Tyres have been the talk for much of the 2013 season. Since entering the sport in 2011, Pirelli promised to spice up the racing with more degradable tyres that lead to greater differences in strategy.
But this year, the Italian tyre company has been surrounded by controversy, following numerous failures as well as a controversial tyre test with Mercedes. Things came to a dramatic head at Silverstone in a chaotic British Grand Prix. The question many people within the sport are now asking is whether they have gone too far.
Pirelli is in an unenviable position, and it seems unlikely that they will always be able to please everyone. To give them their credit, they have done exactly what Formula One, and the fans, were asking for. In the last year of Bridgestone, dry races tended to be tedious processions thanks mostly due to the tyres.
We would see little differing strategies, and on more than one occasion, a driver would be able to make a set of tyres last the entire race, and would only be forced to pit a couple of laps from the end to switch to the second compound, as the rules stipulate.
That changed as soon as Pirelli entered. Sticking true to their word, the racing was transformed. But, perhaps unsurprisingly, it wasn’t long before teams, and drivers, started to complain.
Is it real racing, or is it artificial? You can see good arguments for both. Formula One should be about drivers pushing to the absolute maximum, and it is clear that right now, they are not able to. But additionally, do we really want to go back to the days of Bridgestone, and dull racing?
It is a tough call to make, and unsurprisingly, given all the negative publicity Pirelli has received so far this season, their future has been called into question.
Does the company really want to stay in a sport they seem to be increasingly seen as the bad guys in? Perhaps to answer that question, first you have to look where the problem lies, and it is only then clear that Pirelli’s problems aren’t all self-induced.
First, let’s look at the events leading up to the supposedly secret Mercedes tyre test at Barcelona. Even before then, we had seen numerous tyre failures throughout race weekends, and Mercedes in particular seemed to be struggling more than any other team to make their tyres last.
Pirelli needed to find out what the problem was, and prevent failures from happening again, so it is logical to say that the test made absolute perfect sense.
Not that any of the other teams seemed to think that when news got out about the test. The idea of improving safety, and eliminating failures was quickly forgotten – and the focus was switched to how Mercedes had supposedly cheated, and gained an unfair advantage by using a 2013 specification car.
Meanwhile, it became obvious a little later that despite the test, Pirelli still hadn’t gotten to the bottom of why tyres were failing like they were, but given the fall-out surrounding the Mercedes test, it was unlikely, however much they’d like it, that they’d be able to test again for some time.
Then Silverstone came around, and so did Pirelli’s darkest hour. Over the duration of the race, we had four tyre failures (not least one for the leader of the race, Lewis Hamilton) and it became clear post-race that we were lucky not to have even more.
Was it the kerbs that were causing the failures, or a problem with the tyres, like what happened at Indianapolis in 2005? Sadly, only Pirelli themselves will know the answer to that, and we’re unlikely to ever find out.
Following the race, drivers were unusually vocal about the matter, and there was even talk of a strike if the situation wasn’t solved before the next race in Germany. Fortunately, in a rare occasion where common sense prevails in Formula One, the FIA agreed to extend the young driver’s test and allow teams to test tyres with their race drivers as well.
Arguably though, this all came too late for Pirelli. The damage to their image, around the world, had already been done.
However, you could say if teams had reacted to Pirelli’s not unreasonable suggestion of helping them, sooner in the year, the whole debacle could have been avoided completely. Given that we have fortunately not seen a repeat of Silverstone at the two subsequent races at Nurburgring and Hungaroring, it looks like the situation is now under control.
But that’s the problem with Formula One these days. It is reactive instead of proactive in so many ways. Instead of the teams working together to find a cure for the tyre problems sooner, they instead squabbled amongst themselves until the problem, figuratively and literally, blew up.
So yes, while Pirelli is perhaps the architect of its own downfall, you should at least consider that they haven’t really been given the best of hands in F1 this year.
Where does Pirelli go from here? Well, everyone will be looking with keen interest at how the tyres perform at Spa. Like Silverstone, Spa is a phenomenally fast circuit, which will give the tyres a gruelling work out. If there are no problems, and it is proved once and for all that the failures we saw at Silverstone and earlier in the year are a thing of the past, the topic of tyres will become a mere sideshow for the rest of the year.
If there are repeat failures however, you can expect to hear a lot more about the Michelin to return to Formula One rumour.
Would the French company re-entering the sport mean a tyre war, or the end of Pirelli from the sport once more? Sadly for Pirelli, you’d have to say the latter is a more realistic outcome.