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The FIA Gods Challenged

There is no doubt about it, the FIA do not like to have their decisions questioned. Way back in October last year, David Coulthard was smacked down for daring to put forward the GPDA’s view on safety matters and there are many other examples of the governing body reacting angrily to criticism.

David

David Coulthard

Now I see that even mighty Autosport magazine has had to print a retraction of earlier FIA-related statements made in a column of theirs. The fuss revolved around just how many teams were unhappy with the FIA’s sudden reduction of the engine formula from 3 liter V10s to 2.4 liter V8s, although I find it hard to see what was wrong with Autosport‘s columnist pointing out that not all the manufacturers were in favor of the change. Perhaps the problem really lay in his earlier assertion that the FIA had yo-yoed a lot – to hint that the FIA might be a tad indecisive would definitely be heresy.

The whole episode illustrates the FIA’s increasing tendency to see itself as infallible and above criticism. Which is a silly attitude to strike in a sport as contentious and full of differing interests and opinions as F1. The governing body would do wonders for its image if it were to accept criticism gracefully and listen a bit more. No-one has ever said that their job is easy and it is only to be expected that some will disagree with whatever they do; you can’t please all of the people all of the time.

The FIA would like us to see it as a forward-looking body that prepares for the future – hence their sudden fascination with green issues and the interests of car manufacturers. But they seem to be missing something very important about the brave new world of tomorrow: that in the information age, everything becomes known and is examined ad infinitum. They may be able to prevent the traditional media from voicing any uncomfortable opinions but the internet is a different matter entirely. Even governments have failed in their efforts to keep a lid on that beastie.

So the FIA would do far better if it were to act with more consideration of the views of those involved in the sport (and that includes the fans) and to be a lot more transparent in their actions. Except, of course, it can’t. So many of its decisions are driven by financial considerations and shady deals that it dare not explain some of them.

You may think that is a rather wild assumption; but it seems that Michelin agree with me – they are taking the FIA to court over the way in which Pirelli was selected as the sole supplier of tires to the World Rally Championship. Which brings to mind the odd way in which Microsoft MES were chosen as the suppliers of ECUs and Magneti Marelli’s doubts over the process.

The love of money is the root of all evil…

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The Future of F1 in the States

Tony George, owner of the Indianapolis circuit, is scheduled to talk next Thursday about “The future of Formula One racing in the United States”. The Indy GP is guaranteed for 2007 but beyond that its continued existence is uncertain and the hope is that George will reveal his plans during his talk.

Indy

Aftermath of the accident that caused the controversy – Ralf Schumacher’s Toyota is hauled from the scene

Much of the doubt surrounding the Grand Prix centers on the events of 2005, when only six cars participated after the Michelin teams withdrew following tire failures on the banked curve. Yet this seems very unfair when it is remembered that the problem was between the tire company and the FIA and it was not caused by the circuit owners. Had the FIA been more flexible in its dealing with the situation, the race would have proceeded as normal. Several solutions, all quite workable, were proposed by Michelin but the FIA rejected them all, insisting that the cars should run on the circuit as it was, even though it was clear that safety was compromised by the likelihood of tire failures. Their own suggestion, that the Michelin-shod cars should slow down for the banked corner, would have made the race as much of a farce as ultimately resulted.

I suppose that it could be said that the banked curve itself was the problem and remains so; it is true that it is the only such corner on the F1 circuits. But in previous years there have been no tire failures and 2005 was a case of Michelin getting their calculations wrong, surely an incentive for tire manufacturers not to repeat the mistake. Now that Bridgestone is the sole tire supplier to F1, any future problems with the corner will be shared by all teams (including Ferrari) and a suitable compromise could be worked out without difficulty.

It should also be considered that F1 is trying to expand its following in the US. If the sport is to run scared of one banked corner, it loses all credibility with Americans, since they are used to so much of their motor sports being held on banked ovals. It becomes important to the future of F1 in America that Tony George decide to continue with the GP, therefore, and he is definitely the man we want to hear from on the subject. All eyes on this coming Thursday.

Apparently there are several F1 teams that would like another GP in the States and I heartily approve of this suggestion. Ideally, such a GP would be held in the west since the east is already catered for and two possibilities spring to mind immediately. Please, Mr Ecclestone, could F1 go back to Long Beach? It is a wonderful street circuit and there were some great races there.

