Thursday 16 May 2013

Be careful what you wish for - views on the Pirelli changes

Judging by much of the reaction something hideous took place at the Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona last weekend. Unspeakable. Something that sent F1 into the realms of farce. And it was all do to with the familiar pariah of the Pirelli tyres. One member of the press, that reliable source of wisdom, said the race was 'tyranny of the tyre...the unloved novelty of four stops per car is conspiring to reduce the sport to a rambling sequence of place-swapping that bears little resemblance to racing'. Martin Brundle noted: 'Qualifying clearly means nothing these days, just ask the front row Mercedes boys...It's all about saving new tyres and then trying not to abuse even those on race day. Pirelli simply have to sort this out.' Red Bull's boss Dietrich Mateschitz joined in, saying: 'This has nothing to do with racing anymore. This is a competition in tyre management.' And these comments were just the beginning.

It seemed F1 had got itself into one heck of a pickle. But Pirelli moved quickly to atone, announcing in the days afterwards that there would be changes in time for the Canadian Grand Prix, sooner than previously thought, and the changes would serve to add durability and therefore reduce the number of pitstops, by moving the tyres back more in the direction of how they were last year.

Fair enough? It's decisive action, after all. But perhaps the matter is not as simple as that. And solving problems in F1 is often rather like having a bubble underneath your wallpaper: you press it down only for it to pop up somewhere else. In other words by 'solving' one problem you create others. And this may be a classic case of it.

Pariah Pirelli is once again causing debate
Credit: Rich Jones / CC
At times like this it's always valuable to look back and remind ourselves how we got to where we are. F1, lest we forget, for years had a massive problem in the product it offered to spectators - F1 racing cars very rarely raced each other. From a peak of over 40 overtakes per dry race in the mid-1980s it had fallen gradually, and then off a cliff, to around 10 passes per dry race from 1994 onwards (see the Clip the Apex stats). A massive drop by anyone's standards. And this decline was not lost on anybody, the on track fare was hardly worth watching. Without exaggeration all you would have usually was qualifying, a start, a first lap shake out and to nothing. Pre-ordained fuel strategies would simply play themselves out and while the drivers certainly worked hard their contribution in some ways was futile, almost like they were simply along for the ride if they had the strength and stamina to hang on. As Rob Smedley noted recently what would happen then in the normal run of things was that a race's outcome would be known on a Saturday afternoon, barring disasters such as unreliability (an increasingly rare event too). Ironically enough, races around Barcelona particularly were notorious for this; I recall the Autosport magazine after the 1999 race there with the banner headline across its front cover 'Is F1 too boring?' or words to that effect. Plus ca change...

It's not at all melodramatic to say that the matter outlined above was rather drastic. The problem was wrestled with for years via various technical changes but it remained firmly and maddeningly uncracked, but then in the 2010 Canadian Grand Prix we appeared to stumble upon an answer. The tyre supplier of the time Bridgestone for whatever reason got its sums wrong and, rather than providing its usual tyres that would easily last a race, turned up with those of the gumball variety, way too soft to last even half of the race. And the race we ended up with was a thriller, with many overtakes and divergent strategies playing themselves out. For an afternoon we had F1 racing again.

It was a reminder of what we should have known all along. Namely that while aerodynamics and the resultant problems of 'dirty air' were part of the contribution to the soporific races we were getting, so too was the lack of variation in pace during a race, and it's variation of pace that creates overtaking. And with tyres no longer degrading much, and especially when combined with refuelling which reduces races to a series of sprints, variation of pace was reduced to next to nothing. With this combined with having the quickest cars starting at the front and the slowest at the back then we should not be surprised that they don't pass each other - why would they? The cars simply move apart. Bridgestone refused to provide tyres like those it had inadvertently in Canada again but when the Japanese firm left the sport at the year's end its replacement Pirelli was asked to produce something similar, deliberately, every time.

