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Motor Sports


by Larry Roberts

January 16, 1998

To say that the exotic world of international Formula One racing is in an uproar is putting things mildly. And for once, the problem isn't political or even emotional. It all centers around new rules that are supposed to make the competing cars, ostensibly the ultimate in race car technology, slower in turns and therefore safer. Many involved believe that just the opposite will be true.

At the heart of the matter is the fact that as they ran in 1997, Grand Prix cars stuck to the road too well in the turns. The rationale in making them slower in these situations was that if the cars went in at a reduced speed, there would be less chance of the cars to make contact with each other. But others see it as a way to increase the opportunity for an overtaking car to pass a leading car and therefore make the races more exciting for spectators in general and television viewers in particular. The world-wide TV rights to a Formula One race represents an enormous amount of money and to keep building a viewer base, it was felt that there should be more action. Races such as the NASCAR Winston Cup stock car series have proved this to be true. Lots of different leaders and constant passing make a race more exciting.

Max Mosley, president of the Federation Internationale del'Automobile (FIA) asked a group of F1 designers to come up with a set of rules that would slow down the cornering speeds of the cars. Their collective answer was to make the cars narrower by around eight inches and to require the cars to run on narrower tires that must have tread rather than their current smooth, soft surface. Actually the "tread" amounts to four grooves cut into the rear tires and three cut into those at the front. This would have the effect of reducing the amount of rubber on the road by about 20 percent and thus reduce grip. This change was given late last year as the reason for the departure of Goodyear from it's decades-long involvement with Formula One racing. Bill Sharp, head of Goodyear's global support operations, said in effect that the new tire rule goes contrary to the company's commitment to advancing technology. We can assume he meant that grooved tires are a step backward in Goodyear's view.

Although there are several other somewhat minor changes to be made to Formula One cars of the future (restrictions on the use of electronic throttle and differential controls, for instance) none will have the drastic effect on performance as the width of the cars and the reduced grip of the tires.

Drafting in a high-speed turn is going to present a problem to a following driver according to some team engineers. "Dirty air" (turbulence caused by a race car changing direction at speed) is going to cause the car behind to lose traction.

Ironically, no changes will be made in the 750-plus horsepower Formula One engines themselves, so we will see cars that are just as fast as before but with less grip on the road.

The drivers are divided on the changes that are being made. Current F1 champion Jaques Villeneuve stated last year that the with less grip, the new cars would be less safe and that "...a spinning (Formula One) car will keep spinning forever.." on the grooved tires. For others, it's viewed as a chance to be in control of cornering speeds and will give daring and resourceful pilots an edge over those who drive as if they are a "chip" in a programmed machine.

Only time will tell if the changes being made in the "formula" of Formula One cars will make Grand Prix racing safer or more dangerous. But you can be sure that when that first "narrow car" race is held in Argentina, I'm going to be glued to the TV. I don't want to miss the action.