With refuelling banned since 2010, in FIA’s pursuit of an injury-proof motorsport, the tyre strategy became one of the deal breakers for Formula One champions – and a thorn in the foot of the losers. But is Pirelli to blame for the unpredictability of the 2012 season – and is that really an issue?
Pirelli returned as the Formula One tyre providers after featuring in the 50s, 80s and 90s, when they were the choice of a selected few; now they are compulsory for all.
The requirement for a single tyre provider was introduced by the FIA in 2007, for “closer racing and reduced testing and development costs” (Formula 1 website) Since all teams have the same sets of tyres to their disposal throughout the season, a move from one provider to another could be considered a cosmetic change. Yet, the less durable Pirelli compounds, compared to their predecessor Bridgestone, have been fingered by the drivers as the main reason for the seven different title winners in the current season, with not one gaining a significant advantage over others to be considered the best contestant for the 2012 Champion.
Indeed, unlike last year, when Sebastian Vettel collected his second trophy with 122 points ahead of Jenson Button in second, after eight races of this year’s season the point differences between top three range within 23 – less than the amount of points granted for finishing first (25). The constructors’ championship is a similar story, with a consistent performance interlaced with underperformance of the leading teams. At the beginning of the season Michael Schumacher vividly criticised the tyres, claiming they were too difficult to handle:
“I had to drive at a pace to manage the tyres to finish with tyres left over,” he said after the Bahrain GP in which he finished 10. “We should question whether that should be the case.
“It’s unsatisfying and not what a Formula 1 event should be.”
But since Pirelli tyres were introduced last year, it was on this compound that Sebastian Vettel beat his way through to victory, race after race.
Another question is whether the unpredictability of the 2012 season is actually a bad thing. After all, surprise winners (see Maldonado in Barcelona or Alonso in Valencia) and thrilling battles (like Schumacher v Webber where Schuey, thanks to a fresher set of tyres won himself a place on the podium) is what makes the headlines and attracts even more paying audiences; a single title winner surely pleases their fans, but makes for a boring and irritating spectacle for all the rest.
“I think what people complained about last season, if there were any complaints at all, was that the season was dominated by one team,” said Paul Hembery, Motorsport director of Pirelli in an interview for Formula 1. “Of course Sebastian (Vettel) had a great year, but the fans would have liked to see more competition – and that’s what we have this year.
“If you look back at 2010, even by the last race it was not clear who was going to win the title and that was the kind of championship that we need again. Then the fans will follow the series.”
With more restrictions and bans introduced every year by the FIA in the name of safety, the sport finds itself in a dangerous place where it might be left with only the most devoted fans, with others losing interest of races lacking in action and drama. Once the refuelling strategy was what made Formula One champions: teams had to judge the amount of fuel that it would take the driver to do a required amount of laps without weighing down the car, and effectively slowing it down against the competitors, and balance it with the correct timing and number of pit-stops to create a winning formula. The new tyre rules are a worthy substitute to refueling, banned two years ago: in dry conditions each driver has to use both compounds: prime (harder and more durable) and option (softer and less resistant to tear, but providing more grip on the track, effectively increasing performance) during a race. Above that, the top 10 in the qualifying session have to start the race on the same tyres they set their lap times on. Therefore the team has to work out a strategy of what tyres to use throughout the weekend and when.
” I think the public has to be more aware of how close the racing is this year and that even the smallest mistake is being sternly punished. If you get a wrong pit call it has a huge effect, or if you make the smallest error on the track you go to the back,” said Paul Hembery. “[In] every championship you have to maximize the package. That means maximizing the performance that you get from every component and the tyres only happen to be one of those. Of course it is also true that tyre management is crucial in every racing category that you perform in.
“[E]ach team did something a little bit special at every race to get their victory. There is not one thing that everybody is doing that can be duplicated.”
In the May interview Paul expressed a belief that by Silverstone the teams will already have a good understanding of the 2012 Pirelli management and the Championship leader-board will start shaping up more clearly. We will soon find out whether he was right and which one of this season winners – if any – will collect another trophy at the British Grand Prix.