Pirelli deserves better from Formula One

Michael Lamonato Columnist

By Michael Lamonato, Michael Lamonato is a Roar Expert

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    The latest controversy surrounding Pirelli is more distraction than anything else. Image: Pirelli.

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    When asked about his tyre choice during a particularly wet and muddy rally stage, four-time WRC champion Juha Kankkunen, with a dismissively wry smile, infamously replied, “Black, round Pirelli”.

    Kankkunen was expressing the simple motorsport truth that it’s hard to get excited about tyres – and yet in modern-day Formula One Pirelli is in near perpetual spotlight.

    Pirelli has been criticised for providing tyres that are too soft, too hard, too durable and too delicate, sometimes in the space of a single season. Often disregarded is the fact that the company is beholden to the regulations, which are decided for the most part between the FIA as regulator, FOM as the promoter and the teams as the end users.

    Indeed Pirelli performs admirably given Formula One has increasingly relied on its tyres to be the key dynamic element of a race. In an era of cars that can’t follow one another and circuits that do little to promote overtaking – the weekend’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix being a prime example – it inevitably falls to Pirelli to bridge the gap. Often it’s a bridge too far.

    To the Italian firm’s credit it is constantly innovating its products, and at the weekend it launched its 2018 tyre range featuring two new compounds, the ‘superhard’ and the ‘hypersoft’.

    Pirelli believes it will be able to better target each circuit by expanding its range of tyres, ensuring low-energy tracks like Monaco or Abu Dhabi don’t become easy one-stop races because the compounds in its arsenal are designed for more conventional racing venues.

    It’s logical enough, but outrage predictably ensured.

    Formula One fans angered by Pirelli’s expanded range of 2018 tyres‘ trumpeted an Autosport headline the next morning, which set the tone for a weekend that culminated in a particularly discouraging interview conducted by Sky Sports F1’s David Croft with Mario Isola, Pirelli’s head of car racing.

    “We’ve had an awful lot of feedback from our viewers,” Croft said. “And if I could kind of sum it all up, a lot of the feedback has been … ‘Isn’t is all just a little bit confusing?’.

    “Why don’t you just name them ‘soft’, ‘medium’ and ‘hard’ and keep it nice and simple?”

    “I believe we would pass the wrong message to the spectators,” Isola hit back, “Because actually we are using different compounds.

    Image: Pirelli.

    “Don’t forget that we will have three compounds at each race anyway, so we are not generating additional confusion. We will only have more compounds available [in total], not more compounds at the track.”

    Croft, perhaps not listening, asked: “And the teams can choose from the entire range from next year, not just the three compounds that you dictate are the ones to be used at that circuit?”

    “The sporting regulation is not going to change,” Isola repeated. “We will select in advance the three compound available at each race, and then it is the same system as now.”

    “If I could be so bold,” Croft offered, “You’ve already lost half of our audience just explaining in simplistic terms what is a very confusing regulation.”

    It made for frustrating listening given that Croft, lead commentator for the sport’s largest English-language broadcaster and therefore the person tasked with bringing the sport home to the viewer, was either unable or unwilling to understand the rules – rules which will be the same as they were 24 months ago bar the introduction of two new words to his vocabulary.

    Yes, Formula One is a complex sport, but it always has been – and yet it’s difficult not to notice F1 discourse become frustratingly lazy and needlessly cynical in recent years. Rather than explain the sport’s intricacies as part of the narrative, it’s become easier to simply trash parts of racing deemed ‘too hard’.

    The difference is stark when compared to, say, MotoGP, where it’s hard to imagine legendary commentator Nick Harris berating other elements of his own sport with such bombast – he’d probably have explained the issue of the day in simple terms and proceeded to call MotoGP the best sport in the world.

    After all, it’s not as though other sports aren’t also subject to complex rules. As a Victorian I’m not ashamed to admit the rules of rugby league or rugby union are beyond me, never mind the differences between the two codes, but an intelligent television presentation and eloquent commentary can more than make up for my knowledge gaps.

    And at the end of the day that’s F1’s problem – every sport has its quirks, but some elements of Formula One are happier to abrogate their duties to the audience and the sport than to put in the required effort.

    “F1 is unique, and it marries up competitive sport to state-of-the-art technology,” CEO Chase Carey said earlier this month.

    It has been forever thus, and the faster we accept that technology will always be central part of the spectacle, the better the spectacle will be.

