Tortoise and the hare

For almost 6 years on the trot, Bridgestone remained unbeaten in the formula one stakes. This success came almost exclusively with Ferrari and the other Bridgestone teams were not too happy with this. They complained of partiality and decided to switch sides for the 2005 season, leaving the Japanese tyre maker at the mercy of Ferrari. And Jordan. And Minardi.

Then came a radical rule change requiring a single set of tryes to last the entire race weekend. Suddenly, the invincible Ferrari/Bridgestone pairing began to falter. The deserting act of the teams seemed to have worked.

Michelin, after four long years, looked to have finally found the edge. Accusations against Bridgestone began to fly like nobody’s business. But Ferrari did not lay the blame on Bridgestone at any point.

One of the biggest problems appears to have been Ferrari’s bullishness on their F2004 machine, and the belief that, with a few small modifications it would continue to be strong at the head of the field. However, it was not to be so. With their confidence blunted, Ferrari promptly preponed the introduction of the F2005 by two races. The car showed promise at Imola and Bahrain. Though tyre woes struck again at Barcelona, it was clear that the Ferraris had tremendous race pace. However, it was actually their qualifying performance, which was worrisome.

After a 13:5 knockout of last year, Bridgestone was caught napping. Michelin on the other hand reversed its qualifying fortunes putting to good use all the data collected from seven teams, of which four are potential title contenders. The exclusive relationship that Ferrari sought with Bridgestone looked to have turned out to be their Achilles’ heels.

Michelin looked invincible – until Indianapolis came along and derailed its dream run. While it is hard to understand how a tyre maker like Michelin can fail so miserably, Bridgestone’s Hamashima believes that Michelin, hungry for quick success, concentrated on developing qualifying performance. That they surely did, by pulverizing the field with eight out of eight pole positions.

Since Ferrari is the only team with the wherewithal to present a real contest at the front, Michelin felt that by putting their cars in front of the red cars race after race, they could ensure victory to a Michelin team. As per plan, the teams easily converted their fine qualifying positions into race wins, thanks to Michelin’s fast-heating tyres with very little front graining. The wins got nicely distributed between Renault and McLaren (5:3).

Like the proverbial hare, Michelin was sprinting away into the horizon, but it was playing a high-risk on-the-limit game. Understandably, their obsession with maximum qualifying performance caught them out at Indianapolis, while Bridgestone’s conservative tyre strategy worked. You could tell that from the smile on Jean Todt’s face at the parc ferme.

More importantly, the Michelin no-show at Indianapolis allowed Ferrari to close in on the leading pack in the championship chase.

While speculation is strife that such a disaster might occur again at high-speed circuits like Spa and Monza, it would be interesting to see if the Indy debacle has altered Michelin’s approach to the championship in any way.

If it did, then the performance gap between the leading Michelin teams and Ferrari should narrow down perceptibly (even in qualifying).

Even if it didn’t, there’s a tricky situation taking shape unbeknown to Michelin.

While the fight in Bridgestone’s camp is only between the two Ferrari drivers, the Michelin camp is full of warring factions – Fernando Alonso, Kimi Raikkonen, Jarno Trulli and the threatening Juan Pablo Montoya. Not to forget the equally fast but unlucky Giancarlo Fisichella and Ralf Schumacher. And on high downforce tracks like Hungaroring, Interlagos and Shanghai, you can count on both Nick Heidfeld and Mark Webber.

It is this infighting that could prove to be the nemesis of Michelin’s aggressive tyre strategy. With 9 more races to go, it will be interesting to see who is going to finally win – the hare or the tortoise?

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