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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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Compound Confusion

So far, I have said nothing about the plan to make Bridgestone identify the two tire compounds to be used in races this year by having a blob of paint smeared on one or other of them. This is mainly because I really don’t understand the whole business.

Buddies

Best of buddies – Mansell and Piquet

For a start, what is the point of forcing the teams to use both compounds in each race? Since everyone must do this, it seems like a pathetic attempt to introduce more artificial strategy into racing – as if we didn’t have enough already. And it will very quickly become clear whether it is best to use the soft tires at the beginning of the race or the end and all the teams will react accordingly. Not much room for nail-biting stuff there.

Then there is the silly business of whether there should be visual indication of which compound each car is using. I am told that this will make things more exciting for the fans since they will be able to see at a glance which cars are on softs and which on hards. And everyone seems to agree that this is a great idea – or it appeared so until until this morning, when I read a post on Formula 1 Linksheaven that questions the motivation behind the sorry business. I particularly liked the following statement:

The casual fan does not give a damn what compound a driver is using. The CASUAL fan can’t tell whether it’s Liuzzi or Speed gone by in the Toro Rosso. So this wont enhance their enjoyment of a race. And the hardcore fans will likely not want their beloved sport to take a further step away from being the cut-throat world that it is.

I would go even farther and suggest that the dedicated fans too will not care once it comes down to it. They understand that these things even themselves out in the race and that any excitement created by them is artificial and temporary only. What really matters to us is that there be as little interference by regulation in the races as possible – the attraction of F1 is competition between the best drivers and cars in the world and there is no need to “spice up” the show with idiotic and pointless requirements inserted by a governing body obsessed with TV ratings and convinced that we are all so moronic that only a circus will keep us amused.

As an example of just how much we care about tires, consider the British GP of 1987. Everyone remembers it as the race in which Nigel Mansell passed Nelson Piquet to win after having been twenty seconds down; some even consider it to be Mansell’s greatest race. The fact that Mansell was so far behind because he had changed his tires late in the race and that Piquet’s tires were shot is quietly forgotten. In fact, all that race proved was that a car on new tires is quicker than one on worn ones – big revelation.

No, we don’t care about tires and any attempt to re-introduce interest after having ensured that there will be no competition between tire manufacturers is a matter of wanting to have your cake and eat it. There are arguments for and against tire wars in F1 but, having decided to standardize on one manufacturer, the FIA should leave it at that, instead of monkeying about with details in the hope of preserving a vestigial interest in tires.

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Testing the Bridgestone Tires

Many of the teams have been testing at the Barcelona circuit, with Felipe Massa predictably fastest in the Ferrari and the other drivers getting used to the Bridgestone tires. Although the times are meaningless at this early stage, they are listed in an article in Autosport magazine if you’re interested.

Aguri

Super Aguri

Autosport also has a very revealing interview after the first day’s runs with Super Aguri’s new driver, Anthony Davidson. He confirms that the Bridgestones are very different from the Michelins he was used to and that it will take time to adjust the car to get the best from them. Apparently the tires slide more and, although he found this quite entertaining, it is difficult to post good times as a result.

Which would seem to confirm all the talk of last year’s Bridgestone customers having an early season advantage until we remember that these are not the 2006 tires but an older compound that all the teams are going to have to get used to. By the time the season kicks off in Australia next year, I think that everyone will know pretty well what to expect from their tires; it will, in fact, be the proverbial level playing field that was impossible as long as two tire manufacturers were involved in F1.

In spite of Davidson’s troubles with the tires at the test, he was still respectable in the Super Aguri, posting 11th fastest time, ahead of the Toro Rossos and Red Bulls. The news on Aguri is that they will be racing a development of this year’s Honda chassis, the RA106, and will slip through the loophole in the regulations identified by Red Bull with the Toro Rosso car of 2006. As long as components are manufactured by a third party, it seems, it does not matter who assembles them and Aguri has made sure that their car for next year will qualify accordingly.

Clearly the regulations are not stringent enough to ensure that each team builds its own car from scratch and it is probably impossible to achieve this anyway. All teams use parts designed and built by other companies. We now have two teams effectively running second squads under thin disguises, Red Bull with Toro Rosso and Honda with Super Aguri. Why they should want to spread their effort so thinly, I have no idea, but they have made me doubt the wisdom of the regulation in the first place.

Presumably the intent of the rule is to prevent places in F1 being collared by existing competitors when there are other teams waiting for a gap to open up so that they can become involved. This has not happened so why bother with regulating it at all? Running two teams will soon prove too expensive and wasteful for most companies (I doubt that Red Bull and Honda will keep it going for long) and the gaps will appear in the long run.

In the fifties there were no restrictions on how many cars a team could enter and it was quite common for there to be three or four cars run by a single entrant. At the time, there was no pressure on the numbers of cars racing and the arrangement worked well enough, even though it gave larger teams a greater chance of having a car finish the race. But nothing has changed in that respect; the larger teams still enjoy certain benefits over the smaller ones, not the least of which is money.

It all makes me think that there needs to be less regulation in F1, not more. At the moment the rules are so complicated that lawyers are sometimes needed to decide on finer points that arise. That can hardly be good for the sport.

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Bridgestone and Toyota

Autosport magazine reports that Toyota wants Bridgestone to allow them to test on extra days during the winter tests. The Japanese tire company are resisting this suggestion as it would break the agreement already reached over testing and coincidentally require them to supply more tires when their facilities are already under pressure.

Bridgestone

Although the team deny any knowledge of the request, it appears that it emanates from the highest level of Toyota management. And Bridgestone are adamant that they will not depart from their previous agreement regarding tests and tires to be supplied in their quest to be even-handed in their new role as sole supplier of tires to F1. A Bridgestone spokesperson said: “The problem we have now is that this has gone beyond one team talking to its tyre supplier. In effect they’ve called their dad and we’ve called ours, so it has gone right to the top and got very complicated.”

Which bodes well for the coming season. Many are expecting that previous Bridgestone customers will have an advantage in the new year because they already have a working relationship with the tire supplier. Yet, on this evidence, it seems that Bridgestone intend to be completely fair in their handling of the monopoly. Taking into account that fact that the tire for 2007 will be completely different from those produced this year, it is difficult to see how any team will have much of an advantage from previous experience of using Bridgestone tires.

And that is how it should be; the idea of a single tire manufacturer was to cut the huge costs involved in seeking a tiny advantage over a competing tire supplier. It may seem a step back from the cutting edge of technology so necessary to F1 but in reality a standardized tire formula enables the engineers and drivers to compete on the same terms, thereby allowing the best engineered cars to reap their just rewards.

It will also take away an excuse for poor performance; teams will no longer be able to blame a bad race result on their tires but rather on their use of them. So the best teams will still come out on top, regardless of whether they have used Bridgestones before or not, particularly as the winter tests should wipe away any remaining advantage to being a Bridgestone customer in 2006.

The team that just might be at a disadvantage over tires is Spyker – they have said that they will not participate in the winter tests, preferring to develop the new car within the factory. This might leave them with some ground to make up in the early part of the season but I can’t see it being significant. Once they have the new car dialled in, it should be as competitive as it was always going to be (which is being very coy about how good I think the Spyker will be – well, wouldn’t you have doubts too?).

So I see the Bridgestone/Toyota news as good for the sport; as long as Bridgestone resist any pressure to vary the testing schedule, the likelihood is that they will be just as fair when the new season gets under way.

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