Bungling the tyre row will give F1 a tainted title fight

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Vitaly Petrov, Renault, Istanbul, 2011Last week’s Spanish Grand Prix was the 44th race since Formula One switched tyre suppliers to Pirelli. That marked the start of the era of ‘designed to degrade’ tyres which has shaped the race ever since.

The brief given to Pirelli was strongly influenced by what the sport had seen the year before. With refuelling banned the number of pit stops per race in 2010 had fallen to one at almost every round.

But Canada was a significant exception: most drivers make two pit stops and some had to make three. Pirelli were instructed to design their tyres recreate the unpredictability seen in that race.

The opening races of 2011 ran according to plan. But concerns arose that the tyres would prove too fragile at the more punishing Istanbul and Circuit de Catalunya tracks. Pirelli used the practice sessions for the Turkish race to evaluate a new, harder compound, and duly introduced it at the next race in Spain.

Harder tyres were also provided for testing at the British Grand Prix last year. Pirelli’s stated objective of having two to three pit stops per driver in each race, and revising compounds towards that aim when necessary has been well established. Only in recent weeks has it been allowed to become a serious bone of contention between the teams.

Fernando Alonso’s win on Sunday was the first by a driver this year using a four-stop strategy in a fully dry race. After the race Pirelli did not hesitate to acknowledge that changes were needed to prevent it happening again.

“Our aim is to have between two and three stops at every race, so it?s clear that four is too many,” said motorsport director Paul Hembery, adding: “We?ll be looking to make some changes, in time for Silverstone, to make sure that we maintain our target and solve any issues rapidly.”

This was a reasonable response along well-established lines. If only the reaction had stopped there.

But after spending almost an hour in conversation with Bernie Ecclestone in the Barcelona paddock, Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz told the media that F1 “has nothing to do with racing anymore – this is a competition in tyre management”.

This was retreading a well-worn area of complaint for Red Bull in the season so far. Although the team and one of its drivers are leading the two championships, they believe the aggressive nature of the current tyres is keeping them from exploiting the true potential of their RB9.

Bernie Ecclestone, Paul Hembery, Circuit de Catalunya, Barcelona,Ecclestone sided with Mateschitz, telling the Daily Express: “The tyres are wrong, not what we intended when we asked Pirelli to produce something which did a half race.”

Predictably, soon after Ecclestone voiced his frustration a further press release from Pirelli appeared stating the planned changes to the tyres would be brought forward by one race to the Canadian Grand Prix. Hembery described the scope of the changes as being to reduce the number of pit stops – as was previously announced – and to combat the spate of tyre delaminations seen at recent races.

It does not require an excess of cynicism to link Mateschitz’s complaint, Ecclestone’s reaction and Pirelli’s decision to revise their plans. And this is where the problems begin, because now the revisions to the tyres can justifiably be seen as Pirelli not merely sticking to the ‘no more than three stops per race’ plan, but F1’s official tyre manufacturer being leant on to help F1’s top team.

It drew a predictably aggrieved response from Red Bull’s rivals. Lotus team principal Eric Boullier not unreasonably pointed out that “there aren?t many sports where there are such fundamental changes to an essential ingredient part-way through a season”.

And the Horse Whisperer, the anonymous troll of the official Ferrari website, saw its first action of 2013. “These are difficult times for people with poor memories,” it opined, before going on to point out they had won a race using a four-stop strategy as long ago as 2004.

Those with even better memories would point out that Ferrari have no objection to the tyres being changed when it is being done to favour them, as happened at a critical point in the title fight ten years ago. The FIA’s abrupt decision to effectively ban the Michelin tyres of their rivals led to Ferrari and Bridgestone winning the next eight races in a row, and harpooned the contest for the 2003 championships.

Then as now, F1 teams will invariably use all available means to tilt the playing field in their favour. But the integrity of the championship is tainted the moment anyone in a position of power is seen to have responded to their pressure.

On that count F1 has failed in the past week. First Ecclestone weighed in on the side of Red Bull. Now the FIA has struck a blow for Ferrari and Lotus by decreeing Pirelli can only make its changes on safety grounds – to cure the delaminations – and not for performance reasons, despite having been content to let them do so since 2011.

On Jean Todt’s watch the FIA has tended to steer clear of F1 controversies. If its intervention in this debate has come because of Ferrari and Lotus’s complaints then Red Bull only have themselves to blame. How ironic it would be if Mateschitz’s complaints ultimately prevent a change in the tyres that was going to happen anyway and could have been beneficial to Red Bull.

