Formula 1 designers and teams spend a lot of time, energy and money designing, building, testing and racing their cars. They all share the same goal; to produce a car that’s the class of the field, able to blow away the competition and deliver drivers and constructors world championships. The cycle of design, build, test and race is a continuous one, going round year after year as the teams seek to innovate and maximise the opportunities for speed allowed in the regulations. There is, however, one element of their cars over which they have very little control: the tyres.
Before 2007, during the tyre war years, Michelin and Bridgestone battled it out to create the fastest rubber for their respective teams. Following the controversial 2005 United States Grand Prix – where only six cars (those using Bridgestone tyres) started the race after the teams using Michelin rubber were forced to withdraw due to safety concerns relating to the tyres at the banked turn 13, after an unexplained tyre failure for Ralph Schumacher during practice – Michelin soon withdrew from the sport leaving F1 with a single tyre supplier. With Bridgestone as the sole tyre supplier between 2007 and 2011 the teams effectively got what they were given in terms of tyres. Bridgestone, with no competition, were free to produce ultra durable tyres that produced pretty consistent grip and degraded slowly; a good advertising platform for their road tyres. However, this type of tyre produced highly tactical racing, with little overtaking and fuel strategy often the determining factor until refuelling during races was banned from 2010.
From 2011 Pirelli took over from Bridgestone as Formula 1’s single tyre manufacturer, supplying rubber to all 13 teams. Pirelli entered the sport with a very clear brief: design, build and supply tyres that degrade more quickly and produce more exciting racing. Pirelli have certainly fulfilled that brief, moving the sport away from the situation it experienced with highly durable Bridgestone tyres following the end of the tyre wars. The tyres are now less predictable and drivers have to conserve their rubber, not pushing flat out for fear that the tyres will “fall off the cliff” – a characteristic where the Pirellis simply run out of grip and need to be changed. Logically, this will favour drivers with a smoother, less aggressive driving style. Indeed, as we have seen, Sauber’s Sergio Perez has benefitted by being able to conserve tyres the longest managing fewer stops than other drivers to move himself forward during races.
Recently, though, the Pirelli tyres have been criticised, by none other the seven time world champion Michael Schumacher, for not allowing drivers to drive flat out and push. When interviewed recently by CNN Schumacher described driving on the Pirelli tyres as like driving on “on raw eggs”. He said of the Pirellis “I just think that they’re playing a much too big effect because they are so peaky and so special that they don’t put our cars or ourselves to the limit…I don’t want to stress the tyres at all. Otherwise you just overdo it and you go nowhere”. Although Schumacher has been very vocal in his criticism he has been very much a lone voice thus far. You can, though, understand his frustration. For aggressive drivers like Schumacher and, one would assume, Lewis Hamilton, the Pirelli tyres must be particularly difficult. Schumacher and Hamilton both like cars that move around a little at the rear, a characteristic that is likely to be harder on tyres, which must compound their frustration when combined with their racer’s desire to push hard.
The problem with the Pirellis, in my view, is that for aggressive drivers, like Schumacher and Hamilton, the extra time that they would pick up by pushing themselves, the car and the tyres to the limit, is insufficient to balance out the time penalty that they would receive because they would need to pit more often. Now that the teams are fairly used to the Pirelli tyres an element of the unpredictability that made the racing so exciting when they entered the sport has gone. We’re now into a time management/conservation game which, ironically, could actually make the racing dull if the situation continues over a number of years.
For me, the last thing that we want is for F1 to be about tyre conservation. Don’t we want to see drivers pushing to the limit, challenging themselves and their machinery? As Schumacher has said, they’re just not able to do that with the current crop of tyres. I ask myself how some of the drivers of the past would have managed on these tyres. If I pick two great drivers from the past: Gilles Villeneuve and Ayrton Senna – both of whom we recently remembered following the anniversaries of their respective deaths – they would almost certainly have hated driving on the Pirelli tyres because of their aggressive and spectacular driving style. Would we ever have seen great driving displays like the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix where Senna got faster and faster, building up an incredible 55 second lead over his team-mate, Alain Prost, before crashing out on lap 67? I think the answer is probably “no”, because drivers are not able to push hard enough on the Pirelli tyres to go, as Senna said of his qualifying display at Monaco in 1988, “well beyond my conscious understanding”. In contrast, drivers like Prost, himself a four time world champion, and famous for his incredibly smooth and precise driving style, would probably have quite liked the Pirellis tyres as they would play to his strengths. Ultimately, different drivers with differing driving styles will benefit from tyres with characteristics that suit those different driving styles.
I don’t mean to be unfairly critical of Pirelli, who have done what they’ve been asked to do. Their tyres, along with KERS and DRS have certainly helped to make the racing more exciting in recent times. I do, however, think that it would be a massive shame to deprive F1 fans of the more aggressive style of driving of Villeneuve, Senna, Schumacher and Hamilton and the sorts of supreme displays of on the edge driving that we saw from Senna at Monaco in 1988. I hope that Pirelli, and the sport, can get the balance right.