To pit or not to pit

It was sad, the way Kimi ended up in the gravel trap after what was a stellar drive at the Nurburgring. After all, he was just one lap away from avenging last year’s failure. If Gilles Villeneuve were alive, he would’ve surely approved of Kimi’s tenacity.

While the incident reminded me of compatriot Mika Hakkinen’s last lap clutch failure at the Spanish GP, it also threw up a lot of questions about the new ‘tyre rule’ and the resultant risk.

As originally written, the rules accounted only for punctures, but that was amended to include tyres in a “dangerous condition.” In essence, it’s accepted that normal wear and tear is not a valid excuse for a tyre change, unless the tyre in question has scrubbed down to the carcass.

Over the winter there was a lot of discussion as to how that would be defined, and even after the third race in Bahrain there was a further clarification from the FIA.

Firstly, only the damaged tyre can be changed. Secondly, it has to be replaced by a tyre of equal mileage of the one that is replaced. And thirdly, refueling cannot be carried out during the tyre change. It’s this last condition that ensures that nobody abuses the system. If the FIA technical delegate is not convinced about the need for a tyre change on safety grounds, he could levy a penalty.

Incidentally, the first driver to change a tyre during the race this year was none other than Raikkonen himself. He had to pit with a flat tyre in Malaysia just after a fuel stop. Apparently, the valve had been damaged when the mechanics tried to adjust the pressures at the stop. More recently, Michael Schumacher pitted for a change after a rear tyre failure in Barcelona. However, no one had changed a worn out tyre.

Lack of precedence
Ferrari’s Rubens Barrichello retired in Malaysia with tyres that had arguably reached a dangerous condition. Does such a situation allow for tyres to be changed? It looks to remain unclear till someone sets precedence.

Even McLaren were not sure whether it would have been possible to change Kimi’s flat-spotted tyre at the Nurburgring, as Ron Dennis admitted after the race: “We discussed it extensively. The problem was that we did not feel that the tyre carried sufficient evidence of being unsafe.”

Perhaps he was referring to the initial 10 or even 20 laps after the problem occurred, because the TV pictures over the last three or four laps left little doubt as to whether the tyre had reached a dangerous condition.

Renault’s Pat Symonds later said, “I certainly don’t think you can change a tyre if you flat-spotted it or something. It’s sort of your own fault really. So I don’t think they (FIA) would treat it very sympathetically.”

But why is everybody assuming? All teams have a radio link to race control and can ask questions on any matters arising during the event. Apparently, at no time did McLaren enquire as to whether the tyre would be considered dangerous or not.

In the end, the FIA’s views didn’t really matter. Ron Dennis, his engineering team and Raikkonen himself decided come what may to stay out and get to the flag. Stopping meant losing, even if the eight points for second were a pretty valuable consolation prize.

McLaren nearly got it right. The tyre itself survived, and it was the forces generated by the vibrations that became too much for the front suspension. We will never know whether Kimi could have stayed ahead of the healthy Renault over the last lap, as he led by just 1.5 seconds at the start of it.

Reward vs Risk
Straight after the race, Dennis claimed he had no regrets. “Life is full of risk. You go through life managing risk. We’re here to win, and coming third or fourth wouldn’t have been much and obviously we took a risk and paid the price. But that’s what motor racing is about.”

Soon some of the teams expressed concern over such a precarious situation. When some of them even called for rethinking the one-tyre rule, FIA’s Max Mosley wrote to all ten Formula One teams, reminding them of their responsibility for safety. Mosley, who also wrote to tyre suppliers Bridgestone and Michelin, pointed to possible risks to spectators as one of the reasons that the teams should take more care not to push tyres to the limit.

However, the debate is far from over. What if the careening McLaren of Kimi had crashed into Jenson Button’s BAR? What if the tyre tethers had snapped just centimeters away from Kimi’s face?

As for now, Max Mosley’s message to the teams is pretty clear:
“The rules of Formula One have always left it to each team to judge how far to go in balancing performance against mechanical integrity. Equally, when a car’s mechanical integrity has, or may have, been compromised by a race incident, it is for the team to decide whether to continue, make a pit-stop or retire.”

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