Previous Columns

The Way It Is/ Newman/Haas's general manager Brian Lisles has some interesting ideas to make more exciting racing

by Gordon Kirby
illustrated by Paul Webb
insert image
You may be among those who are beginning to complain about the domination demonstrated so far this year by Sebastien Bourdais and Newman/Haas Racing. There's no question that Bourdais is a superb driver and Newman/Haas is one of American auto racing's finest teams, but many people are hoping, even cheering for someone else to win. One of the many reasons for Newman/Haas's strength is general manager Brian Lisles who has been in the sport for thirty years as a race and design engineer, technical director and overall manager with responsibility for budgets as well. Lisles is a meticulous man and as thorough a student of the sport as anyone. He believes a little spice and unpredictability could be added to the Champ Car World Series by a few detail revisions to the rules.

Lisles proposes that Bridgestone make more dramatic differences in the two types of tires the company brings to each race. He also proposes making qualifying a little more like Formula 1's latest system where you start the race with the same amount of fuel onboard with which you finished qualifying. First, the tire discussion. "I think everybody saw what an interesting race Houston was," Lisles remarked. "It probably wasn't intended to be that way at the outset but it turned out that the two tires we were given were significantly different. The prime tire was much more durable. "Historically, we've found that the option, or red tire, is at least as quick, if not quicker than the prime tire, and it usually lasts as well or better. So it's a no-brainer that you've got to use the option tires as often and as long as you can in the race. And that's just as well because we only get two sets of the option tire so you don't really have a chance to test it. It's kind of a matter of faith.

"But at Houston, it turned out the option tire was maybe the same speed, maybe slightly quicker than the prime tire. It was certainly different in terms of balance. We weren't able to find out until the race because we had only two sets and typically we run both of those for two short runs in qualifying and then we save them for the race. But in the race we found out that they suffered fairly severe degradation after about two-thirds of a tank of fuel.

"The result was that at the end of a tank of fuel those cars on options started to suffer serious degradation and those on primes were in much better shape. As a consequence people on primes had a shot at overtaking people on options.

"I'm not trying to blow our trumpet, but it so happened that Newman/Haas, mainly through Sebastien, recognized immediately that there was some problem with the option tire as soon as we put them on Sebastien's car for the final qualifying. That was one of the reasons we didn't qualify well. So we made the decision we were going to run the minimum number of option tires that we had to in the race, which was one set. And that's why Sebastien made so much progress in the first stint of that race he was on primes everyone else was on options." Lisles believes the lesson from Houston should be applied by Bridgestone to the choice of tires for each race so that there's a deliberately substantial difference in performance between prime and option tires.

"I think Houston clearly showed that if you're in the business of having two different types of tires, the more different you can make them, the more likely it is you're going to be able to mix the racing up somewhat," Lisles commented. "Nor is it artificial because everybody will have the same tires and everybody will be able to have the same shot at using them. There would be no gambling. There would not be a sudden throwing of the dice by the way a yellow falls, for example. It's something you can plan and work for. "I think there would be no doubt that you would see some interesting strategy with the possibility of producing more overtaking and a bigger difference in the performance of the various teams that would normally be running at a similar speed and unable to overtake each other.

"I understand that there are problems because no tire manufacturer wants to be labeled as having a tire that is going off, or wearing out. On the other hand, if managed correctly, you'd take your options as you do on a road car tire. You can buy the 100,000-mile tire for your sedan, but you know that you're going to have to slow-down in the corners. But if you buy a tire which is good in the corners you know it's going to wear out much earlier than the hard, 100,000-mile tire."

Lisles believes some additional changes to the qualifying rules would be required so the teams could fully assess the different tires.

"Of course, if Bridgestone were to give us a choice of two tires to use which were significantly different--maybe one much quicker but maybe less durable, and the other a little slower but more durable--it would mean in order for the teams to do a proper job to assess the situation we would need the ability to run both types of tires during practice for the teams to make their choice." Lisles is very aware that Bridgestone is one of the few tire companies who could properly handle his idea because they produce such great, consistent tires. Bridgestone's tires are superb products, substantially better than any tire seen from other manufacturers in previous Champ car eras.

