Tires figure to play major role in F1 title race
A well-timed improvement by Bridgestone's racing tires and a curiously timed decision by Formula One's governing body have led to a turnabout in both of the sport's championships as the season enters its final third.
Bridgestone, for its part, has closed the gap to rival Michelin regarding the performance of its tires in hot conditions, helping Ferrari and Michael Schumacher to three consecutive victories and reducing that team's arrears in the drivers' and constructors' standings to more manageable figures. The International Automobile Federation, or FIA, also has lent a hand in making things more interesting by banning Renault from using its suspension dampers, apparently curtailing its performance.
With the coming three races scheduled for venues in either very warm climes or traditionally hostile environments, Renault might find itself trailing in both tables shortly after holding generous advantages following Fernando Alonso's fourth consecutive victory, in Canada in June. Ferrari has since triumphed in dominant fashion in the U.S., France and Germany and looks unlikely to be slowed anytime soon as circumstances and scheduling turn in its favor.
Schumacher's fate is now in his own hands: he'll earn a record eighth driving title if he wins the last six races.
"We worked very hard together with Bridgestone in order to sort out the whole position and get organized and understand everything up to the last detail," Schumacher said at a postrace press conference. "We improved the car, [fuel supplier] Shell is delivering great products, so it's a package, which is the reason why we can perform as we do.
"It's the right moment in time when we need to have such a performance in order to bring down the gap in the championship and keep the pressure on."
The pressure seems likely to remain on Renault and Michelin with races pending at hot-weather venues such as Hungary and Turkey, followed by a visit to Ferrari's stronghold at Monza, Italy.
Bridgestone, once at a disadvantage in hot weather, has demonstrated improvement in boosting Ferrari's speed and handling capabilities to the point that Michelin's tires now seem the inferior product.
That proved to be the case on Sunday, with Ferrari finishing first and second and the Renaults trailing in fifth and sixth at the German Grand Prix at Hockenheim. The latter team was sufficiently piqued with the performance of its Michelins that it reportedly took the unusual step of calling out a supplier in public, leaving a blistered set of tires in view behind its garage rather than covering them, as is the norm.
With Michelin exiting Formula One after this year, its commitment to further racing research and development might be in question amid Bridgestone's gains, which might mean the sport's last tire war for the foreseeable future has been decided already. Bridgestone, which tied Michelin with its 100th grand prix victory this weekend, will be F1's sole supplier next year.
The FIA's belated decision to ban Renault's mass damper as a moveable aerodynamic device might have contributed to the excessive tire wear and handling difficulties the team is experiencing.
The governing body's ruling seemed unusual in that Renault had used the part -- which limits vibration and motion in the car's front suspension and nose area -- since late last year, broadcaster Speed TV reported Sunday.
That naturally raises the question of why the FIA chose to act now rather than previously. Its removal has upset the car's balance and handling, as was evidenced by Alonso's performance this weekend: his machine was apparently more of a handful as he qualified poorly, trailed teammate Giancarlo Fisichella for much of the early portion of the race and had a scary high-speed off-track excursion late in the event that seemed to stem from a lack of front-end grip.
Renault, once runaway favorites for the driving and constructors championships, is now in imminent danger of losing both as its performance dwindles and its tire supplier stutters. While history is on its side in that every constructor and 14 of 15 drivers have earned titles after winning the first three races of a season, it must hope that its tire supplier provides a more suitable hot-weather product and its engineers develop an efficient substitute for its banned device.
Otherwise, trophies that once appeared easily within its grasp will vanish like a heat-induced mirage.
The FIA was also busy elsewhere before this race meeting, banning BMW-Sauber's recently developed nose-mounted tower wings on safety grounds. Mark Webber has been holding talks with other teams after an option to remain at Williams expired, Speed TV reported. While Williams made another offer after the option period, Webber might be in the frame at McLaren and/or Renault. Webber hardly could be blamed for seeking a new ride as he's finished just four of 12 races in 2006. The Hockenheimring, which underwent a costly redesign and development program in an effort to retain its F1 race date, might be forced to share the German GP with the Nurburgring should Germany lose one of its two F1 races. That development might allow the European GP, now held at the Nurburgring, to be moved to Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium, restoring a circuit beloved by both drivers and fans to the schedule after being dropped this year amid financial difficulties. Ferrari team principal Jean Todt has reportedly agreed to a one-year contract for 2007. His signing seems to make Michael Schumacher's return more likely as Schumacher chases the 100-win plateau. Schumacher has 89 victories after Sunday's result. Super Aguri showed relative improvement in Germany as a result of its new aerodynamic package, with lead driver Takuma Sato outqualifying Tiago Monteiro's Midland, apparently on merit. The fledgling team's second seat is still not up to speed, however, as Sato qualified three seconds faster than new stablemate Sakon Yamamoto on Saturday, an eternity in Formula One terms. Yamamoto replaced Franck Montagny, who took over from the hapless Yuji Ide after three races.
Michael Kelley is a freelance journalist and a contributor to ESPN.com.