Pirelli’s F1 Casino: Not Quite Roulette but a Tough Game of Poker

Posted: May 19, 2012 by thevillainf1 in Insights

As we continue to enjoy one of the closest seasons in recent history, criticisms are still mounting on what the Pirelli tyres have brought to the sport. It is a subject we have touched upon a few times alraedy on backmarkers F1 and as the story develops and we are seeing more quotes from drivers and key team personnel about the tyres – some positive some negative, sometimes even both in one quote – this debate is not about to die down soon. Again, it’s not a slight to Pirelli to be writing some criticisms about the effect of the tyres on this years’ racing, they are doing a good job providing the tyres they believe F1 has asked for, but as I discussed earlier I just don’t agree with their interpretation of our requests.

We wanted tyres that degraded enough so that they forced the teams into  2-3 pitstops per race. I don’t recall anyone asking to make the tyres so tricky so that they have a very tiny sweet spot when it comes to operating temperatures, as this is the key variable which has given us the wildly fluctuating car performances in the past 5 races. I recently read a quote by Christian Horner saying  that “I doubt Williams really know why they were so strong,”

Car setup as a key skill

Now I don’t mind that if a team absolutely nails their setup that they would end up with the best car of the weekend. Setting up an F1 car is a key component for any race weekend so teams should definitely reap rewards from finding the right balance. However it is looking increasingly like the teams just sort of have to luck into the right balance for the car. After all, if teams had unlocked the key to finding a good setup for these Pirellis, wouldn’t at least this years’ 5 race winning teams be able to reproduce the procedure and nail the setup every time? Instead we have teams go from being dominant one week to fighting for the final points around 10th place the next week. This to me is showing more and more that the conditions on the day, especially the track temperature, the amount of rubber laid down and the track surface are the key performance differentiators. Not the car, not the engineers and not even the driver to a certain degree. This is why to me F1 is becoming more like a lottery than anything else.

Driver performance as key differentiator

You could argue against the point of drivers not making much of a difference, as we have seen a few teams with big performance gaps between their drivers, most famously of all at Ferrari where there’s not a gap but a grand canyon, but also at Mclaren and Williams in Spain for example. A driver skill will always have an impact on the results even if they were driving on durex rubber but still, it has always been said that what separates the truly great drivers from the merely good ones is the extra mental capacity they can dedicate to thinking about the race, their pace, their lines, the strategy and the moves they are making outside of ‘just’ driving a car on the limit. Some people have to devote 100% of their mental capacity to fulfilling a task, while others can ‘cruise’ through using only 80% for instance. You see this in daily life tasks as well. It’s pretty much widely acknowledged that nowadays cars are not driven on the limit except for that one lap burst in quali (which reduces that mental performance importance since the ultimate focus only needs to last about one and a half minute instead of a full race).

While performance gaps between drivers will never get completely erased unless you start putting them on rails, this tiptoeing around to protect the tyres is reducing the inherent performance gaps between the drivers based on their pure racing skill, throwing yet another key traditional performance differentiator out of the window. A telling quote after Maldonado’s win is that from early on in the race his engineer was telling him ‘Drive to the tyres’ and not something like PUSH and make a gap to Alonso, or drive your heart out to win this one. No, what was needed – and which Pastor did very well- was smooth driving, gentle inputs, racing on eggs as Schumi would say. While the result was satisfying, the racing itself, the car banging around the track was not. During the whole of Sunday we saw none of the qualifying heroics where Pastor did have to hustle the car which provided some fireworks.

 Tyre management as a key skill

Others will argue that tyre management is a key skill for a driver and again to an extent that is true. In essence it is not wrong to expect of a driver to know how to manage his tyres, what I’m holding against Pirelli is just how much a driver has to change his driving to preserve his rubber. More than anything else tyre management has become the key driving skill. Even then, how much skill is there involved and how much is due to the tyres’ characteristics is a point to be considered? Even Button, the man known throughout his career for being probably the best tyre manager on the grid can on some weekends not protect his rubber at all, as we saw in Barcelone and Bahrain. This to me shows there is more luck involved than driver skill when it comes to making tyres work.

