There is something wondrous in the ability of F1 designers to create the ingenious system whereby cables prevent errant wheels falling like rain, as they did in the great first-lap carnage at Spa last year. Both Mika Hakkinen, winner of a stunning pole position, and Alexander Wurz were founder members of the Albert Park Wallsmackers Club here during practice, yet despite heavy impacts with unyielding concrete the McLaren and the Benetton faithfully retained their wheels precisely as the new regulations intended. For sure, that is worthy of praise, especially for those with memories long enough in an increasingly short-focus sport to recall the fatal head injuries inflicted on Mike Spence at Indianapolis in 1968 and Ayrton Senna at Imola in 1994 when semi-detached wheels swung back into the cockpit.
But less worthy is the latest breed of tyre, with its harder-than-Tyson compound and unforgiving twitchiness. If Hakkinen and Wurz actually hit something, a hell of a lot of other aces got away with things only by the skin of their teeth. Michael Schumacher, David Coulthard, Damon Hill, Eddie Irvine, Heinz-Harald Frentzen - you get the picture. The list of spinners read like an F1 almanac, and it was easier to count those who didn't err.
Since 1998 the FIA has mandated a fourth groove in the front tyres to reduce lap speeds. But that extra groove promotes even more understeer, where the car wants to go straight on, so that the slightest twitch of oversteer under braking virtually guarantees that the car will run wide the moment the driver has applied corrective lock. What this first encounter of the new season has confirmed is that the latest breed of F1 car is a pretty horrible animal to drive, that looks as adept as a drunk trying to walk a tightrope.
The FIA president, Max Mosley, the champion of the grooved tyre, says this is progress. The drivers do not agree. Having narrowly lost the pole to McLaren-Mercedes team-mate Hakkinen, Coulthard said: "It might not prove the case elsewhere but it was definitely the case here that the more laps you did the better the tyres became. But there is definitely a lot less grip this year, and that's what makes the cars very difficult to drive. One minute they feel quite stable, the next you're over the limit."
Jackie Stewart, who played a key role of the development of the slick racing tyre back in the early 1970s, and was the first man to win a grand prix on such rubber, believes that it allowed the driver to lean harder on the car when cornering and to hold it in the sort of controlled power slide that spectators love to watch. But Mosley is adamant that the narrower, grooved tyres, introduced last year, reduce cornering speeds and therefore impacts during accidents. The jury is still out, but you would find few engineers who agree with that view in the pit lane.
"The instability of the current cars has a lot to do with the grooves," Stewart said, while quietly celebrating Rubens Barrichello's excellent performance in driving a Stewart-Ford to fourth place on the grid right behind a despondent Michael Schumacher. "They don't give you a second chance, and this current generation of drivers is so used to something that's got so much rubber on the road, so much stick, that when it goes they're driving to the point they would be if they were still on slicks. There is still a lot of grip because of the aerodynamic downforce and mechanical grip, but when that grip goes it's very late on and therefore there's not much opportunity to grab it back. The cars are fundamental understeerers, so if you get a twitch on and the driver then applies correction, the car just understeers off the road."
For all that, the tyres are not the second and a half a lap slower that the FIA intended. Far from it. By yesterday morning Hakkinen and Coulthard were menacing last year's pole position lap time of 1min 30.010sec, and only a drop in temperature prevented them beating that in qualifying.
"This makes it a very difficult issue for us because the FIA asked us for slower tyres this year," admitted Hiroshi Yasukawa, Bridgestone's commercial manager. "I believe they are, but everything else - the chassis, aerodynamics, engines and drivers - are even better."
Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.Reuse content