Argument over F1’s current tyre policy is dominating this season. We ask Pirelli for its take on balancing endurance with spectacle
writer Ed Foster
Dietrich Mateschitz, the owner of Red Bull, has a point when he says that Formula 1 is no longer about racing. A ‘race’ implies a competition of speed, but the nature of the current Pirelli tyres means that the fastest car and driver might not win. In fact, if the Spanish Grand Prix is anything to go by, it’s actually a disadvantage to have the fastest car over one lap — just ask the two Mercedes drivers who locked out the front row in qualifying.
Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton became moving chicanes during the Grand Prix, the latter even saying over his radio that he couldn’t drive any slower as he slumped to 12th position. Nowadays Formula 1 is all about ‘tyre management’ and driving at 80 per cent, not fighting for positions that don’t need to be contested.
“It’s just gone too far,” wrote Martin Brundle in his post-race report for Sky. Even Pirelli’s motor sport director Paul Hembery admitted four stops were too many and that the Italian tyre manufacturer would change its constructions, to make them more durable from the Canadian GP onwards (although the FIA subsequently forbade such a switch).
But rather than condemn Pirelli for ruining F1, especially as it has only ever worked to the brief it’s been given, let’s rewind a few years. Grand Prix racing is a sport, but also entertainment. During the ‘Michael Schumacher years’, when you knew who was going to win even before you left home on Sunday, the entertainment factor was seriously lacking — and the audience switched off. It was too predictable and there was no overtaking, very little actual racing.
At the start of 2007 the Overtaking Working Group was set up in order to devise a solution. But when the fruits of its labour were introduced in the 2009 regulation overhaul, Brawn GP, Toyota and Williams had come up with double diffusers. The rear downforce generator undid much of the work the Group had done, and still there wasn’t enough overtaking. At the end of 2010, though, tyre supplier Bridgestone left the sport after 13 years and created an opportunity to do something different. Enter Pirelli.
The Italian tyre manufacturer was told to heed lessons from the 2010 Canadian GP, when tyres played a critical role. “It was felt that fans loved it,” says Hembery, “that it was exciting. There was lots of movement and lots of overtaking.” Pirelli did exactly as it was asked by creating tyres that wouldn’t last, that would ‘fall off a cliff’ if they were pushed too hard for too long. It brought questions from many quarters as to how this would go down with Pirelli’s PR department…
“If we wanted an easy life,” says Hembery, “we would make a tyre that would last all race weekend without any problem, but then you get criticised for being boring. It’s not easy to make these tyres, because you have a very small window at which to aim. You want two or three stops, so you’re looking for something that does 60-75 miles. But bear in mind that you have 19 circuits, varying temperatures and 11 different chassis to work with.
“If you do something boring then nobody notices you. If you’re brave then you might find a younger audience.” Or you might recoup some of the audience that drifted away during those Schumacher/Ferrari years. “Yes, maybe everyone’s forgotten how boring it had become,” he says. “People have got to remember that it’s not all about the historic F1 bases around the world. If you go to new territories, where they don’t have a 60-year history with the sport, then it’s completely new to them. If the person who got pole position disappeared into the distance and won the race with no overtaking then, trust me, the sport is finished; it will not exist. Today you have hundreds of TV channels wherever you are in the world; you can watch hundreds of sports. If F1 is boring, people will find something else.”
Tyres dominated the post-race headlines in two of this season’s earliest races China and Spain. In the former the soft compound lasted for just six or seven laps and in the latter there were 77 tyre stops. The majority choice of four pitstops per car was one more than expected and it was this that prompted Pirelli to consider a mid-season construction change. But what of the six-lap soft compound in China? “It was planned like that,” Hembery says. “We’re surprised people are moaning because it’s no different from putting on a hard tyre for one lap at the end of the race, which has happened in the past [during the Bridgestone era, when there was a compulsory stop despite tyres being able to last all race]. All it meant was that it was a qualifying tyre. The race tyre was good and we only had three stops. There weren’t four, five or six. A lot of it depends on how it’s reported.”
The big problem for many is that cars are not going flat out. F1 should be about technology, about the fastest drivers in the fastest cars and, as our editor-in-chief Nigel Roebuck points out, “I guarantee that Jenks would have reacted vigorously against the very idea of any aspect of a racing car’s performance being deliberately compromised for the sole purpose of entertainment.”
“It’s a bit false,” counters Hembery. “It’s not true they aren’t going flat out they’re going flat out within the limitations of the package. It’s been like that from day one in F1. You go back to the 1950s when the tyres were tiny and the power was far greater than they could cope with they had to drive to the package. It was the same all the way through until there was more freedom on all components, especially engines, in the early 2000s, when things went to extremes.” By definition, regulations limit performance via a set of parameters. If you’re a purist and want to see technology at its most extreme, then the very idea of working to a set of confining rules should be displeasing. But with something as fundamental as tyres, any performance limitations are blatantly obvious especially when drivers ask whether or not they should fight the person looming large in their mirrors and thereby risk greater degradation.
In contrast to F1, the FIA World Endurance Championship offers genuine cut-and-thrust, flat-out motor racing. Even the Le Mans 24 Hours is considered a sprint. “We could do that,” replies Hembery. “The audience turned off, though. People used to watch the start of the race, fall asleep and then wake up for the end. Now you see in the TV figures that the audience holds. Yes, it peaks at the start, but it holds well throughout the race. It’s a huge change.”