Start, 2013 Spanish Grand Prix, Circuit de Catalunya, Barcelona,And while Lotus’s Alan Permane obviously has a side to take in this, it’s hard to disagree with his view that recent history has shown the dangers of overreacting to high tyre degradation races early in the season:

“If you look back at the past couple of years since the start of the Pirelli era, the opening five races have historically featured higher levels of degradation than those seen during the rest of the season; with the exception perhaps of Suzuka.

“With that in mind, any alterations to the tyres should certainly be viewed with a degree of caution, as there is a real possibility that we could end up returning to one stop races; something that frequently occurred towards the end of 2012 as harder allocations were introduced. That?s surely something that nobody wants to see.

“Of course, it?s understandable that a repeat of the four stop scenario in Barcelona is not desirable, but along with Bahrain this represented perhaps the toughest challenge of the year. As we encounter circuits with lower demands on the rubber, and as teams start to get on top of this year’s compounds, I?m certain that we would have naturally seen fewer stops anyway.”

F1’s response to the Spanish Grand Prix has been knee-jerk and risks tainting the battle for championships. The sport would be better off pretending the last week of reaction and over-reaction hadn’t happened, and telling Pirelli to go back to the measured and reasonable response they came up with on Sunday evening.

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119 comments on Bungling the tyre row will give F1 a tainted title fight

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  1. Young One said on 18th May 2013, 14:12

    I don’t think its fair for tyre suppliers to make an issue of their tyres than F1 racing. All this is good for the tyre company since its causing lots of discussions, but I dont see the fun in this.

  2. Valentino (@valentino) said on 18th May 2013, 14:22

    I think the tire problem is track specific (China, Spain), and technology related (teams still trying to figure them out). And also last years soft is this years medium. Also the year before the softs became mediums, so this year hard is the soft of two years before, more or less, if I understood correctly.
    Also, in 2011, didn’t Alonso destroy the Red Bulls at the beginning, but later was overtaken by everybody because of tires going off?

    • Michael Brown (@lite992) said on 18th May 2013, 14:41

      2013 – 2011
      Hard – Soft
      Medium – Super Soft
      Soft – Super Super Soft
      Super Soft – Super Super Super Soft

      Personally I think Pirelli went too far even in 2012. 2011 was good in my opinion.

      • andrewf1 (@andrewf1) said on 19th May 2013, 16:28

        If the teams keep clawing back performance and durability from the tires towards the end of the season, year after year, resulting in 1-stop races, isn’t that indicative of the most reasonable way races should be run?

        Pirelli’s reaction – which i find wrong – from season to season has been to soften the tires, the hards are the softs from two years ago, the medium the supersofts and so on. How can they possibly imagine this trend continuing in the next season, or the one after that?

  3. matt90 (@matt90) said on 18th May 2013, 14:24

    First Ecclestone weighed in on the side of Pirelli. Now the FIA has struck a blow for Ferrari and Lotus

    I thought Ecclestone weighed in against Pirelli, and that the announcement that only changes for safety can be made were a blow to Red Bull rather than Ferrari and Lotus?

    Great analysis though.

  4. Cacarella (@cacarella) said on 18th May 2013, 14:31

    I think this article assumes that the changes made to the tyres in 2011 & 12 were pushed through by Pirelli without the consent of all the teams. As far as I understand it, the FIA are basing their decision to not change compounds in 2013 on Article 12.6.3 and that not ALL teams have agreed to the proposed changes (presumably Lotus and Ferrari). And why should they, Lotus has built a beast this year, why should they be penalized? It’s not as if they’ve created some type of component that is borderline illegal or they’re bending any rules. They’ve simply built a better car.

  5. Michael Brown (@lite992) said on 18th May 2013, 14:37

    I like the idea of tires that lead to 2-3 stops per race, but Pirelli went too far this year and 2012, in that the drivers have to drive to a delta the whole race to get those 2-3 stops. Even with the one stop races with the hardest compounds in 2012, they were still needing to manage the tires to achieve that goal. Mateschitz is right: they aren’t racing, just driving their own separate stints avoiding battles with other drivers to keep their tires alive. As boring as the Bridgestone era was for those people, we didn’t see drivers doing this.

    Yes tire management has always been a part of F1. Having smooth steering, no wheelspin, and no locking has always been essential, even with durable tires. Or maybe you have to manage the engine, or the gearbox. But tire management has never been as crucial as it is now.

    That rant aside, I still think the tires shouldn’t have been changed, as to avoid tainting the title fight. Next year they can adjust the tires to what they want them to be like.

    • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 18th May 2013, 18:19

      @lite992 The tyres were changed during the last few seasons and that wasn’t perceived to have affected the championship. There’s no reason why that should have to be the case this year. As long as we have one tyre manufacturer with limited testing and a three-year-old car trying to produce four different tyre compounds to create two/three pit stops per race across 19 different tracks in a range of weather conditions, it’s probably going to be necessary to fine-tune the compounds now and then.

      • US_Peter (@us_peter) said on 18th May 2013, 20:03

        Particularly when said three year old car was from the team that has been the best on its tires this year. I can’t imagine that that’s just a coincidence.

      • Puffy (@puffy) said on 19th May 2013, 20:13

        @keithcollantine The rules are clear though, you can’t change the tyre compounds without unanimous support from the teams. Teams have designed their cars within the rules and some obviously use the tyres better than others. Changing them in such a way that it changes the characteristics of the tyres would make a mockery of the sport.

    • HoHum (@hohum) said on 19th May 2013, 2:31

      @lite992, I agree, perhaps the best solution would be to increase the number of tyres allocated for the race so Mercedes could go for a flat-out 5 stopper.

      • BasCB (@bascb) said on 19th May 2013, 19:20

        Not all that sure I would like that kind of racing, but on the other hand, it would certainly be good if they could have such an option, go for it and either fail (still to slow, crash, pit stop errors, or just badly timed etc.) or win it.

  6. bsnaylor (@bsnaylor) said on 18th May 2013, 14:38

    Well done FIA, i say. But how can this be policed? Who’s to know if the changes they make “because of delamination” won’t affect the way the cars degrade the tyres. Also, there is no direct comparison as each track is different, wear-wise.

  7. Ripudaman (@ripudaman07z) said on 18th May 2013, 14:46

    I can’t understand how the FIA’s stance is a blow for Ferrari and Lotus!!?? As I understand Pirelli cant fiddle with their compounds to change their performance,which I guess also includes tyre wear. So this should be good news for lotus and Ferrari, right?? Somebody explain!!!

  8. kcarrey (@kcarrey) said on 18th May 2013, 14:55

    this is worse than EBD issue.
    the sweet spot of having a flat out race with 2-3 stops is never gonna be easy since different circuits have different demands on the tyres.

  9. Vic (@hendrix666) said on 18th May 2013, 14:56

    The way I kind of view this is that we wouldn’t have the tire situation whatsoever if the cars were made to be able to pass. Why not change the regulations in 2009 for car design to allow them to be able to overtake? Then the tire debacle would not have occurred as they wouldn’t have had to monkey with the tires to “spice things up”!

    • R.J. O'Connell (@rjoconnell) said on 18th May 2013, 16:29

      Taking away the fifty million winglets on the sidepods and engine covers and going back to slick tyres was a huge step forward in that regard, though.

      • Liam McShane (@motor_mad) said on 18th May 2013, 16:41

        Quite frankly we don’t even know the tyres are spicing up the racing. When they were introduced the double diffusers were banned, which in my opinion was the main cause of the cars being unable to pass. If we recall back to Austin last year, they tyres were durable there and it was a great race.

      • Dizzy said on 18th May 2013, 16:46

        Exactly.
        At the start of 2009 the cars did seem able to follow more closely & there was a lot more overtaking.
        The problem in 2009 was the Double Diffusers, As soon as more teams began using them the level of overtaking decreased. I actually remember drivers comments early in 2009 about how following a Brawn or Toyota was there DDD was harder than following a Red Bull, McLaren or Ferrari which didn’t feature a DDD.

        I also think the refueling ban in 2010 went a long way to helping with overtaking. When you look at the stats, As soon as refueling came in overtaking figures plummeted, Then when it was banned in 2010 the overtaking figures shot back upto Pre-refueling levels & 2010 featured more on-track overtaking than any year since 1989 as a result.

        With DDD & F-Duct’s banned for 2011 anyway as well as the continued refueling ban I think we would have continued to see on-track overtaking levels remain high through 2011/2012/2013 without the introduction of DRS, Pirelli tyres & KERS.

        • Liam McShane (@motor_mad) said on 18th May 2013, 18:20

          Hopefully Pirelli will get sick of all their criticisms and will not renew their contract, if they get offered one of course. Perhaps we could see a tyre manufacturer bring proper tyres back to f1 similar to the ones we had in 2010.

          • Max Jacobson (@vettel1) said on 18th May 2013, 19:07

            @motor_mad that isn’t Pirelli’s fault: the delaminations are, but the compounds are deliberately so as that was what was requested of them in they design brief (albeit not to this extent though). So the criticism should be directed at not the tyre supplier but whom is giving them the design brief, which I do believe was the teams themselves.