Usual suspects still on top of WDC

Another argument against the lottery idea is that despite the fluctuating results, we still have the usual suspects leading the WDC with Vettel, Alonso tied and Hamilton in third. This is of course true and a valid point, but while Pirelli has a big impact on the races, it doesn’t mean a shit car will be able to beat a good one. A Caterham or Toro Rosso just does not have the basic pace, tyres or not, to be challenging for the win. Yes, F1 is not a pure lottery where anyone can win, and that’s not what any sensible person is claiming.

Roulette and Poker

These 4 arguments I have just tried to deconstruct show that yes, tyres are not the end all be all, and car and driver performance still do matter, but it’s the degree at which Pirelli has reduced the importance of these basic motor racing elements which irks me. To me, F1 2012 is not a game of roulette as if luck is all that matters, but it has become like a game of poker, where superior skill will tend to have the best poker players come out on top, but the foundation of the game is still pure luck and the way the cards fall on the table.

The key point to understand is this:  there is nothing wrong with Pirelli and their rate of degradation, we asked for and we got multi pitstop races. I am not claiming that it is just a lottery, the argument is more complex than that,  some skill and expertise is obviously still needed.In 2012 Pirelli they did a good job bringing the different compounds closer together to encourage diverging strategies. However they did go too far in making the tyres so delicate to operate. It must be possible to engineer tyres that can take some good punishment yet still degrade at this rate. Perhaps they need to make the cliff even steeper, tyres you can push like mad for 20 laps which then totally drop off, now that would make for some fun racing and strategizing. That, or reintroduce refueling of course…but that’s another pet peeve of mine to be discussed elsewhere.

  1. JourneyTH says:

    1. Plenty teams are finding consistency in their car setups. Sauber has been fairly consistent all around with the one fringe success taking place in rain conditions. Lotus is very consistent. Red Bull are jumping from one end to another only because of the upgrade packages that keep changing their not-winning-anymore car. Hamilton is plenty consistent – on the pace in qualifying and not exactly there in the race. Yes, track temperatures and rubber play a very important role in racing now, but they never quite get around to shaping the entire field – that’s precisely why we probably won’t see two Saubers on a podium in Monaco.

    2. Maldonado hasn’t been just an excellent tyre manager – he was super quick. At every point in qualifying and race he was a lot quicker than his teammate. As for the tyre management thing, well, if the fact that drivers aren’t capable of building twenty second gaps to those following them (and, look at both Pastor and Fernando, or Kimi, or Romain and you’ll see that they still are) – well, if that’s a problem, then, I’m sorry but I don’t think much’s going to be done about that. The fact is – Pastor was on a faster car than Fernando but was still kept under pressure due to tyre degradation – I don’t exactly see a problem with that.

    3. Clear patterns – Seb does it, Mark can not exactly do it. Still evident in 2012.

    4. I agree

  2. KielF1 says:

    I really don’t think the tires are the sole factor and certainly aren’t the biggest contributor to this ‘lottery’

    All the cars are very closely and evenly matched. This is an unusual year where one team hasn’t built a car that works in every set of conditions we’ve come across. Like 2011, 2004,2002 etc. Instead we have cars that are very closely matched and as a result changing track conditions will suit one car more than another, which is why we have had the order changing up. We haven’t had a race in comparable conditions yet.

    What we have this season is a pot of 7 teams. Ferrari, McLaren, Red Bull, Lotus, Williams, Mercedes and Sauber who can win races. But in reality on a set weekend we will only have 2 or 3 of those teams fighting it out. This is due to like I said, the changing track conditions and teams screwing up in quali ie Lotus and Kimi in Bahrain meaning cars are out of position.

    I don’t think it’s the fault of Pirelli. I think it’s a combination of a very tight field brought about by the banning of the EBD bringing the front back to the midfield, and changing track conditions.

  3. For me tyre management has been taken too far this season, Pirelli should have kept the compounds roughly the same as they were last season. The WDC should be won by the best driver in a competitive car, not the guy who nurses his tyres the best.

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