Archive: Bridgestone

Without doubt, the Canadian Grand Prix was a highly unusual and exciting race. It brought us a new, unfamiliar situation and it was fascinating to watch it unfold. The staggering figure of 65 on-track passes will count as among the very highest seen in a dry race in recent years.

It is therefore no surprise that the kneejerk calls to “learn from the Canada show” have come thick and fast. In my view that is dangerous.

First of all, as I have pointed out before, the focus on “the show” is vacuous, trite and antithetical to the idea of the sport. Of course F1 should be exciting. But what you can’t forget is that we love F1 already — because it already is exciting.

What we now risk — with this crazy obsession with “improving the show” — is future of F1 that is increasingly watered-down. F1 is becoming too convoluted due to bizarre rules that are tacked on bit-by-bit in a misguided and unnecessary attempt to engineer excitement. This is the stuff of bad game shows or WWF or Nascar. We are talking about F1, the greatest sport in the world. It doesn’t need this.

I am particularly disappointed in Mike Gascoyne’s bizarre call to attempt to somehow incorporate the conditions that occurred in Canada into the tyre rules:

If you were going to write the tyre rules for how you wanted races to be, they would be like Canada. You had changing strategies, overtaking and lots of excitement.

It was exactly what F1 needs, and it’s proved that the argument for one tyre being very marginable is very strong.

This surely overlooks the key reasons behind why the Canadian Grand Prix was such a great spectacle. First of all there is the fact that it is an incredible circuit that brings us great, edge-of-your-seat races time and again, regardless of what the current rules are. Circuit Gilles Villeneuve is a great circuit. Full stop.

Moreover, one of the features of the circuit that has emerged as a major factor over and over again is the fact that it is hard on tyres. I vividly remember the 2006 Canadian Grand Prix, where the tyres were degrading in such an odd way that the circuit was absolutely covered in marbles. I seem to recall David Coulthard describing those conditions as the worst dry-weather conditions he had ever raced in.

Then there is the fact that this is the first time Formula 1 has visited Montreal with the current slick tyres, and with the current restrictions on the numbers of sets of tyres teams can use, and there you have your recipe for the 2010 Canadian Grand Prix.

Some of this cannot be replicated. Some of it already is. The rest is artificial interfering.

The call for the tyre supplier to provide the teams with increasingly marginal tyres goes against everything that F1 is supposed to be about — the best drivers using the best equipment. Artificially hobbling drivers is a fake approach to racing. More overtaking is meaningless if it isn’t real overtaking.

That is why Pirelli’s stated desire to “have a Canadian GP every race” sends a shiver down my spine. I was hoping that the switch of tyre supplier would be the perfect opportunity to ditch the current tyre regulations, which are currently a mess from a sporting standpoint. Instead, it looks like the tyre rules are only going to become worse.

But most of all there is the issue that the unpredictable will soon enough become predictable. The way events unfolded in Canada caught the teams off guard. But the second time something like that happens, they will be much better prepared. The third time they will begin to set a routine in place. After a handful more occasions, they will know the drill down pat. All the unpredictability will be gone.

This is what we saw with refuelling. At first it was an interesting novelty, and it added an interesting strategy element. But by the end of the refuelling era, it was adding nothing to the show. Armed with 15 years’ worth of data, and with the calculation powers of modern computers, the teams always knew what the optimum strategy was and employed it. The result was neutered racing, with the refuelling only adding an incentive for drivers to “overtake in the pitlane” and avoid on-track action.

The same would happen with tyres, as the teams gather data and become better prepared. They may say they want to improve the show. But they also want to win the race. It is a classic prisoners’ dilemma — and, just as with refuelling, the teams will always try to win the race before thinking about the show.

It is worth considering that the reason the Canadian Grand Prix was so exciting was that the teams pushed too hard and ended up painting themselves into a corner. The Bahrain Grand Prix was so boring because the teams were far too conservative, fearful of overstepping the mark with the tyres and ending up in exactly the scenario that unfolded in Canada. The teams want to have their cake and eat it.

F1 teams are constantly looking for the boundaries of performance, and sometimes they go beyond those boundaries. When they do, they learn the lessons and adapt their approach for next time. No set of rules can affect this fundamental nature of the way teams behave.

What we really should take away from the Canadian Grand Prix is the joy of watching a great race. This is the sort of thing that should be celebrated. But there were great races in the past, and great races are caused by a variety of factors that cannot be pinned down.

Even if they were pinned down, knowing the factors would be a surefire way of ensuring boring races for the rest of the sport’s future. What makes F1 exciting is its inherent unpredictability. Trying to engineer unpredictability is surely an oxymoron.

This does mean that sometimes we endure the odd mediocre race. But since we follow a sport and not a show, we are all happy with that — aren’t we?…

It has to be said that the writing was on the wall for the Bahrain Grand Prix before the teams even arrived there. And it’s not due to the refuelling ban. There are arguments for and against refuelling, but on balance I think banning refuelling is a good idea.

The legacy of refuelling

Some people had decided in advance that scrapping it was a bad idea, and have used the relatively pedestrian Bahrain Grand Prix as definitive evidence that they’re right. But one race is far too soon to judge. And as I pointed out in the previous article, there was actually more overtaking than normal.

It is no secret that F1 has a bit of an overtaking problem. The amount of overtaking has declined steadily throughout its history, and nose-dived in 1994 when refuelling was introduced in the modern era. In the intervening decade-and-a-half, the amount of overtaking has been relatively stable at this low level.

