Perception is everything in latest Pirelli controversy

Michael Lamonato Columnist

By Michael Lamonato, Michael Lamonato is a Roar Expert

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    A Williams mechanic registers Pirelli race tyres at the Hungaroring racetrack, near Budapest, Hungary, Thursday, July 25, 2013. (AP Photo/Bela Szandelszky)

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    When the tiniest of margins can count for so much in Formula One, it’s unsurprising that 0.4 millimetres of tyre tread became a major sideshow at the Spanish Grand Prix.

    Pirelli’s tyres have attracted a wide range of controversy in Formula One from the moment the Italian company won the contract to become the sport’s control supplier from the 2011 season. Lost in the sledging is the fact that Pirelli operates in Formula One under the guidance of the sport itself, which has directed the company throughout its tenure to make rubber compounds to suit particular purposes.

    At first Pirelli’s brief was to construct high-degradation tyres, but over time the instructions have been tempered down to create compounds that enable drivers to push harder for longer.

    The current brand of tyres is still manufactured to have a limited life span, however, which means mastering them on the sport’s variety of track surfaces and in a broad array of climatic conditions is still a major part of the racing challenge for constructors.

    Pirelli tyres

    (AP Photo/Bela Szandelszky)

    In 2018 this was obvious as early as in preseason testing, where some teams reported blistering – an overheating of the tread closest to the tyre carcass that causes the rubber to bubble up and destroy the surface – despite the wintery conditions in late-February Barcelona.

    After testing Sebastian Vettel dismissed blistering concerns as posturing by teams that had failed to understand the tyres – “I think it’s quite normal that … every team tries to get the tyre supplier to go in the direction that suits their car best. We think Pirelli has done a good job with their compound selection,” he said – but Pirelli responded nonetheless.

    For the Spanish, French and British grands prix, run at tracks featuring similar surfaces, Pirelli would reduce tread thickness by 0.4 millimetres.

    Lo and behold Mercedes dominated the Spanish Grand Prix, claiming its first pole position since the season-opening Australian Grand Prix and winning on merit for the first time all season.

    Vettel had no doubt about the cause.

    “I think it’s pretty straightforward,” he said after qualifying third behind the Mercedes front-row lockout. “The tyres are different.”

    The seemingly insignificant change had been the motivator for a bubbling undercurrent of discontent for some time, however, with Auto Motor und Sport reporting that Mercedes had approached Pirelli to suggest a tyre change after struggling particularly badly during testing, to the chagrin of an assortment of other teams.

    Sebastian Vettel signs autographs for Ferrari fans at the Formula One Grand Prix in Austria.

    Sebastian Vettel (GEPA Pictures/Red Bull Content Pool).

    But Toto Wolff refuted the claims that the changes were made to benefit his team.

    “Rubbish,” he said. “All teams had blistering, very heavy blistering, at the test in Barcelona. “The tyres wouldn’t have lasted in the race.

    “So I don’t know where suddenly this rumour comes out that we have been influencing Pirelli and the FIA to change any tyres.”

    Ferrari team principal Maurizio Arrivabene wasted no time in making his rebuttal.

    “There is a difference between being consulted and being informed,” he told Italy’s Sky Sport. “We have been informed, not necessarily consulted.”

    With Ferrari unable to execute the same one-stop strategy pulled off with such relative ease by Mercedes, effectively counting Vettel out of victory and, later, podium contention, the sourness is sure to continue through to next month’s French Grand Prix and July’s race at Silverstone, especially if the Scuderia were to resume its advantage at the intervening races.

    But is there really a case for Pirelli to answer?

    As usual, the Italian tyre manufacturer is caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand it is deliberately producing tyres that are difficult to master but on the other hand it wants to ensure its products perform strongly and safely.

    Safety won out in Pirelli’s decision making, with the tread thickness change made on safety grounds given sever blistering is potentially a safety issue – think back to the 2011 Belgian Grand Prix, where Red Bull Racing and Pirelli became embroiled in a war of words over the integrity of a set of blistered tyres, as a good example of this.

    Indeed Pirelli head of car racing Mario Isola emphasised it was his company’s decision alone to request the change in an attempt to improve safety without diminishing spectacle by simply bringing a harder set of compounds to the problematic circuits.

