How Do You Solve A Problem Like Pirelli?

The 2013 Formula One season was one dominated by talk of tyres. Pirelli, the sports official tyre supplier since 2011, was uncomfortably thrust into the focus after a series of tyre failures throughout the first half of the season, which culminated in six failures at the British Grand Prix, an embarrassing display which left the Italian firm publicly humiliated. Dan Paddock investigates whether Pirelli’s tyre woes overshadowed the 2013 season, and if, as many claim, Pirelli were themselves to blame. 

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“OH, and there’s a tyre gone, and it’s Lewis Hamilton! Lewis Hamilton is out of the British Grand Prix surely,” howled Ben Edwards, as the 2008 champion, and at that time race leader’s right rear Pirelli tyre exploded in catastrophic fashion as the Mercedes man headed down Silverstone’s Wellington straight, on lap 8 of last June’s British Grand Prix. While Hamilton would produce a stunning drive to recover to fourth at the finish, the 29-year-old’s absolute tyre failure was to be just one of six that occurred during the race, on a weekend that would come to define the season of Pirelli, Formula One’s official tyre supplier.

Pirelli’s tyres were undoubtably the talk of 2013. From their very first appearance in Jerez in February, when complaints about the high nature of degradation, and their small operating window first surfaced, to the failures seen in the races in Bahrain and Spain, through to the damp squib that was ‘Testgate’, and culminating with the spectacular blow-outs mentioned above that occurred at Silverstone, Pirelli’s 2013 tyres were barely out of the news during the first half of the year.

Even after the debacle at Silverstone, and their move back to the 2012 tyre construction for the Hungarian Grand Prix in July, Pirelli remained in the spotlight, as rumours continued to persist over their commitment to Formula One. In fact, the official confirmation that Pirelli would supply tyres for 2014 onwards only came on January 16 this year, a mere 12 days ahead of testing for the new season.

But did Pirelli’s tyre woes actually overshadow the rest of the 2013 season? There were those that argued, especially after Silverstone, that Pirelli’s high degradation tyres had ruined 2013 as a spectacle, and in fact played too large a part on the outcome of the season. Was this the case? And if so, how much of the blame for that lay directly at Pirelli’s feet?

When asked if the controversy surrounding Pirelli’s 2013 tyres had effectively spoiled the season, Edd Straw, F1 Editor of AUTOSPORT magazine and autosport.com, rubbished the idea, stating: “In terms of having people running around declaring that Pirelli were ruining F1. They weren’t, they were in a difficult set of circumstances.”

Instead he noted that while the tyres had, as ever, had an impact throughout the course of the year, the right man had ultimately won the championship. He said: “Obviously [the tyres] did play an enormous role in terms of what was happening, but ultimately the fastest car and driver package won the championship in 2013, fairly comfortably, so from that perspective they didn’t massively distort the overall result.”

As Straw explained, with Formula One at the end of an era in terms of development, tyres, in this case the 2013 Pirelli’s, became the major differentiating factor between the teams, which went some way to explaining why their performance had been so prominent. “By virtue of the way the regulations were as of last year, you had a frozen engine, a very well established 2.4-litre V8 which had undergone a degree of performance balancing, and you had a mature set of aero regulations, so the cars were relatively close,” he said. “So inevitably the tyres became quite a significant performance differentiator.”

He added that since entering the control tyre era with Pirelli in 2011, management of tyres has perhaps played a more prominent role than ever, and that in fairness, aside from the very public failures, which brought them to attention, the impact of tyres on the 2013 season was not so dissimilar to what happened in 2012 and 2011. He said: “Ultimately throughout the Pirelli era, from 2011-12-13, tyre usage has been critical and you’re right that the failures cast this massive light on it.

While Luke Smith, the Editor-in-Chief of RichlandF1, agreed with Straw that Pirelli’s tyres had not unduly affected the outright winners of the two championships, he did emphasise the effect that the tyres, especially after their midseason change in construction, had played on the fortunes and form of the teams fighting lower down the grid. He said: “Lots of teams were affected by it. Force India for example, their form at the beginning of the year was sensational and then they just nosedived because of the change in tyres. Sauber, they had a terrible start to the season and then picked up when the tyres changed back to the 2012 construction, so I think they did have a big impact on the championship. Perhaps even too much so.”

However, for Kate Walker, the Editor of GPWeek, Pirelli’s tyres indeed overstepped their mark in 2013, with the failures, particularly those at Silverstone, casting not only Pirelli, but also the sport in a negative light. “The problem with the tyres last year was that they dominated the story and brought bad publicity along with it,” she said. “For a non F1 fan, a casual observer, they would be forgiven for thinking that 2013 defined Pirelli as dangerous.”