For me, the biggest legacy of refuelling has been to gift seven World Championships to a driver who isn’t particularly good at wheel-to-wheel racing, but transformed “overtaking into the pit lane” (i.e. gaining positions just by being in the pit lane at the right time) into the most important aspect of modern-day grand prix racing.

It is often argued that this “strategy” element adds an important dimension to the racing. The argument goes that what is lost in terms of on-track action is gained in terms of strategic intrigue.

This may have been true in the early days of refuelling, when strategists were still finding their feet with the new rules. But over time, it became clear what worked and what didn’t.

Armed with 15 years’ worth of data, teams had their strategies worked out by computers to the extent that there was one clear optimal strategy, and the race was won or lost on whether your first stop was made on lap 17 or made on lap 18. More often than not, after the first stop, it was clear how the rest of the race would play out, and the whole spectacle usually settled down.

The powers that be concocted increasingly contrived ways to re-inject a strategic element into the racing, but it stopped working. We reached the ridiculous situation where cars were qualifying on race fuel loads, which still did little to avoid the harsh reality that there is one optimal strategy.

How to re-introduce strategy while keeping purists happy

For me, there is far too much talk about “the show”. F1 is not a show. It is a sport. As far as I’m concerned, if you want to see a show, you should go to the pantomime. Todd on the latest Formula 1 Blog podcast said it best: “Jim Clark didn’t take part in a show. He took part in a race.”

Yet, with the obsession with making F1 more entertaining, the rules have constantly been tinkered with. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, and the powers that be have to tread a fine line. They must make the sport more appealing to people who, truth be told, aren’t really interested in F1, while keeping the purists happy.

F1 is special because it is, at its core, about finding the fastest driver in the fastest car. Everything else is tinsel. Some of the new rules actively go against this attempt to find the fastest.

Look at the obsession with strategy. Look at attempts at mixing up the grid. The current tyre rules are among the most unpure in F1 today.

Forcing drivers to use two different types of compounds achieves nothing for anyone except Bridgestone. And I am yet to work out what is achieved by the new rule forcing drivers to start the race on the same tyres they qualified on. What does it prove? Do we tie one hand behind the back of footballers to “spice up the show” there? It is ridiculous.

Yet, all the talk is to introduce a mandatory two stops. That is certainly what Martin Whitmarsh implied on the BBC’s coverage last weekend. The idea sends a shiver down my spine. And quite how it is supposed to spice up the action is beyond me. Just now the optimal strategy appears to be a one-stop. Now they want to enforce a two-stop strategy? It’s difficult to see the scope for spiced-up strategy action here.

But I can think of a way of re-introducing the strategy element while keeping the purists happy: get rid of the mandatory tyre change. This would blow wide open the possibility of a no-stop strategy, thereby potentially reducing the predictability of the current situation. Sure, Bridgestone will be unhappy — but they are leaving the sport anyway so there is no point in making them happy.

Aerodynamics

The decline in overtaking pre-dates 1994. It has been clear for years that it is not as easy for F1 drivers in F1 cars to overtake as it perhaps should be. There are plenty of pet theories as to why this might be. The ones that get the most attention are the ones that are put forward by Bernie Ecclestone and the FIA, as they are the most powerful people in F1. But of course, they have their own agendas.

The FIA and Bernie Ecclestone have long blamed modern aerodynamics for the lack of overtaking. The received wisdom has become that aerodynamic grip is bad news if you want overtaking, and that the emphasis should be more on mechanical grip.

I was very interested to see James Allen write about what Frank Dernie thinks about this — that’s it’s a load of old cobblers. I have felt for a while that the argument that aerodynamics damage the racing does not hold water. On a Renault podcast a couple of years ago, Pat Symonds pointed out that the races that have the most overtaking, as everyone knows, are wet races. In the wet, aerodynamic grip is ramped up, and mechanical grip plummets.

When you think about it, it’s so right. It does amaze me that, in the face of so much hard evidence to the contrary, people still blame aerodynamics for the poor racing. I have come to the conclusion that many people’s views on the overtaking problem are shaped largely by fashion and spin rather than the evidence.

Speaking personally, I love seeing what sorts of devices teams come up with. We have all been fascinated by McLaren’s “F-duct” (even though it seems to have done them “F-all” good). Neutering these sorts of areas is the first step on the slippery slope towards spec chassis. And then it just wouldn’t be F1 any more.

I am not totally averse to restricting the cars though. Formula 1 is, after all, a formula — it always has been.

I am no engineer, but it strikes me that F1 cars are simply too fast to allow for much overtaking. In particular, the brakes on F1 cars are so good today that there is little opportunity for a driver to perform an outbraking manoeuvre. With such small braking zones, the scope just isn’t there in the same way it might have been in the past. Is somehow reducing the power of the brakes a viable option?

The points system

Bernie Ecclestone has also sought to blame the points system for the lack of overtaking, and the system has accordingly been tweaked. I personally think there is something in this. The points system rewards conservatism.

Think about instances where a driver attempting to overtake faces a 50-50 situation (or, more accurately, a ⅓-⅓-⅓ situation). By this I mean that there is a ⅓ chance that a clean pass will be made and a position will be gained, a ⅓ chance that an attempt will be made but will fail, and a ⅓ that the move will go wrong and end in a crash. (Obviously this is a major simplification of the real-life scenario, but I think this “50-50″ thought experiment still underlines an interesting point.)

Under last year’s scoring system, for a driver in second place trying to overtake the leader, this “⅓-⅓-⅓” situation would lead to an expected gain of… -2 points. Under the new points system, the expectation is -3⅔ (although as a percentage of the winner’s points haul, this is better). No wonder drivers can’t overtake. It’s not in their interests to even try unless they are practically left an open door.

