The Red Bull controversy in Sepang has unsurprisingly dominated Formula 1 conversation in recent days, and the rights and wrongs of it will doubtless figure in my next Motor Sport column, but for now let us consider another aspect of the Malaysian Grand Prix, albeit one which played a role in the circumstances which led to the altercation. I refer, of course, to the matter of tyres.
I don’t know about you, but as events unfolded at Sepang I felt more strongly than ever that the whole ‘tailored tyres’ question had now gone beyond what was acceptable.
Time was when Max Mosley would refer to me as ‘the ultimate purist’, and I always chose to take it as a compliment, although I’m not sure that was entirely Max’s intention: there was always a hint, I felt, of ‘Dear old Nigel, such a fan, but not terribly… realistic, you know…’
Well, perhaps not, but if one of my gods when I was growing up was Jean Behra, another was Denis Jenkinson. As I’ve always said, if anyone fired in me the desire to spend my life writing about motor racing, it was he: once I was in the business we became very close friends, and although we by no means agreed about everything, when it came to the fundamentals of this sport our opinions invariably tallied. He has been gone for 16 years now, but still I find myself occasionally thinking, ‘Now what would Jenks have made of this?’
Next year, of course, comes the new engine formula, with turbocharged 1.6-litre V6s replacing normally-aspirated 2.4-litre V8s, and I suspect Jenks’s feelings on the matter would have been equivocal. On the one hand, he adored the previous turbo era because above all he loved engines, and at that time, with the emphasis firmly on raw horsepower, he was in his element. The next turbo age, though, will not be like that: with the FIA keen to stress F1’s ‘green’ credentials, and some of the power coming from hybrid systems, the hope is that the new generation of engines will just about match the 750bhp of the present ones: that assuredly would have disappointed DSJ.
In recent times we have become accustomed to ‘frozen’ engine specifications, with a fixed rev limit, and there’s no doubt that this has contributed hugely to the extraordinary level of reliability now taken for granted in F1. Of course, in different ways, some engines are better than others, but essentially they are all much of a muchness, and some in the paddock have gloomily speculated that it probably won’t be that way in 2014.
I find this attitude strange, I must say – it’s as if an engine advantage, as opposed to an aerodynamic one, is somehow ‘not quite cricket’, not a fair way to win. One of the tensest races I ever saw was the 1981 Spanish Grand Prix at Jarama, when for countless laps Villeneuve held off Laffite, Watson, Reutemann and de Angelis, all of whom were in cars vastly superior to Gilles’s cumbersome Ferrari in every respect save one: horsepower.
Even back then some were sniffily going on about the 126 turbo’s straightline advantage, and that it undoubtedly had, but in the corners, as Villeneuve said, it was ‘like a big red Cadillac…’ He had only one high card in his hand, and he played it brilliantly: why one high card was somehow less… worthy than another, I never understood.
Even if the actual power outputs of the forthcoming 1.6-litre turbos wouldn’t have excited Jenks, he would without a doubt have approved of a return to a formula in which engine superiority again had perhaps a part to play. Mind you, once the new turbo era has settled in, I little doubt that the FIA will find ways to ‘freeze’ specifications again, for F1 has long become increasingly a ‘spec formula’, partly in the interests of saving money, partly in the interests of ‘The Show’.
At the Goodwood Press Day in March an acquaintance told me he sometimes watched the Grands Prix on TV, sometimes not. “I still love the sight and sound of the cars,” he said, “but…it’s not Grand Prix racing any more, is it? It’s showbiz…” He didn’t like DRS, he said, and he thought the whole business of what he called ‘doctored tyres’ ridiculous.
Back to Jenks. It’s a fact that tyres were a subject that didn’t much interest him, save when, on a given day, one manufacturer did an emphatically better job than another, and thus decided the outcome of a race. Otherwise, they were black and round, and assumed – in an ultra-competitive environment – to be as good as Michelin or Goodyear or Pirelli or Bridgestone could make them.
Once in a while a situation would arise when one manufacturer had a monopoly, and in that event their products would inevitably follow a conservative path until some opposition returned. The drivers would mutter about ‘wooden tyres’, which lacked grip and lasted for ever, but that was about the extent of it.
When I interviewed Bernie Ecclestone at Spa in 2005, he said that in his opinion F1 had to go for a single tyre supplier: “I think,” he said, “we’re going to be in trouble if we don’t,” and his reasoning was that the teams were spending ludicrous amounts of money on testing – still unrestricted at that stage – and the bulk of that was on tyres.
At the time Bridgestone and Michelin were the two companies involved, and after Michelin had effectively been driven out of F1, Bridgestone supplied everyone until it elected to withdraw at the end of 2010. At that point ‘the F1 tyre contract’ was up for grabs, and Pirelli got the deal.
Since then, for the first time in history, we have had tyres in F1 built specifically to ‘spice up the show’ – in other words, tyres designed to ‘go off’, to be quite intentionally way less efficient than they could be. And however much Jenks may have professed disinterest in tyres, per se, I guarantee he 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.
No one – least of all I – needs to be reminded of those dull years of Schumacher domination, when you knew the result of a Grand Prix even before you boarded your flight to attend it. For a long time Michael had in place a set of circumstances – Jean Todt, Ross Brawn, Rory Byrne, a massive budget, a slave team-mate, unlimited testing, bespoke tyres from Bridgestone – which will never be seen again, and he was able to convert Grand Prix racing into a series of demonstrations, racking up statistics which may never be beaten.
That said, those races – however processional – were unquestionably real, in the sense that Schumacher and Ferrari were winning constantly because they were doing an essentially flawless job. The best driver was in the best car, and most of the time, frankly, the rest weren’t putting up much of a fight.
Now, it seems to me, in the quest to make Formula 1 more of ‘a show’ – which doubtless delights CVC, who, God help us, owns the sport these days – we have gone to the other extreme. For one thing, the artifice of DRS – introduced to disguise the inability of the powers-that-be to come up with a set of aerodynamic regulations that allowed cars to pass each other – has proved so effective that overtaking is now very often too easy.
And for another, we have tyres which increasingly play an over-important role in the scenario of a Grand Prix. That seemed to me more apparent in Malaysia than ever before, and while the glib response is always that ‘it’s the same for everyone’, my feeling is that it’s bad for everyone when paranoia about tyre wear means that the drivers are running, as Mark Webber put it, ‘at about 80 per cent’, and the team principals are thinking overwhelmingly in terms of ‘getting the cars home’.
This is how Le Mans used to be in times gone by – but that was a matter of lasting for a day and a night, not an hour and a half, and it is a supreme irony that, in this era of sports car racing, for such as Audi and Toyota Le Mans – unlike a contemporary Grand Prix – is flat out all the way.
In normal circumstances ‘F1’ and ‘cruising’ are surely words that should never appear in the same sentence, but if I believe that tyres are now wagging the dog, so it should be stressed that no blame attaches to Pirelli, who were given a brief as to the sort of tyres they should make, and have fulfilled it to the letter. Rather, my feeling is that the original brief was at least one step too far, and in Sepang that was all too apparent. As long as we have a situation in which drivers, under instruction from their teams to ‘bring the cars home’, are relatively cruising to the flag, team orders – such as we saw ignored by Vettel, reluctantly observed by Rosberg – are surely going to become more prevalent.
Down the road, what’s it to be? Grand Prix racing or Strictly F1?