Thursday, April 16, 2020

France ’81: The perfectly timed tyre change that secured Prost’s first F1 victory


The background of the story was a very political one. This was at the time of the FISA/FOCA war for control of the sport.

 The Bernie Ecclestone/Max Mosley-led FOCA group, comprising mainly the British teams that accounted for about 70% of the grid, we're in deep disagreement with FIA President Jean-Marie Balestre about his banning of the side skirts that were a crucial part of generating ground effect downforce from the seedpods.

FOCA had even threatened to break away and form its own series for 1981, the World Professional Drivers’ Championship, and had gone as far as staging a race at Kyalami, South Africa.

Aligned on the governing body’s side were Renault, Ferrari, Alfa Romeo and the small Italian Osella team. The South African race had the effect of calling Balestre’s bluff on the threat of the breakaway series and an uneasy compromise was reached between the two warring sides.

But the uncertainty over the winter about what was happening and whether the original FIA-sanctioned World Championship, inaugurated in 1950, was coming to an end caused Goodyear – one of the two main tyre suppliers – to announce their withdrawal from the sport.

 Furthermore, they were facing budget pressure and were highly dissatisfied with having to supply and service almost all of the field at a time when their rivals Michelin were able to work with just two top teams, Renault and Ferrari.

Only when Michelin then agreed to fill the void left by Goodyear was the ’81 season even able to get underway at all! But with Michelin now carrying the burden of supplying the field, Goodyear made a shock mid-season return – with the top two FOCA teams, Brabham (Bernie Ecclestone’s team) and Williams.

Goodyear had neatly switched the cost of supplying most of the field onto their rivals, allowing them to concentrate their budget on development with two top teams, the very situation that Michelin had previously enjoyed.

 Ecclestone had played a key role in convincing Goodyear to come back, not only for competitive reasons but because a separate tyre supplier meant FISA had less hold over FOCA as their battle rumbled on.

This is all highly relevant to what played out on that July afternoon in Dijon. The French race marked Goodyear’s return. But it did so with a very conservative range of four compounds, from the hardest ‘A’ through to the softest ‘D’.

 Goodyear was adamant they would no longer be running to the expense of qualifying tyres that would be thrown away after one or two flying laps. So even the softest Goodyear tyre brought to Dijon was capable of doing a full race distance.

 This was the season before Brabham re-introduced the mid-race pit stop to F1 and in ’81 the convention was still that Grands Prix ran non-stop on a single set of tyres for each car.

The Goodyear D compound was so robust that neither Brabham nor Williams bothered with the harder, slower A, B or C, as it was clear Goodyear on their return, had pitched the compounds rather too hard.

The D was, however, a very fast race tyre – faster than anything in Michelin’s armoury. Michelin was able to supply their much softer 307 tyres for qualifying, enabling Renault’s Rene Arnoux to qualify on pole in the turbocharged Renault ahead of John Watson in the radical new carbon fibre McLaren MP4/1 – and the second Renault of Prost, all shod with Michelins.

The 307 wasn’t a radically soft qualifying tyre. But it was a qualifying tyre.

It could do a few laps, but certainly not a race distance, which at Dijon was set for 80 laps. With no Goodyear to compete against, Michelin had moved away from the super-sticky single-lap rubber.

For the race, Michelin had a much more robust, but slower, tyre that was no match for the Goodyear D.

 The fact that Piquet qualified his Brabham BT49 fourth-fastest on the much harder Goodyear, of a compound capable of going the full distance, suggested he was actually the race favourite Everything seemed poised for a triumphant Goodyear return.