    Michael Lamonato
    Michael Lamonato

    Michael is one-third of F1 podcast Box of Neutrals, as heard weekly on ABC Grandstand Digital nationwide. Though he's been part of the F1's travelling press room since 2012, people seem more interested in the time he was sick in a kart ? but don't ask about that, follow him on Twitter instead @MichaelLamonato.

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    The Crowd Says (6)

    • November 28th 2017 @ 2:10pm
      Jamie said | November 28th 2017 @ 2:10pm | ! Report

      That is really quite appalling that even the commentators do not want to understand the compound changes. It puts them in a bad light because they aren’t willing to learn what the changes are and pass them onto their audience.

      Commentators are the middlemen/women in sport. They pass on commentary and knowledge to the watching public in order for the public to understand what is going on. If they aren’t wanting to understand the changes (even though the changes are really quite minor), then what’s the point of having them?

      Pirelli are only adding 2 new compounds to their range and they will most likely be one step softer than 2017. Otherwise nothing has changed! Don’t understand what is so difficult about that!

      • Columnist

        November 29th 2017 @ 9:08am
        Michael Lamonato said | November 29th 2017 @ 9:08am | ! Report

        Thanks for the comment, Jamie. I absolutely agree — the commentary position is so important, especially for a technical sport like F1, so if the commentator of the day doesn’t have an interest, neither will the viewer. Hopefully F1 will consider this when it sets up its in-house online coverage next year and chooses some enthusiastic presenters.

    • November 28th 2017 @ 4:10pm
      steve said | November 28th 2017 @ 4:10pm | ! Report

      The problem I have with the different compounds is that there really isn’t a lot of performance difference between them at most circuits. I think it makes for rather boring racing that two cars on different compounds are basically running the same lap time or near enough the same time. IMO, there needs to be at least a 1 – 1.5 second a lap difference between the different compounds at all circuits F! run at.

      The second thing that needs to happen is the tyre wear rate. That you can pit after 20 laps, change your tyres and have them perform for the next 45 laps until they fall off the cliff in terms of performance enabling you to reach the finish on one pit stop needs to change also. The drop off in tyre performance needs to be reduced as such that teams are having to gamble on stretching a run to reach the finish line or having to pit again for fresher tyres. Something needs to change so that the teams aren’t simply in a procession for 45 laps.

      • Columnist

        November 29th 2017 @ 9:12am
        Michael Lamonato said | November 29th 2017 @ 9:12am | ! Report

        It’s a good point, Steve. The tyres were definitely too hard this season — though Pirelli had to go conservative given how wildly different some of the downforce predictions were for this year, so it was always going to be an anomaly.

        By going a step softer — two steps in the case of the ultrasoft — the degradation rate should start to be unlocked, which should answer the question of tyre life and also performance differentiation between the compounds. Like you say, it’ll definitely add back in an interesting strategic element to racing and encourage those who want to race flat-out with more stops to attempt more overtaking.

    • November 29th 2017 @ 8:37am
      marfu said | November 29th 2017 @ 8:37am | ! Report

      Thanks Michael. This tyre thing seems ridiculous to me. I can’t believe they need so many compounds but there seems to be a huge disparity in wear rates between different tracks. All the compounds this year were too durable as at some races this year, some teams were able to do over half the race on the ultra softs on which they qualified which produced too many one stoppers. I feel they should have made the existing range softer and with more difference between them in performance and range rather than add more compounds. Interestingly of the 3 compounds offered each race, most teams have only been wanting 1 or 2 at most of the hardest compound which is a bit of a waste of time and effort and I would like to see a return to a choice of 2 compounds for each race.

      • Columnist

        November 29th 2017 @ 9:16am
        Michael Lamonato said | November 29th 2017 @ 9:16am | ! Report

        Thanks for the comment, mate. You’re right about the durability of the tyres this year, but Pirelli didn’t have much of a choice given they couldn’t test with the new cars before they launched. They had to go conservative, but the good news is they’re making the whole range softer in 2018 now they have a season of data to draw on. Hopefully that’ll make the softest tyre of the weekend more like a qualifying tyre again.

        I think the three tyres rule is actually a good one — last season, when the tyres weren’t so hard, it worked really well, but this season the compounds were so durable that no-one ever needed the hardest tyre. When the range is rebalanced next year, it should go back to making the strategy choices more interesting.

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