornly remained dry, and the Ferraris began to close as Stirling’s tyres wore out: then in the closing stages the rain came at last, and the Lotus pulled away to win.

At Zandvoort in 1968 Jackie Stewart had the choice of Dunlop’s full wet tyre or its all-purpose cover cut with extra drainage channels. As the race started in almost dry conditions, he chose the latter for his Tyrrell-run Matra-DFV; Jean-Pierre Beltoise, in the V12 Matra, went for full wets. As it turned out Jean-Pierre was right. The heavens opened, and he was soon second and catching Stewart. But a big spin into the dunes jammed his throttle slides and JPB needed a pitstop to sort that out. As the conditions got worse the little Frenchman came storming back, unlapped himself on Stewart and set fastest lap, but Jackie, in an exhibition of smooth control, was still over 90sec ahead at the flag. Six weeks later in heavy rain and thick fog at the Nurburgring there was no doubt about tyre choice; Stewart used Dunlop’s full wet to win by over 4min.

But in the other wet race that year, the French Grand Prix at Rouen, he was soundly beaten. This one started damp and became torrentially wet, and Jacky Ickx’s Ferrari went non-stop on what were dry tyres — Firestone YB10s — with circumferential grooves cut into them. He led from start to finish, except when an early spin dropped him to third; he was back in the lead a lap later. Stewart was lapped.

If in 2003 the relative strengths and weaknesses of the two tyre suppliers’ products have been clear-cut, this may all change in ’04, for both Michelin and Bridgestone will continue developing and experimenting through the winter. But given Michelin’s current superiority under most conditions, the four teams, apart from Ferrari, who run Bridgestones — Jordan, Sauber, BAR and Minardi — are all clamouring to switch to Michelin for next season. The French company already spends untold millions supplying Williams, McLaren, Renault, Jaguar and Toyota, and has no wish to add to its load. However, an FIA rule says that either tyre company must supply up to 60 per cent of the field “if required”. So Michelin can be forced to take on one more — BAR is the most likely. Meanwhile Bridgestone will, more than ever, develop tyres purely to suit Ferrari’s wishes.

Tyre wars have long been thought to be good for F1, a key part of the technological battle. But there is a strong argument that F1 would be healthier as a control-tyre formula. It would level one part of a very bumpy playing field, removing an artificial factor that the teams cannot control, and reducing costs by rendering massive competitive development and testing unnecessary. On the other hand Goodyear, during its long years as the single supplier to F1, complained that it got little marketing spin-off from its huge spend. You need someone to beat for success to say something.

If Bridgestone ends up supplying just Ferrari and a few minnows, and Ferrari have a bad year or two, the Japanese giant may well decide to take its tyres elsewhere. Michelin would find itself in an unwanted monopoly: and if it subsequently decided to pull out, F1 would have a problem.

No surprise, then, that the FIA is very keen for both to continue. Apart from anything else, it maintains one more element of unpredictability and, as this year’s much improved season has shown, we can never have too much of that.