Or, failing that, what about Laguna Seca? Okay, it would need some work done to get it up to F1 safety standards but imagine the cars going through the Corkscrew. If anything will increase the fanbase in America, that would! And it was used for a demonstration run by the Toyota in 2006 so we know it’s possible…

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The Best Car of 2006

It seems to be the general opinion that the best car in 2006 was the Ferrari 248 F1, at least in the second half of the season. Yet we should not forget the huge influence on performance of the tires; when Bridgestone was on top and the track dry, the Ferraris were good but so were the Toyotas and Williams. And they all suffered in the wet. Take out the influence of the tires and it is much more difficult to say which was the best car.

Autosport magazine has a brief interview with Bob Bell, Renault’s technical director, in which he mentions the effect of the tuned damper ban on the R26. It is clear that the ban had some effect on the performance of the Renault, even if only marginally (and F1 is a sport of small margins), but Bob says that the whole affair just made the team that much more determined to win the championship.

R26

Renault R26

Until the Indianapolis Grand Prix, the Renault and Michelin had an advantage over the Ferrari, as demonstrated by their results. But Bridgestone made a big leap forward with their tires at that time, an improvement that was masked to some extent by expectations that the Ferraris would be particularly good in the USA; no-one was surprised when the Renaults were unable to win there. The Bridgestone advantage was confirmed at the French GP, however, and from then on they retained a lead in the dry.

So Renault were already battling against a car on superior tires when the damper ban occurred. That extra little degradation in performance was enough to make the R26 look less effective a design than the Ferrari and it was only the occasional wet race, where the Michelins were better than Bridgestone’s equivalent, that enabled Renault to remain ahead on points.

But this is all about tires – is it possible to say which car was better if all other factors had been equal? It’s a matter of opinion in the end and we can never know for sure. But the fact remains that the R26 was competitive even when the Michelins were not the best tires. It was always in with a chance, regardless of the type of circuit, and looked well-balanced and quick at all times.

And that was the strength of the Renault, that it was so adaptable to circumstances. The Ferrari was very good when it was good but there were a couple of tracks where it performed below par. And, for my money, that makes the R26 the better design.

Another Spanish double champion, Carlos Sainz of rallying fame, has been trying out last year’s Renault, the R25. You can read what he has to say on its merits as opposed to a rally car in this F1 Racing-live report.

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Suzuka Qualifying

The weather gods were kind to Michael Schumacher again in Japan, the dry conditions giving Bridgestone a decisive advantage over Michelin. Whatever the hype from both camps, it is quite clear that tires are playing an enormous part in the races at the moment, allowing us to predict a Renault victory when it rains or a Ferrari win when it doesn’t.

Massa

Felipe Massa

So it is no surprise that the front two rows of the grid are Bridgestone-shod; if there is a surprise at all, it was that Massa managed to grab pole. Even that is not unprecedented, given the Brazilian’s performances of late. Some seem to think that his race in Shanghai was below par but that is ignoring the fact that he was hampered by his tires while the circuit was wet (and all the Bridgestone runners had problems to begin with) and was then taken out in a coming-together with Coulthard.

Massa looks like a champion waiting to happen. He is now as fast as Schumacher and is even developing a similarly ruthless willingness to do anything to get ahead. He begins to fit the Ferrari mold very well.

Next up were the Toyotas, everyone assuming that their pace was the result of running light on fuel. That may be but their Bridgestones had something to do with it as well. They will be difficult to pass in the first stint and Alonso must hope to beat them to the first corner after the start, if he is to stand a reasonable chance of running close to the Ferraris.

The Hondas also put on a good show, taking seventh and eighth, and they could be a factor in the race, particularly if the weather turns changeable. Otherwise it was pretty much business as usual, with the one exception of Kimi Raikkonen. The McLaren must be very poor at this track for Kimi not to have made it into Q3.

It looks like it will be an easy race for Ferrari, given that the weather prediction is for even better conditions than today’s. Nothing is certain in this game, however, and Renault fans must hope for something to take the edge off the Ferraris’ advantage. Rain, against all forecasts? An engine problem for Michael?

Somehow I think it will take something like that for Michael not to win this one.

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