    But the optics of Mercedes pushing for a change that has ultimately benefitted it in both tyre life and seemingly also pure performance terms has turned what should have been a minor technical tweak into a potential championship sore point between the two biggest-hitting teams on the grid.

    The perception of the scenario is everything, and as is almost always the case, Pirelli has ended up looking the bad guy for just trying to do its job.

    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 (8)

    • May 15th 2018 @ 7:03am
      marfu said | May 15th 2018 @ 7:03am | ! Report

      Thanks Michael. I feel for Pirelli as they can’t seem to be able to take a trick while they have to try to protect their brand at the same time as catering to the needs of the extremely small F1 market segment . As has almost always been the case, tyres are the most critical factor in F1 performance which can be significantly affected by track temperature and abrasiveness, and of course car set up which can be beyond Pirelli’s control.

      I find it hard to believe that a .4 mm change in tread depth can make such a difference and that Hamilton was able to only make one stop (but I assume the safety car possibly enabled that) given that Pirelli has made all their tyres one step softer than last year?

      • Columnist

        May 15th 2018 @ 4:12pm
        Michael Lamonato said | May 15th 2018 @ 4:12pm | ! Report

        Yep, got it in one. Pirelli has the difficult task of making tyres that degrade when a tyre company would prefer to sell that their tyres last as long as possible. Add to that the various constraints of F1, like limited testing, and the task becomes substantially harder. Plus every time there’s a boring race, it seems to be Pirelli’s fault!

        The tyers are softer this year, and Pirelli brought an extra stop softer to Spain as well, but the Spanish circuit has been resurfaced for this season and is substantially less abrasive, which brought everything back into balance, more or less. That 0.4 millimetre is apparently around 10 per cent of the tread, so it’s not insignificant. If your overriding weakness when it comes to tyre management is overheating, it can make a difference.

    • May 15th 2018 @ 9:03pm
      Mutley said | May 15th 2018 @ 9:03pm | ! Report

      Love your articles Michael. Keep up the good work

    • May 16th 2018 @ 12:41pm
      Boz said | May 16th 2018 @ 12:41pm | ! Report

      Apologies if this question seems naive, but why does Formula 1 choose to have only one tyre supplier? Is it solely related to finances? Is it a benefit for whomever is chosen to be the tyre supplier – as reading the article suggests the company is between a rock and a hard place trying to satisfy different teams, changing F1 regulations etc.

      • Columnist

        May 16th 2018 @ 5:32pm
        Michael Lamonato said | May 16th 2018 @ 5:32pm | ! Report

        Not naive at all! It is in part finances, as it guarantees a certain predictable cost to the teams each year, but it also gives the sport a lever with which to influence the show.

        When there was tyre competition, the tyre manufacturers produced tyres as durable and grippy as possible, but it meant there was less strategy variation because there was less impetus to make a pit stop. Worse was that a tyre company could partner with a team — for example, Bridgestone with Ferrari — to ensure that that team used its tyres better than other customers.

        Having a control tyre means F1 can tell Pirelli to build tyres to a certain specification — to degrade at a certain rate, for example — to benefit the show, and it ensures all teams have equal equipment.

        Pirelli derives a marketing benefit, and its sell point — aside from being in F1 — is that it’s clever enough to make tyres that do whatever the sport wants.

    • May 16th 2018 @ 10:34pm
      Simoc said | May 16th 2018 @ 10:34pm | ! Report

      Mercedes was also the fastest car at the preseason practice in Spain so it may be suited to this track. Its hard to tell but the season is taking on a familiar pattern. It was funny that Alonso was celebrating going 8th in qualifying when last year he qualified 7th with the Honda motor.
      I can’t see Torro Rosso sticking with Hartley for too much longer if he keeps crashing. He may soon have worn out his welcome.

    • Roar Pro

      May 18th 2018 @ 12:21am
      anon said | May 18th 2018 @ 12:21am | ! Report

      In the last few years everytime the tyre specs have been altered, Mercedes have subsequently benefited.

      It’s a bit of a joke to me. Mercedes have far too much power.

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