And therein lies the rub. Just as the voter wants lower tax but higher spending, judging by what I've read on online forums some F1 fans want drivers pushing at the maximum throughout as well as entertaining races with overtaking. It's very difficult to have both.

It's also disturbing that I've read some comments since the Spanish race urging a return to pre-Pirelli spec F1. I can only assume these people suffer from selective memory, are gluttons for punishment or are simply prone upon encountering challenges to demand change without thinking of the consequences ('something has to be done; this is something, so let's do it'). While we can have a debate about the details of the Pirelli formula and of possible tweaks to it, such a drastic switch back to the future certainly will not get the support of me. It would in my view amount to throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

The Pirelli tyres have improved the on track fare
Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
And Pirelli since arriving back in F1 has for just about the whole time broadly got it right, in terms of what's it's being asked at least. This is doubly impressive when one considers that it has no up-to-date test car (apparently it currently relies upon a 2010 Lotus, from prior to aggressive diffuser blowing etc), as well as that there is so little testing generally and what there is in cold pre-season where track temperatures tend not to be representative of what we get during the season. Purists have derided the 'fake' nature of it all, as well as the fact that drivers could no longer push at the limit to the extent that they had before. But there has almost never been a time in F1 when drivers could push all the time, particularly not from prior to the 'refuelling era' of 1994 onwards, and as for the 'fake' point, F1 by any definition has never been pure and in any case I'd much rather defend that point than defend dull races. The Pirelli approach is in my view an example of a good regulation: adding a lot to the spectacle, giving the teams a little bit extra to think about, but not ultimately being distortive of who is quick and who isn't.

And it continues to be the case this year, perhaps more than before. There is a more more consistent front three than there was last year, and the three are revered drivers, world champions all, and are in strong teams. It's hard to argue that we're getting lotteries; it's also hard to argue that talent isn't winning. And I challenge those who feel that F1 has become a mockery to tell me which of the winners or podium finishers so far in 2013 didn't deserve to be there. Further, for all of the Spanish Grand Prix's tyre saving Fernando Alonso won the thing by pushing. Those who tried to cruise and collect lost. Perhaps there was a lesson in that.

The risk of changing the tyres' spec is therefore obvious, that in reacting there will be an overreaction, and will only ensure a return of tepid processional fare for our Sunday afternoons. This is especially so as the evidence of the past two seasons is that the tyre situation gets less lairy as the year goes on by itself anyway, as teams begin to get their heads around the challenges (as well as that, irony of ironies, at that point we start to complain that races aren't as much fun as before). Also, the last three rounds we've had are for various reasons just about the toughest on the tyres of the whole calendar. One is put in mind of the adage: be careful what you wish for, as it might come true.

The Spanish Grand Prix however did fall on the wrong side of ideal in terms of the rubber's fragility, just as the soft tyre available in China did, and Pirelli has always maintained that four stops per race, which was Spain's default, is too many. Further both races contained the unwelcome sight of a driver choosing not to fight a car behind in order to aid tyre preservation. And obviously there needed to be change to stop the succession of delaminations seen recently; this goes without saying and were the changes just about that the I find it difficult to believe there'd be any objection. But the changes announced by Pirelli went beyond this, and were also about increasing durability and reducing the number of pit stops. We haven't seen the impact of the changes yet of course or the amount that they make a difference so to an extent we need to wait and see. In Pirelli's Paul Hembery we have got someone in charge who is responsive but can ordinarily be trusted to not over react. And it's worth making the point that I don't feel any ill-will towards Pirelli or Hembery in all of this, Hembery in my view is one of the very best things about contemporary F1, and he and the Italian company have been put into a near-impossible position, pulled in several directions at the same time as well as more generally serving teams and a sport that do little to help them.

