Falling Out of Love with Pirelli?
Go back to 2011 and everyone seemed to be in love with Pirelli. It was a season that featured entertaining race after entertaining race, for the first half of the year at least, even if the championship itself failed to live up to their heights. Now, four races into their third season since returning to Formula One, the relationship seems to have cooled, with a growing group criticising the tyre supplier. So what has changed?
The main change in the past three years has been a shift from a pair of tyre compounds where one offered a distinct pace advantage to a situation where one presents a distinct disadvantage in terms of degradation. It’s a subtle difference because the prime tyre has always (for the most part) been the slower but more durable of the two compounds supplied each weekend.
Think back to 2011 – a season dominated by the use of the softer of the two compounds to the point where it felt the terms “prime” and “option” were allocated the wrong way round. The reason was that the advantage in pace of the softer, option tyre outweighed the shorter lifetime, which was occasionally negligible. At any rate, it was not enough to dissuade teams from making an additional pit stop for fresh, fast tyres. The racing was often spectacular, occasional chaotic but there were mumblings that a closer balance between and pace and durability was needed, in order to present a true choice of strategy rather than simply trying to reduce the impact of having to run the slower, prime tyre.
2012, however, probably saw that balance swing too far as the prime tyre now became the de facto compound of choice. With much more rapid tyre degradation, accompanied by a steep drop off in performance at the end of a tyre’s useful life, preserving tyres became more crucial than outright pace. Indeed, in the race there was often little difference in pace between compounds as drivers fought to extend their stint on the softer, option compound as far into the race as possible.
This year, that situation, for the first three races at least, seems to have been pushed even further. In China in particular, the allocated soft compound was little more than a qualifying tyre – Lewis Hamilton switched to the harder tyre after just five laps of the race, Mark Webber made a tactical decision to ditch his brand new set at the end of the first lap!
That prompted a late change of mind by Pirelli for Bahrain. Originally announcing that the soft and hard compounds in their range would be available, the Italian company switched to a combination of medium and hard. It was a move that was widely criticised, with conspiracies flying around that they’d been pressured in to the switch by one team or another, depending on who you listened to.
However, in the end, Pirelli’s decision was probably borne out by the result: a predomination of three-stop strategies, punctuated by some careful drives via two trips to the pit lane and some unplanned fourth stops for others. Moreover, there was notably variation in how the two compounds were used, which performed much more closely. It was approaching the scenario we wanted – note Romain Grosjean overhauling Paul di Resta late in the race thanks to the option tyre – but also suggested that the soft compound would have once again been too soft. It wasn’t perfect but from a tyre perspective an improvement on the situation in Shanghai, especially bearing in mind that Bahrain isn’t exactly famed for its thrilling races anyway.
So what can Pirelli do to improve things? From an entertainment point of view, Pirelli should have nothing to answer for, it’s certainly less artificial than DRS which has generally been accepted. However, Pirelli need to close the gap between being held back by a slow tyre, as in 2011, and the more recent need to tiptoe around the track, in order to open up both strategies as an option, or at least make it less clear which is the optimum route. However, one key hurdle, as Pirelli likes point out, is that they only have four compounds to play with.
However, the main thing to remember is that whatever the behaviour of the tyres, the racing has been vastly improved since Bridgestone’s monopoly of the sport. Perhaps we should be more grateful for what we have.
Credit: Pirelli Tyres