Curly's Corner: A Nerd's Eye on Formula 1 – Abu Dhabi Grand Prix
Welcome back to our post-race breakdown of Formula 1! In case you missed it, MotoIQ will be bringing you its own particular nerdtastic take on the latest news and developments in F1. Impress your neighbors, stun your friends, and woo the ladies with your newfound F1 knowledge!
Brazil was the race Ferrari needed about 5 races ago. Mercedes bobbled when Lewis Hamilton made a mistake in qualifying and crashed out 6 minutes into the first session, forcing him to start from the rear of the field. Valtteri Bottas was able to hold Mercedes’ honor by taking pole, but when it came to race day, Sebastian Vettel was able to slip past at the start and never looked back, taking a fairly comfortable win. Hamilton was able to work his way back up to 4th by the end of the race, putting on an entertaining spectacle as he carved his way through the field, buoyed with a fresh engine powering his W08, and a drive to respond to getting punted out of a podium in Mexico by Vettel. While not the most exciting Brazilian GP to ever grace the screens, it was full of good stories and happy endings. Well, on track anyway. Off track, Williams, Mercedes, the FIA, Sauber, and Pirelli all had team members who faced robbery attempts. In the case of Mercedes, the van full of engineers and mechanics actually WERE robbed of their valuables! The string of incidents brought fresh calls for improved safety at the beloved, but increasingly dangerous, Interlagos circuit. The security was so questionable, that Pirelli and McLaren decided to cancel a planned post-race tire test.
Before Pirelli cancelled their Monday tire test, they were claiming we could see as many as 8, yes EIGHT compounds of tire in 2018 (they settled on 7 by the time the Abu Dhabi weekend rolled around). I’ve defended Pirelli for quite a long time, but this is getting out of hand. See, Pirelli has not had the easiest of times since it became the sole tire supplier of F1 in 2011. With extremely limited testing and somewhat Draconian rules set in place for testing, it is very difficult for Pirelli to make changes to its tires before the season starts. If they guess wrong during the pre-season, there is little room to change things before the season actually gets underway. Engineers feed on data and there isn’t a ton that Pirelli is allowed to get from teams. The last time they had open testing was in 2010 and that was only because Toyota had a few current spec cars to spare after shutting down their team shortly after the ‘09 season ended (thus ensuring no competing teams gained an advantage). Pirelli has also been very unfairly treated by teams, the FIA, and fans alike. Fans should especially remember the tire debacles of 2013.
While the headlines all showed pictures of blown tires (the above knocked Hamilton out of the lead at the British Grand Prix no less), most people don’t know that the teams, particularly Red Bull and Mercedes, were abusing their tires to the point of failure. The teams blamed Pirelli for faulty tires, when the reality was they were running them backwards, underinflating them, running alignment settings far outside of Pirelli’s recommended window, or running them past Pirelli’s recommended distance. What happens when you abuse a tire? It fails. Red Bull’s strategy of low downforce was wearing out tires too quickly and they needed a way out to protect their dominance. It was so bad Kimi Raikkonen in a Lotus, (yes a Lotus!), was a threat to Sebastian Vettel in the middle of his 4-title streak. For better insight, this is a great read on the situation at the time. Pirelli continued to catch flak when Vettel lost a sure podium at Spa in 2015 because he and Ferrari both overran the tires, and cut Raidillon enough times to cheese grate the tire into spectacular failure. Or, Vettel again, blamed Pirelli in Hungary of 2016 when he and Ferrari again decided to run past Pirelli’s recommended distance. In every one of these instances, Pirelli was wrongly blamed by fans for failures that were due to team abuse.
When the lack of data and the deliberate abuse of their product is taken into account, Pirelli’s missteps in Formula 1 are a lot more forgivable. But, when Pirelli announced before Abu Dhabi that they would be using 7 compounds of tire in 2018, that forgiveness from this writer ran out. With too many costly safety headlines on their minds, Pirelli went incredibly conservative with tire construction in 2017, creating a Hard compound tire so hard and useless, Pirelli abandoned it after a single practice session (Spain, in case you were wondering). In fact, the Spanish GP is the only time the Mediums ever made it into a race, owing to the fact that Pirelli brought the Hard/Medium/Soft triumvirate, and the Mediums and Softs were the only two compounds that were even usable. Throughout the rest of the year, we only ever saw the softest tires available make it into the race. To most rational people, that would be a sure sign the Medium and Hard should be dropped, renaming the Soft, Super Soft, and Ultra Soft to Hard, Medium, and Soft. But, Pirelli isn’t rational, instead adding the (admittedly cool sounding) Hyper Soft and the Super Hard. A Super Hard? Are you freaking kidding me? The Hards never got used, the Mediums were relegated to practice duty, and unless Pirelli is planning to soften their entire range so the Super Hard is about three steps softer, it makes no goddamn sense. Pirelli thinks this will “spice up strategy,” but it just gives teams one more tire to ignore.
Keep the Hyper Soft, the Super Soft, and the Medium. Those are your Soft, Medium, and Hard. Then, dump the 2-tire compound rule. The tires were so hard this year it was almost possible to go the full race distance on the Softs. So let teams go the entire race distance on the Mediums. Will most teams do something that crazy? Probably not at the front of the field, but what’s to stop, say, Force India from putting Sergio Perez on the “Hards” and running from flag to flag to land on the podium? That is exactly how he has scored some of his best finishes: run super long on the harder tire, and run on the softer tire for only a handful of laps. While everyone else was pitting twice, Perez would pit once and leapfrog most of the field. 2017 had zero strategy variation and it contributed to the generally dull on-track action. Give the teams a challenge! The fun of Formula 1 isn’t necessarily the on-track action, it’s figuring out the chess match between teams and drivers. This is why wet to dry races (like Singapore) are so fun. Who’s going to move to Intermediates first? Who’s going to go to slicks first? Can the teams make it in only one stop now? The possibilities grow rapidly when new variables are introduced. That is what I want to see out of Pirelli’s tires. Give the teams some wiggle room so they can get creative.
Blindly adding tire compounds to the roster without changing any other rules is just dumb. The biggest irony is during post-season testing, Hamilton claimed the new Hypersoft was the best Pirelli tire he had ever driven on.