"You need somebody who knows what they're doing and has a history of knowing what the tracks need," Lisles observed. "I would guess they would probably want to have a certain amount of testing. You could integrate that into the testing of the series and individual teams. It should be no problem at all."

Lisles has an even more radical suggestion which is a proposal to entice a competing tire manufacturer into the Champ Car World Series. Again, given Bridgestone/Firestone's extremely high standards, very few of their competitors would be up to the job. "There's always great concern in any racing series when you have competing tire manufacturers," Lisles commented. "As we all know, tire wars can be very difficult and certainly would be for a series such as ours. But on the other hand it can be good in some ways because typically, you have no tire bill and you may even get paid for testing, so it does bring money into the series. It usually brings a lot of commercial and promotional money into the series.

"But historically, a tire war has always been a problem because, assuming the teams are split fifty/fifty between the tire manufacturers, one of the manufacturers will inevitably do a better job than the other. So at some point you wipe out half the teams because they did their deal with the wrong manufacturer. So you have to manage it in a way which is good for the series, and for the manufacturers. "I would propose that the two major tire manufacturers would do their primary deal with the series, not with the teams. The two manufacturers would agree to show up and provide enough tires for the whole field at each event. On Friday, each entrant gets three sets of manufacturer A's tires and three sets of manufacturer B's tires, and those are his tires for Friday. He can do what he likes with them. He can qualify which tires he wants, but on Friday night he says for the rest of the weekend I am going to use either manufacturer A or B. That way, each manufacturer has a shot at the beginning of each event of getting teams to run their tires.

"I'm sure the tire companies would offer incentives to the highest finisher on their tires. If manufacturer B is way better than manufacturer A at a certain event it may be that a team that is not doing very well financially might take the less good tire because they might be able to pick up some contingency money. At least that way, if the manufacturer has made a bit of a mess of it, the tires will get run. At least the tires would run in the race so that the manufacturer would get some information from the event."

One of Lisles less radical suggestions is for Champ Car to adopt the basic elements of F1's latest qualifying rules. Lisles would like to see everyone required to start the race with the same fuel load they used in qualifying without any of the more fiendishly tricky aspects of F1's current qualifying procedure. "I think Formula 1 hit on a pretty good idea," Lisles said.

"I'm not sure they've executed it very well in its latest form, but I think the basic idea is pretty good, which is that you should qualify with the amount of fuel that you're going to start the race with. Again, this is something that is not a random feature. It's something which the teams can engineer and strategize over the best solution for each weekend.

"You would expect that the teams would home in on a similar strategy as, in fact, they have, to a degree, in Formula 1. Nevertheless, if for some reason you have a bad weekend, you immediately have the option of going to some strategy which you know will be a little different. You either qualify on very light fuel and hope to get up front and get out in a reasonable position on the track, or you can fill it right up with fuel as far as you can for qualifying and the race.

"If you're a team that typically would struggle to qualify well using the normal strategy, and you're at a race that's important to you, or your sponsors, or your driver, you can put in a good showing in qualifying and start much further up the grid than might be expected. Of course, you'll take a penalty because you'll have to pit early. But maybe if you're lucky, you can get a yellow and come into the pits at the right time.

"Again, you can argue that all rules are artificial because they limit what you can do, but this would be a rule which is equal, fair and known ahead of time. You could plan for it and it wouldn't penalize anybody for being good at their job. Potentially, it's something else a team could be good at.

"Obviously, the execution of the idea is somewhat difficult. The essential point is that you can't add fuel so you need some way of knowing that the teams can't introduce fuel to the fuel tank. It means that ideally you want to do your qualifying and put all the cars in a parc ferme and not touch them. But even Formula 1 realized that's a little difficult. The teams have two hours, I think, to put in fresh brakes and make sure everything's in good shape for the race.

"It does mean that the Sunday morning warm-up would go away. Even if you had a warm-up, nobody would want to do it unless they wanted to burn-off some fuel, which is very unlikely. I don't know how important the warm-up is to promoters on Sunday morning."

There's at least one downside to every good idea, of course. But it's invigorating to hear a guy like Brian Lisles offer some thoughtful grist for the mill.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2006 ~ All Rights Reserved

Top of Page