Why tyre detachments are an accident waiting to happen
Written by Max Zerny, Edited by William Stephens and Sasha Macmillen
At the Miami Grand Prix, the weekend just gone, we saw a race-changing incident between Lando Norris and Pierre Gasly. The incident entailed Gasly’s front left tire interlocking with Norris’s rear right. This accident on the surface appears to be just another crash, but a deeper delve into the contact reveals a deeper issue. Norris’s tire came off. Why is this an issue? Well, let’s have a look.
For some context into this article, we have to look at a seemingly inconspicuous Indianapolis 500 race from 1987. This weekend went like no other, with the legendary Mario Andrettti taking pole, and leading the field into turn one. The race ran like a regular Indy 500, poor pit stops, engine failures, until lap 130, when Tony Bettenhausen’s March started suffering handling issues leaving turn two, and the wheel entirely came off into turn 3. This, in isolation, wasn’t too much of a predicament, but Roberto Guerro innocently came round and collided with it, launching the tyre into the air. The wheel was launched so forcibly, it completely cleared the catch fencing, and the 8 kilogram tyre struck 41 year-old Lyle Kurtenbach in the head. He suffered severe head injuries, and was shortly pronounced dead at the Methodist Hospital nearby the track.
This story reminds us not only of the tragedy that motorsport can bring, but the necessity to keep the wheels on the car. In this instance, the entire wheel came off, weighing exactly 8.39 kilograms. A rear tyre alone, independent to the rim on this year’s 2022 Formula One Car weighs 11.5kg. Imagine what that could do to someone's head.
In the 1998 German Grand Prix , commenting on Ricardo Rosset’s stricken Tyrrell being towed out of a gravel trap by a tractor, Martin Brundle said: “this always terrifies me when you get a John Deer coming into play, one car can make it into there, (gravel trap) all of the cars can make it that far.” No one listened to his concerns, and in 16 years, the exact eventuality Brundle predicted happened, in the form of Jules Bianchi. Now, I am not for a second likening myself to Martin Brundle, but when a seemingly safe occurrence went unnoticed, it ended fatally.
Now, we return to the tire talk. This season, we have seen the tires seemingly pop off three times, The first at Saudi Arabia, with Schumacher's crash, which is understandable with the force of the impact. The next was at Australia, with Stroll and Latifi, facing directly into a crowd. All it would have taken is a driver to come round that corner and unknowingly hit it with enough force to launch it into that crowd. Most recently, we saw a tire detach at Miami, this time at relatively low speed. With street races coming up soon, tightly surrounded with grandstands, most notably being Monaco, this issue needs to be sorted, before we have another Indycar-like incident.
When Lyle Kurtenbach was hit, it was in the blink of an eye. His body fell motionlessly into his wife’s lap, blood pouring out his head, with his daughter, Dawn, sitting mere seats away. Do we want another event like this in motor racing? If nothing is done about the tyres coming off, I fear the chances of a similar incident will keep increasing in likelihood.