This was the core reason why I was in fact, contrary to the fashion, in favour of Bernie’s proposed “medals” system. Then, attempting to gain a position would be unambiguously advantageous.

The circuits

However, I think there would be much more to be gained in ensuring that circuits are more challenging and provide more in the way of opportunities to overtake. Nothing is certain. After all, Suzuka is normally entertaining, but produced a bit of a stinker last year. Sometimes it just doesn’t happen.

But we all know that certain circuits, in general, produce better racing than others. I really do struggle to think of any grand prix held at Interlagos that was boring. But I know not to expect much action at, say, Valencia or Shanghai. Or Bahrain for that matter.

We know this because teams and drivers will often turn up a circuit and say, “there is only a certain place you can overtake, and it’s here”. Adrian Newey, Sam Michael and Martin Whitmarsh are all in agreement. As the Williams technical director said:

You’ve got to ask yourself, why do you go to a race such as Barcelona where no one overtakes, and then take exactly the same cars to Monza, Montreal or Hockenheim and you get lots of overtaking.

And the McLaren team principal said:

You only need to do simple statistical analysis and look at where the overtaking moves are If, say, we race on 18 circuits with 350 corners, then 90 per cent of overtaking moves in a year would happen at just 10 corners… The fact that overtaking is focused on such a small number of corners clearly demonstrates that it’s circuit-dependent.

Ferrari and Renault went to Valencia in 2008 proclaiming that they know from their simulators that there would be little in the way of overtaking. Ferrari even based a fundamental decision about their engine on this prediction. And they were right.

But Bernie will not entertain the suggestion that the circuits are to blame. This is because, unlike the effort made by drivers or the aerodynamics or the strategy, this is the area that he is responsible for. And he doesn’t want to take responsibility for it.

The effect of adding a new slow, narrow, bumpy, twisty section that looks as though it was almost designed to prevent overtaking was predicted before the race began. Quite why the organisers of the grand prix thought it would be a good idea is beyond me.

GP2 world feed commentator Will Buxton saw the writing on the wall, and was left exasperated by the negative effect this different circuit configuration had on the GP2 racing. He predicted a similar negative effect on F1, and it transpired that he was right.

What else is Bernie to blame for?

While I confess that it is a bit too easy to lay the blame on Bernie Ecclestone for the boring race in Bahrain, there is another core part of F1 that he is responsible for, which led to a dull spectacle being played out in our living rooms last Sunday. But that is what I will deal with in another article in the near future.

I have to say I have found the Bahrain Grand Prix boring — well, the aftermath of it. All the same old whingers keep on stomping their feet about their old hobby-horses. They couldn’t wait for this season to start so that they could claim that Formula 1 has been broken by X, Y and Z.

That’s despite the fact that the grand prix wasn’t actually all that bad. Sure, it wasn’t a sizzler. But hardly the end of F1 as we know it. I reckon there were at least a dozen races in 2009 that played out in a similar way. In fact, this Bahrain Grand Prix had much more overtaking than the average race in 2009, even including the mad wet races.

There can not be a set of “fans” that complain more about the sport they follow. And yet, bizarrely, year after year, they carry on watching for some reason. Who’s the sucker here? It sure ain’t me.

Too much hype

The problem was that, as usual, F1 journalists went into overdrive with the pre-season hype. Time and time again we were told that 2010 was set to be the most exciting in years, although not much in the way of evidence was ever provided in support of this.

We were supposed to be excited because of the return of Michael Schumacher. But as I pointed out months ago, he was always bound to be off the pace, and so it proved to be. There will be no eighth world championship. Unless lots of sixth place finishes really get you going, there will be little in the way of excitement round here.

I think the new teams were also supposed to add a new dimension of excitement. They certainly have increased the level of interest in the back of the field — and a good thing that is too. But quite what else we should have expected as a result of their participation is a head-scratcher for me.

I seem to remember journalists banging on about the all-British inter-team rivalry at McLaren this year as well. That has also turned out to be a bit of a damp squib (so far). But it is not exactly a problem with F1 if one of them has so comprehensively outclassed the other already. Is Lewis Hamilton supposed to drop anchor just in order to increase the excitement here?

I sent the hypothetical question out there on Twitter — Can anyone remember the last time journalists didn’t say that the coming F1 season was due to be “the most exciting ever”? Alianora suggested 2004, which is a good thought. Although it was on the back of a really rather good 2003 season (tyre-rules-rigged-in-favour-of-Ferrari-scandal aside), and there was a lot of interest surrounding the radical Williams “walrus nose” (another damp squib).

The forgotten good news stories

No wonder people were upset. Not many races could have lived up to these expectations. What was, in truth, an average race (nothing more, nothing less) has been cited by hordes as definitive evidence that F1 is dying.

But I struggle to understand what people were expecting. Indeed, I have been quite surprised at the sheer number of interesting angles on the Bahrain Grand Prix that appear to have been largely overlooked.