So while there remains a lack of consensus on if Pirelli’s tyre problems did indeed cast a shadow over the season, what of the question of who was to blame for the countless fiascos throughout the course of the year which cast Pirelli under the spotlight? It was Pirelli themselves who copped most of the blame for the tyre failures, and you might say quite rightly so, as they designed and manufactured them, but was it as  simple a case as that?

Luke Smith laughed away the notion that Pirelli deserved the flack it received throughout 2013, instead pointing the finger at the teams, who were perhaps the most vocal opposition to the Italian tyre supplier. He said: “Oh god no, I don’t think Pirelli deserved the hate they got. It was a situation that the teams caused really. It was the teams own short-sightedness, and their self interest that caused the problems. The teams that did veto [the decision to change the tyres in March], they were the ones who’s cars were working with the tyres best. I think Ferrari and Lotus were two of them, and Force India were another. When Pirelli said we want to make a change, they said: ‘No, this could threaten our form.’ It was self interest and selfishness on their part, but it is hardly surprising in the sport we have.”

Matt Somerfield, a Technical F1 Journalist is in agreement with Smith that the teams should indeed shoulder a large portion of the blame for what occurred in 2013, but questioned why more had not been done by the FIA to ensure that teams followed the guidelines set by Pirelli on the proper usage of their tyres. The teams abuse of which, Pirelli blamed for the tyre failures at the British Grand Prix. He said: “The FIA had known about this for quite a long time [teams running with aggressive camber, low pressures and tyre swapping]. The problem originally came up in Spa in 2011 when Red Bull blistered their front tyres, and from that point I’ve never understood why the FIA didn’t clamp down on these sort of scenarios.” He added: “If rather than recommendations they had been a part of the regulations, then I don’t think we would have seen the problems that we saw in 2013.”

Kate Walker joined in the defence of Pirelli, claiming the criticisms the Italian firm faced were “grossly unfair.” Walker maintains that a combination of selfishness on the part of the teams, coupled with a lack of testing opportunities for Pirelli meant that the tyre company effectively went into 2013 “with one hand tied behind their back,” and that there is a danger the situation could repeat itself in 2014. She said: “They had a limited amount of information about the loads and data of each car. Over the summer of 2013 Pirelli were saying that in order to prepare the tyres suitably for 2014 they needed to receive data off of the teams by November 1, at the last possible date. In Brazil Paul Hembery was moaning that Pirelli had not received data from the bulk of the teams, and that was the end of November. You saw what happened last year. It is like we are trying to make it happen again in 2014.”

Walker highlights the ridiculous situation whereby Pirelli were forced to prepare their tyres ahead of the 2013 season with a two-year-old Renault chassis, archaic in comparison to the 2013 machines, simply because the teams could not come to an agreement to assist the Italian tyre supplier. “The fundamental problem was that the teams could not agree on an appropriate test car for Pirelli. They were demanding dramatic racing, with high degradation compounds, but at the same time not allowing the tyre manufacturer to test on a car that was wholly representative in terms of downforce, lateral and vertical loads, etc.” She added: “It was down to the teams not being able to agree, it wasn’t down to the teams pushing the limits, or down to the FIA’s legislation. Pirelli did what they were asked to, and they did a good job of it.”

Edd Straw on the other hand was not quite so sympathetic, insisting that Pirelli’s products – especially early in the year – were not up to standard. He said: “Ultimately the tyres were not fit for purpose at that stage of the season, and it seemed that the change to the steel belt rather than the kevlar belt [which occurred between 2012 and 2013] played a part in that.”

Despite this, Straw maintains that the blame for the tyre fiasco that unfolded in 2013 does not lie solely with Pirelli, but occurred as a result of three years of blunders, with the teams, the FIA, and Pirelli all equally at fault. He said: “I think it is one of those things where everyone involved has to have a look at themselves. When you’re trying to develop a tyre with very little testing, and you’re having to change them each year to keep things unpredictable, that it going to make life difficult. I think it was slightly odd of Pirelli to sign up to a contract to do it [supply tyres] without proper formulated testing parameters. The teams made it difficult for testing to be conducted as no one wanted other people to have an advantage, so that really didn’t help, and all of those things really came to a head this year.”

Ultimately, 2013 will go down as the year when Pirelli’s tyres created a storm. Few will soon forget the spectacle that was the British Grand Prix, and the public witch-hunt  that followed calling for the blood of the Italian firm. Which, as revealed, came from a lack of understanding on the part of fans, and from a desire to shift the blame from the teams. With new turbo engines, anteater noses, and a fear of chronic unreliability for 2014 all to consider, Pirelli might just face some competition to steal the limelight this year.

Image courtesy of Mercedes AMG PETRONAS

*Correct as of January 31st*

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