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

  1. Melchior (@melchior) said on 18th May 2013, 23:58

    I do feel sorry for Pirelli though.

  2. jpowell (@jpowell) said on 19th May 2013, 0:05

    More nonsense about these Pirreli rubbers,I am amazed at how much support there still is for the status quo. It seems that a large proportion of current ‘F1′ fans are content with this low speed no contact entertainment, when one of the slowest cars sets “fastest lap ” it is a sad fiasco.

    • PeterG said on 19th May 2013, 0:42

      its like what jenson button said, people think there seeing a lot of overtaking & think there seeing some good racing when in reality there not.

      cars are not racing anymore & there is no overtaking, just a series of boring highway passes.

      its like nascar, you have them side by side all day on the plate tracks (daytona & talladega) & then they brag about how exciting it was that there was 80 lead changes. in reality 99% of the lead changes were not even relevant because when your running side by side, nose to tail who leads each lap is simply down to what line (inside or outside) has the best momentum coming to the line.

      its all about quantity, nobody cares about quality anymore, as long as the end figure is high then its deemed an exciting race & thats sad!
      as long as you get 71 changes of position the current ‘fans’ are happy even if none of those 71 changes of position are even remotely interesting to watch.

    • HoHum (@hohum) said on 19th May 2013, 3:43

      Between Kimi and Nando there are a lot of fans who will support anything that keeps Ferarri and Lotus on the podium.

  3. Jorge Lardone (@jorge-lardone) said on 19th May 2013, 2:18

    Mr. Mateschitz is right. This is not F1, this is a joke. A bad one.

  4. SlackBladder1 said on 19th May 2013, 2:41

    Ideally the offerings of rubber should come in two flavours ‘Short and Sweet’ that is Fast but short lived, and equally a slow but long wearing rubber, designed to level the playing field.

  5. Pennyroyal tea (@peartree) said on 19th May 2013, 4:00

    I agree. I think the worst part of the situation is that some teams used their limited resources to make the most of the tyre and just because the big outside investors in F1 are not very pleased, FIA is going most likely to negate the work some teams putted especially for the tyres.

  6. karter22 (@karter22) said on 19th May 2013, 4:14

    Well, I´m glad the FIA finally put it´s foot down! Maybe this´ll teach that tycoon that he can´t always get what he wants no matter how “boring” the racing may be to him. If they designed such a good car, they can surely make changes to work with the current rubber as others did over the winter.

    • Irejag (@irejag) said on 19th May 2013, 5:45

      But Red Bull is winning both Championships right now, and he is right that the racing is boring. I don’t see why people are so upset with Red Bull’s position on this. When it comes right down to it, the racing is boring, pure and simple, there is no debating that. In my opinion, Red Bull is on the side of the fans in this one, and we as fans should be supporting anyone who promotes real racing. I have been a Red Bull fan since their team was considered a joke, and so of course I want them to win, but I also want to see real racing, not this artificial racing that we have been given by Pirelli.

      • karter22 (@karter22) said on 19th May 2013, 23:32

        @irejag

        But Red Bull is winning both Championships right now

        That wouldn´t be the case if Ferrari wouldn´t of had the DRS failure in Bahrain and if Alonso wouldn´t of have crashed out in China. Right now RBR has been lucky. Barcelona just made obvious that for once, Ferrari might have a better package than RBR and that is why Mateschitz is moaning and groaning, he knows that they are wrong footed and have been lucky just as Ferrari was lucky last year when ALO won malasya and got some podiums. Same deal.

    • Diego (@r3mxd) said on 19th May 2013, 5:57

      @karter22

      agreed. They had all this time since Brazil last year to make the car suit to the tyres.

      Newey isn’t a genious anymore if he can’t figure that out.

      I bet you anything, it is a simple tweak to their suspension/bar arms geometry and it can be as good as the rest.

      • John H (@john-h) said on 19th May 2013, 8:34

        Which part of the suspension, front or rear? Please let us know and we can email Red Bull and tell them where they have been going wrong, I’m sure they’d be delighted to hear.

  7. Irejag (@irejag) said on 19th May 2013, 5:32

    “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 Key word in that sentence is ‘unpredictability’. That race in Montreal was fun to watch because it was unpredictable, but now because of the way they are going about it, it is no longer predictable, it is just plain expected and boring.

    If you want unpredictable racing then the Pirelli should supply a predesignated set of tires for practice and qualifying but the tires used during the race should be completely different compounds so that neither the teams nor the fans will know what to expect.

  8. dragoll (@dragoll) said on 19th May 2013, 5:56

    @keithcollantine Nice article, very informative. Although, not many knowledgeable F1 fans on this site are worried about the amount of pit stops that occur in the race.

