After the first four flyaway races, we’ve had four different winners, some excellent races and a high level of competition, but currently within F1 there seems to be a bubbling undercurrent of gripes and grumbles about the present state of the sport. Some drivers are making it publicly known (the two Mercedes drivers being the major ones) that they are not entirely happy with the way they are going racing on the tyres that Pirelli are providing to them, Michael Schumacher even comparing them to ‘raw eggs’. His teammate Nico Rosberg, despite becoming a Grand Prix winner for the first time using these same tyres, has noted that F1 is a somewhat different sport now to what it classically has been.
What is interesting about these remarks, and the other negative mentions that the drivers are sending the Italian firm’s way, is that it is probably the first instance in the near 18 months of the ‘Pirelli era’ that there is the potential for a large outcry against the intergrity of the tyres that Pirelli are producing. The main aspect that is under question is that many drivers, engineers, fans and journalists feel that the 24 F1 drivers are not able to push to their own or their car’s limits at any point during a race, as doing so will adversely affect the tyres and by default their race. They are living in fear of the tyres ‘falling off the cliff’, rather than being in control of it.
Now to my eye, putting the drivers in control of tyre wear and making teams work their strategies around their particular flaws or strengths was Pirelli’s own remit when building the control tyres for F1. We all saw how good the Canadian Grand Prix was in 2010, where Bridgestone’s normally more conservative compounds were replaced with a softer set that when combined with the more abrasive tarmac at the Circuit de Gilles Villeneuve, made for more ‘edgy’ tyre wear and accentuated differences between drivers in how they used their tyres and the strategies that were borne out of that. However, drivers were still able to push hard in the race, knowing that the tyre itself was still sturdy enough to withstand some quicker laps at the expense of ultimate grip later in the stint. Pirelli saw that race and stated they wanted to emulate that in their own compounds. The 2011 season showed that quite well. The Pirelli P-Zero’s were different in style to the Bridgestone Potenza’s they replaced, but achieved similar results to the Canada-spec tyres from 2010. Pirelli achieved this by making the tyre wear more mechanically, meaning that there was less of a chemical reaction between the rubber and the road. This also meant that the track would not ‘rubber in’ as much as before, so tyre wear would not improve as the race went on, save for the improvements that a car with less fuel than at the start would naturally have. The tyres seemed a little peaky in the first couple of races, but largely by the time the circus moved on to Europe the teams had mostly got on top of any problems they were having.
By the end of the season tyre wear and ‘the cliff’ were for the most part non-issues, and Pirelli said that this had to be addressed for the next season, despite the fact that we had still seen excellent racing in the latter half of the year when tyre wear and management was not as crucial as in the first half. This was not on, said Pirelli and they sought to make the tyres even more ‘edgy’.
We have now arrived at a point where aerodynamically, smaller diffusers and overtaking aids like KERS and DRS have made racing in close company much more attainable (I shan’t say easy as following each other at F1 speeds is something beyond most of us). This was evident through 2009 when the massive double diffusers were not fully omnipresent on the grid, and in 2011 as well when drivers were in similar phases of tyre life. So why won’t Pirelli make a tyre that is easier to lean on, that gives drivers a chance to push during a stint, like for example Michael Schumacher’s own wunder-stint of qualifying laps in Hungary 1998? Or even Mark Webber’s excellent work to secure his first win at the Nurburgring in 2009, overcoming a drive-through penalty with some incredible laps.
Lewis Hamilton’s race in Bahrain is an interesting place to look at why Pirelli should look at tougher tyres. After having two nightmare pitstops, Hamilton was further back in the top 10 that his car and pace throughout the weekend should’ve had him, but he had no chance to regain any of that lost time, because if he were to essentially go too fast, his tyres would shred to bits and he’d have to pit again. Now this ‘too fast’ is not way over the limits of either Hamilton’s talent, or his car. Both can go quicker. The tyres can’t. The tyres are now a limiting factor in a race, where they should be a liberating one. A liberating tyre allows for both good and bad usage of the tyre. A driver is able to push his car and tyres to the limits in order to exact a particular strategy or idea (ala Schumacher all those years ago at the Hungaroring), or he gets too heavy on his pedals and wears them out through driving too hard. That is down to the driver, not the tyre. The tyre is a tool for expression, whereas these current Pirelli’s are oppressive.
We may very well have visually exciting races, but under the veneer of ‘classic Grand Prix racing’ is something that’s very… deceitful. On these Pirelli tyres you will never see a classic charge from the back/from an error. You will never see a driver hounding another for lap after lap (just look at how Raikkonen only got one real shot at overtaking Vettel, because he was then forced to look after his tyres… after one chance!). You will never see a driver truly flex his muscles and go on a super stint of 110% pace and effort. But you will see pass after pass purely because the driver ahead has reached the point on the tyre where the grip just fades… just like that. Why put the effort in on Saturday for qualifying when you can aim to start 11th and get some extra sets of fresh tyres?
None of what we have currently is truly exciting. It may seem like it, but to me there’s no lasting joy after a 2012 F1 race, whatever my driver and team allegiances. And to have a tyre company have an entire championship in it’s palm like that is just plain wrong to me. There are drivers becoming gradually disillusioned because they are unable to do what they have been training to do practically their entire lives… drive at the limit.