          • Max Jacobson (@vettel1) said on 19th May 2013, 13:52

            @motor_mad I read that as you were longing to get rid of Pirelli though, which isn’t really fair on them as it’s the brief’s fault!

        • HoHum (@hohum) said on 19th May 2013, 2:43

          Dizzy, facts and common-sense are not wanted in this discussion, if you can’t think up a silly gimmick to replace the last silly gimmick please keep your opinions to yourself.
          B.E.

  10. Timothy Katz (@timothykatz) said on 18th May 2013, 15:39

    Super analysis, Keith. This spat has the abiltiy to spoil the entire season – for whoever the WDC and CCs turn out to be.
    But can someone remind me what Pirelli’s tenure as supplier actually is? Are they on a fixed length contract, or is it open ended, subject to notice period from either side?
    I think someone at Pirelli Marketing will weigh up the pros and cons of this silly business and decide that unless there is a dramatic and universally applauded solution very soon, they will seek to terminate the contract at the appropriate time.
    Separate question, who pays for the tyres? The teams directly, the FIA through the starting fee, or whom?

    • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 18th May 2013, 18:22

      @timothykatz Tyre supplier contracts are three-year deals and Pirelli’s initial deal is up for renewal this year.

      • Timothy Katz (@timothykatz) said on 18th May 2013, 20:16

        Oooer! This current problem had better be resolved with minimum loss of face on both sides if Pirelli are to continue. I’m assuming that FIA want them to continue, as I don’t think any other manufacturers are queing up to sign, are they?

        • BasCB (@bascb) said on 19th May 2013, 19:23

          They haven’t even been able to ask Pirelli to continue so far, possibly for lack of the Concorde Agreement @timothykatz!

          I did read that Pirelli do already have contracts with the likes of Red Bull, Ferrari and McLaren and are close to signing a deal with Mercedes too though.

      • HoHum (@hohum) said on 19th May 2013, 2:48

        @keithcollantine, the more important part of TimKs question is “who pays the cost of supplying the tyres”

        • Timothy Katz (@timothykatz) said on 19th May 2013, 8:33

          Yes, it’s always worried me.
          Because if the teams are paying directly to Pirelli, they have a right to bitch and about the qualities of the products they receive. If the FIA pay Pirelli out of the ‘entrance money’ that they charge the teams, then the teams have a right to bitch at the FIA, the FIA will try to hold the line, but will bitch at Pirelli.
          But if Pirelli are standing the cost themselve, no one has a right to bitch apart from Pirelli. And I am sure their accountants will bitch very loudly.

        • BasCB (@bascb) said on 19th May 2013, 19:24

          In the past it was often the supplier paying for the tyres (that was one of the things Bridgestone mentioned being the reason of not wanting to continue), but nowadays the teams do pay Pirelli for the tyres.

          • Timothy Katz (@timothykatz) said on 19th May 2013, 21:10

            @bascb. Thank you for the information. So they pay directly, do they? No wonder they feel they have a right to comment and complain, even though the tyre spec is determined by the FIA (albeit after consultation). I think I would feel more than a tiny bit miffed if a product I had paid for really didn’t work for me, but suited my rival down to the ground.

  11. John H (@john-h) said on 18th May 2013, 16:02

    Nice article Keith – very timely! I like the quotes from Permane, which put some perspective into this perceived ‘disaster’. However, I do think there’s a general problem with this debate being reduced to an integer metric (pit-stops). While this is easier to describe and in some ways understand, it excludes the point that the Barcelona tyres if pushed on (by that I mean not short shifting and the such-like) would have required 5 or even 6 stops for most of the field. The 4-stop limit was due to their being no more tyres available.

    I believe the drivers are also not happy with driving well below their own levels to manage the tyres to delta times calculated by the engineers. This is what makes this year much different to 2011 in my eyes at least.

    Finally I think this whole debacle marked a kind of ‘Arab-spring-like’ tipping point for all the fans out there that are pretty much fed-up with F1 turning into a gimmicky spectacle with high deg tyres and DRS. So Pirelli are bearing the grunt of a hoard of F1 fans that are falling out of love with a sport they once loved and wish to cling onto. This is unfair, but the FIA should treat it as a warning that a lot of their fan-base are not entirely happy with the direction F1 is heading – a fact also back up by your poll from even before the Barcelona race.

