Tyres are one of the most important components of a Formula One car. Being the only four contact patches of the car with the ground, tyres are instrumental in a car’s performance and now that fuel stops are gone, a car needs to come into the pits only to change tyres making them strategically important in races. A typical pit stop on average costs a team around 20 seconds of time which is quite a lot and if a car is too heavy on it’s tyres – like Mercedes was last year – it could spell disaster for a team’s strategy.
Pirelli returned to Formula One after a period of 20 years in 2011 when Bridgestone decided to quit, citing the economic downturn at the time. The 2010 Bridgestones were notorious for their prolonged longevity on track leading many teams to follow just a one-stop strategy in races thus making them a processional affair. The tyres did not wear away over a period of time and this added to the stale nature of racing. Pirelli attempted to rectify that in 2011 when they introduced their compounds. The tyres had high degradation and went “over the cliff” after a few laps. Hence, a car on newer tyres could easily catch up with a car on older tyres in a few laps if the latter didn’t pit. Though this spiced up the racing along with the introduction of DRS, Pirelli hasn’t been spared criticism either. Michael Schumacher famously claimed last year that driving on the 2012 Pirelli tyres was akin to driving on – “raw eggs” – the point being that the drivers could not extract the maximum out of their car because they had to manage their tyres in order for them to last longer. While Mercedes did not get over their tyre issues last year, the top teams like Red Bull, Ferrari,McLaren and Lotus had similar degradation levels thus evoking no criticism from them.
This year however the situation is slightly different. In Australia, Sebastian Vettel was able to peal away at the start in characteristic fashion and had 1.5 second lead immediately; thus demonstrating the fact that Red Bull had an insanely quick car. However, as the race progressed, Kimi Raikkonen of Lotus and the Ferrari of Fernando Alonso were able to jump Vettel due to better tyre degradation from their cars. The Red Bull was revealed to be heavier on it’s tyres prompting scathing criticism from the world champions and a call to revert to the 2012 Pirellis. But since they were the only teams complaining at that point, Pirelli chose to ignore their comments. At the Malaysian Grand Prix, Red Bull’s Mark Webber – inspite of his anger over his team mate disobeying team orders – showed what kind of a team player he is by taking a swipe at the Pirelli tyres. The point he was trying to make is that if the tyres were longer lasting, the team needn’t have taken a decision to turn the engines down to control the race, thus preventing the team orders fiasco that ensued. Webber claimed that they were having to run at less than eight-tenths a lap slower ( an eternity in F1 circles ) to manage their tyres.
Pirelli state that they will not review their tyres until after the Bahrain Grand Prix. But this is beginning to feel repetitive: Every year, some team is unhappy over the tyres while some (Sauber for instance) are extremely good at managing the tyres. The problem lies with the ban on in-season testing. Teams are unable to gather too much data on the tyres due to the ban and hence have to rely on free practice sessions and even races to gather more data on the tyres. Usually, by mid season most of the front runners will have run enough data models to understand the tyres and then the protests will eventually die down. Even though I am all for drivers pushing to the limit lap after lap, I also need the tyres to degrade after a while and not see processions of cars running behind each other with no possible overtakes. So for now, I feel Pirelli have done a good job with the tyres. The racing is spiced up strategy-wise and there are a lot more variables at play here. Formula One is not supposed to be simple and with this format, we know that whichever team does a good job at managing all parameters in race strategy deserves to win.