The heated debate over a radical mid-season change to this year’s tyres has left a sour taste in the F1 paddock – but will minor modifications set for the Canadian Grand Prix end the arguments?
Red Bull has been criticising Pirelli’s high-wearing 2013 tyres since the start of the year, claiming they are restricting all-out racing and turning Grands Prix into tyre-limited lotteries with too many pit stops and not enough real on-track competition.
Ferrari’s four-stop charge to victory with Fernando Alonso in Barcelona at the last race added fuel to the fire and presented the perfect pivot to force the tyre manufacturer into a massive competitive U-turn.
Pirelli’s remit has always been to deliver a product that would create an unpredictable championship.
Their answer was in high degradation tyres that, combined with DRS, aimed to deliver wheel-to-wheel action, overtaking a-plenty and highly unpredictable results.
And so far it has worked very well.
In Pirelli’s first year, Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull won six of the first eight races after the German driver visited the Pirelli factory in the winter and quickly understood how he could benefit from the ‘sprint’ tyres they planned to produce. But Pirelli was quick to react and brought in a new harder compound tyre to ensure plenty of action.
For 2012, they decided they had made it “too easy” in their first year and went more aggressive, making the tyres softer and reducing the performance gap between each of the options. The result: the tyres were so hard to manage that the first seven races were won by seven different drivers in four different teams.
Then people started to say it was too unpredictable.
At the time, Jenson Button warned: "Initially it was great for the fans and the sport but there will be a time when the fans will say 'so anyone can win or lose a Grand Prix just like that.’”
That, however, did not happen because the teams got used to how to manage the tyres and strategies became so predictable that all teams followed them.
So Pirelli upped the ante again for 2013, making the compounds even softer and changing the construction with the aim of making them work in a wider temperature range and degrade more predictably.
So far, we had three winners in the first five races - but the controversy has grown because the new tyres have firmly positioned tyre management as the primary factor in deciding races.
For purists, F1 should be about the ultimate perfection, about the best car and driver winning the race. But in a digital era where sports fans have fast-changing focus and demand drama and action in spades, Formula One must move with the times.
In the past, unpredictable events such as mechanical, electrical or hydraulic failures could be relied on to cause retirements while missed gears, locked brakes, flat-spotted tyres and even driver exhaustion and brain fade could all result in overtaking opportunities.
Things have become so professional nowadays that mistakes are limited. Reliability amongst the top teams should be a given (and I say should because of Ferrari’s issues this year) while drivers are so well trained, focused and fit there is little opportunity for error.
That is exactly the reason why Pirelli was asked to introduce this latest phase of ‘natural’ unpredictability through tyres that are unable to cope with the performance of the current F1 cars.
As Pirelli boss Paul Hembrey said recently, without that, there is a risk that F1 could quickly get back to processional races. Pirelli did not want to make the change, but there was clearly a lot of political manoeuvres behind-the-scenes driving the conversation.
That was clear from the comments made by Hembrey himself.
On May 13, he said: “It’s pretty clear. There is one team who will benefit from a change and that is [Red Bull].”
But one day later he said: "There have been concerns from some of the teams that the changes will favour one team or another, but we don't think that will be the case. These changes are being made for Pirelli, not for anyone else. We need to get the balance right.”
Red Bull’s argument that it is wrong they have the fastest car and their drivers cannot use it to its full potential has been carefully constructed, with comments from Vettel such as: “We are not going to the pace of the car, we are going to the pace of the tyre."
But you could argue that they have simply not designed their car to the rules, that its designers have missed the point.
There have always been limitations in F1 – and this season teams like Lotus and Ferrari have understood that they lie within Pirelli-defined boundaries and have put significant effort into making their cars mechanically friendly and easy on tyres.
Yes, Barcelona saw most teams take a four-stop strategy, but that kind of strategy has been done before and nobody has blinked an eye. The fact that Barcelona is one of the toughest circuits on tyres has also been rather easily overlooked.
Formula One has always been one to take the knee-jerk reaction, but fortunately this time the FIA have used their powers to block radical change and instead only allow minor changes aimed at improving safety without altering performance.
That decision should ensure that the 2013 season continues to be an exciting competition rather than a Red Bull domination.
And that is exactly the right decision for Formula One. Thank goodness sense prevailed.