  • Fernando Alonso’s winning début — Okay, so this one has been covered extensively, but it is worth underlining. Alonso joins the select group of drivers to win on their Ferrari début — and he set a fastest lap over a second quicker than anyone else to boot. Forget the comeback of Michael Schumacher — Alonso showed his critics that he is the best, and with ease.
  • Felipe Massa’s comeback — In his first race since his horrific crash in Hungary last year, Massa put in an admirable performance and finished second.
  • The speed of Red Bull and Vettel — Despite the Ferrari 1-2, Red Bull have shown that last year wasn’t a blip, and they are serious contenders this year.
  • Nico Rosberg outclassing Michael Schumacher — This one doesn’t fit in with the “Schumacher is the saviour of F1″ narrative, but even so I’m surprised more people aren’t hailing Rosberg’s success after what must have been a rather difficult winter for him.
  • McLaren’s sneaky and massively clever pit stop strategy — McLaren appear to have exploited an under-advertised new rule that introduces a 55 metre zone round every pit box, designed to stop unsafe releases. My brother reckons McLaren are exploiting this to their advantage by bringing their cars in on the same lap as rivals that are just the right amount ahead of them, just to delay the release of that car. Genius (both McLaren and my brother!).
  • Force India becoming the best of the rest — Most will have expected Williams to be the fifth team, but Force India look like they hold that position quite comfortably just now.
  • A steady performance from Russia’s first ever F1 driver — Vitaly Petrov did a solid job in his first ever F1 race, running in a very respectable 11th place until a suspension failure. Petrov’s GP2 career was a slow burner, but his F1 career has got off to a bright start.
  • Lotus beating Toro Rosso — This one has been covered extensively too, but it’s still worth highlighting again. Lotus — who have only had five months to design and build their car — have already emerged as the strongest of the new teams. They look to be around equal with Virgin in terms of pace, but definitely have the more reliable car — and even beat a Toro Rosso. Lotus are also bound to improve more than the other teams. At this rate, I’d be surprised if they don’t score a point this season.
  • Virgin’s CFD-only gamble not backfiring — The question as to whether avoiding the use of a wind tunnel would be fatal to Virgin’s hopes has been put to bed. The car sets a decent pace, and the biggest problem is in fact reliability.
  • Hispania’s miracle breakthrough — After a horrific winter, Hispania turned up at Bahrain having never tested, and did a hugely admirable job. Special mention should go to Karun Chandhok who did a great job in qualifying despite not even taken part in any practice!
  • The less said about Sauber the better — although it’s still an interesting story.

It looks to me as though there is plenty for F1 fans to sink their teeth into just now, if only they tried. It is just that there was so much hype about the wrong things that the wood has been lost for all the trees.

But it can be improved

However, like most people I would prefer Formula 1 to have more wheel-to-wheel action. The signs at Sakhir were not particularly encouraging. I will reveal my thoughts on what’s what when it comes to on-the-track action in my next article.

On top of the exits of Bridgestone and Toyota came news that Renault had held an emergency board meeting to discuss their future in Formula 1. According to Andrew Benson at the BBC:

The French car company was considering whether to remain in the sport with its own team, switch to simply being an engine supplier or quit altogether.

Were Renault to pull out, it would conclude the removal of all of the major manufacturer teams in F1. Honda, BMW and Toyota have all gone in the past year. Renault are now seriously considering leaving.

In terms of manufacturer involvement, that would leave engine suppliers Mercedes-Benz and Ferrari. Both Mercedes and Ferrari are as close to being permanent fixtures as it comes in F1. Mercedes have been involved in F1 uninterrupted since 1993. With their increased involvement in Brawn, they look set to stick around. Ferrari have been in F1 since the beginning in 1950 and were they to leave it would be the end of F1. As such, you can more-or-less exclude both Mercedes and Ferrari from the list of manufacturers at risk of leaving F1.

I have to admit that I am wary of what Renault might do. I always suspected that Renault would be the first manufacturer to leave, certainly since Carlos Ghosn took over there. Now they are effectively the last one remaining. That is a surprise. Does it make it more likely for them to stay in the long run? Or is this the opportunity to join the queue of companies leaving the sport without looking a bit silly like Honda did?

There are more questions. Was Max Mosley right all along to push forward with his anti-manufacturer proposals? His justification was that manufacturers might leave with no warning, so it was wise to slash costs, freeze engines and neuter the sport in all sorts of ways. Now that manufacturers are leaving in droves, it looks like he may have been right.

The alternative possibility is that the changes he has forced through, along with the screeds of bad publicity it caused, have fundamentally made the sport less attractive. The manufacturers could well have preferred a breakaway than live with the FIA’s vision. But the FIA’s vision is what we’ve got. Ferrari certainly have their own views.

The thing is, manufacturers are always fickle. They always have been, and always will be. They will leave at the drop of a hat if it no longer forms part of their marketing strategy. Motorsport is not their core business. At the end of the day, if they won’t sell on Monday, why should they bother trying to win on Sunday?

But it was Max Mosley who originally moulded F1 into a sport dominated by manufacturers. He said that teams like Williams were not his vision of F1’s future. Now Williams is the model of the sort of team that will occupy around half of the grid next year.

In a sense, you can see this current phase as the F1 equivalent of a market correction. The bubble has burst. But while it seems painful now, this process paves the way for a more stable situation.

Throughout its history, Formula 1 has had a healthy mixture of manufacturer involvement and privateer passion. In recent years, the scales had tipped a bit too far towards the manufacturers, which drowned out the privateers to an almost dangerous extent.

F1 had become the plaything of manufacturers and multi-trillionaires. Let us not forget that alongside the likes of Honda and Toyota, businessmen such as Dietrich Mateschitz and Vijay Mallya — who have more money than they know what to do with — have bankrolled F1 teams to success. You will notice that, ignoring the ‘For Sale’ sign outside Toro Rosso (which isn’t very prominent), these teams have remained in F1, unlike the manufacturers.

They are a bit more like privateers in the traditional sense. They don’t want to sell cars, though they may want to sell drinks. But in a way they are in F1 because they are attracted to it as a sport, just as people like Frank Williams and Ken Tyrrell were. Manufacturers just do it because they feel like they should.

