Paul Hembery has been a bit crabby on twitter and in interviews lately. As already discussed on backmarkers F1, Pirelli’s approach to the 2012 tyres is finding some high profile detractors led by Schumacher, and Hembery chose a full frontal response to the criticism. Sure, he should be commended for his outspokenness and the passion with which he defends the Italian tyre maker, but let’s look a bit at what he is saying. Pirelli’s main line of defense against criticism of the current spec Pirelli’s is that they’re merely giving the sport what they asked for. On the face of it, this looks like a fair statement and I went along with this reasoning for a while until I started thinking about it a bit more in detail.
Canada 2010 was a watershed moment, where Bridgestones’ normally rock solid rubbers degraded faster than a young girl trying to make it in the German porn business. It produced an exciting race, and when Bridgestone’s time in F1 was up at the end of the year, F1 did ask Pirelli to provide tyres that would behave similarly in every Grand Prix. But what exactly did happen with the tyres in Canada 2010 which Pirelli was asked to emulate? Mclaren nabbed a 1-2 with a 2 stopper for both drivers. Contrary to their main rivals at Red Bull, they had qualified on the soft tyres which weren’t expected to last more than 10 laps. While they did struggle early on in the race, it was crucial that they got the soft tyre out of the way as they pitted early and could run on hards for the rest of the race. Webber arguably lost the race there by staying on hards for his first 2 stints, having to do his mandatory change for softs fairly late in the race.
Is this the trend we are seeing from Pirelli in 2012? While last years the teams opted to run as much of the race as possible on the soft tyre, that has indeed changed this year, where we are starting to see the harder compound be preferred for the race distance. Pirelli has stated it is one of their goals to bring the hard and soft compound closer to each other, so we see more strategic options emerging for the teams. To date the top 5 always qualify on the softs but for example Raikkonen’s Bahrain strategy does show tyres are having an impact on how the teams approach qualifying. Vettel also tried a different strategy in China by qualifying on the hards but in his case it didn’t pay off. We are also seeing mostly 2 and 3 stoppers during a race, still consistent with Canada.
However where the crucial difference lies is this: drivers were not actively driving to conserve their tyres in Canada, they were still gunning for it during their stints. The top runners are also mostly following similar strategies, with the odd exception here or there. Hamilton did not try to stretch out his first stint in the lead by driving conservatively against the cars starting on hard tyres, he aggressively needed to defend to maintain position against Vettel as his tyres were going off and did so. He did pit early but when he was catching up to Webber again later on in the race he did so by slapping down some fast laps. As Button tried to catch him the pair exchanged fastest laps despite being well into their final stint. Racing like that in the Pirelli era could have very well seen them both eat up the tyres with one of those banzai laps and force another pitstop.
While the tyres were degrading relatively quickly compared to what they were used from the Bridgestones, it was not a big problem for the teams to get their cars to work the tyres as they should, to find that sweet spot which is so elusive this year. This year’s sweet spot is so minuscule that from one weekend to the other a team can go from being dominant to anonymous mid fielder, and it will have nothing to do with the car’s design, but with the team narrowly missingly out on the tyres’ ideal operating window. This may not even be due to setup work which could be argued is a skill a team should indeed get spot on if they want to win, but it is in a large part determined by track temperatures on the day of the race, making the sweet spot ever more elusive and hard to predict. With this, Pirelli 2012 is making F1 more a lottery than anything else.
This point in particular shows that the tyres have too much of an impact, and that this extremely narrow sweet spot on the tyres is not what was asked of Pirelli. In Canada 2010 tyres were degrading and setup was a factor in getting them to work as it is always, but each team found that operating window as the running order was reflecting the inherent pace of the cars on this particular circuit, not the cars who lucked into finding the right tyre temps. Canada 2010 had quickly degrading tyres, but they were having the same performance impact on all the cars across the board.
Hembery should tell us so adamantly that he is merely giving us what we asked for. I’m starting to lean towards the Schumi camp to say Pirelli went too far making these super sensitive tyres. We can keep tyres’ longevity while the amount of laps the tyres last are in roughly the right spot, Pirelli needs to design a tyre that can take more punishment in that same timeframe so that drivers can actually push during stints instead of just cruising to lap times as Schumacher said.
Evidently this is not an easy task, but Pirelli likes to boast they can make any tyre F1 wants, and that’s probably true if they just put enough clever minds and resources into it. More importantly, the tyres operating temperature should be less sensitive to create a larger sweet spot’ Do that, and then Pirelli will have done what F1 is asking for.