There has been a huge amount of discussion lately about the Pirelli tyres being too big a factor in the style of contemporary Formula One racing. There has been increasing pressure on the Italian tyre manufacturer to tone down the radical nature of their tyre compounds which rapidly degrade and ensure multiple pitstops are necessary. Now, Pirelli have announced they will be changing their tyres as of the Canadian Grand Prix, reverting at least partially to the specification of their 2011 and 2012 tyres.
The issue is simple, say the critics of the current format of racing brought about by the 2013 spec Pirellis. Drivers no longer race at their limits, instead they nurse their car to the finish, pitting three or four times during the race and never demonstrating raw on-the-limit racing talent that Formula One should be all about. Ah yes, say those on the other side of the fence, but if we did not have fast-degrading rubber combined with overtaking tools like DRS and KERS, we would go back to the boring days of the fastest car leading from lights to flag with no overtaking and viewers would be quick to switch off.
Clearly, there is a middleground to be found, which got me wondering ‘when has Formula One ever been closest to getting it right?’ The answer is that actually, we are probably closer now in this decade than we have been certainly in my lifetime. Using my lifetime as a set of measuring posts (it is my blog, after all), we start in 1989 and look through the nineties at some great racing, great moments and rapid technological progress. By the late nineties, the cars were going faster and faster and needed to be pegged back for safety purposes. Grooved tyres came in in 1998 but did not affect the racing. Soon though, aerodynamics improved further and it became nigh on impossible to pass the car in front if you were closely matched in straight line speed. The longer regulations stayed in place, the closer the field bunched and the less advantage any particular team had, leading to less overtaking. Of course, that’s not quite true. From 2000 to 2004 one team and one driver won the title every year and this, combined with a lack of overtaking, led to critics calling the sport boring. In 2003, the racing was spiced up a bit by a new qualifying format but it was not until 2005 that major technical regulation changes came in and a tyre war between Bridgestone and Michelin finally flipped in favour of the French rubber that we got a change in the pecking order. Then, we had too many pitstops for fuel due to rubber that didn’t last too long from Michelin. Even then, Michelin bowed out after the farce of the 2005 US Grand Prix where only the six Bridgestone-shod cars could race. By 2007, Michael Schumacher had retried for the first time and we had the start of the current golden age of drivers with huge amounts of talent in top teams. Hamilton, Alonso, Raikkonen and, before long, Vettel were in a class of more top drawer talent than we had seen in years. In 2008, we had an epic finale in Brazil and then the biggest technical changes of the decade came in at the start of 2009 and we had the slowest team from 2008 winning both championships the very next year. KERS also came in to spice up the racing, before taking a break in 2010 whilst the system was developed. In 2010, the other teams caught and passed Brawn/Mercedes and we had a five way shootout for the drivers’ title culminating in an incredibly tense finale in Abu Dhabi.
So what can we take away from Formula One’s history from 1989 to 2010? Well, there were some great drivers, great battles, interesting rule changes and technical developments and so on. But, let’s be honest now, was the racing ever that good? Let’s think back to some of the best races of, say, the 2000s and see what they had in common. Brazil 2003? A crash-fest washout. Japan 2005? A thriller where the top drivers battled from the back of the grid to the podium. Hungary 2006? Button’s first win in a rare wet Budapest race where the leaders struggled in the conditions. Nurburgring 2007? Marcus Winkelhock starts from the pits on wets only to lead by lap two after the entire field pit following a sudden monsoon. Fuji 2007? Biblical rain led to a crazy race. Brazil 2008? Rain with two laps to go dramatically swung the title from Hamilton to Massa and back to Hamilton. Canada 2010? Perhaps the only truly thrilling (not intriguing or tense but thrilling) dry “ordinary” race of the era, and that was because of fast tyre degredation.
The point is, the racing was never great unless we had some external, artificial factor at play – usually rain, sometimes a topsy turvy grid (most likely from rain in qualifying). Only in 2011, with the introduction of DRS, Pirelli tyres and the re-introduction of KERS did we see proper overtaking and good racing with unpredictable results. Yes, at times it has been a case of looking after the tyres rather than racing on the limit but when in F1 history have drivers not had to in some way conserve something and look after the car, fuel or whatever. If managing the car wasn’t exciting to watch, endurance sportscar racing would not be the inspiring and evocative challenge that it always has been and always will be. In my mind, the most enjoyable Grands Prix are those which resemble endurance races, with multiple phases of different cars leading, drivers battling through the pack and differing strategies at play. Pirelli were given the 2010 Canadian Grand Prix as a blueprint for what to do with their tyres from 2011 onwards, and they did just that. Credit to them for investing a fortune so their product could be shown to the world to fall apart easily.
Let’s now look at some of the best races since the start of 2011. China 2011? The best race ever for that track. China 2012? Possibly even better, as Nico Rosberg took his first win at the 111th attempt. China 2013? Just as unpredictable. Valencia 2012? By far the best race at that track. Brazil 2012? One of the greatest races in modern history, as the title swung in the balance between Vettel and Alonso. Canada 2011? Actually, that was the best race of the decade as Jenson Button came from last to win on the final lap in a four hour thriller reminiscent of an endurance race.
When Formula One was at its most dull in the noughties, lack of overtaking was the number one thing cited as the reason for viewers disengaging with the sport. The way this has changed since 2011 is staggering. For instance, the 2010 Chinese Grand Prix was a wet-dry race and 62 successful passes were recorded, Webber leading the way making it to the podium from 18th. There were 63 passes, the most since the 1990 Mexican Grand Prix, in the 2011 Chinese Grand Prix and it was a dry race! In Turkey 2011, it got almost ridiculous when again we had a dry race but the record for number of pitstops in a race was broken and number of overtakes equalled. People complained then, and since then we have continued to see great, unpredictable racing with multiple strategies at play, but with less of the extremes in terms of artificial racing. Until now, some would say…
Since the start of 2011, the racing has been, by recent standards, nothing short of incredible and we have been truly spoilt as fans. Whilst accepting the current situation as imperfect, I urge caution on those who may without realising it be wishing for the boring old pre-2011 days back when they criticise Pirelli’s impact on current racing.
I’m a Lewis Hamilton fan and get frustrated when he is not able to drive on the limit as he has grown up doing and is so good at, but being an F1 driver is about being able to adapt to your machinery and different situations of tyre or car management. After all, Lewis may be an on-the-limit driver by nature, but he did win the 2010 Canadian Grand Prix that inspired this whole era of tyre management…