They say that variety is the spice of life and that competition is healthy. Wouldn’t it be awfully dull for a company to have a monopoly on oil, gas or household insurance?
Whilst competition certainly is a good thing in most avenues of life, certainly regarding large multinationals, such a monopoly currently exists regarding the supply of tyres to Formula One teams, and things haven’t gone smoothly in 2013.
But whilst many people are already jumping on the back of Pirelli after a series of well-publicised problems, I think it’s far too early to press the panic button and call for a so called "tyre war" with two suppliers for two fundamental reasons.
1. The legal issue
When Bridgestone decided to bail out of Formula One as the official tyre suppliers in November 2009, Cooper Avon, Michelin and Pirelli all professed interest in becoming the sole supplier for 2011. Pirelli won the contract and currently spend around $50 million a year on circuit advertising and programmes and are likely to be the only contender to remain in the sport to see Formula One through the first three years of the V6 turbo era when the contract is up for renewal from 2014-16.
As teams also get a share of around 40 per cent of Pirelli’s marketing spend in return for what they spend for the tyres, you’d think that there would be no shortage of contenders to bid for the new contract, especially in light of the Italian tyre supplier’s recent failings.
While, say, Michelin or Goodyear have the right to bid for the new contract when it’s up for renewal, commercial-rights holder Formula One Management have agreed with Pirelli to extend the sponsorship signage deal to 2018. Would a new supplier really want to supply tyres without the added track advertising exposure Pirelli have cunningly negotiated?
Nor are the FIA allowed to interfere in the FOM’s commercial affairs after a prior agreement between Bernie Ecclestone and then FIA president Max Mosley, so the signage deal can’t be blocked.
It’s also getting too late to bid for 2014, with teams needing detailed specifications of next year’s tyres by September 1 in order to design their new cars with next year’s regulations in mind.
2. The sporting issue
Complex legal and commercial issues aside, it’s not the only reason I see another "tyre war" as a terrible idea for the sport. I’ve been following this greatest of sports since my father first took me to Silverstone in 1989 to see Nigel Mansell, then of Ferrari, battle it out with Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost. That year, a tyre war was going on between Pirelli and Goodyear.
Even as a 14-year-old, I marvelled at the achievement of Martin Brundle and Stefano Modena in their Pirelli-shod Brabham Judds at Monaco taking it to the might of the Goodyear McLarens of Senna and Prost. But somehow it just didn’t seem fair and in my mind, teams with Goodyear tyres enjoyed as distinct an advantage as those running turbos instead of normally aspirated engines.
Then, of course, there was 2005 and the United States Grand Prix and unquestionably the most embarrassing moment in the history of Formula One. Following a tyre failure on Ralf Schumacher’s Toyota during Friday practice, Michelin decided to withdraw on safety grounds, leading to the farcical situation of just the six Bridgestone runners competing.
It spelled the end of Formula One in the USA for the foreseeable future and a year later, Michelin were out.
Okay, so the 2013 Pirelli tyres have been something of a disaster so far, and personally I’ve hated them since the Chinese Grand Prix when Sebastian Vettel opted out of setting a time in Q3 in order to be able to start on the harder compound tyre to suit race strategy. Then there was the bamboozling multi-stop Spanish Grand Prix where many cars simply avoided racing for track position in an attempt to conserve their rubber.
Faster-wearing rubber was supposed to promote the racing spectacle by providing more pit stops and overtaking. And yet Spain proved this was clearly a false positive, as Red Bull boss Christian Horner was keen to point out to BBC Sport.
I think it's too confusing for the fans. When we're saying to Sebastian Vettel, you're racing Kimi Raikkonen for position, but you're not and don't fight him, that's not great. Pirelli are a capable company and they can get on top of it, but it's a bit too much at the moment.
Then came Silverstone and the exploding tyres...
But Pirelli seemed to have learned from their mistakes, and with a return to the 2012 spec front tyres and Kevlar-belted rears, the racing since Britain has been great.
Would you rather the situation where we had two suppliers and your favourite team or driver suffering as a result of having inferior rubber? It would be a bit like Usain Bolt being asked to take on Yohan Blake in flip flops. A bit far-fetched, yes, but two manufacturers would see F1 return to the bad old days of inequality, and I want a level playing field to see who the best drivers really are.
Of course competition is healthy, but in the case of Formula One tyres it’s a case of not pressing the panic button just yet and giving Pirelli more time.
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