The Return of Pirelli and the Asteroid Attack
The return of Pirelli to Formula One has generated news headlines across the world, with a number of F1 drivers voicing safety concerns on the back of high degradation rates and the resulting discarded rubber which is littering the track. This is a massive change from the Bridgestone tyres of the previous season that could last for a whole race distance if required.
So what are the real differences between the two tyre manufacturer’s offerings and what changes will Pirelli be making in the coming races having built up more experience of the sport after a twenty year break.
Learning from Bridgestone
Bridgestone became the sole tyre supplier in 2007 after the withdrawal of Michelin and were asked by the FIA to ensure that cornering speeds were kept to a minimum. The tyres they produced stuck to this by the letter with a low grip product which was well within Bridgestone’s comfort zone. This meant that tyre degradation was incredibly low, a fact which went unnoticed until re-fuelling stops during races were banned for the 2010 season.
Fans began to realise that the main reason drivers had been pitting during races in the past couple of seasons had been to benefit from the optimum fuel strategy by having a lighter car at various points during the race. Tyre stops were therefore only necessary because of the regulation requirement to use both hard and soft tyres during the course of a race. This was made painfully obvious by Sebastian Vettel during the 2010 Italian Grand Prix where he pitted for soft tyres on the penultimate lap of the race and actually made up time and positions by doing so.
However, despite Bridgestone’s years of experience which had helped them to produce these tyres, the 2010 Canadian grand prix proved that they could still make mistakes. The tyre they took for that weekend’s race was far too soft for the abrasive Montreal circuit and tyre wear became an issue for the first time in years. This resulted in one of the best races of the season, with drivers that were kinder on their tyres hassling drivers who had been less conservative. Strategy was all important in this race which was hailed by fans and journalists alike as a revelation.
Pirelli were therefore asked by the teams and the FIA to produce a tyre which was purposefully higher wearing, similar to the Canadian tyre. This was not an easy task as Pirelli hadn’t produced an F1 tyre for twenty years and the design was therefore mostly guess work.
The first batches of 2011 tyres were given to the teams to test in the winter tests in Spain prior to the start of the new season. Drivers were shocked at how high wearing they were, with the biggest concern being the layer of marbles on the circuit which were produced by the new Pirelli tyres shedding rubber. Some observers at the track complained about large marbles flying off the tyres even on the straights and being almost like an asteroid attack.
However, F1 bosses were delighted and gladly proclaimed that Pirelli had produced exactly what had been required. The opening couple of races have confirmed this with strategy once again becoming the key to a successful race and overtaking much more prominent.
This didn’t ease the concerns of the drivers who were still complaining about the amount of rubber being discarded on to the track with Force India driver Paul Di Resta claiming that he had been struggling to hold onto his wheel in Malaysia on the fast corners as large bits of rubber had been flying off his tyres and hitting his hands. Di Resta’s concerns were added to when Renault’s Vitaly Petrov ran off the track due to the littering of rubber at the fast turn eight and suffered a terrifying airborne incident.
Bridgestone managed to produce tyres which so perfectly matched the stated requirements due to their vast experience of the sport which encompassed many eras and many different tyre requirements. Pirelli have almost been firing blind and it is hardly surprising that the tyres are not yet perfect.
The three big challenges that Pirelli now face are the Turkish, Monte Carlo and Canadian Grand Prix’s which are famously abrasive and demanding on tyres. The Italian company are not going in unprepared and have been testing new tyres out with a 2009 Toyota F1 chassis at the Turkish circuit.
The tyres they are producing for these races will therefore be much harder, with the hope being to maintain degradation rates at the current levels which Pirelli consider to be optimal. However, this is another difficult balancing act and Pirelli Motorsport director Paul Hembery has admitted that the tyres they have produced for these events may be too conservative:
“One of our worries is that the new range we are working on may well be too conservative. While it was quite fun seeing Perez do a one-stop in Australia, when you actually think about it, you know that the people who are trying to do a two-stop are now trying to work out how he did a one-stop. Then, before we know it, we are suddenly back to a one-stop in F1.”
This suggests that Pirelli believe the onus for reducing tyre wear actually lies with the teams. We can therefore expect the tyre used during these three Grand Prix’s to be very conservative and perhaps a return to the Bridgestone one-stop days is not out of the question. However, the hope is that we will then see a welcome return to the high degradation Pirelli rubber after these events.
The biggest problem is the marbles left on the track by Pirelli’s rubber which are a safety concern. Fernando Alonso summed this up when he was asked about the problem following the Malaysian Grand Prix:
“There is some concern for places like Canada, Singapore, Monaco, that you catch a lapped car, they let you past, you go inside, you take some marbles and then on the next corner you miss the braking point and you go straight.”
This issue has improved since the winter tests where the marbles produced were much bigger and were actually a safety concern for spectators. These much smaller marbles are only a problem to the drivers, as unlike the larger chunks, they are being picked up by the tyres which are causing the problems to which Alonso refers.
The fact that the situation has improved could be an indication that the problem could be rectified before the end of the season, but the reality is believed to be somewhat different. The basic construction and design of the tyre may have to be fundamentally changed to address this which would not be possible until 2012. If this is the case, then the drivers will likely push for the company to continue with the harder compound tyres being designed for Turkey, which would see a return to one-stop racing. This would be a massive blow to the sport, and perhaps the marbles are something that the drivers should accept in exchange for more entertaining races.
This post was published by Mark Martin, who works in the marketing department at moneysupermarket.com. Mark is an avid motor sport enthusiast and takes a keen interest in developments within the tyre world which could affect racing.