But still it's tempting to ask why now for these changes, and why now for the fuss. After all two years ago the Spanish race was won with a four-stopper, as indeed was the previous race in Turkey, and data such as lap times and race lengths from the two Spanish races then and now are close to identical. While there was grumbling then I do not recall anything close to the same level of panic, nor were the compounds changed as a consequence. And, whatever the formula, for as long as there are pitstops there will be those who try to get a better result by eking out one fewer with a tortoise strategy. At the very least the language of the apocalypse from some, that this is the end of racing as we know it, is premature.

Perhaps as Jonathan Noble suggested part of it is that Mercedes's new-found qualifying pace has drawn attention to its long-standing inability to manage the heat of its rear tyres properly, thus amplifying how distinct races appear from ultimate one-lap pace recently. Perhaps the struggles of McLaren and of Hamilton (in the races) has encouraged the influential British media contingent to find things to complain about. Perhaps Kimi Raikkonen is right that 'people will always complain'.

But there is a big difference to before. A major player in the movement for change is champion constructor Red Bull. It has a high media profile at the best of times, and at various points this year it has engaged in a persistent and vociferous campaign of lobbying Pirelli both directly and via the media for the tyres to be changed. And Red Bull of course won the two four-stop races mentioned in 2011, and while the team's senior figures now when on the subject of the tyres insist on couching their arguments in terms of the good of the sport and what's good for the fans, like any team what feelings it may have on these are subjugated decisively by its desire to win. And moreover Bernie Ecclestone's had his say by now too, and perhaps unsurprisingly supports the Red Bull case. The Bulls' close relationship with Bernie is well-known, and it's also known that Bernie met Red Bull's big boss Dietrich Mateschitz (as mentioned another who's had something to say on the subject since the Spanish race) recently. And we also know that even these days what Bernie wants in F1 Bernie tends to get.

Red Bull acolytes might seethe at the suggestion that the controversy and the resultant changes are about them, and to some extent they'd have a point. People are of course capable of making their own minds up and it's not only Red Bull that has objected to the tyre situation, as well as that it is possible, indeed Paul Hembery has insisted as much, that the change to the tyres would have happened anyway and aren't about supporting particular teams. But still you cannot help but wonder whether there'd be the same level of froth, and more to the point whether we'd be where we've ended up, without the Milton Keynes team's regular interventions. The crux is that Red Bull feels that were the tyres brick hard its cars would be running away with races. Maybe they would, but quite how the rather glaring fact that the tyres wouldn't be brick hard eluded Red Bull when designing the car is anyone's guess. Pirelli's product has been soft for the past three seasons, and there was little secret that they would be softer still this year. And other teams, most notably Lotus and Ferrari, appear to have done a better job within what Jimmy Durante called 'da conditions dat prevail', on certain days anyway. Designing a car unsuitable for the tyres that you know fine well what they'll be like doesn't strike me as making you deserving of sympathy, it strikes me as getting it wrong.

Red Bull has been a major player in lobbying for change
Credit: Morio / CC
There is further nothing even in this year's tyres endemic in precluding a driver from pushing, it is a matter of getting the car right. This was noted by Nico Rosberg after the Spanish race. He would have been within his rights to feel frustration given he had sank from pole position at the start to a distant sixth place by the end. But his views were considered: 'Look at Fernando Alonso, who was 70 seconds quicker than me, not even including the first stint because he was still behind me. He is not going to be doing too much tyre saving. I'm sure he can have some fun and push a little bit. So maybe it's wrong to blame the tyres and we just need to sort out the car in some way.' There you have it: if you have to cruise through a race it's the car's fault. Not the tyres, not the regulations.

And the risk to changing the tyres now on how F1 appears is great. Whatever the reality of the matter as far as perception goes the algorithm is perfect: Pirelli produces compounds; Red Bull struggles with wear in a few races; Red Bull kicks up a stink; Pirelli changes compounds. At the very least it doesn't look good. In such situations not only must justice be done it must be seen to be done.

