Tyre-d of F1?

The key discussion point among Formula 1 teams, drivers, fans and media in 2013 seems to be tyres. The debate, which started during the course of the 2012 season, is whether Pirelli have got things right with their rubber. There’s barely an expert out there who hasn’t already expressed an opinion; some argue that “Pirelli have done what they’ve been asked to do”, while others think that “this is not real racing”.

Although it might sound contradictory, I actually agree with both statements. For me, it’s not an either or choice between the two extremes. Indeed, I’d argue that the assumption on which the debate is built on – that we need tyres that degrade more quickly in order to spice up the on track action – is a flawed one. Formula 1 can’t take a simplistic view of a problem, as I believe it has done in the past, because the result is likely to be an imperfect solution that could result in further problems. This is precisely the situation that we now find ourselves in.

Fernando Alonso (Renault, Michelin tyres) leads the 2005 Bahrain GP ahead of Michael Schumacher (Ferrari, Bridgestone tyres)

Fernando Alonso (Renault, Michelin tyres) leads
the 2005 Bahrain GP ahead of Michael
Schumacher (Ferrari, Bridgestone tyres)

To fully understand why we now find Formula 1 in a position where drivers are complaining that they can’t push to the limit of their cars for fear of damaging their fragile tyres we need to look at the recent history of tyres in F1. If we look back to 2005, the penultimate season of the tyre war between Bridgestone and Michelin, we had a situation where tyres had to last the whole race, with no tyre changes allowed during a grand prix (other than because of a puncture, for example). This meant ultra hard and durable tyres and pit-stops only to refuel the car. This resulted in tactical racing driven by fuel strategy.

The one set of tyres per race rule didn’t last beyond the 2005 season, during which we saw the farcical United States Grand Prix at Indianapolis, where only the six cars using Bridgestone tyres were able to start the race due to safety concerns relating to the Michelin tyres at the banked turn 13. Michelin only competed in one further season in Formula 1 before withdrawing from the sport at the end of the 2006 season, leaving Bridgestone as the sport’s sole tyre supplier between 2007 and 2010, when the Japanese firm also withdrew from F1.

Refuelling was banned because of incidents like Felipe Massa driving off with the fuel hose still attached at the Singapore GP in 2008

Refuelling was banned because of incidents like
Felipe Massa driving off with the fuel hose still
attached at the Singapore GP in 2008

With Bridgestone as the sole tyre supplier the teams effectively got what they were given in terms of tyres. Bridgestone, with no competition, were free to continue to supply durable tyres that produced pretty consistent grip and degraded slowly; a good advertising platform for their road tyres. Unsurprisingly, tyre related pit-stops were few and far between, and refuelling continued to drive tactics and strategy until it was banned from 2010.

This meant that, in Bridgestone’s final year in Formula 1, we had durable tyres, no refuelling, with one pit-stop races very much the norm. As overtaking in Formula 1 was extremely difficult because, for aerodynamic reasons, it was hard for drivers to follow each other closely, we had fairly processional racing. Something had to change, and it did with the arrival of Pirelli as the sports role tyre supplier from the 2011 season.

The DRS system on the 2012 Mercedes W03 By Morio, via Wikimedia Commons

The DRS system on the
2012 Mercedes W03

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. We now generally see two or three pit-stops for all cars during each grand prix and, because of the different car and driver characteristics, tactics and tyre choices, more overtaking. Overtaking was also boosted by the introduction of the Drag Reduction System (DRS) at the start of 2011, which allows drivers who are within a second of the car in front to reduce drag by opening a flap in their rear wing at designated sections of each track, increasing acceleration and top speed.

So, now we find ourselves in a situation where there is overtaking in Formula 1, but that there is criticism that it is too artificial. DRS certainly receives some of this criticism, but the majority of the flack has been aimed at Pirelli. The Italian tyre manufacturer has, in each of the three years it has been supplying F1 tyres, produced rubber with wear characteristics that are more and more extreme, with drivers having to conserve their tyres, not pushing flat-out for fear that the tyres will “fall off the cliff” – a characteristic where the Pirellis simply run out of grip.

What would Michael Schumacher have thought of the 2013 Pirelli tyres?

What would Michael Schumacher
have thought of the 2013 Pirelli tyres?

Last season, seven time world drivers’ champion Michael Schumacher described driving on the Pirelli tyres as like driving on “on raw eggs”. He elaborated on this point, explaining that the tyres were, in his view “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”.

