The tire is one of the most important things to care about. No matter how good you are or how good your car is, if you ain't got the rubber you ain't going anywhere. I learnd that the hard way.
The first thing I understood was that no matter what compound or construction your tire has, it has to be fresh out of the factory mold. The easiest way to tell if your tire is fresh is to look at the color. I have a shocker for you : it has to be black! But not just any black. If your tire is shiny black, it's crap. If the tire is starting to fade to some brownish color, it's crap.
Seriously, it will take less than a year for the tire to deteriorate. And if it's been stored outside in the sunshine, well...
I have a thing or two to tell about brownish looking tires. The color makes 'em look a bit lik sh#te, well that's what they are. I found that out first hand, and especially in the tarmac rounds of 2003.
Michelin was supplying the tires, so you'd think everything is fine, nothing to worry about, right? Wrong. It turns out every driver has a "package" set aside at Michelin factory, according to the team requests. Once at the rally, what you get is what you get.
The problem is that there is no denomination for an old or new tire of the same type. I got a list of what types of tires were for me before the rally, and it's not until they are mounted on your wheels, sitting in service that you know you've been had.
So as I have found out, Michelin sits on stocks of old unused tires that they want to get rid of, somehow, cause they are too old to sell to factory teams. So they offer those tires to whoever wants at very cheap price. Perfect opportunity for an unscrupulous team boss, who has a newbie customer too stupid to tell old from new, right? Right!
So I was had, properly, and got my first experience of WRC stages on old tires.
I tell you what, you try and give Loeb some brown looking soft compound slick, and tell him to go and drive the Viladrau stage in the wet at over 120kp/h average. See what he says... I don't care what his name is, fact is he will not get any heat in that tire, no grip, no confidence, no joy!
So, once I understood that I had been had, I rectified the problem for 2004. We got our own tires, from France direct from the Michelin importer. Finally we had quality, but the damage was done. In rally, confidence is key. I had lost all my confidence on some stage back in Catalunya or Deutschland, you choose, for me the result was all the same.
It took me practically 2 years to gain back some trust in my tires, and start leaning on them again. I managed to be back into it by Catalunya '05, where for the first time in months, I could match other official drivers on some tarmac stages, and get inside the 1 sec/km barrier to the leader, which is so hard to get in.