Have the 2009 tyre rules gifted Button the world drivers’ championship?

Posted on | Author Duncan Stephen

No-one can rival Jenson Button's tyre management this year
No-one can rival Jenson Button's tyre management this year

F1 Fanatic guest writer Doctorvee of F1 blog Vee8 shares an opinion on how the tyre rules are affecting the championship.

In a year of big changes to the technical regulations, one of the most controversial talking points has been the decision taken jointly by Bridgestone and the FIA to widen the gap between the prime and option tyres.

Instead of taking the two best-suited compounds to each circuit, Bridgestone now takes one good set and one sub-standard set of tyres.

This was a bid to spice up the action during the races. But has it also boosted Jenson Button’s chances of winning the championship?

Contrived tyre rules

Given the present rules where every driver has to use both sets of tyres in dry conditions, the decision to widen the gap between the compounds was right. After the mandatory tyre change was introduced in 2007, the difference between the prime and option were usually too small to make any meaningful difference to the race.

People rightly argue that deliberately putting drivers on inferior tyres is an artificial way to contrive excitement. Fernando Alonso was especially scathing, saying it would be better to put drivers on wet tyres in dry conditions.

The reasons for the rule can be traced back to the end of the tyre war. Following the exit of Michelin from Formula 1, Bridgestone were worried that no-one would talk about them as the sole tyre supplier. So to keep the focus on tyres, they concocted this rule, borrowed from America’s now-defunct Champ Car World Series. (The Indy Racing League has adopted a similar rule this year).

But to keep the focus on tyres was wrong in my view. Back in 2006, I waved good riddance to the tyre war. At the time I said:

In reality, we no longer [have] a drivers? championship or a constructors? championship. All we had left was a glorified tyre championship in all but name. It?s not as heroic as a driver standing up on his seat to win a race. It?s not as sexy as a constructor pushing the boundaries of technology to make their car better. Formula 1 had come down to four ? literally ? black boxes. Elements that are peripheral to the cars became central to the championship.

I was perturbed that tyres should come to dominate the picture in F1 so much. I have since come to the view that the primacy of the role of these “black boxes” is inevitable. But it is a matter of striking the right balance. Bridgestone’s effort to get people talking about tyres is the exact opposite of what I want to see. Ideally, they should be as irrelevant as possible. That means taking the best sets of tyres, letting the teams decide how they should run them, and leave it be.

Instead, teams are hamstrung by Bridgestone’s selfish commercial interests. Now we have this mickey mouse situation where tyres once again appear to be playing too large a role in the championship.

Playing into Button’s hands

One of the traits that emerged very early on about the Brawn car was that is treats its tyres very well indeed. Meanwhile, Brawn’s driver Jenson Button is renowned for being one of the smoothest drivers in the world with excellent tyre management skills. I don’t wish to belittle the importance of tyre management. This is an aspect of Button’s driving which should be celebrated. But I fear that this one aspect of driving is becoming the one dominant influence on the championship.

Take the Bahrain Grand Prix. Toyota managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory because their cars simply did not have the pace on the harder tyres that the team had expected. Perhaps if Toyota had the freedom to run whatever tyres they wanted, they would have won the race. We will of course never know. But it’s difficult to escape the feeling that Brawn were handed that win not because they had the best package, but because they had a package that could cope better with deficient tyres.

The potential for the tyre rule to play this sort of role was evident from the first race of the season at Melbourne. A number of drivers who were having perfectly good races found themselves falling back simply as a result of the fact that they were forced to use suboptimal tyres.

We saw exactly the same phenomenon in Monaco. Most drivers who ran the super-soft tyres in the first stint had their race ruined. Sebastian Vettel – arguably Jenson Button’s strongest rival – struggled particularly badly, at one point losing a massive 4.5s in one lap.

Interestingly, Rubens Barrichello was another driver who struggled on the super-softs in the first stint at Monaco. The Brazilian ended the first stint 12.5s behind his team mate. This helped ease Jenson Button’s path to victory, as it meant that even those drivers who had the harder tyres – which were superior at that point of the race – lost valuable time.

That puts one nail in the coffin of the idea that the tyre rule is a particular advantage to the Brawn car. Barrichello has had more than his fair share of tyre issues this season. Not only did he lose time in Monaco, he also lost the race in Spain because he was struggling on a set of tyres.

This is where Jenson Button’s silky-smooth driving comes into play. Fair enough in one respect. You can argue that if Button’s tyre management is so great that it helps him win the championship, he has earned that right. But it does seem as though he is lucky to get this leg-up.

After all, isn’t F1 supposed to be about giving the best drivers the best equipment? Jenson Button’s skill is in being a good driver with deficient equipment. If the best drivers had the best cars with the best equipment at all times, would Jenson Button have won five races out of six? I have a feeling that he wouldn’t have. Is that really what F1 should be about?

I would never wish to belittle Jenson Button’s excellent form. I have no doubt that his Championship lead is fully deserved. But I just wish he could have demonstrated it in an environment where the best drivers have the best equipment, which is what F1 should be about in my view.