The situation is even worse in 2013, with the Mercedes cars of Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton, in particular, struggling with some extreme tyre wear. Mercedes are by no means alone in struggling, though, with Red Bull Racing being quite vocal in stating that the Pirelli tyre wear left them unable to show the underlying pace of their car. Indeed, some of the “overtaking” which has resulted from the faster wearing Pirelli rubber is, in fact, artificial given that drivers are not fighting each other for fear that they will ruin their tyres and cost themselves time. When one driver is effectively waved through by another it’s not really overtaking.

So, returning to the point that I made in my opening paragraph we are in a situation where Pirelli has delivered what they’ve been asked to deliver, but in doing so has given us more overtaking, but artificial racing. Pirelli have clearly gone too far with their 2013 tyres, but the Italian manufacturer is an easy target for critics. If you look beyond the obvious and remind yourself of the sport’s recent history – as I’ve tried to do in this article – you can see why we have arrived where we are now. The real blame, however, must lie with Formula 1’s governing body, the FIA, which sets the sport’s rules.

Surely it would have been better to continue with more durable tyres and introduce a mandatory number of pit-stops in each race, perhaps during specific parts of the race, as has been done in series like GP2. Drivers could race hard, and there would be a guaranteed number of pit-stops in each race to keep things interesting and create opportunities for strategy to be used to facilitate overtaking through pit stop phases of the race. Although this would address the tyre wear issue, the underlying problem in F1 would be unresolved.

Senior figures like FIA PresidentJean Todt have lots to answer for

Senior figures like FIA President
Jean Todt have lots to answer for

As I’ve already mentioned, the fundamental issue with modern Formula 1 cars: their aerodynamic characteristics do not lend themselves to running closely together, meaning that overtaking is incredibly tough. The FIA has come up with “band aid” solutions like DRS and fast wearing tyres without, in my view, addressing this issue. As a result we have racing that is seen as artificial, Formula 1 drivers that are unable to race and push the limits of their machinery, and ridiculous situations like the Pirelli/Mercedes/Ferrari tyre testing controversy that erupted at the recent Monaco grand prix.

All of this is a turn off for F1 fans. Don’t get me wrong, I still wouldn’t miss a race, but I find myself distinctly underwhelmed by the Formula 1 of 2013. Surely it’s not beyond the technical geniuses of Formula 1 to come up with a properly thought out solution to these issues? In any case, the sport will be undergoing some significant changes in 2014 with the advent of the new turbocharged era. I’m looking forward to the unpredictability that the 2014 regulation change will bring, but I do worry that the underlying issues will remain.

Whatever the case, I can’t help but feel that 2013 will be dominated by tyre controversies. With Pirelli’s contract up for renewal at the end of the season, F1 could find itself in a situation where the Italian manufacturer decides to walk away. The sport would only have itself to blame.

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F1 rules: Deeply floor-ed

So, last weekend brought with it the news that the FIA had indeed ruled that Red Bull Racing’s floor design, with fully enclosed holes in front of the rear wheels, is illegal.  The team will now need to make changes to the design for next weekend’s Canadian grand prix.  As is usually the case in Formula One, there are various different interpretations of the rules and what is, and what is not, allowed.  This is all part of the sport and, as fans, part of the show.  Which team will come up with the best ideas?  Which cars will develop the fastest?  Which design will be ruled illegal?  I’ve got no problem with any of this, but this latest ruling from the FIA has highlighted to me, again, the huge inconsistency with which the sport’s governing body applies its own rules and the strangeness of some of those rules and some of the penalties that are applied.

Let’s start off with the Red Bull floor design that’s now been ruled illegal by the FIA, despite being previously deemed legal.  The Milton Keynes based team has reportedly used this design since the Bahrain grand prix some three races ago, but it only really attracted attention at the last race of the season in Monaco.  F1 followers will recall the discussions before the race about the floor design, with Ferrari, McLaren and Mercedes unhappy with Red Bull’s design and looking set to protest the race result.  In the end this did not happen, apparently because the FIA had asked the teams not to protest formally, promising instead to look at the design and produce a definitive ruling about its legality before the Canadian grand prix.  This, of course, means that the results in the three races, during which Red Bull used a design which has now been ruled illegal, stand.  In my opinion it is absolutely right that the results of the Spanish and Bahraini grand prix should remain unchanged.  There was no debate about the legality of the Red Bull at these races, and to retrospectively amend those results so long after those races would, even if the rules allowed it, risk making a mockery of the sport.  Monaco, I believe, is a totally different matter, however.