There are also practical impediments that have been apparently been ignored. F1 regulations are always open to interpretation of course, but Article 12.6.3 suggests that tyre specifications are not to be changed after 1 September of the previous season unless there is unanimous agreement for a change among the teams (which there definitely hasn't been). That's not to mention the technical challenges to the teams of changing the tyres mid-season in terms of suspension settings, modelling in the wind tunnel and CFD simulations etc etc, and doing so in a year wherein big changes await for the following season thus ensuring resources are already stretched.

It's therefore rather ironic that Red Bull and others who have been seeking to change the tyres have been talking in dare I say slightly pious terms of what 'real F1' is or what F1 'should be about'. I'm not clear how this squares with ignoring the regulations and fundamentally changing the landscape mid-season, possibly as a result of aggressive lobbying from teams that have got it wrong, certainly with the potential to rescue the seasons of those teams who have got it wrong as well as in effect punishing those who have got it right. It strikes me that this position flies into the face of sport and competition more than anyone's.

Next year we have new engine regulations, including a fuel limit. What if next year one of the engine builders gets it wrong and produces an engine that is too fuel-thirsty, and thus its drivers face a choice of cruising to the end of the race or running out. Should in those circumstances the fuel limit for everyone be changed? Of course not. It sounds absurd to even suggest as much. Yet that with this year's tyres is in effect what certain teams now have played for, and got.

Therefore I hope that the changes made for the Canadian Grand Prix and onwards are only tweaks and do not turn out to be a game changer, to coin the modern parlance. If it does appear to help any team that found the previous tyres sub-ideal then it has the potential to cast a shadow over the season; if a driver at one of those teams finishes as champion people will ask if the championship was a deserved one. It'll be a repeat of 2003 which had its very own tyre-gate. Only it'll probably be much worse.

It makes you wonder if the changes therefore are worth it, even with what we were given to watch in Barcelona. I just hope that Pirelli, and everyone else pushing Pirelli for alterations, know what they're doing on this one. It may yet of course be that the new tyres arrive in Canada, the delaminations stop, the number of pit stops reduce a bit and otherwise we carry on as normal with the same pecking order as now. But to achieve that you rather feel that Pirelli must perform a delicate balancing act. Let's hope it doesn't fail in the task, and thus turn what was looking like a good season into a diminished one. But the risk of it doing just that, however inadvertently, is tangible.


  1. Brilliant article, it should be on every F1 magazine. I like the way you write. You have a deep knowledge of F1 and you really know how to express yourself.

    Being said that there is something that it is driving me mad. Paul Hembery said during the Chinese GP that only two teams were putting pressure on him to make some changes. All the others were actually lobbying him not to change anything. So we have this situation in which most of the teams are against a change but all of a sudden Pirelli announces major tweaks which may include structural modifications on the tyres.

    In my opinion, it all seems as if it has been imposed from above. I am thinking of Ecclestone, of course, as you pointed in your article the good relationship he has with Red Bull's owner and the meeting they had. Only in that case I could understand the fact that no team has formally opposed to the change because in that case this would have never seen green light as it needs unanimity (art. 12.6.3 you wrote).

    Also, publically Red Bull has said some strong and hypocritical words recently but we have only had silence from the rest of the teams bar Lotus who have just say some timid words. Why not show some love to Pirelli and recognise that they have done what was asked after all and that they have done it properly? Why all the teams who do not want any changes remain silent? What is really going on?

    It is really hard for me to get my head around all of this as it makes no sense. Is F1 a sport? Is it a show? Is it just business? What is it exactly? Paraphrasing David Bowie, where are we now?

    1. Thanks very much Alvaro for your compliments. It's very nice to hear and I'm very glad that you liked the article.

      You're right though that it seemed Pirelli was being pressured to change the tyres by only one or (at most) two teams, plus Bernie, and that Red Bull was in particular applying pressure via the media. It left a bit of a nasty taste in my view that this was the team's apparent tactic given it was clear it wasn't going to get the tyres changed through the legitimate channel of getting all teams to agree. But in Red Bull's defence, all teams base their position in such matters on their competitiveness. It's not something exclusive to Red Bull by any means.

