Last 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.
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.
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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