Why Pirelli can’t win
Hardly a dull race goes by in Formula One that isn’t in some way blamed on Pirelli, and the straightforward Canadian Grand Prix is no exception.
Not every F1 race has to be an instant classic. In the same way a weekend of football, no matter the code, will inevitably feature at least one fizzer, so too is a season of Formula One liable to produce its fair share of predictable races — and, much like a year’s worth of football, the narrative of a Formula One season isn’t necessarily lesser for it, as 2018’s hotly contested championship can attest.
But that of course doesn’t mean that the F1 spectacle cannot be improved upon in areas that have now been well chronicled — in particular aerodynamics, with the current iteration of technical regulations leading to cars which are tremendously fast in qualifying but which struggle to race alongside one another.
The sport has struggled for years to move away from this damaging aerodynamic philosophy — noteworthy is that the FIA, the commercial rights holder and some teams voted for some last-minute technical changes for 2019 introduction to improve overtaking, a decision FIA president Jean Todt described as “a miracle” — and in the interim has turned to a variety of solutions as workarounds, including the drag reduction system (DRS) and high-degradation tyres.
Both have been controversial, but whereas years of experience with DRS has ensured its effects are no longer disproportionate, Pirelli’s ever evolving range of tyres have created only more consternation.
From its early days producing extremely high-degradation tyres — a shock to drivers who had grown accustomed to Bridgestone’s predictable long-life rubber — to its latter-day implementation of seven tyre compounds in a bid to bring better targeted selections to each race, Pirelli has been scrutinised as heavily as any team or driver for the duration its F1 tenure.
So when the Monaco and Canadian grands prix resulted in surprisingly similar outcomes — conservative one-stop races with limited overtaking — on two markedly different circuits, the suitability of Pirelli’s tyres again took centre stage.
Much of the Canadian Grand Prix was run at a slow and steady rhythm. Most cars were engaged in a race of tyre management to execute a one-stop strategy, a key component of which is to stay at least a second behind the car ahead to stay out of its downforce-disrupting dirty air. Such an approach isn’t conducive to wheel-to-wheel racing, as the lack of on-track passing demonstrated.
The easy criticism to make is that Pirelli’s tyres degrade too easily — that they discourage hard racing and force drivers to drive within themselves rather than push the limits. Indeed that is the end product, as Lewis Hamilton so lamented after the Monaco Grand Prix, but to blame the staid racing on Pirelli for supplying tyres that degrade too quickly is overly simplistic.
Not only is Pirelli commissioned by the sport to deliver tyres with a limited life span, but its stated target this season is to create tyre compounds that will put tyre strategy on a knife edge between one and two stops, opening opportunities for an aggressive two-stopping driver to overwhelm a conservative one-stopping rival.
In theory it’s a formula for exciting raving, but in practice the problem is that Formula One teams don’t think in terms of improving the spectacle.
With the current generation of high-downforce car making overtaking particularly difficult, the old adage of track position being king has become the sport’s defining phrase, so much so that even in a situation where a driver might gain sufficient time on a new tyre to negate the time lost making an additional pit stop, the risk of being unable to retake position is too strong a deterrent.
The results are races like the Canadian Grand Prix, in which preserving Pirelli’s tyres is the principal strategic motivator.
Unfortunately there is no easy solution. First, not every circuit will be so severely affected as these relative outliers in Monaco and Canada — some circuits will be better suited to Pirelli’s graduated compounds and have precisely the desired effect.
But where this isn’t the case, teams are predisposed to take small risks, especially when gains might be marginal, so giving them the tools, as Pirelli has done, isn’t necessarily enough.
Instead a great deal of hope still rests in rules that will ease the aerodynamic problems that make overtaking more difficult — the problems, in other words, that make strategies involving overtaking unattractive.
Only then can we escape the vicious cycle of blame for boring races.