Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Ferrari, FIA f-up F1

Once upon a time there was a racetrack in Indiana. The Indycars that raced there kept falling off, so the authorities replaced the surface with a brand new one with diamond-cut grooves to increase the grip. Firestone, who supplied the tyres to some of the Indycars got some feedback and told their European brother Bridgestone about it. This proved useful, as they supplied three teams who competed in F1.

A few weeks later an F1 race took place on the same racetrack. In addition to the three teams who use Bridgestone, there were also seven other teams who used a tyre manufacturer called Michelin. On Friday practice, one of the these tyres failed unexpectedly on the banked part of the circuit, causing a crash which ruled Ralf Schumacher out of the main event on the Sunday.

Now F1 cars don't like banking. Unlike Nascars and Indycars, F1 cars are designed to race on flat tracks, and generate enormous amounts of downforce. Whether due to a dodgy batch of tyres, or the new diamond-cut surface, an investigation into the crash by Michelin meant that they couldn't guarantee their tyres for a 73-lap race. Unless that part of the track was slowed down by a chicane, they advised their teams not to race. In the litigation culture that is America, the corporations that owned the teams had no choice but to agree. Two Bridgestone teams even joined them.

Enter the FIA and Ferrari. Ferrari decide that they should not be penalised for what is essentially a problem caused by the tyre manufacturer. The FIA refuse to implement the chicane. Without all ten teams agreeing, the race would not count towards the championship. The Michelin teams ask for the chicane to be added and agree that they will not get any World Championship points from the race as it is their tyre manufacturers fault. At least the crowd will be treated to a spectacle, they argue. No say the FIA. Race at reduced speeds, use a different tyre or change your tyre every few laps. Martin Brundle, a respected former racing driver turned television pundit points out the first option could be dangerous; the second is against FIA rules. Michelin cannot guarantee the tyre for any amount of laps - after all Ralf Schumacher crashed on his first flying lap, so the third option is unsatisfactory as well. The Michelin teams are left with no alternative but to pull out of the race.

This all happens against a backdrop of a power struggle in F1. The nine teams who agreed to the chicane, encouraged by the large motor manufacturers who own them are asking for a bigger slice of the cash F1 gets in sponsorship money as well as more of a say in the decision making. They threaten a breakaway championship in 2008 after their current contracts expire in 2007. Ferrari are the only team to have signed up past 2008. Since this agreement, the FIA and Ferrari seem to end up on the same side on any disagreements. Some teams are worried the FIA may be showing favouritism to Ferrari. Some motor racing fans point to past dubious decisions they say already show this.

Only six cars start the race to a chorus of boos. Ferrari, who have been having a bad season get maximum points, which catapults them back into the World Championship. The American fans ask for a refund. Formula 1 is damaged, maybe irreparably.

Murray Walker used to say that F1 spells "if" backwards. The People's Republic would also like to point out that you can't spell Ferrari without FIA.

1 comment:

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