As I’ve already mentioned, there were questions about the Red Bull floor design even before the race in Monaco, a race that Red Bull’s Mark Webber won, with his team-mate, Sebastian Vettel, finishing fourth.  While the Red Bull design will not deliver a huge performance advantage over the designs of rival teams, the fact that there was a question mark over the cars legality at Monaco should, in my opinion, have resulted in a protest of the result, which would have forced the FIA to rule there and then whether the Red Bull design was legal.  If it was not legal, as has since been proved to be the case, then both Webber and Vettel would have been excluded from the results of the race, dramatically changing the championship standings (McLaren would lead the constructors’ championship, and Fernando Alonso would have a bigger lead in the drivers’ championship, with Webber falling from joint second to sixth).  This being the case, the other teams may well regret their decision not to protest the result come the end of the season.  If it is true that the FIA discouraged the teams from protesting the race result in Monaco because, as is rumoured, they did not want to retrospectively alter the result of the grand prix then, in my view, this makes more of a mockery of the sport than any post-race change to the results.  Don’t forget, the race results are provisional until the cars have been through scrutineering.  If cars are found to be illegal as part of the scrutineering process they can be excluded from the race result (although it is important to point out that the Monaco scrutineers did pass the Red Bull cars as legal).  This has happened in the past, but perhaps the most recent parallel we can draw is Lewis Hamilton’s exclusion from the results of qualifying in Spain because his McLaren team had under-fuelled his car.

In Hamilton’s case, his car had only been in breach of the regulations because it would not have been able to provide the mandatory one litre sample of fuel had he returned to the pits instead of stopping out on track.  This means that Hamilton’s car was perfectly legal in Q1, Q2 and the first part of Q3 during which he set a time which would have seen him qualify sixth.  However, as a result of the fuelling infraction, which I would argue is minor, Hamilton was excluded from qualifying completely, meaning that he started the race last, rather than first.  Now, if it was perfectly acceptable for the stewards to adjust the results of qualifying after the fact, why was it not equally acceptable for there to have been the potential for the Monaco race results to be altered after the fact, as they could have been if there had been a formal protest of the result (or, indeed, had any of the cars failed scrutineering)?  It’s important, I think, to highlight that Hamilton’s car was only ‘illegal’ at the end of Q3, while both Red Bulls were ‘illegal’ throughout the Monaco race weekend (and, as it turns out, for the whole of the preceding two race weekends).  Red Bull avoid any penalty and win the race in Monaco, while Hamilton is excluded from qualifying and robbed of the chance to challenge for victory in Spain.  Not really fair, is it?

Mercedes DRS. Image © Morio, via Wikimedia Commons

Let’s now move on to compare the Red Bull floor situation with the Mercedes DRS protest from earlier in the season.  You may well remember that, following lengthy discussions about the legality of Mercedes AMG’s innovative ‘double’ DRS system, the Lotus team decided to protest the results of the Chinese grand prix, which was won by Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg.  As we all know, the FIA ruled the Mercedes system to be completely legal, totally rightly in my view, both before and after the protest.  However, if the stewards had ruled the Mercedes design illegal following the Lotus protest, Rosberg would have been excluded from the results in China (his team-mate, Michael Schumacher retired early on in that race), and Jenson Button would have inherited the race win.  So, if it was OK for Lotus to protest the China result, albeit unsuccessfully, why was a similar protest apparently discouraged in Monaco?  It’s precisely this sort of inconsistent approach to the application of the rules that annoys fans in all sports, not just F1.

Inconsistency in the application of the rules is one thing, but in my view the powers that be in F1 need to take a serious look at some of the rules and, more specifically, the penalties associated with infractions.  How, for example, can it be right that Lewis Hamilton is totally excluded from qualifying in Spain due to under-fuelling, yet Williams driver Pastor Maldonado receives only a 10 place grid penalty for appearing to deliberately drive into Sauber’s Sergio Perez in Monaco free practice (his second such penalty in two years).  Which of these infractions is more serious or dangerous?  I think that you can probably guess what my answer would be.

I think that the FIA also need to have a rethink about the pit lane drive through penalty punishment.  I can see that it’s appropriate where a driver has caused an avoidable collision and, perhaps, taken another driver out of the race, but what about other cases where this punishment is applied?  Gaining a position by cutting a chicane is often penalised with a drive through penalty, as was Sergio Perez for a late pit lane entry in Monaco.  In cases like this, which I would judge to be more minor infringements of the rules, is a drive through penalty – which can completely destroy a driver’s race – really appropriate?  In my view, there must be other punishments that the rule makers could devise to better make the punishment fit the ‘crime’.

In my view, the inconsistency in the approach of the F1 powers that be in similar cases (dissuading a protest in Monaco, but allowing one in China, for example), is really frustrating, as is the lack of a sliding scale of punishments to fit the severity of the ‘offence’.  The FIA need to take a long hard look at the rule book, and the way in which stewards apply the rules, to come up with a system that is both more consistent and more flexible.  How they might do this, I’m not so sure; that might be why I’m just a fan, and not the head of the FIA.