COUNTERPOINT: Is Firestone’s alternate tire program worth keeping?

Counterpoint, IndyCar — By on May 9, 2012 8:32 am
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This article was originally posted to INDYCAR Nation on May 2, 2012. To read More Front Wing’s INDYCAR Nation content as soon as it’s released, visit indycarnation.indycar.com.

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This week: Is Firestone’s alternate tire program worth keeping?

STEPH says YES:

Paul’s going to take a lot of flack for this week’s topic for suggesting that Firestone’s red-sidewalled tires don’t add value and interest to the IZOD IndyCar Series, so I’d like to make this clear right up front: it was his idea! In fact, I think my esteemed colleague may have finally lost his mind with this one.

Let’s start here: most of us will agree that a top-tier motor racing series is no place for tire manufacturer competition. Recall the days when this was a not-uncommon series of sounds at a racetrack: *BLAM!* *screeeeeeeeeech!* *SMASHscraaaaaaaaaaaape*

Been there, done that. No, thanks.

So, since a single tire manufacturer is clearly the way to go, most of us will also agree that INDYCAR couldn’t ask for a better one in Firestone. In fact, when Firestone appeared poised to part ways with INDYCAR a year or so ago, the fear of losing Firestone’s performance and reliability struck such fear into the hearts of the team owners that they reached for their pocketbooks. That, folks, marks a momentous occasion indeed.

Now, as nice as all the good people at Firestone are, they’re not going to provide tires to INDYCAR out of kindness – they need to get some return on their investment. If this could be simply in the form of money changing hands – whatever the tires are worth plus a profit margin – they’d likely be fine with that. Unfortunately, the economic climate is such that expecting the teams to shoulder that high a cost really isn’t feasible at the moment.

So, how does Firestone get convinced to stick around? It’s pretty tough to run a motor race without tires, after all.

The key lies in making sure that the Firestone brand is well-represented in discussions of the sport: on TV and radio broadcasts, in race summaries in print publications, and online through forums and social media. And when a tire brand performs as well and as reliably as Firestone’s has over its many years with INDYCAR, that would be very difficult to achieve without the alternate tire program.

In the full spec era of the past five years, there were times when Firestone’s alternate tires were the only major talking point coming out of a weekend. (Several races at Infineon Raceway come to mind.) Without this program, passing at certain events would have been non-existent. It’s pretty tough to disagree with this, so I doubt this is Paul’s angle.

Instead, I’d wager he’s going to say that since Firestone doesn’t seem to create a lot of disparity between the primary and alternate tires at most events, they may as well do away with the program completely. The problem with this comes back around to making sure Firestone is properly served as the tire supplier to the Series. With engine competition being by far the lead story this season, and with aero kits joining the conversation in 2013, Firestone could easily show up at the track week in, week out with tires so perfect that they never garner a single mention were it not for the requirement to use the red-sidewalled Firehawks. If everyone’s too busy paying attention to the Chevrolets, Hondas, and Lotuses of the world and Firestone gets nothing out of its involvement, what’s in it for them? (Think back – how often did Honda come up in a meaningful way when every engine finished every race and no one was competing against them?)

I will agree with Paul that it would be great to see Firestone create a red tire that falls off well before the end of a fuel run. Firestone’s greatest strength is also its weakness in this regard: they can’t seem to be convinced to make anything but the very best quality tire they can muster. The alternate tire program could be an even better talking point than it already is if the drivers and teams had to fight with it a little more. (We won’t think any less of your tires, Firestone, we promise!)

But taking the reds away entirely? Not a chance. If it means that Firestone is better served as a partner of INDYCAR, watching the program falling a little short of expectations is completely tolerable.

I just don’t see how Paul talks his way around this one.

PAUL says NO:

It’s time for the alternate tire strategy to come to an end in the IZOD IndyCar Series. What started as a good idea and as a way to spice up some otherwise dull road and street courses has turned into a gimmicky race strategy requirement that rarely has any real impact on the outcome of the race.

