Motor racing: Tyre threat to McLaren dominance

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The Independent Online
IN THE wake of yet another belittling demonstration of McLaren-Mercedes' current domination of Formula One, the Brazilian Grand Prix at the weekend brought in its wake just one pressing question: What do McLaren's rivals have to do to stand any chance of getting on terms with the Silver Arrows before it is too late?

In Melbourne rivals placed much store on McLaren's "fiddle brake" system, but the cars raced without it on Sunday and were as crushingly superior as they had been Down Under.

For Patrick Head, technical director at Williams, by far the most significant part of the performance equation is the tyres. McLaren's Bridgestones have a clear edge over the Goodyears used by their principal rivals, Williams and Ferrari. "We designed our car to be easy on the tyres," Head said. "Aerodynamics are part and parcel of that, producing aerodynamic behaviour that is very stable and doesn't fluctuate a lot depending on the attitude of the car, so that you don't have to run very stiff suspension and thus risk damaging the tyres.

"To some extent we possibly sacrificed some peak aerodynamic performance in order to achieve good stability, and one of the things we are looking at now is whether we would be better off to have the aerodynamics a little bit more peaky and less kind to the tyres.

"The whole car is an interactive entity between suspension dynamics and aerodynamics, as well as the tyres, so if you get a tyre that behaves very differently you often have to set the car up very differently."

Much has been muttered about an aerodynamic advantage on the McLaren, but Head disagrees. "I have to say that I haven't really seen all our rivals' cars close to, but at the moment it is a combination of factors working together on the McLaren that is producing the result," he said. "I suppose the McLaren looks to be the best, but the Ferrari is a neat little car and I don't think there is too much wrong with that or our car."

Both Williams and Ferrari are pinning their hopes on a new tyre from Goodyear. They tested the prototype prior to Brazil and are looking forward to its introduction in Argentina in two weeks' time. "Tyre performance is absolutely fundamental," Head said. "The aerodynamics of most of the leading cars are pretty close together.

"If somebody asked me if the aerodynamics of the McLaren are better than the aerodynamics of the Williams, I'd say that if we were to put their car and their model in our wind tunnel, against our car, it would not surprise me to find that our aerodynamics are at least equal or slightly better. Separating aerodynamics and chassis dynamics is very difficult to do, but you are looking at well over 50 per cent of the performance equation coming from the tyres."

Meanwhile, Ferrari's Eddie Irvine, eighth on Sunday, said: "Michael [Schumacher] is convinced that our car is not far off the McLarens, and I agree. But we need more grip."

As far as Williams and Ferrari are concerned, then, the ball is firmly in Goodyear's court. Perry Bell, Goodyear's operations manager, said: "Our new tyre marks a significant development step for us, which we believe will result in further improved overall performance."

For the sake of the world championship battle, it is not just the Goodyear teams who are hoping Bell is right.