AKRON (July 18, 2005) — Group Michelin's very public debacle at the recent U.S. Grand Prix—all 14 cars running on Michelin tires withdrew after unexplained tire failures in qualifying—highlights the downside of publicity associated with the extremely bright media spotlight on motorsports.
Prior to this, Michelin was basking in the glow of eight consecutive victories.
What long-term ramifications ensue are still to be determined. Michelin's stock took a minor hit the day after the race, but the company anticipates ultimately the public will appreciate its action because the firm said it did it in the name of safety.
The event also points the spotlight on the unenviable situation the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA), the sanctioning body for Formula 1 racing, put its tire suppliers in this year.
In the hope of achieving better competition, the FIA requires competitors complete each race on one set of tires—a change from past years when teams routinely changed tires two or even three times during a 190-mile race.
With competition as serious as it gets between Michelin and Bridgestone Corp.—the other tire maker supplying the international F1 circus—tire development is at the outermost reaches of the envelope, perhaps even beyond.
This change already has led to dangerous situations in other races this year. The most serious was at the European Grand Prix in late May, when the McLaren team's Kimi Raikonen drove the last 20 laps of the race on a flat-spotted tire. That's because changing the tire would have caused a time penalty that would have cost him the victory.
The vibrations set up by that flat spot eventually led to a suspension failure, sending Mr. Raikonen into a wild spin that nearly took another competitor out as well.
This and other tire failures throughout the first eight races prompted the FIA to contact Michelin and Bridgestone in early June, naively requesting they “make every effort to see that there are no more tire failures this season.''
In the letter, FIA President Max Mosley told the tire makers tires “should be built to be reliable under all circumstances, including...off-road excursions, abuse on curbs, contact with other cars and contact with debris on the track.” In other words, a bulletproof, run-flat tire that can operate at speeds up to 220 mph on 120-degree asphalt.
To thank the tire makers for their effort, the FIA notified them that starting in 2008, the series will be open to only one tire company.
Michelin has stated on several occasions it competes only in series where there is open competition among tire suppliers. Perhaps the FIA is doing Bibendum a favor and allowing it to walk away without egg on its face.
Bruce Davis is special projects reporter for Tire Business.