Next year there might be too few manufacturers. For there to be just three companies supplying engines would be a situation almost as unsustainable as what has happened up to this year. Cosworth may be crossing their fingers though. Their business model might work if they supply more teams.

But I can see Renault playing a happy role as an engine supplier, even if the Renault F1 team is put up for sale. I am certain that there would be a lot of interest from serious people wanting to buy the team. Despite the turmoil of this year’s scandal, and the fact that the team has gone off the boil for the past few years, this is a team that has the facilities and the capabilities to win World Championships.

I would be upset to see Renault leave the sport. I have a bit of a soft spot for them. Toyota were cold and clinical, on top of being comically bad considering their budgets.

Honda were always a bit of a fairweather presence. They took over BAR more-or-less because there was no-one else to do it after tobacco companies left the sport. Then they set up Super Aguri because they were scared to sack Takuma Sato properly. While many were attracted to Super Aguri for their pluck and while struggling at the back in difficult circumstances, it should never be forgotten that Super Aguri was always a crass and expensive publicity stunt.

Renault, though, have real heritage. They have a history in the shape of their involvement in the sport in the 1970s and 1980s. And the current incarnation of the team has been notably successful, mostly for being the one team that has been able to put up a sustained fight against Ferrari in this decade by beating the Scuderia two years in a row.

Here’s hoping that Renault don’t decide to depart. I am especially hopeful for Robert Kubica, a hugely talented driver who after being put through the wringer at BMW this year does not need this again. But, unlike the other teams, I have a feeling that the future of the Enstone-based squad will be perfectly safe no matter who owns it.

The day after Bridgestone announced that they would be leaving Formula 1, it emerged that Toyota were poised to do the same. This was not as much of a shock as Bridgestone’s exit, but it is nonetheless major news.

Toyota are the third major manufacturer to leave F1 in just twelve months, and now rumours furiously swirl around Renault as well. But, as you may have gathered from the tone of my last article about Toyota, I find it too difficult to get upset about them leaving.

Today, Toyota company president Akio Toyoda apologised for Toyota’s inability to win a race in its eight season long campaign. It was noted that Toyota probably needed a win in order to secure their future in F1. Had a Toyota taken a chequered flag this year, may they have been given a reprieve?

I was intrigued also by Akio Toyoda’s words: “I offer my deepest apologies to Toyota’s many fans.” Which Toyota fans? I have never met one. They have been easily the least attractive team for their entire existence. Their policy of designing their car by committee was wholly unsuited to F1, and their strategy of employing mediocre drivers was not at all endearing.

How ironic that the cold and calculating Toyota F1 project should show some emotion when it is carrying out its most calculating move yet, to place the jobs of all of its workers under immediate threat. Akio Toyoda was tearful while mentioning the workers during the announcement of the company’s withdrawal.

You have to feel sorry for the staff at the team’s base in Cologne. While any F1 team finding itself in trouble is bad news for that team’s workers, those based in Britain are insulated somewhat by the fact that there are always a few other teams just down the road.

Those who have families in Germany will not find it so easy to turn to another team in motorsport to help them pay their mortgage. The closest conceivable option for those wanting to remain in F1 is the Hinwil, Switzerland-based team formerly known as BMW Sauber. But of course the future of that team is also on a knife-edge. They probably have all the staff they need anyway.

Many are also sympathising with Kamui Kobayashi, the rookie Toyota protégé who had a spirited two races at the tail end of the 2009 season. Alan Henry even went as far as to say that Kobayashi is, “the very best Japanese driver I have ever seen.”

Steady on there! Yes, Kobayashi was very impressive in his two F1 races. But he was, after all, racing for his career. He didn’t have the funds to do yet another GP2 season, and he was lucky to get his F1 break. But if he didn’t succeed in his stint, he was going back to work in a sushi restaurant.

As such, Kobayashi was highly-motivated, and took the risks he needed to take to stand out. Would he be like this in normal circumstances? It is impossible to tell. But his GP2 form was not exactly exciting. And let us not forget that he arguably caused a big accident when he moved across on Kazuki Nakajima at Interlagos.

Now Toyota have left F1, thereby leaving Kobayashi without a drive. Now he is a hero; a martyr. I am not terribly sure that status is deserved. Nonetheless, I hope he doesn’t have to put his sushi preparation skills to use for a while yet.

Toyota’s sharp exit from F1 does perhaps explain their odd behaviour surrounding drivers towards the tail end of this season. Timo Glock suffered from mysterious illnesses and injuries which paved the way for Kobayashi to get a drive.

Perhaps Glock was asked nicely to stand aside for two races so that the team could give Kobayashi a “sorry” present. “Sorry for not finding that seat in F1 for you after all your years of hard work in our young driver programme. Here are a couple of consolation races.”

Perhaps the biggest point to chew over is what this means for motorsport in Japan. Axis of Oversteer notes:

Toyota and Honda left F1 as has Bridgestone. Kawasaki dropped out of MotoGP. Suzuki and Subaru quit the WRC and Mitsubishi has called off its Dakar efforts.

I find it unimaginable that Japan might not be represented at all in F1. For there to be an exodus across top-line motorsport is seriously worrying. Here is hoping that it is just a blip as the Japanese motor industry goes through a particularly tough time.

The end of this season has not been a particularly healthy one for Formula 1. Two major names have left, and another has had an emergency meeting to consider if it should leave too.

First of all, the sole tyre supplier, Bridgestone, has announced that it will quit F1 at the end of 2011 when its current contract ends. This came as a shock. With the spotlight on car manufacturers, it doesn’t seem to have entered anyone’s mind that a company such as Bridgestone, which has been so incredibly loyal to the sport, would consider upping sticks.