    Pirelli would have been smart IMO to change the tyres for a valid reason, e.g. “To avoid future incidents occurring of the likes that happened to Hamilton in Bahrain and a few others in Spain, we’re needing to modify the compounds to reduce the risk of similar failures.”

    Short and sweet, and apolitical. Now, they lead with “we kinda want to change the tyres, but we really don’t want to upset ppl and favour RBR for doing so, because they’ve been ranting and raving about it.”

    The way that Pirelli handled this wasn’t ideal, it isn’t the worst way of dealing with it, but it does throw them smack bang into the middle of political stouche amongst all the teams. The minute they mentioned acknowledged that a decision they made about their own tyres will have an impact with any other team, is the moment they fall foul of being political.

    • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 19th May 2013, 11:32

      @dragoll Thanks, glad you liked it.

      I think changing the tyres because the number of pit stops had risen to four was a valid reason because it supported by two years’ worth of precedent. You may not agree with it (and I don’t particularly like setting a target for the number of pit stops per race) but they were clearly being consistent with how they’d operated in 2011 and 2012 (and the first part of 2013).

  9. Hatebreeder (@hatebreeder) said on 19th May 2013, 7:29

    I hope bridgestone like hard tyres come back. that way atleast this war of tyre degradation will stop and everyone can race flat-out. there is KERS n DRS for those who miss overtaking anyways.

  10. Richard Purves said on 19th May 2013, 11:16

    I’ll repeat this till i’m blue in the face but, I think Frank Dernie had a good solution to all of this.

    http://www.jamesallenonf1.com/2010/03/getting-rid-of-aero-in-f1-the-counterargument/

    • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 19th May 2013, 11:29

      I’ve never found Dernie’s view – that aerodynamics are not impeding overtaking – particularly persuasive. Partly because it’s an aerodynamicist defending aerodynamics. Partly because we know aerodynamicists purposefully design the rear portions of F1 cars to produce excessive turbulence specifically to hinder a following car. And partly because it doesn’t really tally with my experience of watching F1 races. Variance in tyre strategy has helped produce some great races, from Nurburgring 1957 to Silverstone 1987 to today.

      But I’m prepared to believe there’s something in his diagnosis of the problem I haven’t grasped – I’m not an expect in F1 aerodynamics after all. What is it about his argument that you find persuasive?

      • I think both are right but are talking about different aspects of racing/overtaking

        Theres no doubt that aero effects the handling of a car following, which makes it difficult to keep up or keep close with a car infront and thus make it difficult to make a pass even a possibility, but even if we ‘got rid of aero’, would we see cars trying to make passes on corners where theres a shed load of tyre debris flung to the outside? But then ‘getting rid of aero’ would massivly increase braking zones and make passes more of a possibility there? Which type of passing do we want? :]

      • Richard Purves said on 19th May 2013, 15:31

        The persuasive part (for me) is where he mentions that between ’82 and ’83 there was an 80% drop in aero generated downforce and it had precisely zero effect on overtaking and racing. That and the comments about driver mistakes being heightened due to manual transmission vs. semi-auto.

        Racing to me is all about the drivers. The more you abstract them from the car, the less the racing.

        I also don’t believe Mr. Dernie has much of an axe to grind anymore as his linkedin profile clearly states he’s retired.

  11. Jimmy Hearn (@alebelly74) said on 19th May 2013, 11:49

    Give them tyres to race, I’m not going to bother watching until they do.

  12. djbasumatari (@djbasumatari) said on 19th May 2013, 14:02

    There is a right thing to do and wrong thing to do. The right thing here is to ensure great racing with drivers pushing their cars to the limits. And the current tires aren’t allowing that.

  13. anon said on 19th May 2013, 14:52

    So everyone complains about tyres for two months, then when the FIA make a change to the tyres everyone complains again.

  14. Drezone said on 19th May 2013, 15:26

    Two points here

    To the average viewer… Why change tyres now… If some teams didn’t get their cars right to handle tyres… Tough luck

    To the F1 fanatic… This is purely politic about money and power and you shouldn’t be surprised

    Yes the tyres are not the best this year but nobody is dominating and it’s still open for the championship so why we complaining

  15. 91jb12 (@91jb12) said on 20th May 2013, 13:18

    Can I add that with Vettel/RB winning 3 in a row and the likelihood of their 2013 challenge being strong, have Pirelli/FIA bungled up the championship anyway by creating an artificial means (really marginal tyres) of spicing up the championship to ensure it is as hard as possible for Vettel/RB to win?
    We all know dominance is frowned upon and your average casual follower will turn off if one guy keeps winning

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