While you would think F1 would be used to having to deal with fading tyres after three years of ‘Pirelli spec’ racing, criticism on the Italian tyre manufacturer has never been so loud. It is painfully obvious, even to the untrained eye, that Formula 1 cars and drivers nowadays no longer push on the limit of what they and their vehicle are capable of. Webber famously called it ‘racing at 7 tenths’. While precious few would like to see Red Bull and Vettel sweep to a fourth consecutive title, which is what Pirelli would have us believe if we’d bring back ‘Bridgestone spec’ racing, it also does not sit right that the fastest cars can’t actually exploit their prodigious speed because the tyres are such a severely limiting factor.
While Hembery shows great weakness with his often snappy and overly defensive attitude, we cannot lay all of the blame squarely at Pirelli’s feet. Sure, it does look like they went a step too far this year, with not only tyres degrading faster than an appearance on Jersey shore, but there have been a raft of suspicious tyre failures this year which Pirelli has not fully addressed yet. However, even that is not the point I want to make here.
After all ‘F1’ did ask Pirelli to re-create Canada 2010, where crazy unpredictable tyre degradation made for quite an exciting race in what for the most part were fairly boring spectacles during Vettel’s first title winning year. Pirelli was asked to deliver what are in essence crap tyres, in order to spice up the show. The number one point F1 tried to address with this was the severe lack of overtaking. For at least 2 decades now, F1 development has been dominated by aerodynamics. As the aero got stronger, so did the effect of the wake of dirty air behind the cars, which in turn made it even harder to overtake. At its peak, it was not uncommon to see those processional races Pirelli is now threatening us with – anyone remember the Schumi years? I don’t, I was asleep through 90% of the races then. I don’t think anyone wants to go back to those days where the finishing order is basically decided on Saturday, especially with today’s’ reliability records.
But are the rapidly degrading tyres really the only way forward to ‘spice up the show’? It is undeniable that the tyres do produce overtaking, but people are becoming more disillusioned with it. How many times do we hear drivers and engineers on the radio that it’s no point to defend position against a car on fresh rubber lapping 2-3 seconds per lap quicker than you? Is that really the show we are looking for. While I have my criticism on Pirelli and do not think they are doing an awesome job as some would suggest, I think the elephant in the room here is that F1 made a colossal mistake turning towards to tyres for spicing up the show, instead of looking at the root cause of F1’s overtaking problem.
The number one reason we did not see much overtaking anymore in the Bridgestone era (and before) was not the rock hard rubber, it was the aero wake making it nigh impossible to follow a rival car close enough in order to set up an overtake. When the number one cause for the lack of overtaking is well known to everybody, why do we turn to artificial measures which treat the symptoms, but not the cause. DRS, KERS, Pirelli, all would be unnecessary if F1 would just curb its dependence on aero performance.
This brings me to that other ‘artificial measure’ introduced to treat the symptom: DRS. Many purists still cry themselves to sleep thinking of the latest DRS pass where someone sails by a powerless opponent on the straight, slotting in in front of him before the next corner, and I cry with them. Again, we can fine-tune DRS to make sure that it does what’s intended: allow a car the chance to overtake by bringing him alongside in the braking zone. Still, we are only just treating the symptom. Nonetheless, DRS could go a long way to alleviate fears of processions. After all, we have never tested a ‘Bridgestone spec’ race with DRS enabled. It may very well already be enough to overcome the dirty air effect and bring overtaking back to F1 without relying on trick tyres which have the drivers cruising around 90% of the race in a desperate effort to eke out some extra tyre life, rather than fight the other guys around them.
F1 missed a crucial appointment in developing its 2014 rules. While the focus on new engines is probably a good thing for the sport in the future, and adding in another key performance differentiator other than aero, a bold F1 should have tackled aero dependence as well. Now you might say I want to ensure backmarkers F1 own Matt Ruda doesn’t end up getting a job in F1 when he graduates by banning aero altogether. While it would make me chuckle, such extreme measures are not needed. Back in the sixties teams did start bolting on wings as they discovered aero effects, but the first phase of true aero dominance in F1 focused on a whole different kind of aero to the one we are so familiar with today: ground effect…and it is effectively banned in F1 by the current rulebooks.
Ground effect sucks to cars down to the tarmac – rather than pushing them down with wings- but more crucially significantly reduces the impact of driving into a rival car’s dirty air. This way you can have the best of both worlds: the aero still ensures that cars go around corners at unimaginable speeds, retaining F1’s reputation as the pinnacle of motorsport, but it does not penalize the guy trying to overtake you behind. Sure, it would still drive up temperatures if stuck too long behind a rival car, but your grip levels would still be largely the same, opening the door to some pure overtakes again. You could see it clearly in the Spanish grand prix, the high levels of understeer generated from following close to another car in an attempt to set up an overtake. Pirellis do overcome this challenge by creating such huge lap deltas depending on where in the tyre’s life cycle a particular car is running at, but again, it’s treating a symptom, not the underlying cause.
I do not like what Pirelli was asked to bring to the sport, and I do not think Pirelli is doing the best job it can, even within the detailed brief they got from F1, but the real problem here is still being ignored. Let’s stop bashing Pirelli and attack the root cause of F1’s problems: reduce ‘wing’ aero dependence, re-introduce ground effect aero, return to ‘normal’ racing tyres. We can even keep DRS as an intermediate measure just to make sure processions do not occur. Maybe then F1 will be a real show again, with drivers pushing 100%, all of the time, rather than a Cirque du Soleil fantasy piece it is becoming.