I can remember a time when Bridgestone were not in F1, but only just. When I started watching Formula 1 in the mid-1990s, Goodyear was the sole tyre supplier. But Bridgestone entered in 1997, beginning the “tyre war”. When Goodyear left soon afterwards, it was not long until Michelin came in to begin an even fiercer tyre war.

I wasn’t a big fan of the tyre war. Mostly, one tyre was a major advantage over the other, so we were essentially left with two championships — a Bridgestone championship and a Michelin championship. Considering Bridgestone practically tailor-made their tyres to suit Ferrari, this essentially made Ferrari a shoo-in for the championship every year. That was until the 2005 regulations — which banned mid-race tyre changes — handed the advantage to Michelin in a big way.

2005 was the year when the tyre war well and truly jumped the shark. In the quest for the competitive edge, both companies had made their tyres softer and softer. The resurfaced banking at Indianapolis bit, Michelins exploded all over the shop and we were left with a farcical race in which only the six Bridgestone-shod cars competed.

On the back of the problems, the FIA decided that a sole company should supply the tyres for all the teams. The problem with this was that it had the potential to severely reduce the amount of exposure that tyre company got. With no tyre war to talk about, people might not talk about tyres. For this reason, Michelin refused to have any further part in F1.

The upshot was that Bridgestone and the FIA colluded to concoct the maddest new rules and gimmicks in order to contrive some interest in the tyres. One has to paint green lines all over the tyre in a crass attempt to pretend they care about the environment. Of course, the green on the tyres clashes with teams’ liveries, making the scheme not only nonsensical, but also damn ugly.

Teams are also forced to use a sub-optimal tyre compound at some point during the race. While this may have superficially “spiced up” the action, it is artificial. Drivers are critical of it, and Fernando Alonso even said that he would rather race with wet tyres on a dry circuit.

Moreover, there is a sense that Bridgestone may have deliberately made their tyres behave strangely in an attempt to get drivers and teams discussing tyres with the media. Nick Heidfeld has said that the tyres could be “ten times better”. Joe Saward expanded:

The Bridgestones react differently on each car and finding the tricks that make them work is not easy. Some drivers can do it at some tracks and not at others. Even World Championship challenger Jenson Button has struggled with this…

Bridgestone seems to have concluded that it is better to have people talking about the tyres rather than not talking about them – even if a lot of the references are negative.

I rejoiced when it was announced that a “control” tyre was to be brought in. But it has brought the wrong sort of control. I am not too sure that the current dark behaviour is an improvement over the honest competition of the tyre war.

If you have reached the stage where your marketing strategy is to have people make negative comments about your product, it probably is time to call it a day.

In many ways, Bridgestone get a huge amount of brand exposure through their involvement in F1. As noted in this week’s Formula1Blog.com podcast, you simply cannot watch a Grand Prix without learning that Bridgestone supply the tyres. Yet, after thirteen seasons (fifteen by the time they leave), the marginal returns to their investment must surely have diminished to almost zero. And As Keith at F1 Fanatic has pointed out, their costs are set to soar as they now have to supply twelve or thirteen teams rather than ten.

Nonetheless, it is a shock and a surprise that Bridgestone, a company that has stuck with F1 through thick and thin since 1997, has so abruptly pulled the plug. Now the FIA and Bernie Ecclestone will have a big headache trying to find someone to take Bridgestone’s place. With bridges burned with Goodyear and Michelin, and Pirelli uninterested, options seem thin on the ground.

It has to be said, unintended consequences are never far away in the world of F1 rule changes. For just one example, take a look at how quickly aerodynamic flick-ups have resurfaced, despite their supposed banning. Skate fins? What on earth?

Now we are presented with a number of oddities that have come about as a result of this season’s new testing restrictions. In-season testing is banned completely. Each team is limited to 15,000km, but according to James Allen it looks as though no teams will top 10,000km, because this year’s testing events have been so heavily disrupted. Teams that go to Portugal and Spain get relentlessly rained on. Those that go to Bahrain are treated to sandstorms.

Moreover, what little testing time there is has been eaten into by the need to test 2010-spec tyres. The bans in refuelling and tyre warmers coming into effect next season will put different demands on the tyres. As such, Bridgestone need to get data so that they don’t end up barking up the wrong tree as they develop the new tyres. But with no opportunity to do this later on in the season, some teams (McLaren and BMW) have had to sacrifice some time from their already tight pre-season test schedule.

Now McLaren’s test driver Pedro de la Rosa has expressed concerns that the lack of test time is actually dangerous for reserve drivers. Should a reserve have to come in for some reason, he will be thrown into the deep end, straight into the action having had little experience of the car. That would be bad enough in a normal year, but with the radical rule changes that have come into force this season you can expect out-of-practice drivers to be even rustier.

Now it is becoming obvious that the testing restrictions are damaging the careers of young drivers. All winter, it had looked as though Rubens Barrichello’s chances of retaining his seat at Honda / Brawn were close to zero. Reading some reports, you’d believe that Bruno Senna was practically a shoo-in.

Now it looks as though Barrichello has been given the nod, leaving Senna with nowhere to go. The ever-excellent Grandprix.com trailed the possibility a few days ago, noting that “Barrichello is a better bet [than Senna] as his experience will be useful in a year when there is little opportunity for young drivers to learn how to drive F1 cars.”

From this perspective, it looks like Honda / Brawn have made the right decision here. Moreover, Barrichello outperformed Button last season, and it would have been a real shame if Barrichello’s career ended with a snub. Mind you, there is the risk that Barrichello will have a David Coulthard-style final season of doom, and we wouldn’t really want that.

