As Formula 1 heads toward the Singapore Grand Prix and questions still linger over the tire concerns from the Belgian Grand Prix and track limits, it brought to mind the history of F1 and tires suppliers. Tires are critical to racing and one has to only look back to the grooved tires of the late 90’s to see how they have been used to slow cars down. In fact, tires were actual part of the war for F1.
In the early 80’s, the UK teams were all using ground effects while the manufacturers (Renault, Ferrari and Alfa Romeo) were using superior shove with V12 lumps while the UK teams who were using V8 Cosworths. The UK teams requested that a new tire compound be used to slow the cars down through the corners while the manufacturers were trying to ban the ground effect skirts. This became a talking point that was really more to do with the control of F1 and the tip of the iceberg in the war that was brewing.
The ongoing FISA-FOCA war resulted in Fédération Internationale du Sport Automobile (FISA) requesting a date change but the the race organizers refused and were aligned with the Formula One Constructors Association (FOCA). The UK teams were out of cash but needed to stage a race and according to former FIA president, Max Mosley, they chose Kyalami to gain legitimacy and an upper hand over FISA and the FIA. The war was over the commercial rights of F1 and everything hung in the balance as the FIA had to postpone the previous Argentinian Grand Prix.
The South African race went ahead on its original date but the FIA deemed it a Formula Libre race rather than as a round of the Formula One World Championship. The downgraded race was supported by FOCA but there was a problem. The FISA-FOCA war had soured sponsors Goodyear had pulled out of F1 leaving Michelin to promise they would not leave the series in the lurch.
But the 1981 South African Grand Prix was not an FIA event and Michelin were very much in league with the French governing body who wa trying to rest control of the commercial rights as well as regulatory rights of the sport under the leadership of Jean-Marie Balestre.
Amazingly, FOCA, headed by Max Mosley and Bernie Ecclestone had a plan. The teams had no money left but had to stage this race to get Renault, Ferrari and Alfa Romeo on their side as well as sponsors and race organizers. The thought here, according to Mosley’s new biography, was to stage the race at the arranged date and not postpone it showing that FOCA could, in fact, host its own race where the FIA were forced to ask for delays. But how would they do it with Goodyear out of the sport and Michelin on the side of the FIA?
Ecclestone had run another series earlier and had a warehouse full of Avon tires that they brought to the race. All the teams used these Avon tires for the race and if you look closely you’ll see them in this race edit from YouTube.
Can you imagine anything remotely close to that happening today? Do you recall the 2005 United States Grand Prix when Michelin’s tires weren’t up to snuff and the race turned into a debacle with only six cars starting? Back in those days, I would imagine Ecclestone and Mosely would have lobbied to just put Bridgestone’s on all the cars and get on with it. In fact, if memory serves correctly, I think I read something to that effect in the press back then.
Tires have been crucial to F1 throughout its history even becoming a critical point in the war over F1 itself. Goodyear entered and left the sport again when it was being comprehensively beaten by Bridgestone in the late 90’s. Aligned with Ferrari, Michael Schumacher bit his lip for most of the season until eventually he called it like it was.
Goodyear’s head of European operations didn’t take that lightly and asked the rhetorical question, who does Schumacher think he is? God? In those days, he was about as close as you could get to it so Goodyear asked the wrong question and promptly left the sport with its tail between its legs.