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Last Updated: Monday, 12 July, 2004, 03:21 GMT 04:21 UK
Tyres rubber stamp Ferrari hold
By Andrew Benson
Motorsport editor at Silverstone

Eleven races down, 10 wins for Michael Schumacher. This is the least competitive season in Formula One history, right? Well, yes and no.

Michael Schumacher in action at Silverstone
Spot the difference - the car, the driver or the tyre?
Yes, Schumacher is dominating the season, and yes, he and Ferrari will romp to both titles.

Most attribute this to the belief that the best driver is driving the best car by miles. But that is not the case - at least not according to a theory gaining currency in F1.

It goes like this:

The Ferrari is good, but it is not great. It was no better in Canada than a Williams, or a Renault in France. And a McLaren was its match at Silverstone. The Ferrari is being flattered by its tyres.

The average person in the street might be as interested in tyres as they are in the idea of sitting through a lecture in quantum physics.

But the fact remains that tyres are the single biggest influence on the performance of an F1 car.

And many F1 insiders believe that the Bridgestones used by Ferrari are fundamentally superior to the Michelins used by all their major rivals.

The Michelins are probably quicker than the Bridgestones over one lap, which is why Ferrari are rarely on the front of the grid.

But the French tyre loses performance rapidly after that, while the Japanese ones remain consistent over an entire race stint.

That means that even if a car on Michelins is as good as the Ferrari it will never beat it.

Giancarlo Fisichella in action at Silverstone
Fisichella was the leader of the pack amongst the also-rans
There was a striking example of this at Silverstone; the pace of Sauber driver Giancarlo Fisichella, who finished sixth after starting at the back of the grid.

The Italian is one of the fastest drivers in F1, but Sauber are a middling team who buy much of their technology second-hand from Ferrari.

And as one top designer said after the British Grand Prix: "You only have to look today. Fisichella was towards the end of the stints as quick as anybody apart from the Ferraris. In a year-old Ferrari. And probably not a particularly well set up year-old Ferrari.

"In qualifying, it's much more even, but in the race Bridgestone has got a clear advantage."

Further evidence was provided by the last few laps of the race, when Kimi Raikkonen closed right up to Schumacher when the safety car pulled off, but then, in the words of our insider, "when the tyres started to degrade he couldn't keep up".

No senior member of any F1 team is prepared to come straight out and say on the record that Michelins are slower than Bridgestones.

But McLaren boss Ron Dennis hinted strongly at it after Sunday's race.

"I don't think we're that far away from Ferrari," Dennis said.

"Looking at our data, if Kimi and Michael had been on the same fuel load in qualifying, we would still have beaten him, so we have the pace. That makes you think, well, where's the difference? And you look at the Saubers, and their race pace was particularly good.

"The difference between them was really the way the tyres worked on the cars and ambient temperature."

It is impossible to judge exactly what the differences between the tyres say about the speed of the various cars.

It is clear that the Michelins lose too much performance during a long run. And if they did not, the cars that use them would be causing Ferrari a great deal more trouble.

But it is less easy to know at what point in their performance curves the two types of rubber are performing at the same level.

If it is on their first lap that the Michelins match the Bridgestones before falling ever further behind, that means the new McLaren and others would be faster than the Ferrari if they used the same tyres.

But if it is at the end of a 20-lap run that the two tyres are comparable, that means the Ferrari is clearly faster.

Either way, some would say F1 would be more appealing if this was not even an issue.

There is an argument that tyre wars are good for F1 because they shake up the order and give the chance to less-competitive teams to look better than they are.

But it can just as easily be argued that tyre wars ruin the sport, because no-one really knows where they stand, and they distract from the main issue.

F1 has a drivers' championship and a constructors' championship. But right now it is effectively a battle between tyre companies.

And when it comes down to it, what interests most people about F1 is seeing the world's greatest drivers going at it in the world's fastest cars.

Very few care who has the best tyres.

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