The control tyre conundrum

Mat Oxley

Tyres account for an inordinate amount of the conversation in racing circles these days. Things have certainly come a long way since the famously technophobic Mike Hailwood didn’t think tyres even worth talking about. When a journalist asked the great man what tyres he was using, he shrugged his shoulders and said “round, black ones”.

In F1 the usual conversation is about degradation. In MotoGP it’s the other way around: the tyres don’t wear enough, which can affect racing and safety just the same.

MotoGP has used control tyres since 2009, with Bridgestone the supplier. The Japanese company won its first MotoGP crown in 2007, just five years after joining the fray, getting the better of Michelin, which had ruled the elite class since the early 1980s. Bridgestone won with a different design philosophy. The French used soft-ish constructions and hard-ish compounds while Japan went the other way.

These stiffer tyres allowed race-winning corner speed and endurance. But nothing is for free in racing: the price of those advantages was reduced user-friendliness. This wasn’t an issue during open competition, when manufacturers tailored tyres to suit different bikes and riders, but it became a problem when everyone had to use the same rubber.

The combination of one-size-fits-all tyres and a minimal choice of compounds created a perfect storm during 2010 and 2011, when we were reminded of the days of the fearsome 500cc two-strokes that chucked riders into the scenery with terrifying frequency. That happened because engine and tyre technology could do no better, but this time the carnage unfolded because the rules demanded it.

The tyres were so stiff that many riders struggled to get them up to temperature. It’s that classic Catch 22: you will crash if you try to go fast when the tyres aren’t hot, but how do you get them hot if you’re not going fast?

Thus most crashes occurred during cool morning sessions. Most famously, Valentino Rossi crashed at Mugello in 2010, breaking a leg. His mistake had been to slow momentarily to shake another rider off his tail – enough for the tyre to lose critical temperature.

It took two seasons before something was done. Bridgestone created a softer rear slick construction for 2012 and riders were happier, because it’s easier to cope with worn tyres than with tyres that won’t wear. When tyres are worn, a rider can ride the bike loose; when they won’t wear, he can’t ride it at all.

However, Bridgestone still errs on the hard side. Dani Pedrosa attributed a rash of mishaps at a recent GP to the fact front tyres were cooling too much on the preceding straight.

No one is saying Bridgestone doesn’t know how to make tyres. Presumably it is terrified of producing tyres that wear out before the chequered flag, because there are no pitstops in MotoGP. Bridgestone is in a no-win situation: it will get criticised if the tyres don’t wear enough or else wear too much.

The lack of compound choice is another problem for the sport’s health. Bridgestone allocates just two compounds for the rear. Since these need to cover all potential weather conditions, most riders choose the same tyres.

This creates a situation that contrasts starkly with F1. Instead of lap times changing dramatically according to the state of the tyres, riders circulate at the same pace throughout, which turns races into processions. The problem, however, is the same: control tyres. They even spoil racing’s central theme – it’s no longer about who builds the best machine, it’s about who best adapts their machine to the tyres.