The theory is sound. While the primary, black-sidewalled tire compound delivered by Firestone is intended to provide consistent – albeit somewhat slower – performance, the alternate, red-sidewalled tire is intended to provide faster initial performance with less durability. If it actually played out that way, it would make tire strategy a very interesting aspect of the race and perhaps add a significant element of strategy to the way road and street course races play out. The problem is that very rarely do the speed and durability characteristics of the two tire options vary enough to truly make an impact on the overall performance.

As we have seen multiple times throughout the season, the alternate red tires have durability that is nearly equal to that of the primary tires. For example, we saw at Long Beach that Will Power ran stints of 33 and 30 laps on sets of scuffed and sticker reds, respectively, with almost no drop-off in performance. In fact, Power set his fastest lap of the race 23 laps into his second stint on scuffed reds. Moreover, while the red tires are typically a bit faster when drivers are running alone in qualifying, the performance difference is rarely enough to make a true impact in race mode while battling with other cars. At this point, requiring a driver to use both tire compounds for at least two green-flag laps during the race has no greater bearing on the outcome that if they were required to use red and black driving gloves.

I believe the reason for the lack of performance difference is two-fold. The first is that Firestone is hesitant to create a tire that actually loses performance more quickly in the race. There is no doubt that Firestone has an unmatched reputation in the racing world for quality and consistency in their tires. Unfortunately, and not without rationale, Firestone doesn’t seem to want to create a tire that significantly deteriorates throughout the course of a fuel run. From a casual fan’s perspective, I can completely understand why Firestone is hesitant to have that quality attributed to their tires, and it’s too easy for me to tell Firestone to get over it. But for the sake of the race, they need to cater to the more devout fan who understands the difference between a poor performing tire and one that deteriorates rapidly as designed. The times when Firestone has gotten the compound difference correct, e.g. this year at Barber Motorsports Park and the 2010 race at Infineon Raceway, the results have really been spectacular. Sadly, these are about the only two examples I can remember where the performance has justified the existence of the rule.

The second reason for a lack of performance variation is because pit stops, and thus tire strategies, are still driven by fuel consumption. As it stands, both the red and black Firestone Firehawks almost always have performance lives much greater than the pit window based on fuel mileage. As a result, the tires rarely get a chance to fulfill their design life, and the durability characteristics rarely come into play. As INDYCAR has continued to reduce the fuel tank capacity over the past 10 years in order to keep pit stop windows roughly constant, the tires have continued to become more consistent, meaning less performance variation exist throughout the fuel run. If INDYCAR had increased the fuel cell capacity instead of reducing it with the DW12 (and when E98 was introduced as INDYCAR fuel of choice in 2007), perhaps tires would be required to cover a greater distance and the durability of those tires would become an important factor after all. Then again, as I stated earlier, given that Will Power was able to run 30+ laps on his alternate tires, it would probably take very long fuel runs to really see a performance difference with the current tire designs and compounds.

I don’t blame Firestone for having reservations about building a less durable tire. Their task for many years, especially since Goodyear withdrew from the sport following the 1999 season, has been to build a consistent tire that teams can trust and build setups around. Since their return to open-wheel racing in 1995, few if any crashes have been attributed to the failure of a Firestone Firehawk (or their sister Bridgestone Potenza, which the tires were labeled for several years in Champ Car), which is a safety statistic that is certainly to be applauded. However, if INDYCAR is to continue with the alternate tire strategy, Firestone needs to develop tire compounds that actually have significant performance and durability characteristics. If they are willing and can build a tire that is two seconds per lap faster over the first 30-40% of a fuel stint and two seconds per lap slower over the last 50% of a fuel stint, then tire strategy would be a very intriguing part of the race. As it currently stands, though, tire strategy is rarely much more than something for the race broadcasters to talk about and has little actual impact (not much different, I would add, than the push-to-pass on the previous generation of Honda V-8 engines). If they aren’t going to do it right, there is no sense in doing it at all. Given that INDYCAR has now been racing on twisties for 7+ years, it doesn’t seem like Firestone is all that interested in doing it right.

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