What's all the Pirelli fuss about?
There are at least two bones of contention, but the one grabbing the headlines recently has been about changing the specification of the new-for-2013 tire after only six races. Red Bull Racing has been pushing to have it changed for something more robust; most of the other teams don't want that because they feel a more robust tire would play to Red Bull's advantage. Initially, Pirelli was adamant that it would not change, but then in the aftermath of the Spanish Grand Prix, it said it was going to introduce a “new” construction for Canada, two races later. However, it will only be a minor tweak, following the FIA's clarification that tire specs could only be changed for safety reasons. Pirelli has been instructed to solve the matter by modifying the current specification of tires.
So Pirelli caved in to Red Bull?
No. The change was considered because the 2013 tires around the punishing Barcelona track caused most cars to do a four-stop race – and Pirelli doesn't like four-stop races because it sends the wrong marketing message regarding its tires' durability. It's felt that two/three stop races are acceptable. There has also been the issue of rear tire treads unwrapping themselves from the carcass when they are damaged, giving a very visible failure that sends all the wrong messages to potential Pirelli customers in the street.
But regardless of what led Pirelli to want to change, the change would favor Red Bull?
A change to a tougher tire would probably help Red Bull, yes, particularly a tougher front tire. According to Pirelli itself – which sees the data from all the cars – the Red Bull RB9 has so much more fast-corner downforce than the others, it would be dominating every race if the tires didn't apply a certain equalizing factor. A more robust tire would allow more of the Red Bull's potential to be accessed.
So how does a tire do that? How can a tire prevent the fastest car being the fastest when they are on all the same tire?
By having a tire that cannot support the forces generated by the fastest car. The Pirelli tires are unusual in that, beyond a certain point, the faster you go, the faster you destroy the tire and this has been apparent at the more demanding fast-corner tracks ever since Pirelli first came in as the F1 control tire supplier in 2011. Teams with the fastest cars have often had to take downforce off them – actually making them slower – in order to find the optimum trade-off between outright speed and the stint lengths necessary for the best stop strategies. It has had the effect of bringing the very fastest car back down to the level of being merely competitive, applying a certain artificial leveling.
So why is it a big thing all of a sudden this year?
Because for 2013 Pirelli introduced an all-new construction which has proved more extreme. It felt that the sequence of one-stop races we had toward the end of last year indicated that teams had now got on top of the challenge of the tires and had found a way of getting durability. Pirelli says that part of the task it accepted when it was chosen to supply F1 was to ensure unpredictability by having multi-stop races. It doesn't therefore like one-stop races but – for the reasons already explained – it doesn't like four-stop races. In order to hit the two/three-stop target, Pirelli felt it needed to introduce a tire that was more challenging for the teams to make last. It has certainly succeeded in that.
So some teams have adapted to it better than others?
Yes. Essentially the same traits as before have been amplified. The Lotus and Ferrari were already good on tire usage last year. Red Bull was less so, Mercedes even worse. On the 2013 tire, the Lotus and Ferrari race day advantage over Red Bull seems to have increased on any tracks where the generic limitation is the outside front tire – this was apparent in both China and Barcelona, the two front-limited tracks we've had so far, and exaggerated in Barcelona by the faster corners.
But the Red Bull is still fast. It has won two of the five races up to Spain.
Yes. It's simply that it is not as fast as it would be were the tires able to withstand higher downforce loads without wilting. And it appears that on tracks like Barcelona with lots of long, high-speed corners, the Lotus and Ferrari have more usable performance over a race stint.
So Lotus and Ferrari have been rewarded for having designed cars with Pirelli tire usage in mind rather than the best theoretical high-speed downforce?
Actually, It's not clear that they have "designed" their cars with that in mind rather than simply stumbled onto it! Here's what recently departed Lotus technical director James Allison said of his car's easy tire usage last year:
“Certainly, suspension design and getting the suspension to work well with the tires have always been priorities with us and perhaps we have paid more attention to that than other teams, I don't know. But no, we have certainly not put a ceiling on the downforce we are trying to achieve with the car. We are always trying to maximize that. No one knows how all the different cars work. You just hopefully have a good idea of how your own works and then you see how that compares on the lap time when you get to the track.”
So Lotus, by its own admission, has got as much downforce as it could possibly find and Red Bull, by Pirelli's admission, has a lot more. Rather than having been cleverer than Red Bull in understanding the demands of Pirelli tires, it's more a case of the traits of the Pirelli tires happening to have come toward the already existing traits of the Ferrari and Lotus, rather than those of Red Bull. That was already the case but, with the 2013 tires, it would seem even more so.
So you could say then that the Pirellis in general have rewarded technical mediocrity and punished excellence?
That would be a very provocative way of expressing it.
Regardless of how intentional it was, shouldn't Ferrari and Lotus be rewarded for having cars better suited to the tires that were provided? The tire specifications were given to everyone at the same time, after all…
Perhaps, yes. But, as we've already said, the motivation for Pirelli changing the tire spec from Canadian Grand Prix onward is not to help Red Bull. That is the last thing it would want to do. It is simply that the answer to the problems Pirelli believes it faces – too many pit stops at Barcelona and four very visible tread unwrapping incidents at Bahrain and Barcelona combined – happen to be an answer that inadvertently might help Red Bull (and Mercedes) and “punish” Lotus and Ferrari.