But what now for Bruno Senna? Holding out for an F1 seat, he has more or less ruled out staying in GP2 for a third season. Indeed, it is difficult to see what he could achieve with another year in GP2. Drivers who spend too long in a category like GP2 tend to have their potential stunted.

In a sense, this is a predicament which is yet another symptom of the serial mismanagement at Honda which has deteriorated this winter to extreme levels for obvious reasons. Senna sounds pretty frustrated over this situation, and wouldn’t you be?

But any other year it would be no big deal. Senna could sign as a test driver for one year, as countless other drivers have done before, and spend the season racking up the miles on the test track in preparation for his first full season. And should he needed to replace another driver mid-season, he would have experience required of him.

Failing that, he could have gone on to make a decent career as a test driver. It may not have the glamour of a race role, and you can bet your bottom dollar that all test drivers yearn to race. But it is, at least, a decent income earned from driving cars — and they can always hope. People like Luca Badoer, Marc Gené, Anthony Davidson, Alexander Wurz and, yes, Pedro de la Rosa, have all made a decent living out of testing F1 cars. Felipe Massa started out at Ferrari as a test driver, and today he challenges for Championships.

Now what? All Bruno Senna can do is twiddle his thumbs. He can always suffer the humiliation of going back cap in hand to a GP2 seat. But this could backfire on him, and all the best seats have already been filled.

Could this be one reason why there is only going to be one rookie this season? Sébastien Buemi is the only newcomer to F1 this season, but he has done plenty of testing for the Red Bull teams and he is filling a vacancy that David Coulthard voluntarily left behind.

Remember when everyone was certain that Renault were not going to re-sign Nelsinho Piquet? Then, out of nowhere, they signed him for another season. Is that because, for all his faults, he at least has experience that the likes of Romain Grosjean and Lucas Di Grassi now cannot hope to attain?

Let us not forget another major FIA-instituted change for 2009, which is yet another instance revealing the lack of joined-up thinking inside the FIA. This season sees the inauguration of Max Mosley’s Formula Two project. Remember, this new feeder series was supposedly invented specifically to make it easier for young drivers to reach F1.

Well, it’s all very well adding yet another “second-top” rung in an already-cluttered world that contains GP2, A1GP and World Series by Renault among others. But the top rung now has a fundamental crack that will cause the ladder collapse when a driver reaches it, sending him — and his career — crashing to the floor.

There might be an allowance in F1 for “young driver training”, but this is no more than a fig leaf. A “young driver” is someone who has not tested on more than four days in the past 24 months. How is a young driver supposed to progress with such scant “training”?

Max Mosley likes to use F2 to make out that he is opening doors for young drivers. The reality is that this door leads drivers up the garden path. There have seldom, if ever, been as many feeder series as there are today. An F1 team can take their pick from 20+ GP2 drivers, countless A1GP drivers, anyone from WSR who takes their fancy and goodness knows how many F3 drivers. F2 isn’t needed, especially now that young drivers will find the welcome mat at F1’s door cruelly swiped from their feet.

By the end of 2006, I was thoroughly fed up with the tyre war. When Michelin left Formula 1 I was glad. This wasn’t because I have anything against the French company, but because I was simply fed up with championships seemingly being decided almost entirely by tyres — literally black boxes. Formula 1 had become a glorified tyre championship.

Two years on, and I’m beginning to wonder if anything actually changed. Even with a single tyre manufacturer, the performance of the teams seems to fluctuate wildly for seemingly little reason. And what is that reason? Tyres of course.

This seems to be the stock excuse that explains just about everything in F1. If Sébastien Bourdais is not performing, it’s the tyres. If Nick Heidfeld is struggling in qualifying, it’s the tyres. If Kimi Räikkönen is trundling around in 6th place, it’s the tyres.

Now Ferrari have been complaining about the compounds that Bridgestone have chosen in recent races, claiming that Bridgestone have tended to edge towards the harder end of the range. Hard tyres, we now know, suit McLaren well, whereas Ferrari prefer softer tyres.

Ferrari’s technical director, Aldo Costa, complained in particular about the compounds that Bridgestone took to Hockenheim — a race that the McLaren of Lewis Hamilton dominated:

I think the last race for us was very difficult for finding the good grip from the tyres, but we were not the only team. Most of the drivers were having, during the race mainly, a lot of problems to find grip.

The tyres were very, very hard, probably too hard for that kind of circuit, especially the hard tyre. There was no wear at all; the tyre just was not working for that kind of circuit. This was valid for us and it was valid as well for most of the teams.

It is a bit rich for Ferrari to be complaining about Bridgestone. The Japanese tyre company has spent the best part of the past decade pandering to the Scuderia’s every need while every other Bridgestone runner was told to suck it. At least Bridgestone are now treating their role as sole tyre supplier to F1 without favouring their old partners any more.

Bridgestone’s Hirohide Hamashima has backed up the theory:

“Basically the Ferrari has more of a tendency to understeer than the McLaren,” Hamashima told autosport.com. “The McLaren is a little bit oversteery. When the tyre has good grip, the car with the oversteer tendency will be quicker over a single lap than a neutral or understeering car.

“But when you think about racing conditions – especially with the temperatures we had at the Hungaroring – then an oversteering car will have heat generating at the rear much higher than the understeering car.

“Looking at Hungary and (Lewis) Hamilton’s car behaviour, after a few laps he struggled with oversteer – so he was making lots of counter-steering movements. On the other hand the Ferrari had a good balance after a few laps.

“That’s why the temperature is making a difference.”