  12. crr917 (@crr917) said on 18th May 2013, 16:08

    The championship was tainted before it even started. Whoever is calling the shots in F1 wanted another season like 2012 with surprises and various winners in the beggining. Hembery certainly was. But it backfired. Changing tyres and introducing them after the cars are built can stir the racing order but it leaves open the possibility of someone creating a matching car and running away with the championship. At the moment I don’t see anyone beside Alonso, Raikkonen and Vettel winning a race if a miracle do not occur. Monaco is next though so maybe I will be proven wrong in a week :)
    Racing has been rubbish this year. There were races or more precisely periods of races i did like. It just seems to me that viewers are believing that they see racing than racing actually taking place.
    Back to whay the championship is tainted: Hembery excused the high degradation with high downforce levels. If there is a car that has been relying in high downforce that is RBR’s. They have been slow on straights for years but gained time in corners. If tyres can’t endure the forces RBR will be slow everywhere. Could teams learn from Brazil’s two sets of prototype tyres that 2013 cars’ DF is too much? Even if they did, is it reasonable to make teams start from scratch 5 months before the next season starts? If tyres were presented to FiA on spetember 1st 2012 why weren’t they added to friday practice sessions? Because they wanted unpredictability or TV ratings or RBR not winning. Or all of it. Or neither and everything is happening due to coincidence and incompetence.

    • dkpioe said on 19th May 2013, 17:46

      I am sick of the tyre complaining, tyre wear has added excitement to F1, which in terms of actual racing, has been one of the dullest racing series in the world in the past 10 years. Pirelli has improved this, and made teams work harder for results wiith an angle they are not use to working with. The best drivers adapt. the teams adapt too. last year they all adapted after the first few races, and they will again this year – they are billion dollar companies, why are people giving them sympathy? i suspect it is all about “fanaticism” complaints are made when a fans favourite driver isnt getting the results they want, and we look for the easiest excuse – at the moment the excuse is tyres. previous it was “teams budget”, “not enough testing”, “michelin tyres instead of bridgestone”, “v8 engine while rival team has v10″ “aerodynamics” and so many other things. the cars are still amazingly fast, get over yourselves!!

  13. Dizzy said on 18th May 2013, 16:24

    returning to one stop races; something that frequently occurred towards the end of 2012 as harder allocations were introduced. That’s surely something that nobody wants to see.

    I don’t understand why 1-stop races are now seen as been somehow bad?

    We saw some 1-stoppers at the tail end of 2011 & 2012 & those races were hardly boring, In fact I still think they were some of the best we have seen in the Pirelli-Era.

    Besides using the number of pit stops for or against the current tyres is dumb & completely ignores the main issue so far in 2013 & that is the I would call it extreme level of tyre management we have seen so far.
    Watching drivers tootling around 4-5 seconds off the pace they could run watching the tyres, Hearing them been told to hit a specific laptime, Hearing them having to ask there teams if there allowed to race other cars & been told not to & watching In-Car shots where there blatantly cruising is completely ridiculous.

    Pirelli & its supporters claim nothing is different this year yet if nothing was different why so many more complaints from all quarters (Drivers/Teams/Media/Fans) compared to 2011/2012?
    Why are we hearing all this hit the lap delta, don’t race him stuff when we didn’t before?
    Also just look at in-car shots during races in 2013 & compare to 2011/2012, You can blatently see there pushing much less this year as there trying to look after the tyres.
    You also only need to compare the lap times over a race distance thsi year to the same races in 2011/2012 to see how far off what they could run at there actually running & its way lower this year compared to the last 2.

    End of the day im a ‘racing’ fan, I want to see a good race & some good, hard fought racing. Thats a part of what got me hooked & a big part of whats kept me hooked over the past 40 or so years. So far in 2013 i’ve not seen a lot of good racing & have therefore not been enjoying f1 that much.

    Also regardless of what Pirelli & its supporters say my dislike of the 2013 tyres isn’t based on who’s winning & who’s not, Its not based off the media, Its based solely off what I’ve seen on the TV, all the data I’ve seen & how much (Or not) I’ve enjoyed the races & the racing (Or lack of).

  14. maestrointhesky (@maestrointhesky) said on 18th May 2013, 16:34

    The sooner Pirelli leave the sport the better in my opinion. I’ve never been happy with them firstly because they litter the track with so much debris, no one dares to go off line other than in the DRS zone as there’s no traction and you invariably end up in the run off zone or the litter tray! They also detract from the dog fights that we’ve seen in the past. Give me a Hakkenan v Schumacher at Spa any day! That’s real overtaking and any true fan can see that. If todays tyres were available back then, the chasing car would’ve probably have had to settle for second, or worse still, had to make an additional stop because tyres are spent. I’m afraid F1 passes have been dummed down for the masses. I don’t have any interest watching cars doing 80% of their limit. The tyres have not kept up with the improvements made in the technology they support, hence the reason this is all we talk about these days. Save the motorway passes for the motorway and let’s get back to real racing!

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