Red Bull has been the most vocally opposed to the current tyre situation — an interesting position, considering that it has won every championship of the Pirelli era. Lotus, meanwhile, was firmly of the view that it would be unfair to change the tyres mid-season — understandable when it has designed a car that is comparatively easy on the fragile rubber. Such is the way in a competitive sport, and while some claim ‘this isn’t racing’, the fastest drivers and cars still win.
“There are no real anomalies,” says Hembery. “I think if you started to see results where a car comes from a clearly inferior performance position and wins, then you could say that. Apart from throwing up a few changes in the top 10 order you haven’t yet seen a strange win. Maybe you could point at [Pastor] Maldonado in Spain last year, but he worked very hard, as did Williams, in a particular sector of the track to gain as much speed as possible. They were much quicker through that sector than everyone else, so it was merited. Every other time? You see the usual suspects on the podium.”
Indeed, at the time of writing the championship order read: Vettel, Raikkonen, Alonso, Hamilton, Massa and Webber. It would be a brave man who disputed their positions.
“The other thing you have to remember,” says Hembery, “is that the midfield teams are leading Grands Prix — they need that. A lot of the drivers knocked out in Q2 can start on the harder tyre and jump the Q3 lot when they pit. They get their time at the front, they might gain some positions and as well as bringing home a slightly better result they get a chance to be in the limelight. Without that it’s a hard sell to sponsors, isn’t it?”
“[Barring Red Bull] the teams are saying we shouldn’t change what we are doing. The drivers have a different perspective sometimes because they are looking at their championship position. They’re the ones that get the headlines, though. At the end of a football match you might get a player talking, but it’s generally the managers. There’s a reason for that… You have to take a balanced view and the drivers are focused only on winning. The team principals know we have to make the sport interesting. OK, sometimes we get it right and sometimes we get it wrong, but we don’t see the cars in race condition until we get to Melbourne. We don’t get any quality testing time.”
Of course, as with everything there must be a balance and it’s clear that a four-stop race, as we had in Spain, is a step too far. What’s more, with the current nature of the Pirelli tyres there is perhaps no need for drag reduction systems (DRS). Overtaking, when cars are on varying strategies, is clearly possible and the last thing we want, as Brundle suggested, is the equivalent of a “102-85 basketball game”.
There’s no need to completely change what Pirelli is doing, though. F1 is much more exciting now than it has been for years. And let’s not forget that next year, when the fuel limit and 1.6-litre turbo rules arrive, critics claim we might be staring down the barrel of fuel efficiency. “You know I’ve been against the 2014 engines from day one,” said Bernie Ecclestone. “We’re going to have an economy run for sure, so we’ll have to be very careful.”
As our chat comes to a close, Hembery says: “Kimi’s probably right. People need to stop moaning and start enjoying it.”
— Inside view —
Opinions from those who see the tyre battle close up
Ross Brawn: “The current tyre situation is a challenge and, clearly, whoever makes best use of them does well. It’s quite a deep dimension of what we do at the moment, but everyone’s got the same tyres. F1 cars have never really gone flat out. Managing the tyres is the same as what we did in the past. Managing tyres, managing brakes, managing fuel — it’s all part of the challenge.”
Sir Jackie Stewart: “My greatest criticism of the current tyre situation is that the debris narrows all of the race tracks. Conserving tyres, though, is part of the art of F1 driving and engineering — very good engineers and drivers can do it. Let’s not forget that Pirelli is relatively new to Grand Prix racing after a great many years off. Their experience and knowledge will accumulate and help the situation.”
Martin Whitmarsh: “The tyre situation has been challenging over the last few races, but we’ve had eras when we’ve had to conserve fuel instead. I think we all romantically like the idea of flat-out driving from lights to flag, but invariably there are times when you’re either conserving the fuel or the tyres. It’s just getting the balance right. If it becomes too extreme then it can detract from the spectacle, but it’s the same for everyone.”
Jenson Button: “We’re never going to be happy with everything in this sport, or in any sport, but I think the racing has been good fun. In the past we had tyres that would last the whole race and there wasn’t any overtaking. It’s very difficult to get the correct balance, but we’re having two or three stops, which I think was the idea for 2013. That’s good, and there are lots of teams fighting at the front. I think F1’s great at the moment. I’m really enjoying racing.”
Bernie Ecclestone: “Pirelli has done an absolutely first-class job. They’ve done what we asked them to do — to make sure that we didn’t have tyres that lasted even half the race.”
— Fans’ view —
Taken trum our forums on www.motortsportmagazine.com
Caroline Robinson: “I find it regrettable how much the top drivers are forced to compromise their driving styles to cope with races that self-destructing tyres create.”
Trevor Steggles: “I am certain thatJenks would have been vociferously against the manipulation of F1 for entertainment. The current situation is crazy.”
Steve Short: “I’ve been of the opinion for several years that what passes for F1 is no longer really motor sport but simply a motor sport-based entertainment show.”
James Foreman: “It’s a shame to hear drivers having to race under the car’s performance potential so as to ‘save the tyres Likewise hearing team principals telling their drivers to turn down their engines etc to make it to the finish. F1 for me should be a sprint from the start.”
Rob Elwell: “The current tyre situation is like expecting a ballerina to dance Swan Lake in a pair of Dr Martens.”