There’s more to this mess than meets the eye. That’s my over riding thought in all this Pirelli furore.
Here’s the crux.
Pirelli was asked to make less durable tyres for 2013. It duly delivered. Not everyone was happy with this, Red Bull in particular taking umbrage to the new spec and decrying from an early point of the season the shift in racing philosophy that these tyres demanded.
There’s an interesting angle to take on all this. Some teams clearly designed their car around the tyres and the running they made on the development models late in 2012. Lotus and Force India, particularly, can be grouped in this camp. Many other teams designed a car to exploit the technical regulations, but found to their detriment that the new specification of tyre could not put up with the abuse the mechanical grip of the cars demanded from them. More fool them you might say. Certainly that’s the line the likes of Force India, Lotus and Ferrari took when refusing to assuage to the desires of their rivals and see a mid-season shift in tyre construction following their disparaging comments after the Spanish Grand Prix.
Safety, of course, was the get-out clause used at the time to allow a mid-season shift. The interesting thing is that the tyres themselves actually seemed safe. The failures we saw up to Silverstone involved the tread coming away from the carcass, but the carcass itself remained in tact. The steel belts, used for 2013, were blamed. Cheaper and heavier than the Kevlar they replaced, the steel belts also increased the transfer of heat through the tyre. This affected thermal degradation, but also the bonding of the tread to the tyre. So Pirelli altered the bonding.
Then we had the failures at Silverstone where the tyres ripped themselves apart. This, it could be argued, was due in part to the new bonding process. Pirelli has also laid the blame with reverse fitting, a process whereby teams this year have switched rear lefts onto right and vice versa, lower than suggested pressures and greater than suggested camber angles. The kerbs also played their part.
I find it fascinating that we now face a situation where, in Hungary, the fix that was suggested post Spain will be the fix that is imposed upon the sport. Now, the teams that stood against such change will no longer have a voice, not only because those teams have said they will not stand against the change but because the rules have been shifted mid-season to allow Pirelli to make changes on the grounds of safety without unanimous agreement.
The safety argument is an interesting one, too. Pirelli insisted in its release this week that the tyres are safe when used within suggested parameters, but regardless will make an interim change for Germany (Kevlar belted rears) and a wholesale shift for Hungary (2012 construction with 2013 compounds.) Interestingly all teams will test these new tyres at what was the Young Driver Test at Silverstone. All, with the exception of Mercedes, banned from the YDT after conducting their own, and who have said they will not attend despite it no longer being the YDT. If we’re dealing with safety grounds, you’d have to ask how safe it is for Mercedes to run in Hungary on tyres they haven’t tested. But that’s an aside.
What has been most interesting of all in this has been the role of the FIA President Jean Todt. The quiet President, who has focused so much of his attention away from F1 in his tenure, is finally making noise. A lot of noise. His name has been prominent in all communication on this subject. But why? Why now? Shouldn’t he have dealt with all this long ago?
Again, there are two arguments.
The first is the pessimist’s view. A long supporter of Michelin, the doubters will argue that Todt didn’t want to make Pirelli’s life any easier. The ridiculous in season testing regulations, the lack of availability of a current car for Pirelli to develop its tyres with, the lack of support from the governing body in all regards. And then, this week, as Pirelli insists its tyres are safe, the FIA, on safety grounds, unilaterally changes testing regulations and tyre testing regulations. Was this a case of the FIA and its President flying directly in the face of the statements of its F1 tyre supplier and saying that they didn’t believe their product to be as safe as they claimed?
Furthermore, is rushing a newly designed tyre through really the best course of action? If Pirelli says the tyres are safe within the parameters they have established, would it not be simpler for the FIA to impose these parameters on the teams? Again, is the FIA making life too hard on Pirelli although I understand that such a move is now being discussed?
The second argument could be even more political. Jean Todt always said he would run for one term as FIA President. Elections will need to take place later this year for a new President, and discussion on this topic has been incredibly quiet. The F1 teams have, for a long time, demanded greater freedom from the control of the FIA in the running of the sport. They have wanted to make the rules and for the FIA to uphold them.
Perhaps Todt’s silence over the last few years has been to enable the teams to do just that. But this whole mess has ultimately been caused by the teams failure to agree, based upon their own self interest generated by their competitive instincts rather than a unified vision for the furtherance of the sport. Perhaps this is Todt finally taking the power back. The teams have had their chance and they’ve blown it.
With re-election to a post he said he’d only hold for one term now looking more and more likely, is this the emergence of a stronger, more vocal, more hands on FIA President? Is this the return of power politics in F1?
Ultimately, the Pirelli situation could be about far more than tyres. Its result could be the re-election on a stronger mandate of a hard line, hands on FIA President. If this whole mess has taught us anything, it is that, perhaps, that’s what the sport needed all along.