Black, round, Pirelli
Photo: Getty Images
Jenson Button was charging through the field, determined to make amends to his team for the time he lost for his coming together with Alonso. The clock ticked ever-closer to the four-hour cut off mark, and he was running out of laps, but he knew he could win the race – if only he could pressure Sebastian Vettel into a mistake. That was the plan, and – like in any fairy tale – he managed it. Vettel ran just wide enough to dampen his slick Pirelli tyres, Button seized his chance and barged through – and claimed one of the most thrilling victories of his carer. It was electrifying. It was perfect.
It was also last year.
While the 2011 Canadian Grand Prix was perhaps the most exciting race of the season, the sequel failed to live up to the hype of the original. Indeed, it was probably the least exciting race so far for 2012. It wasn’t dull, don’t get me wrong – but it was certainly a slow burn, and explosive moments were few and far between.
First of all, I’d like to put something out there – we’re spoilt this year in Formula One. And we were last year, too – if you looked at everything that happened behind Sebastian Vettel, that is. Compared to previous years of comparable design formulas, we have far more overtaking, and for more close racing. This year in particular the competition is fiercely close.
This year’s Canadian Grand Prix was by no means boring, but it wasn’t becoming of the aggressive racing style we’ve come to expect in 2012. What’s more, once that hard-and-fast racing was stripped back, it seemed to reveal some of the underlying elements of this 2012 model of Formula One – and not everyone seems happy with them.
The tyres have been coming in for particular criticism, it must be said. Michael Schumacher has been one of the most vocal drivers on the matter, complaining that that they don’t allow a driver to push as hard as possible, for fear of over-working the rubber and running out of grip. I wrote about it briefly after the Spanish Grand Prix, and said that if the order began to settle down, then the tyres aren’t such a big deal. If performance seemed to remain random, then perhaps we’ve gone too far in search of spectacle.
To my mind, I feel like the teams are finally coming to grips (pardon the pun) with the tyres. Granted you still have the likes of Christian Horner proclaiming that the tyres might remain a mystery to them for the rest of the season, but of course he’s going to say that when Sebastian Vettel’s tyre gamble didn’t pay off. For me, the tyre wear cars are experiencing seems far more predictable, and it seems like teams even managed to judge the fifteen degree track temperature change between the long run practices on Friday and race time on Sunday.
But people shout, as they do, that Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel were robbed of their podium places because their tyres went off, and pre-race analyses said that a one-stop race was supposed to be the fastest way to reach the finish. But they weren’t robbed – they gambled on a one-stop. Alonso and Ferrari, in particular, betray this gamble – they had Felipe Massa running further down the order as a guinea pig, and his tyres began to expire after 40 laps. Despite this, Alonso tried to run for 50. It was never going to come off.
But what about those cars that did make it to the finish on a one-stop strategy? Romain Grosjean and Sergio Perez in particular, both of whom stormed home to podium places at the end of the race.
I put this to you – the current generation of Pirelli tyres operate in a very narrow temperature range. The secret to unlocking them is to set up the car to apply enough energy to reach this range, but not so much that you end up overshooting and wear away the rubber.
This in mind, there are then two ways to set up your car – for qualifying, or for the race. Set up the car to run more energy through the tyres and you’ll end up with a faster lap in qualifying, but ultimately have less durability come race day. Set up the car to warm up the tyres more slowly and you’ll qualify off the pace, but have greater endurance on Sunday.
Vettel and Alonso qualified in P1 and P3, respectively. Grosjean qualified in P7. Perez qualified down in P15. Both Lotus-not-Lotus and Sauber admit that they need improve their qualifying performance, while both have (more or less) been competitive on race day. Sauber, in particular, has strung together a couple of Sundays during which it’s been well on the pace, and both Grosjean and Raikkonen have made podium appearances.
What the Pirelli tyres are doing is providing Formula One with a proper alternative to refuelling. Refuelling wasn’t as binary as changing tyres – you put different quantities of fuel in the car at different point during the race, which meant that the performance of any given car was never static. It was exciting, and made racing more dynamic. The Bridgestone tyres, which were simple and long-lasting, couldn’t compensate for this loss. You changed your tyres once, and you went on your way. Pirelli has given us that mystery back. There are different ways to use the tyres, and teams can play with that depending on how confident it are on its car’s inherent pace.
The real reason behind Alonso and Vettel succumbing so easily to Hamilton is the DRS. There could be no chance for either driver to stave off the charging Hamilton – or later Grosjean and Perez, when the DRS put them at such a disadvantage.
I’m still largely unsold on the rear wing device. I think Canada highlighted how significantly it undermines the art of defensive driving, and in situations like this it robs spectators of race action rather than improving it.
So if you really want to complain about something, have a dig at the DRS, and leave those poor tyres alone.
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