Tuesday, July 2, 2013

A matter of trust...

Lewis Hamilton was leading the British Grand Prix on Sunday. Starting from the pole in his home race, Hamilton had a good start to the event, fending off any early challenges to his lead. Now, just a few laps into the race, the British driver was settling into his groove – hitting his marks on corner entry, taking care of his tires.

But one of his Pirelli tires had already had enough. With a shocking force, Hamilton’s left-rear tire exploded in a hailstorm of tire compound and carbon fiber shards knocked from the Mercedes’ body. Without warning, the race leader was limping to the back of the field.

Lewis Hamilton struggles to maintain control seconds after his left rear tire exploded just seven laps
into the British Grand Prix.

Shockingly, the exact same left-rear-tire failure happened moments later to Ferrari’s Felipe Massa. A handful of laps later the same fate befell Toro Rosso's Jean-Eric Vergne. Soon after, McLaren’s Sergio Perez joined the left rear epidemic. So grave was the situation that F1 race director Charlie Whiting was on the verge of stopping the race altogether.

For a driver to succeed in any form of motorsports, tires are the most important bond between man and machine. When that ultimate trust is cast into doubt, performance can’t help but suffer. No component of a modern-day race package is as critical as the tires.

It’s bad enough when a sole provider has problems with tires designed to support an entire series, as is the case with Pirelli and F1. It’s worse when there’s a tire war.

Anyone who drove in NASCAR’s Winston Cup Series in 1994 likely has dark memories of that season. Hoosier Racing Tires had been successful in grassroots racing across the country. And after successfully providing tires to the Busch Grand National Series for three years, Hoosier stepped up to NASCAR’s premier racing series in 1994, the small Indiana company going toe-to-toe with Goodyear.

The goal of a sole provider is to offer competitors a safe and reliable tire; companies in a tire war must takes chances with formulations in a quest for an edge on the track against a corporate competitor. Reliability can take a back seat to the search for that extra bit of performance.

Geoff Bodine was the most successful driver for Hoosier’s Winston Cup program, earning three victories in 1994.

There was an air of tension in the garage area, as drivers were forced to choose sides, aligning with Leo Mehl in the Goodyear camp or casting their lot with upstart Bob Newton and Hoosier. Geoff Bodine chose the latter, becoming the flagship for Hoosier with the team that had been founded by the late Alan Kulwicki. And though Bodine charged to three victories that season, what many fans recall are the numerous crashes throughout the year resulting from tire failures. Economic realities eventually drove Hoosier back to the racing series that initially sustained the company, but not before drivers for both companies had some unfortunate accidents from blowouts and cut tires.

Mark Martin won the last race of the 1994 season, but emerged from his Thunderbird
frustrated about the tire war.

“Things that make tires fast make them less safe – there’s no getting around that,” said Mark Martin after the season. “I’m really proud I lived to talk about the ’94 tire war. It’s not worth it, man…”

Ken Schrader once told me about a crash he experienced after a tire failure at nearly 200 mph while thundering around Talladega Superspeedway. “Everything just slowed down,” he recalled. “As I climbed the banking, I had plenty of time to think, ‘This one’s going to hurt…’”

I can’t imagine a more helpless feeling for a race car driver.

A trailing Kimi Raikkonen takes evasive action – at nearly 200mph – to avoid the debris
hurled into the air and across the track Sunday at Silverstone in England.

The world of F1 was very lucky the all drivers who experienced tires failures last weekend were able to maintain control of their cars – and that the cloud of debris as the tires let go did not cause a catastrophic crash for a competitor following close behind. The pressure is on Pirelli to find out what has gone wrong – and with the F1 cars taking to the track tomorrow for the first practice session of this weekend’s German Grand Prix, time has almost run out.