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Time to rethink tyre rule?

NEWS STORY
30/05/2005

It is probably only when Jenson Button sits down to watch a replay of Sunday's European Grand Prix, that the Englishman will realise just how lucky he is not to have been seriously injured through no fault of his own yesterday.

The BAR star was minding his own business, seeking to bring his car home and glad to be back racing, when he almost fell victim to a rule that has had some F1 insiders concerned for some time.

When Kimi Raikkonen's tyre burst, following a suspension failure on the last lap of the race, the youngster leader became a helpless passenger as his McLaren hurtled towards the barriers. Somehow, the silver car just missed hitting the back of Button's BAR before heading across the gravel and into the barriers.

Ironically, at Spa Francorchamps last year, it was Button whose tyre 'failed' caused the Englishman to veer from one side of the track to the other, taking out Zsolt Baumgartner in the Minardi. That neither driver was not seriously injured was truly miraculous.

Thankfully, yesterday's crash ended in nothing more than bruised pride, with Fernando Alonso only too glad to pick up the pieces.

Images of the Finn's accident were flashed around the world, with media people who are rarely interested in the sport, using the images for their newspapers and TV news. F1 is back on the front pages again.

The FIA introduced the one-tyre per weekend rule in an attempt to reduce costs and also to inject some 'zing' into F1, but one has to ask whether the sport is riding its luck and whether F1 might soon be making the news for all the wrong reasons.

There is political unrest between the nine 'rebel' teams and the F1 'establishment', most notably the FIA, but most of this is about money, and to a certain extent brinkmanship. However, spokesman for the 'rebel' teams, Paul Stoddart, was always a fierce opponent of the rule and it's worth bearing in mind his comments when talking to Pitpass in early February.

In a letter to Max Mosley, he wrote: "How on earth can you say, given the situation last year where you had two tyre manufacturers - both fantastic, ultra-competitive companies - taking it to the edge in an attempt to beat one another, that a single race weekend tyre contributes to a safer racing environment?

"Without wishing to be over-dramatic, I believe we saw a situation where (Jenson) Button could have been killed, or at least very seriously injured last year (Spa), if it hadn't been for the fact that (Zsolt) Baumgartner was alongside him. It was a bad enough accident as it was, but it would have been a monumental accident if the BAR had speared into the Armco or gone into the trees. Tyres fail for whatever reason, and we know of several occasions when that happened last year. Be it caused by debris or otherwise, surely this fact cannot be ignored.

"You've now taken those tyres away and introduced one-race tyres, and what is a likely scenario? Your driver charges down to the first corner, there's an incident, he locks up the brakes and flat-spots his tyres. The car's now vibrating, so what's he going to do - come in for a precautionary change of tyres? Of course not. He knows it's potentially the end of his race if he does, so he'll stay out there, put up with the vibration, and get on the radio saying, 'The car's undriveable. What do I do?' The team will come back, 'You're in the points. Keep going. Don't worry about it'. Well, we will find ourselves worrying about it if a tyre fails in such circumstances and, heaven forbid, goes into the crowd, with the result that someone gets seriously injured - or worse."

We'd never seen Stoddy as 'Zoltan the Fortune Teller' before, but let's face it, he is absolutely right.

We are not privy to inside information at McLaren, therefore we will never know whether the team called Kimi in yesterday, after all, they, more than anyone else, will have been fully aware of the threat. However, it's a dead cert that the Finn will not have been demanding a change of rubber, he's a racer, and all he could see was the victory flag and another ten world championship points.

The 2005 rule changes have enlivened the sport, and people are really looking forward to races now, even man down the pub is intrigued.

However, speaking to The Times today, in an article so appropriately entitled, "glory before safety", David Coulthard, a leading light in the Grand Prix Drivers' Association, warns that F1 is 'riding its luck'.

"It is a major worry," says the Scot. "The FIA position is that the drivers make the decision, but they are asking us to throw away our races by coming in to change tyres," he continued.

"That would have happened to me. I could hardly see from the vibrations late in the race, but I couldn't afford to lose my fourth position. In one way the rules have been good for overtaking and entertainment, but there is no question that it is more dangerous."

We now head to a number of circuits, Montreal and Indianapolis, at which an incident such as that witnessed yesterday is unthinkable. Fast straights followed by hard corners, which will make huge demands on the brakes and thereby the tyres.

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