Friday, June 10, 2011

Fangio, Pirelli and the Nurburgring

August 4th, 1957. The Nurburgring. Lap 21 of the 22-lap German Grand Prix. At the age of 46, Juan Manuel Fangio is driving the race of his life, overcoming a 51-second deficit to catch the leading Ferraris of Mike Hawthorn and Peter Collins.

The sun close to the zenith, the heat soaking into the tarmac, Hawthorn leads, but Fangio's Maserati 250F is into second, with Collins third, fighting a hint of understeer. The cars skim past stunted silhouettes of photographers in the tall grass; tourists on safari in motorsport's Serengeti, mesmerised by the hunting patterns of the wild beasts, deluded into thinking they could never become the prey.

Look closely: are those tyre marbles off the racing line in the foreground? Everyone knows that Fangio was fighting back from a botched pitstop, but it's rarely explained why he had to make a pit-stop in the first place. The Ferraris, after all, didn't feel the need to pit.

And here, in the divergent strategies of Ferrari and Maserati at the Nurburgring in 1957, we find a remarkable past echo of 2011's tyre-wear dominated strategy-scape. Fangio explains it perfectly himself:

"We had Pirelli tires; they were a bit soft and fitted our suspension very well but, if their grip was good, they also wore faster, particularly the rear tires. That meant we were going to have a pit stop at mid-race to change tires. The Ferraris were on Engleberts, which were harder than our Pirellis and gave the drivers a rougher ride, but we were sure they would go through the race without changing. We could bet they'd start out with the fuel tanks full and try to go through nonstop.

"All this gave us a lot to think about, and finally we worked out a plan that was rather simple but seemed effective. We were going to have to change tires anyway, so we decided to start with the fuel tank half full, grab the lead and try to build up as much lead as possible before pitting. Then another half tank for the second part of the race, so we'd be driving a light, nimble car, the tires would wear less and we wouldn't have to worry about a second pit stop, which surely would be disastrous."

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