Recently Michelin indicated its interest in returning to Formula 1, and that – given the shameful way it was treated during its last period of involvement – rather surprised me.
This is, after all, an unusually honourable company, demonstrated not least by its behaviour in 2005, following the debacle at the US Grand Prix in Indianapolis. It will be remembered that, for once, Michelin got it spectacularly wrong, its tyres for Indy proving incapable of coping with the long, slightly banked turn on the F1 circuit (in effect, turn one of the oval in the opposite direction).
That year the FIA tried one of its numerous experiments in F1, and this time it decreed that, although the blighted refuelling remained, tyre changes – save on safety grounds – were to be banned: one set had to last you for 200 miles.
Michelin met this new challenge infinitely better than its competitor, Bridgestone, to the point that Ferrari, for whom Michael Schumacher had strolled to five consecutive World Championships, were essentially out of the picture in 2005. The team’s – and Bridgestone’s – only victory that year came at Indianapolis, and it wasn’t a huge surprise, for on safety grounds all the Michelin runners withdrew at the end of the formation lap, and only six cars went to the grid. Schumacher and Barrichello found it rather easy to deal with two Jordans and two Minardis.
It was a farce of an afternoon, and American fans were justifiably angry, many walking out long before the end of the race. Michelin people were of course hugely embarrassed by getting it so wrong, but no effort was made to help accommodate their problem – to allow a full field of cars to compete in the US Grand Prix.
The suggestion from Michelin was that a chicane be inserted before the problematic corner, but that idea was rejected not only by Jean Todt of Ferrari, but also by FIA President Max Mosley, who declared that if any change were made to the circuit he would cancel the race forthwith.
Michelin’s relationship with Mosley had long been strained, for reasons too many and varied and long-winded to go into here: suffice it to say that the French company had long felt that, in Formula 1, it did not get a fair shake, and most in the paddock went along with it on that.
By general consent – if rarely admitted on the record – F1 people had long considered that Michelin made better racing tyres than any other company, in terms of both engineering and quality control. And while we’re about it, we could throw in integrity: if they got it badly wrong at Indianapolis 10 years ago, at least they faced up to it, and made financial reparation to the fans, whose afternoon had been ruined. I admired that response, and am not convinced that every company associated with F1 would have made it.
A year later, at the end of 2006, Michelin concluded that enough persecution was enough, where F1 was concerned, and decided to concentrate its efforts elsewhere. By now the powers-that-be had decided that a single tyre manufacturer was essential to F1’s future, and for the next four years that was Bridgestone, which itself withdrew for financial reasons at the end of 2010.
Since then, of course, the contract of F1 tyre supplier has been with Pirelli, who pay generously for the privilege, and have also shown themselves to be remarkably accommodating when it comes to doing their masters’ bidding, to constructing ‘short-life’ tyres in what Bernie Ecclestone and others believe to be the interests of ‘The Show’.
Others yet, myself included, think ‘The Show’ is too much to the fore, particularly when propped up by artifices of this kind. For me – and I rather doubt I’m alone in this – ‘The Sport’ is what should come first, as traditionally it always did. Since we adopted tyres that – together with tight fuel allocation for a race – require drivers frequently to cruise, rather than go flat out, and since we introduced such as DRS, and toyed fatuously with the notion of ‘double points’, have spectator attendances and TV viewing figures gone up?
Thought not. And a further erosion of people’s notion of Grand Prix racing has come about with the dropping of a race in France (where the sport began), the abandonment of classic theatres of battle like Imola and the increasing move to countries that know – and care – little about Formula 1, but have governments adept with a chequebook. It’s all short-term, ‘show us the money’ stuff, as one might expect of a company like CVC Capital Partners, which should never have been allowed to become F1’s ‘owners’ in the first place.
One might, in these circumstances, wonder why on earth a company like Michelin should wish to return to F1. Pierre Dupasquier – the man who christened Alain Prost ‘The Professor’ – was very much a purist when it came to motor racing, and the notion of building deliberately inefficient tyres would have been anathema to him.
Pascal Couasnon, Dupasquier’s successor as Michelin’s motor sport director, seems cut very much from the same cloth – if he were not, one assumes, he wouldn’t be in the job.
In declaring Michelin’s interest in coming back to F1, Couasnon made several points, and made them firmly. “We are fully open to a return, but with some precise conditions: Formula 1 must change its technical regulations. Tyres must be a technical object again – not just a tool to do a more-or-less spectacular show.
“We also want 18-inch tyres, which we already use in Formula E, and soon in another series. If F1 wants to consider our proposals, we are here, with a strong will to return, and at the next tender for F1 tyre supply we will make our proposals. Then it will be a problem for Ecclestone or the FIA to accept them or not. If, however, the prospects are to keep things as they are now, then thanks, but we aren’t interested.”
Pretty unequivocal – and in this day and age refreshingly so. Michelin’s message is clear: ‘We are not interested in gimmickry, only in excellence, so if that doesn’t fit in with your plans, we won’t trouble you anymore…’
It was with no great surprise that I learned of Ecclestone’s lack of enthusiasm for a Michelin return. The financial aspects apart, it is clear that the company has no interest in constructing tyres ‘dumbed down’ in the mistaken belief of the powers-that-be that this creates the sort of motor racing the public wants to see. Michelin is not a company that will be told what to do.
“Pirelli,” said Bernie, “know exactly what we want. That’s difficult for them because if they make a tyre that’s a bit on the limit they get slaughtered – but they’re prepared to do that.
“All Michelin want to do is make a rock-hard tyre that you could put on in January, and take off in December because they don’t want to be in a position where they can be criticised. That would make it absolutely sure that, if there was a question mark against Mercedes winning, it would be removed.”
I may be old-fashioned, but I’d have thought that another way – a healthier way – of removing certainty of a Mercedes victory would be for the other teams to up their game, and build cars capable of taking on Hamilton and Rosberg. It’s been like for as long as cars have raced – until recently, anyway.
A Michelin return, Ecclestone went on, “Would be all the things we don’t want, and goes against all the things Pirelli have had the courage to do from what we asked, which has made for some bloody good racing.”
“If we had a rock-hard tyre, we could just forget about that,” Bernie said, adding that, by the way, he didn’t care for the idea of 18-inch tyres. “They’re horrible looking – we want out cars to look aggressive, to look like race cars. Pirelli will always do what we ask them to do, and if we had to have an 18-inch rim they could do it. At the moment we don’t need to change the tyres, because what we have is working well.”
“Pirelli will always do what we ask them to do…” Ecclestone, ever one to appreciate obedience in those wishing to participate in his business, appears rather firmly to be shutting the door to Michelin – and, by implication, a return to the sort of serious motor racing many of us so much miss. Pity, isn’t it?