“Racing” Tyres

“Racing” Tyres

Any form of motorsport runs on tyres that are termed “racing tyres”. They could be more different from the ones you put on your road car; they are custom made, design and worked on specifically for the demands and needs of the particular category of racing, to which Formula One is no different. However in recent days a bit of a debate is developing whether the 2012 Pirelli P Zero tyres are indeed “racing tyres” or whether they are “please-manage-me tyres”.

Following the series of events, the first comment was made on this regard by Martin Brundle on the Sky post qualifying show. He later wrote about this feeling on the Sky Sports website:

You can click any of the quoted text in this article to read the entire article on the website it was sourced from

In eight days we have had two great races largely driven by the degradation and resultant strategy dilemmas around the Pirelli tyres. In our show I expressed an opinion that whilst I’m really enjoying the races I wouldn’t want F1 to become only about the tyres. I hadn’t realised that Michael Schumacher was about to launch a broadside at the difficulty of managing the narrow window of performance and the high drop off of the tyre grip. On the journey home I was talking with two F1 drivers, a world champion and a multiple race winner, and they had very similar concerns to Michael in that they can’t push the cars anywhere near their limits. ‘Physically my granny could drive the race’ quipped one to underline how far away from the limits they are.

Here’s what Schumacher actually said:

“The main thing I feel unhappy about is everyone has to drive well below a driver’s, and in particular, the car’s limits to maintain the tyres,” said the veteran German ace. “I just question whether the tyres should play such a big importance, or whether they should last a bit longer, and that you can drive at normal racing car speed and not cruise around like we have a safety car.

Schumacher’s opinion is perhaps one of the most respected in the paddock. Whether you like it or not, he is the most successful decades and has experienced the sport through almost two decades, through its various developments. However, one must respect the circumstances in which the comments were made.

Schumacher had driven a race from 21st on the grid to 10th. It was certainly was a good drive, he fought up an unbelievably competitive and close grid (no easy task even with a fast car, Button struggled in Malaysia) and there were no safety cars to help him. However, it comes down to driver sensation as well. Schumacher clearly felt he could push his car and extract speed from it without hurting the tyres hence hurting his chances to move forward. It’s a catch 22 paradox. Push hard to make up places, go fast, then fall back when the tyres fall off or just trundle along at a set “optimal” pace that isn’t much faster than the car infront, despite the fact the your car is indeed faster.

It’s also important to note Schumacher isn’t the first person to criticise the lack of ability to push the car to the limits. This reminds of the quote Mark Webber gave in China 2011 when he came up the field from 18th to an incredible 3rd. He called the racing then “less intense” and “less satisfying” when talking about overtaking with a tyre advantage + DRS but he also said this after Spain last year:

“We still need to be the pinnacle,” Webber said. “We need to be able to push the cars to the limit throughout a grand prix and have very strong lap times, man against machine. “Pirelli are working hard but we need to make sure the degradation and pace is still of a sensible magnitude and the cars can be put on the limit and not get too far on the showbiz side of things.”

Pirelli’s response

Pirelli’s response to the issue I believe is certainly the right one. Note that they were asked to do this. The close racing and overtaking we’ve been seeing recently is a direct consequence of their tyres and their return to Formula One last year. Many times after the end of races I find myself going “Thank you Pirelli! These multiple tyre strategies and close racing is brilliant”.

The situation was much the same early last year which saw even 4 stop races but then as the teams understood the tyres more progressively through the season, the situation calmed down. Ferrari’s head of race operations Diego Ioverno believes that much the same will happen this year. Talking to AUTOSPORT he said:

“I would expect in three or four races that the field will be more spread,” he said. “The top teams will go away and the others will stay the same, because the top teams can develop their car more. But saying that, understanding tyres is much more difficult this year, so anything may happen.”

One fact however is becoming clear: the tyres are harder to understand this year. Jenson Button said:

“Last year, we knew the tyres had high degradation but we understood them. This year, I don’t really know what to make of the tyres, but it’s not an excuse because other people are doing a good job on them this weekend.”

Before we egregiously start blaming Pirelli for “making the races a lottery”, we should realise that they are mostly the reason behind the racing us fans are loving. Furthermore, it is still a meritocracy, as I explain later in the article. They were specifically asked further at the end of 2011 to make the tyres such that they were still a surprise for the teams. Looks like if anything they’ve done too good a job!

Personal Opinion: Importance of “Pushing The Car”

I tweeted my opinion a few days ago and after putting some thought into it, my belief remains the same:

Managing tyres whilst driving fast is part of driving skill. However, I respect the importance of being able to “push the car” and not trundle around at a “best compromise” pace.

The best example of this importance comes from the man involved in this recent issue- Schumacher. Hungary 1998. Schumacher was running well behind the arguably faster McLaren’s of Coulthard and Haikkenen and finishing behind then would finish his championship challenge. It was “all or nothing”. Ross Brawn and Schumacher went for an aggressive 3 stop strategy, where you could visibly see Schumacher absolutely pushing the limits of the track to go unbelievably fast to outpace the 2 stopping McLarens.

As a young F1 fan, that was what Formula One was all about. A driver showing his prowess by pushing the machinery he’s provided to it’s absolute limits to win against the circumstances. And I was an arden Mika Haikkenen fan!

By now you can appreciate the problem. You could either have close racing with these tyres every race or go for that one magic performance perhaps once a year. Many would choose the first choice. Most would love to have both. I don’t know how or if that’s possible. The people over at Pirelli headed by Paul Hembery are clearly very clever and I wish they can provide that.

I’m going to conclude by quoting Paul’s response:

“The season so far has been fantastic: we’ve had four different winners and four different championship leaders,” Hembery told AUTOSPORT. “So the competition has never been closer and part of that is down to the fact that everyone has exactly the same opportunities and challenges with the tyres. “It is down to them to make the best of it. Formula 1 has always been a meritocracy; in the end the best engineers and drivers will always succeed.

That is certainly true. The tyres are the same for every single team and every single driver and it’s up to them to extract the best out of what’s provided. In those respects, F1 is a meritocracy.

THe question is: has the balance swung far too much on tyres with their strategy and gone away from the protagonists of the show- The finest drivers in the world? Time and the following races will make the situation clear. I’d like to hear your comments below.

  • Robinducker7

     Schumi is right. This is no longer the F1 of a few years ago when you had refuelling and the racing was composed of three all-out blasts with the cars having at most 20 laps of fuel on board with the fastest laps towards the end of a stint and not at the beginning. This is the racing of holding back for fear of falling off the tyre cliff. It’s not fun.  we have Pirelli enter the argument to say that “we gave you what you asked for”! Well, no actually that is very very misleading. What they gave F1 was tires that don’t last  but cant be driven within 95% of their potential without going gooey, or, tires that never get warm enough on some chassis to get traction and then wear out because of insufficient grip. This year the Pirelli is worse than last and that is what Micheal is upset about.

    So, the call becomes, “well some teams make the tires work”! Well, no they don’t, which is clearly why we have had 4 different winners from 4 races.