It has been the Achilles heel of virtually every team on the grid since the start of the previous season, and the major talking point during the winter testing: the Pirelli tyre. At first the decision of the single tyre supplier for all F1 cars to create an ever softer compound for the 2013 season came as a shock, considering the issues the then new and then softer compound created on the 2012 grid, resulting, effectively, in seven different Grands Prix winners in so many races. Then, it was clarified that the decision actually came from the sport’s organising body, the FIA, to make the show more interesting in a year otherwise not very technically different to the previous one.
The three pre-season tests in Spain in February were unrepresentative of the championship races in many aspects, most significantly however – weather-wise. Or so claimed the drivers, and the team principals, and the engineers, who agreed like on nothing else that the cold in the air and on the track makes tyre testing virtually impossible. After all, most of the races in the championship calendar take place on significantly warmer circuits, apart from those prone to rain and historically bound to call for wet tyres.
The likes of Daniel Ricciardo (him especially being native to Australia) expected different conditions to what they ware faced with at Melbourne. So did Pirelli, who had made their tyre choices for the teams weeks back, and these included a prime medium compound and the new super-soft option.
Since Bridgestone became the sole Formula 1 tyre supplier in 2007 it became a rule, also after Pirelli takeover in 2010, that out of the four available dry compounds, two are made available to the teams for each race (plus the intermediate and the wets), both of which have to be used during a dry race (denoted by the stewards). By simple rule of physics, the harder compound (primes) is more durable but has less grip, and vice-versa for the softer compound (option).
Therefore, the tyre choices for Melbourne with a two-step compound difference were bound to make for an interesting first test for the teams.
“We took an aggressive approach coming here with the super softs, which are almost like a qualifying tyre – maybe lasting only ten laps in these conditions,” Pirelli’s motorsport director, Paul Hebery, explained on the Formula 1 website upon arrival to Australia. “That would force the teams to do two changes minimum – some might have to do three, but if we’d have come here with only (harder) option tyres it would have looked like a one stop strategy – and nobody wants that.”
As the Melbourn afternoon unfolded, and the drivers found it hard to balance their grip-tyre-speed ratio, it soon became obvious that this was actually a three stop race – for all but one team.
Lotus had done it previously: attempt to run a race one pit-stop shorter than the rest of the grid, and it served them well, like in the example of Grosjean’s Canada 2012, where with a one-stop strategy he finished second. Prior to the start of this season the Enstone outfit boldly claimed they will be in contention for the title fight this year, and it might well be as the upgraded car and the aforementioned tyre strategy turned their veteran driver Kimi Raikkonen into definitive winner – if somewhat surprising minding the results of the qualifying earlier that day.
The pole position holder, Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel, finished the race third, having struggled for pace and position throughout the race. Despite a good start on first laps, the gap between him and two chasing Ferraris begun to diminish quickly. The three time champion blamed the tyre-weather combination for losing the lead:
“We had a good day today with a pole and a podium – but in the race we were a little too aggressive with the tyres and lost the front and the rears, while others did a little better.
“Kimi was the only driver/car combination that could make a two-stop really work and it was quite obvious from half distance that is what they were doing.
“To emphasise that point, he did the fastest lap on a tyre that was older than we could have dreamt going anywhere near.”
Lotus’ team principal, Eric Boullier, confirmed in the post-race conference that the two-stop strategy was their aim from the onset. “After Kimi’s great start we were hoping that we could achieve a podium finish, then as the race unfolded and we saw the other teams pitting – showing that they were on three-stop strategies – our position became stronger and stronger.”
These weren’t the only players affected by their tyre choices, however; the numerous pit-stops reshuffled the front of the grid seven times in the course of the afternoon. Ill-timed tyre change robbed Massa of a potential podium finish, who for a good part of the race led his team-mate Alonso in second, to eventually finish fourth. Surprisingly, also to himself, Force India’s reinstated Adrian Sutil was in the lead for several laps until the late change to super-softs left him struggling, allowing him to only claim seventh. Whilst earlier in the day Segio Perez lost out on Q3, as McLaren’s decision to test the option compound on still wet qualifying track proved to be a costly team misjudgement for the Mexican.
Although Australian GP 2013 ran fairly uneventful, as far as first-lap crashes and dramatic retirements go, it certainly was an exciting spectacle leaving the viewers wonder – and the teams with some food for thought for the upcoming races. The average late-March temperatures in Malaysia of 28*C theoretically allow for a better tyre judgement by the teams; on the other hand, the weather forecast for next weekend suggests thunderstorms over Sepang. As was the case last year, the new compounds will probably still take some getting used to, but as the first Grand Prix winner of the season pointed out, there is still time for correction – and mistakes:
“You can’t start the season much better than winning the first race and of course we hope we can be fighting at the front of the Championship, but there’s a long way to go still and we need to keep pushing hard all the way.”