Their brief was to create tyres that make Formula One more exciting – but in their third season as sole supplier has Pirelli taken things a little too far?
Pirelli took a gamble when they decided to come into F1. They committed to making tyres that were not as good as the best tyres they could make because that was what F1 decided it needed to spice up the show.
To the uneducated, Pirelli knew that it would look like their products couldn’t cope with the job but their view was that they would be able to educate everyone watching Formula One about why that was the case.
Tyre design basically involves compound and construction and changing these two elements changes the way the tyre performs – but there is always a balance between performance and lifetime.
It’s the same in all elements of F1 design, there are always limiting factors and compromise.
Right now, however, F1 has reached the point where the tyres are the absolute limiting factor and that is something that has riled Red Bull and many of the drivers in the paddock.
Red Bull’s issue is simple. They have designed their car to be as fast as possible – as you would expect a Formula One car to be designed – but the new tyres simply don’t allow them to get the car to perform at that level.
In fact, they are now losing races because their car is so fast.
The amount of downforce the new Red Bull has allows it to go through the high-speed corners faster than any other car on the grid – but the tyres cannot cope with the lateral forces this high speed cornering puts through them and if they do that pace they quickly wear down the Pirelli rubber.
In Australia, their car simply could not cope and Sebastian Vettel went from first to third during the course of the race.
In Malaysia, Mark Webber admitted to running at around 80 percent of his potential pace in the race because if he went any faster he would have ripped his tyres to bits. Vettel was doing similar – and although he did win, his winning margin was far less than the car deserved because he could not race it to its full potential.
Others, however, argue that you design to the rules and your knowledge of how to manage them.
Lotus have done just that, focusing on the mechanical elements of their design to deliver a car that is kind on the tyres and allows them to last longer in races. Sure, it may not give them the fastest car out there, and they may never get a pole position in 2013, but in certain conditions it gives them what they need to win.
Tyre management is no new thing in F1 and the success in the sport has always been about a combination of driver, car and strategy (be it managing tyres, fuel or both). While not always in that order, it has always had an element of each.
Early indications from this year, however, suggest the influence from the tyres is going beyond the right balance, even reaching a point where it completely negates the influence of the different drivers.
Engineers and drivers believe tyre wear is now purely limited by the way the car works its tyres, and whether the driver is good or bad at tyre management makes no difference.
For the drivers, it’s frustrating, and Mark Webber is one of the most outspoken about the situation.
“You watch Rafa Nadal and Roger Federer play each other and it’s playing with the lines, with precision for a five-set match,” he said in Malaysia. “The (F1) racing is completely around nursing and trying to make the tyres survive. They are not conducive to driving a car on the limit. Generally no drivers are really on the limit today.”
But it doesn’t have to stay that way.
Pirelli have four different tyres available to choose from for each race – super soft, soft, medium and hard. So far, they have made aggressive choices for the first few races – meaning the tyres they are providing are on the limit for the particular track and conditions.
Comments from Australia suggested the cool temperatures made the supersoft/medium compounds that were chosen too brittle, meaning they gave little turn-in grip and that caused the contact patch on the front tyres to rub, slide and tear while the rears would grain.
In Malaysia, the medium tyres most teams used in qualifying lasted just a few laps before going off and even the hard tyres were degrading so quickly that conservation mode had to come in as soon as they were bolted on. The drivers admitted they were not pushing hard at all.
Pirelli have rebuffed suggestions of switching back to 2012 rubber – totally impractical in any case, given that much of the 2013 product will already have been produced. But if they take a more conservative approach in their tyre choices, perhaps the drivers will again start to have more influence and maybe flat-out racing could return.
At the end of the day, though, F1 asked for entertainment – and whether it’s flat-out or not, the Pirelli era of F1 has certainly delivered on that.