Saturday, 2 March 2013

Pirelli: Is the current situation making racing too contrived?

From the minute the green light was activated signalling the start of the first pre season test at Jerez, the word on everyone lips has been ‘tyres’.  During this first test the new Pirelli tyres degenerated rapidly leaving them in tatters, however the highly abrasive nature of the track surface at Circuito de Jerez wasn’t able to indicate a true reflection of their behaviour.  When reflecting on the opening test and looking forward to the second test in Barcelona, Pirelli Motorsport Director Paul Hembury said,

“The limiting factor at the opening test in Jerez earlier this month was the abrasiveness of the track, so hopefully conditions will be more representative this time.”

Pirelli tyres available this season.  Photo: F1fanatic

However conditions this year at the Circuit de Catalunya were not representative of those usually experienced in Barcelona.  While ice on the track first thing in the morning isn’t unheard of at this time of year, the temperature usually rises as morning progresses.  This year, the temperature remained cool, leading to more intense graining caused by an increased level of sliding being experienced on a cold track.  This circuit is also renowned for posing a challenge for tyres, as the formidable number of right hand corners results in high degradation, particularly on the left front.

With tyre behaviour still causing a concern, complaints about the new tyres flooded in courtesy of the drivers.  Particularly creative in their descriptions were Toro Rosso drivers.  Jean Eric Vergne, who thought the shredded tyres look like cauliflowers, and his team mate, Daniel Ricciardo, who likened the marbles left on the track to rubber bullets.   

Marbles at Turn 16.  Photo: Briony Dixon

Prior to testing in Barcelona Paul Hembury said this seasons tyres are,

 “Generally softer and faster than last year with deliberately increased degradation”

Have the tyres been made too soft?  Based on unreliable data from both pre season tests conducted so far, Sergio Perez was quoted in Speed Week,

 “The cool temperatures are making it worse; in Melbourne it will probably be better, otherwise we will be doing seven or ten pitstops.”

No doubt the weather will be less inclement in Melbourne but Pirelli are counteracting this with their nomination of the supersoft tyre to accompany the medium. According to Pastor Maldonado, the supersoft tyre is not only spongey and quickly degrading, but also slower than the soft compound.  In a media statement Pirelli said,

” The full step in the compound choice should ensure a performance gap between the cars that allows strategy to come into play.”

Couple this with a statement made by Racing Manager at Pirelli, Mario Isola, when speaking to Spanish newspaper El Pais,

“All we’ve done is try to slightly increase the spectacle of the racing, but we haven’t done anything dramatic.”

For those who believe that the spectacle of Formula One is centred on pit stop strategy, making the right call on tyres at the optimum moment and gaining positions while in the pits, then Pirelli’s election of the supersoft compound will appear positive and exciting.  But what about those who hold the view that the spectacle lies in the driving itself, in the different nuances the drivers have that enable them to undertake manoeuvres that leave the spectator awe – struck. 

Drivers bring contrasting styles to the track.  Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso share a smooth braking style, while Lewis Hamilton’s approach is to roar up to the corner braking as late as possible;  an approach that served him well in 2012 as he was able to get heat into the tyres, leading to a higher level of grip, something Jenson Button struggled with.  Alonso was able to transform his gentle approach into a style more reticent of Hamilton’s.  While it is a mark of an exceptional driver to be able to mould themselves to their machinery and the tyres, as Jim Clark was able to do and as Fernando has proved he can, is there a danger of all drivers adopting the same characteristics and style to their driving?  Do we want to see every driver thundering up to the corner, braking as hard and late as possible in order to get heat into the tyres, or do we want a variety?

Alonso is able to adapt driving style to match the behaviour of the tyres.

As Pirelli are the sole supplier, the situation regarding the tyres is the same for each team.  Ultimately this means that the race will be won by the team who can achieve peak performance out of them.  In a season that will close the performance between the teams on the grid due to the static regulations, tyre strategy could be the only aspect to propel a team into the realms of victory in 2013.  An achievement Pirelli would no doubt be proud of.  Paul Hembery expressed a wish to limit the cars aerodynamically, 

 “Our intention was to offer greater mechanical grip, thus reducing the importance of aerodynamics.  This leads us to believe that there will be less difference between the performance of the big and the middle- sized teams.”

If true, this would be beneficial, as more features kept consistent between all cars would move the spotlight increasingly on driver skill and style, but with the tyre situation forcing drivers to become clones of each other, only tyre strategy remains as the differentiating factor.  When available tyre compounds are dictated for each race, we could be led to wonder whether racing in Formula One has ever been so contrived.
Perhaps the most negative impact stipulations about use of tyres has made, was in 1982, when renewed regulations ordered that qualifying would be completed on just two sets of tyres. Gilles Villeneuve made the point that when on a last set of tyres and approaching traffic on a qualifying lap, a move to overtake could prove precarious and unsafe.  Shortly after expressing this view, the French Canadian was killed during qualifying overtaking a car not on a flying lap. 

Would having multiple tyre suppliers solve the air of manipulation that surrounds the tyre situation?  In 2001 Michelin returned to Formula One after a gap of seventeen years to challenge Bridgestone, who had enjoyed two years as the sole supplier.  This meant there were differences in the tyres, therefore facilitating varying driving styles.  Particular tyres would perform better at some circuits than others, so if the track was a Bridgestone track, tyre advantage meant then they were guaranteed to win.  In addition to this, some tyres were better in the rain or on damp tracks.  Tracks with lower tyre advantage differences would produce closer racing.  Though not as contrived or manipulated, it was perhaps more predictable. 

There is no getting away from it.  Whether a sole supplier has the monopoly or whether there is competition, tyres will always dictate racing.  For the 2005 season Michelin proposed a harder compound to reduce the number of marbles on track, eliminating the dirty line and leading to increased overtaking.  Now Pirelli attempt to create the spectacle through pit stop strategy.  I know which I would rather see. 

Pirelli’s wish to reduce the importance of aerodynamics hasn't really come to fruition.  Adrian Newey, Red Bull’s weapon in the aero war, ensures they are at the forefront in this area.  They have won three consecutive constructors titles.  As much as the tyre supplier would like everything to be the same, Formula One is a team sport and aerodynamic capabilities will never be equal, neither will driver skill.  The Pirelli tyres definitely creates contrived racing, however all the while we have exceptional people in the sport like Adrian Newey and Fernando Alonso, individual skill within a team will prevail over the false spectacle manufactured by the ‘tyre situation’.

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