I have learned this year that even with just one tyre manufacturer in F1, tyres still make a huge difference to a team’s performance. You could argue that, when everyone is given the same tyres to use, it is up to the teams to find a way to maximise the performance of the tyres themselves. However, with four compounds for Bridgestone to choose from, the teams simply have to build their cars not knowing which tyres they will end up using most often.

Perhaps F1 could bring in a genuine control tyre, where Bridgestone make just one compound of tyre for all circuits so that the teams will know exactly what to expect all season. However, Bridgestone would be dead against this because they want people to talk about the tyres more often. Also the performance of the tyres would probably vary from team to team depending on the weather conditions and the characteristics of each circuit.

I suppose I should just accept that tyres will always play a huge role in motor racing. With tyres being the only part of the car that really propels the vehicle, their importance ought not to be such a surprise. But I’d even rather be talking about how important silly aerodynamic pieces like shark fins are than talk about these dull, dull, dull tyres.

One driver whose coat is on a shoogly peg is Sébastien Bourdais. After a strong Australian Grand Prix, Bourdais’s season has been rather disappointing to say the least. He is completely anonymous during races. While this at least means he isn’t making many mistakes, the fact is that he is being utterly outclassed by his team mate Sebastian Vettel.

Bourdais has excused his performances, explaining that he will come good when slick tyres make their long-awaited return to F1. The Frenchman is of course used to slick tyres having used them for several years in ChampCar.

For the past decade Formula 1 has been unusual among motor racing categories for its use of grooved tyres in dry conditions. Slicks were abandoned in 1998 in a bid to reduce speeds amid a newly-ignited tyre war between Goodyear and Bridgestone. The powers that be were in no hurry to do away with grooves as the tyre war between Bridgestone and Michelin was even more intense. But now that Formula 1 now effectively has a control tyre with one supplier, the need to curb tyre development is no longer there.

Grooves were always unpopular among fans who prefer to look of a proper racing car with slick tyres. Drivers also tend to dislike grooves because of their reduced grip and the safety issues this entails. Grooves also reduced the role of mechanical grip which in turn put the emphasis on aerodynamics. This has led to a perceived reduction in the amount of overtaking.

Jacques Villeneuve was particularly outspoken about the introduction of grooved tyres.

Later on that year he said “the new rules are bluntly shit.” For those comments, Villeneuve was punished by Max Mosley (whose vanity project grooved tyres was) through the FIA’s World Motor Sport Council.

It was always rather strange that a driver would come through the ranks from an entry-level series through to F3 then F3000 / GP2 always using slick tyres, then be expected to use grooved tyres when he reaches F1. Given that Sébastien Bourdais feels that he has not been able to show his true potential without slicks, has the past decade been a lost decade for top-level grand prix racing?

Which other F1 drivers might have been awesome if only they had slicks?

Would Pizza Boy have been the best thing since flattened bread? Not likely given that he even struggled in other formulae with slicks.

But perhaps a decent case can be made for some other drivers. Perhaps Robert Doornbos would have been slick on slicks. He did well in F3000 and even scored a couple of wins in ChampCar. Maybe Justin Wilson couldn’t get into the grooves. He has also had a strong career in the USA where slicks are the norm.

The reverse seemed to happen for Mika Häkkinen. When grooved tyres were introduced in 1998, Häkkinen’s hitherto dormant career exploded into action. His first win did come in 1997, on slicks, but that was effectively gifted to him. On the other hand, Häkkinen’s talent was plain for all to see even before 1998.

Do I think Sébastien Bourdais will improve on slick tyres? My feeling is that tyres have a small role to play. But it’s not a very significant role. I think it would be closer to the truth to say that the standards of driving in ChampCar are much lower than in F1 and Bourdais simply doesn’t have the talent to hold his own at the highest level.

Felipe Massa remains, to me, the most mysterious driver on the grid — perhaps even more mysterious than Kimi Räikkönen. He has a reputation of being a highly erratic driver. And yet, had his engine now blown in Hungary he would be leading the championship. Indeed, as things stand he is only eight points away from the lead — not a million miles off.

He can have more spins than you can count in Silverstone, leave out the welcome mat for overtaking cars in Germany, then pull off one of the most amazing starts you have ever seen in Hungary. This repeats a similar pattern at the start of the season. He had a pair of embarrassing spins in Australia and Malaysia. Everyone was writing him off. And then bang, bang, bang — 28 points from three races.

The constant fall and rise, fall and rise characterises Felipe Massa. Is he genuine championship material or just a mediocre driver who is simply lucky enough to have a great car?

I was developing a theory about what was going on. Last week Bridgestone boss Hirohide Hamashima seemed to confirm it.

Hamashima has also shed some light on the fight at Ferrari between Felipe Massa and Kimi Raikkonen — claiming the Brazilian is superior when the car is perfect, but Raikkonen excels when the driver has to overcome some technical deficiencies

“When the car conditions are very suitable for Felipe his abilities are 110%, but once the car is not so good his abilities are 90%,” he explained. “But Kimi could get the package performance at 100% even if the car condition is not so good.”

That fits with what is becoming clear about Felipe Massa. If conditions are not quite right, he is simply all over the place. Think of the rainy conditions at Silverstone, for instance. But when the car is well hooked-up, Massa is a machine. In Budapest, the warm temperatures suited the Ferrari down to the ground and Massa had an amazing start and drove a great race until his engine expired.

So, Massa excels when conditions are perfect for him, but can’t cope if the slightest thing is wrong. This begs the question though. Does this sort of driver deserve to win the World Championship? Should a Champion really be the sort of person who can cope with some drizzle? Someone who can cope with a bit of adversity? Or does his superiority in perfect conditions excuse his mishaps?