A farce or an impasse?
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F1 has just had a very painful lesson in compliance to rigid rules. Personally, I cannot envisage a solution that would have satisfied everybody, nor even a compromise that would have been acceptable. Michelin made a monumental error in providing unsuitable tyres and, from that point on, everybody was a passenger in the resulting smash.
Let’s look at the position of each of the players:
Michelin: Their modelling tools failed to recognize the demands of the circuit on their tyres and, after the two Toyota incidents were unable to replicate the failures. They had NO choice but to advise their partners of the situation and to withdraw their unqualified support (and it has to be unqualified) of their partners proceeding with the tyres as supplied. They then, quite rightly, investigated any and all options they could think of to resolve the issue in the time allowed. The options they offered were unpalatable at best and ultimately unworkable.
IMS: Resurfaced part of the track but provided access to technical staff of the teams and their tyre partners to assess the surface. The track was approved by the FIA to hold an FIA sanctioned round of F1 series.
They must remain absolutely blameless in the whole debacle and were as effectively trapped in a sequence of events over which they had no control as the attending and viewing public.
Bridgestone: Produced a tyre that complied with the requirements, based partly on information received from Firestone (A Bridgestone subsidiary). Failed to share this information (which they deemed confidential) with Michelin in line with standard practice of pursuing competitive advantage from intellectual property. Maintained a non-involvement attitude to the issue on the basis that Michelin’s problems did not effect the competitiveness of their (Bridgestone’s) partners.
Michelin Partner Teams: Reacted to the advice from Michelin by a) seeking alternative resolutions and b) withdrawing from the race. In addressing options and alternatives they failed to identify a single compromise that satisfied the dual tests of being both legal and non-compromising on the Bridgestone teams. Failed to advise the Course Stewards, the FIA or the public of their intent not to start the race should a compromise not have been reached. This decision was stated to have been a last minute one so formal advice was unlikely to have been an option (I believe, but have no evidence to support this, it was a strategy agreed earlier in the event of no action by the FIA).
Ferrari: After finding themselves with an inferior tyre for the season to date suddenly had a tyre that complied and took a ‘not my problem’ stance to the woes of the Michelin runners. Stated that they had no formal communication from the FIA regarding a chicane being introduced but would have objected had an approach been made.
Jordan: Agreed to not race then decided to get the points so revised their decision. (No comment on this beyond saying that the ‘race’ would probably have been cancelled had only the 2 Ferrari’s gridded).
Minardi: Were in a Rock and a Hard Place situation. Had Stoddard not reacted to Jordan’s decision to start he would certainly have been in an untenable position with the FIA as the only Bridgestone runner to not race. The Michelin teams at least had a safety issue they could argue. I do not believe they (Minardi) can be faulted for their actions and I accept that Paul would have honoured his commitment to not race if he had not been left as a sole non-participant.
FOM: Bernie (and how this hurts to say it) was not involved. His area is restricted to commercial issues and FOM has no authority over the situation or its resolution. Ecclestone could exert influence over the players that were involved and I don’t doubt he tried, however he was not part of the decision-making loop
Course Stewards: They were, to a large extent, also outside the loop. They could only react to a recommendation and dispensation from the sanctioning body, the FIA.
FIA: Max (gasp) did what he was forced to do. The rules of F1 were not drawn up with the intent that the FIA could interpret them or modify them to suit a situation however unusual. He’s a lawyer and he reacted by following the rules laid down. Charlie Whiting was on the ground in Indy but again he followed a course dictated by the rules and threatened to withdraw the sanction of the FIA if the rules were not applied.
Options were clearly available (regardless of their feasibility) and the ‘solutions’ put forward by Michelin would not have been within the FIA’s ability to implement.
Given these facts let’s look at the solutions that were explored:
A Chicane: Most popular, however, it did have a few issues of its own.
Replacement Tyres: Sounds good but Michelin could not provide a tyre that it would certify as safe and would have been contrary to the rules as they stand. Some penalty would have been imposed but it would have been less than disqualification had a suitable tyre been available.
Tyre changes at 10 lap intervals using the nominated compounds: Michelin stated that they could not warrant the tyres for more than 10 laps so theoretically (were sufficient stocks available) each car could have changed tyres every 10 laps. Not attractive to the Michelin teams as the loss of time would have made them uncompetitive with the Bridgestone teams and importantly, given that the tyres were known to be defective for the conditions the Stewards would have been forced to Black Flag the Michelin shod teams on safety grounds.
Enforced speed limits through turn 13: Speed differentials between the Haves (running Bridgestones) and Have Not’s would have been dangerous and the Michelin teams response was “Not unless the Bridgestone cars are slowed down as well!” Enough said?
Michelin cars avoiding turn 13: This could have been done by simply having the cars drive through the pit lane every lap. It would have satisfied the legal position and resolved the issue of safety with the Bridgestones. Not acceptable to the Michelin teams although it would have created an opportunity for two separate races to be held.
Ignoring the problem and Racing anyway: Not an option, full stop. The safety risks would be unacceptable.
Michelin teams forgoing points and starting at the rear of the grid: On what tyres? Michelin could not authorize the use of any of its tyres through turn 13 at racing speed so it was down to one of the slowing down options plus this.
Everybody using Bridgestones: Yeah, that was going to happen!
Postpone the race: Why? Because some teams were ill prepared? Does that mean that races should be postponed until Minardi can be competitive with the front runners? The Michelin teams bought along tyres that their partner provided and they were unsafe, that’s their problem, not the FIA or the three teams that did run around on Sunday.
So despite all the hype what were the viable options? None that I can see. Either the Bridgestone teams were unfairly disadvantaged or the FIA would have been forced (under the rules) to withdraw its sanction of the race, resulting in no race anyway because of insurance implications.
Michelin got it wrong and everybody got screwed! Bridgestone were not obliged (as some would argue) to share their intellectual property, Michelin certainly don’t tell Bridgestone what they are doing right for the other tracks.
This is F1’s darkest hour and the rules do need revising to allow the FIA a get-out-of-jail clause for future unforeseeable circumstances but I can’t really fault anyone for their actions given the constraints and the secular interest of the players.
This debate will rage for a long time and the event has caused immense damage to the sport.
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