Temple of speed hosts fiery debate over tyres

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The Independent Online

If race tracks were women, this would be Sharon Stone mixed with Halle Berry and Michelle Pfeiffer. A feisty blend of age, experience and panache. It's one of those venues that epitomises a great sport, and evokes the sort of hallowed memories that are becoming unfashionable in Formula One these days. It's Italy's temple of speed where the legend of Ferrari went through its growing pains decades ago. It is also the home of Italy's superfan, the tifoso, and the fastest track on the calendar. Michael Schumacher's lap record here is 254kmh (158mph), and the drivers need to shed 280kmh in less than two seconds as they brake from 360 to negotiate the first chicane at the end of the long, long pit straight.

If race tracks were women, this would be Sharon Stone mixed with Halle Berry and Michelle Pfeiffer. A feisty blend of age, experience and panache. It's one of those venues that epitomises a great sport, and evokes the sort of hallowed memories that are becoming unfashionable in Formula One these days. It's Italy's temple of speed where the legend of Ferrari went through its growing pains decades ago. It is also the home of Italy's superfan, the tifoso, and the fastest track on the calendar. Michael Schumacher's lap record here is 254kmh (158mph), and the drivers need to shed 280kmh in less than two seconds as they brake from 360 to negotiate the first chicane at the end of the long, long pit straight.

Clearly, then, it is not the sort of place where you want the kind of explosive puncture that sent Schumacher into the wall during testing here last week. Coming so soon after the high-speed tyre failures that affected Jenson Button and Juan Pablo Montoya at Spa (not to mention Ralf Schumacher's puncture at Indianapolis that has kept him out of racing since June), it has made tyres the hot issue here.

Schumacher himself shrugged off his hefty accident, dismissing it as one of the risks of his calling. "I'm not worried about what happened here," he said, "but naturally I am worried about what happened in Spa. I believe, from the point of view of the Grand Prix Drivers' Association, it is pretty clear what we would like to ask but it is nothing we would want to discuss publicly. In the end it is up to the Fia to take consequences [sic] and we will find out what they think about this."

In practice yesterday there was initial concern about another tyre failure when Antonio Pizzonia went off the track on the entry to the Parabolica corner, one of the fastest parts of the track where speeds reach 360kmh, but it transpired that his BMW-Williams had encountered a brake problem.

Later, however, the Fia president Max Mosley spelt out the governing body's concern about the effect small shards of carbon fibre that litter the track as a result of the sort of first-corner accidents that occurred in Belgium were having, and which he believes were directly responsible for most of the tyre problems there.

"We never attempt to regulate the tyre companies when they have failures," Mosley said. "The most we do is write to them expressing our concern. They always act responsibly, and they are entitled to say to us, should they wish, that the shards should not be on the circuit. We are taking steps to stop that and we have suggested to the teams that things such as suspension components should be steel rather than composite materials that produce such shards when the components are damaged in collisions. Changing the materials' specification would not advantage or disadvantage anyone.

"If there were to be a really serious safety problem with the tyres, however, we would have to go to a single supplier, who could then make the tyres bullet-proof. But so far the manufacturers have been responsible and we do not want to do that."

Most accept that while the tyre war between Bridgestone and Michelin has directly resulted in the jump in lap speeds that Mosley is determined to rein in, it has also thrown the sport a lifeline that has at times reduced other competitors' deficits to Ferrari. Last year in particular the season was electrifying as a result.

Yesterday the red cars were only second and third fastest, once again upstaged by Spa winner Kimi Raikkonen who took his McLaren-Mercedes to 1min 20.846sec compared to Rubens Barrichello's 1:20.899 and Schumacher's 1:21.080. Britain's Jenson Button was fourth fastest, right behind Schumacher on 1:21.124. It's early days however, and none of them were noticeably overwhelmed. Raikkonen complained of a lack of grip and Button said his lap was "pretty average", while Schumacher knew that his time in the morning's session (1:20.526) was really the fastest of all and that the track will be quicker still tomorrow.

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