Where Rubber Meets The Road: Firestone And The Indy 500
Like an airplane’s landing gear, the tires on an Indy car tend not to get a lot of publicity unless something goes wrong. Accordingly, the new tires Firestone provided for the 2017 IndyCar Grand Prix probably went largely unnoticed by all but the race teams and the most strident gearhead fans.
Firestone launched a new version of the alternate tire it provides to race teams to go along with the primary and rain tires they received to use on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. Typically, the alternates, or “reds,” may be faster, but they degrade more quickly than the primaries, or “blacks,” and give drivers opportunities to pass.
“My team was able to come up with this new, improved, a little bit more heat-resistant [tire],” says Cara Adams, chief engineer for Bridgestone Americas Motorsports, which started developing the new tire at the end of the last Verizon IndyCar season. “The tire had plenty of grip. So that’s what we put out.”
For their part, engineers from at least a couple of the IndyCar teams that took to the track for the Grand Prix earlier this month lost little sleep over how the new tires were going to perform. Chip Ganassi Racing lead engineer Julian Robertson says he trusts that when Firestone brings a tire to a track, the tire is going to perform how Firestone tells him it will. When the tire supplier made changes to the GP alternate, says Robertson, he probably wasn’t nearly as concerned as his Firestone counterparts were about why the change was needed.
The manufacturer has a lot riding on what compounds and constructions they choose for the tires in a given event: A slight miscalculation either way could totally change the race and cause a tire to be too quick and never wear out, or wear out in just minutes.
“It’s a fairly fine line they’re trying to dance down the middle of, without dropping off either side,” Robertson says. The last thing an engineer like Robertson wants is some external factor other than race strategy and driver performance to determine who crosses the finish line first. Firestone had earned enough trust with Robertson that he was confident the design of the new alternate tire would help ensure the fastest car won.
By the conclusion of the GP, Robertson wasn’t disappointed. Neither was Team Penske engineering technical director Ron Ruzewski, who says the alternate tire was a hit with his team, as well.
Practice and qualifying for the 101st running of the Indianapolis 500 began the week following the Grand Prix. As Robertson and Ruzewski started to work with tires for the upcoming race, which Firestone has tweaked since last year’s 500, they found the tires were performing as expected—just as the new GP tires had. Robertson says that means a tire that’s predictable—one that’s quicker when it’s brand-new and a little slower as it gets older, but still consistent and drivable throughout, say, a 30-lap stretch of the race. There’s no big drop-off, and the tire maintains car balance throughout the run.
“The two people who influence our destiny the most are the engine manufacturer and the tire manufacturer,” says Ruzewski. “The only thing we don’t control is the space between the car and the ground.”
One of the most notorious examples of how tires can affect a race—and how little attention many fans pay to them unless something goes wrong—occurred at the IMS in 2005. The Formula One U.S. Grand Prix saw seven teams, 14 cars, who used Michelin boycott the race because they didn’t want to risk running on unsafe tires after a crash during a practice run. Only six of the 20 drivers slated to start the race actually competed.
The engineers at Firestone didn’t need a worst-case debacle to appreciate the importance of bringing a dependable tire to the track, and although the changes Firestone has made to the Indy 500 tires ahead of this year’s running are relatively minor—some construction changes on the right and left rear tires—they are emblematic of an ongoing dialogue Firestone has with IndyCar, the teams, and their drivers.
“They’re very immersed with the teams and how they work,” says Robertson, “which is a great thing from our point of view, because then the development tends to go the way—when they come out with new stuff, it’s kind of been through the teams already.”
Through data sharing and tire testing, there is an almost constant line of communication open between Firestone and the various IndyCar teams. Adams says teams collect data on anything that might be useful—such as the internal and outside temperature of the tires, pressure, and how much the tire is tilted in—then share the information with Firestone as it works to improve the tires. Both the Ganassi and Penske teams participated in testing for the 2017 Indy 500 tires, which were being developed as teams practiced for and ran in last year’s race.
The Indy 500 allows each team 36 sets of tires over the course of practice, qualifying, and the race. Firestone brings about 5,000 tires total to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. There is only one set of primary specifications, but each position has a different code. This means drivers have better handling in situations like banked left-hand turns that require outside tires to have a stiffer construction than those of the inside tires.
As race day approaches, the teams continue to share data with Adams and her Firestone team, keeping the lines of communication open.
Without that communication, Penske’s Ruzewski doesn’t think Firestone would have what it needs to make a great tire. Adams agrees. “Like any form of racing, it’s the amount that you do in preparation that makes the race weekends easy,” she says.
Robertson, for one, doesn’t always enjoy the same kind of open communication with suppliers. He says some—not naming names—think they’re always right and only communicate occasionally. Firestone, on the other hand, has built trust by being a constant presence and by listening, especially when Robertson has data to back up an assertion.
“Almost every day here, we’ll go in and see the engineers or whatever, and if we’ve got any questions at all, then they’ll answer those questions right away,” Robertson says. “They always answer them truthfully without some kind of hidden agenda, which is great. It’s just straight forward engineer-to-engineer communication, which is what gets results.”