It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…The last two Formula One seasons have been largely driven and controlled by two main factors, tyres and aerodynamics. One might argue that both of these have actually influenced F1 for much longer than just two seasons. The use of aerodynamics and all things that aid downforce such as the double/triple deck diffusers, flexi-wings, F-Ducts, Coanda exhausts etc… have had a massive impact.
Tyres however have had a similar impact. One could go back to the days of the tyre war between Michelin and Bridgestone to see how influential the right tyre or compound could be. The last two seasons however, tyres have been at the center of controversy. The FIA had requested Pirelli to spice things up with tyres that wear out quickly and drop off in performance. Pirelli did just as they were asked to do. Actually, they’ve done an outstanding job when one considers the limited testing time and antiquated resources they were afforded. Pirelli’s aggressive tyre selection for GPs made for a very entertaining and unpredictable 2012 season. Seven different winners in the opening seven rounds of the championship and a title chase that went down to the wire in the final round.
Some (fans and drivers alike) did not care for the new tyre spec. The idea of managing tyres did not and does not appeal to some. Those who believe that Formula One should be about driving at the limit at all times, are disappointed. Having said that, it’s not the first time in which teams and drivers have been forced to be clever and manage resources. Ask Prost who was the master of fuel and tyre management, or Mansell who collapsed trying to push his car to the finish line after running out of fuel.
2013 has been a different season by contrast. It may have started with an element of unpredictability, like a box of assorted chocolates without a picture guide, but a melt-down before mid-season has made everything stale. Tyre failures have caused Pirelli to abandon its 2013 tyre construction and return to something similar to its 2012 spec. Kevlar belted tyres. In addition to this change, Pirelli also made an adjustment to their aggressive tyre selection philosophy. Perhaps it was this adjustment which has had the biggest impact on the season.
Red Bull seemed to be struggling with original Pirelli tyre choices for Grand Prix, which played into the hands of Lotus and perhaps Ferrari to some degree. This gave fans the faint sense of hope that the season (at least for the fist half) might have had some degree of excitement. Alas, Newey and all his genius paired with the rest of the Red Bull army have again built a bullet-proof car which doesn’t seem to have an Achilles heel.
Therefore the recent complaints fans have voiced about the ‘ho-hum’ F1 season could theoretically be down to two basic factors. The first being Pirelli’s more conservative tyre choices, the second being the inability of other top teams being able to take the fight to Red Bull.
Formula One’s inability to provide a product which appeals to current fans and potential new ones can be detrimental to the sport. Loss of viewership means less TV revenue and fewer sponsors which essentially cripples teams and affects the sport overall.
What can be done?
The FIA has already made changes for 2014 that should see a massive shake-up. The emphasis may be taken off of aerodynamics and placed more along the power-plant and power-train with reliability, performance and fuel efficiency being targeted. This might help those struggling with aerodynamic performance but those who can understand how to exploit the aero best will always have some advantage. Which leads us to the next debate…tyres. While changes in construction and compound can make a huge difference, Pirelli’s biggest challenge is still the lack of testing. In order to provide a proper tyre, they need testing, lots of it with relevant resources. That includes a current spec. car for 2014. Rules have changed in this respect so it’s a matter of ‘wait and see’. In the end, it’s true that no matter what one does, it is impossible to please everyone. Formula One either has to cater to the purist fan or those looking to be entertained. Finding a solution or middle ground will prove difficult at best.
In the words of the lovable and legendary Murray Walker, Anything can happen in Grand Prix racing, and it usually does…