One of the most common criticisms about Formula 1 is the fact that often it is just the driver of the best car who wins. They’re only half right. The reality is far worse than that.
Not only did last week see the exit of Michael Schumacher from Formula 1, but it also saw the exit of the Michelin tyre company. With a control tyre due to be brought in by the FIA for 2008, it has brought to an end the tyre war for the foreseeable future.
With more and more restrictions being placed on chassis and engine development, most time can be gained through improvements in tyre technology. It is said that 2006’s tyres were 2 seconds per lap faster than 2005’s. The rivalry between Bridgestone and Michelin had become increasingly competitive over the past few years.
Here is an extract from an article by Paul Kimmage in The Sunday Times from a couple of months ago.
At a press conference the next afternoon at the [Istanbul] circuit, [Jenson Button] is joined on stage by fellow drivers David Coulthard, Kimi Raikkonen and Tiago Monteiro. A French journalist raises his hand and asks, â€œQuestion to you all: who will win the world championship? Schumacher or Alonso?â€ The four give the same reply: the championship will basically be decided by the team with the best tyres. The journalist is annoyed. What? No names? No opinions? â€œWeâ€™ve given our opinions,â€ Button insists. â€œWe canâ€™t see into the future. We donâ€™t know whatâ€™s going to happen.â€
We meet an hour later and I pull him up on it again. â€œWhat was all that corporate crap? Why couldnâ€™t you give the guy a straight answer: Alonso or Schumacher? As a journalist and a fan, I find that absolutely infuriating.â€
â€œBecause itâ€™s the truth,â€ he says. â€œIt will all come down to the tyres.â€
â€œThe tyres,â€ I repeat, incredulous.
â€œThe tyres, 100%,â€ he insists.
Kimmage might not have believed him, but it is true. Over the past few years if a driver won the World Championship the tyre manufacturer got the credit. If Schumacher qualified on pole it was because Bridgestone produced a good qualifying tyre. If Alonso won the race it was because Michelin had produced a good race tyre.
In reality, we no longer had a Drivers’ Championship or a Constructors’ Championship. All we had left was a glorified Tyre Championship in all but name. It’s not as heroic as a driver standing up on his seat to win a race. It’s not as sexy as a constructor pushing the boundaries of technology to make their car better. Formula 1 had come down to four — literally — black boxes. Elements that are peripheral to the cars became central to the championship.
Competition is good. It drives improvement. But the thing about tyres is that because they’re black boxes you simply don’t see that improvement. Today’s Formula 1 tyres look almost exactly the same as they did in 1998, even if what goes inside them has developed radically.
The only way we can actually see a tyre making a difference is by looking at a list of lap times. It’s not like watching a driver making an audacious overtaking manoeuvre, a team making improvements to their car design or even the crew executing a slick pit stop. Put simply, tyres are boring. End of.
At first the tyre war added another variable into the mix; a new angle to look at the Championship at. But by the end it had overwhelmed the entire Championship. It drowned out all of the other elements that make motor racing what it is.
Alonso ran away with the first half of the season. When Michael Schumacher made his comeback it was accompanied by a Toyota resurgence at certain races. That wasn’t because of anything Schumacher or Toyota did. It wasn’t not a coincidence that Ferrari and Toyota both used Bridgestone tyres.
Here is what F1Fanatic had to say on the morning of qualifying at the Chinese Grand Prix.
The Toyota drivers Ralf Schumacher and Jarno Trulli, whose average starting positions this year prior to Japan were 10.38 and 11.19, are third and fourth. The swing in tyre performance is so great that its making a mockery of the endeavours of teams and drivers – just as it did to Michael Schumacher and Ferrari last year.
The tyre war has provoked some cripplingly dull races this year when either Michelin or Bridgestone have been miles ahead, handing Alonso and Schumacher some very uncomplicated wins.
I couldn’t agree more. This season might have had a topsy-turvy championship because of the competition between the tyre manufacturers. But a lot of the races themselves — particularly at the start of the season — were shockingly dull, simply because one tyre company would have such a huge and obvious advantage over the other.
F1Fanatic also makes reference to a piece by Mark Hughes in favour of the tyre war. Some F1 fans have relished the tyre war because it has often made things exciting. But that just shows up the big problem with Formula 1 at the moment. How many people can honestly say that they started watching motor racing because they were interested in tyres? Any takers? Surely not. Motor racing is about great drivers and great cars — not bits of rubber.
When Kimi Räikkönen lost the 2003 World Championship, it was blamed on 23 laps of the rain-hit United States Grand Prix when the Bridgestones had a 1.4 second per lap advantage on a drying track. Those crucial 23 laps were, so Michelin said in the December 2003 edition of F1 Racing magazine, the only laps where Bridgestones were faster than the Michelins. And it won Schumacher the championship.
It might have made that particular aspect of the championship interesting. But I don’t want to see a driver win the Drivers’ Championship because he has superior rubber. Nor do I want to see a constructor win the Constructors’ Championship because it happens to use the best tyres. It makes a mockery of the whole idea of racing. You might as well just take one Bridgestone and one Michelin and roll them down a hill to decide who wins the championship.
So good riddance to the tyre war. If it means that next year’s season has fewer twists and turns, then so be it. At least I will be able to see what makes a winning team — because it will no longer be concealed in those anonymous black boxes.