      Since writing this though the FIA has flexed its muscles, and decreed that Pirelli can only make changes to do with safety within the season. This is good news in my view, it's essentially what I arguing for.

      But it makes you wonder what had been going on behind the scenes. Were teams (e.g. Ferrari, Lotus) lobbying the FIA behind the scenes? Did Red Bull forget about the FIA? Does it reflect that Jean Todt and Bernie haven't been getting along recently, and have been engaged in something of a power stand off? There's no doubt all sorts that we don't know about, as always!

      And I agree that it would be much better if we didn't get such public bitching about Pirelli, and I suspect in NASCAR for example such bad PR wouldn't be allowed. But tyre companies have always been a soft target for teams' complaints, it's much easier to blame a tyre supplier than to blame yourself.

  2. I don't mind the pecking order and number of stops, but to see drivers asking if they should defend themselves and their engineers telling them to save tyres all race long is a no no. Vettel skips Q3 one GP, suddenly bursts to a win the next (aided by Alonso's problems) and crawls backwards to finish 38 seconds from the winner and 12 from the podium the following GP. To me it indicates there is more to the tyres than being too soft to allow racing hard and pushing.

    1. Hi Calixto. I agree that drivers not defending their position in order to preserve tyres is not what we want to see. But I honestly think we'll see less of it anyway as the year goes on, as we go to tracks less taxing on the tyres plus as teams get on top of the tyres' challenge. That indeed has been the evidence of the past two years. And as I said, if drivers have to do that it's the fault of the car, not the tyres, in my view.

  3. Very nicely done.PErhaps it's not a conspiracy to punish those who have adopted to the new tyres the best. Yet, I wonder, with the regulations being the way they are, why nobody is complaining about the changes. I know Lotus has spoken up and I know the "Horse Whisperer" column at Ferrari posted something, but no formal complaints?

    1. I too was wondering why Ferrari (and other teams aside from Lotus) had been so quiet on this, at least before the Horse Whisperer column appeared. Ferrari after all isn't usually shy when it comes to politics! But as I said in a reply above there no doubt will have been all sorts of stuff going on behind the scenes, perhaps Ferrari was doing most of its fighting there?

  4. Great article. As a fan I am enjoying this year’s racing. Kimi and Alonso pushing until the last laps. Vettel chasing Lewis down till the end in China. It’s anyone’s race until the end, unlike the processions of a few years ago. Everyone gets the same tyres…deal with it.
    Red Bull are just a bunch of moaners, as evidenced by Vettels comments over the radio. A False sense of entitlement. Schumacher’s comment LY was correct. He knows how to win; now he needs to learn how to lose.
    The diff between Lewis and Nico last race shows it’s not just tyres, its driver style and car setup. Lewis had the big lock up into the 1st corner, driver error ruined his race. Vettel tried to hang onto a 3 stop strategy for too long. RB made an incorrect call, simple.
    Interesting point about Article 12.6.3. F1 being so competitive, I would expect a protest from some teams if the tyres change for the benefit of others.
    Clark, Hill, Fangio, F Cevert, G Villeneuve, JYS, ...Vettel will never be mentioned in the same class as those greats, no matter how many points or WDC's he gets.

    1. Thanks very much. Interesting what you say about Red Bull. There is of course a lot to admire about the team. But I agree too there does seem to be a rather unpleasant sense of entitlement that runs through many figures there.

      I think you're being harsh on Vettel though, in my view his status as a great driver is assured!

      Good point you make on Lewis and Nico too. It seems to have been ignored that when Lewis said on the radio in the Spain race that 'I can't drive any slower' he was refusing to lift through turn 3 to save tyres as Nico had been doing. Maybe Lewis refusing to do this contributed to his poor result?