Matters of moment, September 1975

The dry/wet tyre farce

The primary purpose of a racing car is speed. Any outside factor (the driver is inside!) that interferes with this purpose is to be deplored, whether it is a ruling about the car’s construction or the use of artificial hazards intended to reduce speed at a particular part of a circuit (as at Silverstone for the British GP). Chicanes are only valid when used to convert a track into some semblance of road-course.

Throughout the history of motor racing there have been regulations intended to reduce the top speed of the competing machinery. Restrictions on engine size, on engine dimensions, on fuel consumption, on minimum weight, on minimum body-widths, all have that aim. Even the present 3-litre capacity limit and insistence on pump-fuel represents a design and speed restriction, compared to that of a free-formula. However, some kind of limit has to be set, perhaps, although this is more apparent in the F1 field than it is in that of the LSR, where development has been encouraged beyond cars driven through the road wheels by piston engines into the sphere of gas-turbines and jet-propulsion. But if some control-by-regulation of GP cars is deemed desirable, it is undesirable to go back on developments already permitted. Thus, unless a very good reason can be established, it would be unfortunate to increase instead of reduce an artificial limit—from 3-litres let us go to 5-litres, rather than revert to 1½-litres, for example. In the same way, slicks and aerofoils having been allowed to become a part of the F1 scene, we would deplore any attempts to ban them, on the grounds that to do so would be to retard rather than advance technical progress. Any steps taken solely with the intention of making the top echelon of racing more spectacular for the onlookers are, we feel, to be deplored. Thus, while we accept that narrower tyres and less aerofoil downthrust would make handling more difficult, and cornering slower but more interesting to watch, we resist such suggestions as being against the science of racing-car development and technical progress.

But that is not to say that something shouldn’t be done, and done quickly, to obviate the farce of top racing cars driven by top racing drivers going pathetically and dangerously out of control on wet roads, a happened in the recent British GP at Silverstone and earlier at Brands Hatch, etc. Alas, Goodyear are saying that a solution in the form of a racing tyre suitable for any weather conditions isn’t possible.

With commendable speed after the Silverstone debacle, their Brian Beesley put out a news-release telling us so. He got Goodyear’s Chief Race Tyre Engineer, Bert Baldwin, to quote some very technical data to confirm this. “A dry race tyre operates most effectively at 220° F”, Baldwin tells us. “Put a wet tread on it and it runs so cool in the rain that it has no grip”. Conversely, he continues, “A wet race tyre operates at 170° F and on a dry track it is soon up to over 300° F and breaks up”. We do not dispute these facts for a moment, naturally. But we do say that it is high time this dodgy business of dry/intermediate/wet racing tyres was abolished. If it is a question of a new type all-purpose tyre being unable to stand such high speeds as present tyres used in their proper context, this is a restriction we think it permissible to impose on motor racing.

It may be argued that such tyres would not stand up to a full GP on the fastest cars. Never mind! The spectators seem to enjoy pit-stops, as probably do the mechanics (especially with handsome prizes for dummy exhibitions of them!). So if the leading cars in a race wore out their all-purpose tyres and had to have them changed, would that be a bad thing? It is, after all, only what used to happen in almost every long-distance race in the past. If a new all-purpose tyre made the cars a good deal slower in the wet than they would be on existing wet racing tyres, would that matter either ? It might well cause greater emphasis on driver-skills.

We accept that in torrential rain a race may have to be stopped, especially on badly-drained circuits. It happened in the International Trophy Race at Silverstone in 1951, after only six of the 35 laps had been completed—but with the difference that, although the cars crawled round the corners until flagged-in, they did not nearly all slide helplessly off the course. Indeed, by his skill, doggedness and tenacity, good old Reg Parnell was able to poke his Thinwall Ferrari into the lead under these freak conditions, well ahead of his illustrious team-mates Fangio, Farina, Bonetto and Sanesi in the 159 Alfa Romeo, to the delight of the British spectators. He would not have done this on today’s dry racing tyres.

The worst thing that can happen to a race is for it to be ended before it has run the intended distance or duration. This is likely to happen every time a race that begins in the dry is hit by a thunderstorm or freak rain. For that reason alone, the all-purpose racing tyre is overdue.

We are not rubber technologists; but when a tyre manufacturer says this is impossible this is an admission, surely, of non-progress in the motor-racing field ? Those old enough to remember the great regenmeisters—Caracciola and the 38/250 Mercedes-Benz, in the 1929 Ulster TT and 1931 German GP, for example—and of races which continued to the bitter end in torrents of rain, at Brooklands and elsewhere, are unlikely to accept that modern techniques make impossible a return to this state of affairs, the drivers and “politicians” willing, of course. Cars are now much faster, the tyre-makers may retort. Yes, but they also have the benefit of more rubber on the road, aerodynamic assistance of adhesion, and improved suspension. Come, Mr. Baldwin, surely there must be a solution, even if it involves drivers using restraint should they wish to avoid tyre changes during a race ?

Meanwhile, we agree absolutely that the FIA must give a proper ruling on how a race is to be stopped when sudden weather changes (not rain alone, necessarily) make this prudent —surely by empowering the Clerk-of-the-Course to have the correct signals displayed immediately ? We also feel that it should be permissible to officially flag-in, under suddenly changing conditions, all drivers who are running on incorrect tyres just as you would black-flag any car likely to become uncontrollable through a mechanical defect, while allowing those on suitable tyres to continue, instead of leaving this to the discretion of individual pit-managers or drivers.