Pirelli Formula 1 Tyres in 2014: Are They Finally Right for Grand Prix Racing?

Neil James@NeilosJamesFeatured ColumnistJune 15, 2014

SAKHIR, BAHRAIN - APRIL 05:  Pirelli tyres are seen in the pitlane during qualifying for the Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix at the Bahrain International Circuit on April 5, 2014 in Sakhir, Bahrain.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
Mark Thompson/Getty Images

This time last year, tyres were occupying a lot of column inches on Formula One news sites.

The biggest story of the spring was tyre-related. Mercedes had used a 2013 car to help tyre supplier Pirelli with development work in a "secret" test at the Circuit de Catalunya in late May.

Their rivals weren't happy with the German team, and at an FIA hearing they were banned from the Young Driver Test at Silverstone for their indiscretion.

But the ire directed at Mercedes was nothing compared to the barbs and flak being flung at Pirelli.

A lonely Pirelli in China.
A lonely Pirelli in China.Vladimir Rys/Getty Images

No one was especially angry with them for doing the test. Rather, it was the way Pirelli's tyres were behaving during races which was attracting attention.

Their brief had been to create tyres which degraded sharply after a certain number of laps, leading to, in an ideal world, two-stop races. The FIA wanted this to make grands prix more exciting.

However, Pirelli had gone too soft.

So instead of two-stoppers, we were seeing races with two, three or four stops. The table below shows the strategies used in the first seven races of 2013. "Alt Strategy" indicates an intentional strategy with a number of stops different to that used by the race winner, which resulted in a points finish.

Video Play Button
Videos you might like

Neil James

The Spanish Grand Prix stands out as the best example of Pirelli's apparent failingsdespite using the two hardest compounds, the most common (and winning) strategy was to make four pit stops.

Red Bull team principal Christian Horner was among those unhappy with the situation, saying of the four-stop race, via Keith Collantine of F1Fanatic:

I think for the fans it is too much. It’s difficult enough when you’ve got all the information on your computers and all the strategy tools. I think it does get too confusing. And I think three is the absolute limit.

Lewis Hamilton, British Grand Prix 2013.
Lewis Hamilton, British Grand Prix 2013.Lars Baron/Getty Images

It got worse later in the year. The British Grand Prix at Silverstone saw several spectacular tyre failures. Though they were caused by the teams running the tyres on the wrong side of the car and at pressures outside Pirelli's guideline limits, the tyre maker got the blame.

The composition was changed a few races later, but the criticism continued and there were further (though far fewer) failures. Fernando Alonso complained, per Ian Parkes of the Press Association, the super-soft compound "would not do five kilometres" after qualifying in Korea, and his was just one of many barrages aimed Pirelli's way.

By the end of the year Pirelli were tired of the criticism they were receiving for doing what the FIA had askedmaking flaky tyres that fell apart quickly. It was bad PR for the company, and they had to get 2014 right.

Have they?

Jean-Eric Vergne giving the new tyres a thorough work-out in 2014 preseason testing.
Jean-Eric Vergne giving the new tyres a thorough work-out in 2014 preseason testing.Ker Robertson/Getty Images

There's a strong argument that, under the requirements currently imposed upon Pirelli, they will never produce good tyres for motor racing.

An unhappy side-effect of the limited-lifespan tyres is that they can't handle being driven hard for more than a few laps at a time. Tyres that could survive being pushed for 20 laps would last far, far longer being driven conservatively.

The FIA doesn't want that. They want tyres with a limited lifespan, regardless of how hard they are pushed.

Romain Grosjean locking up in Malaysia.
Romain Grosjean locking up in Malaysia.Paul Gilham/Getty Images

The result is what we have nowtyres which need wrapping up in cotton wool, protecting from pit exit to pit entry to ensure they have reasonable levels of grip throughout the whole stint.

Drivers can choose between (for example) doing 25 laps driving conservatively, 35 to 40 laps driving ultra-conservatively or four laps driving like a man possessed.

If you believe F1 should be about cars being driven to their limits, the modern breed of tyres are not for you.

But the requirements exist and are not going away anytime soon, so Pirelli have to be judged on how well they are doing what they have been asked to do.

And they're doing quite well. Here's a table of the 2014 races so far:

Neil James

Only one, Malaysia, had more than two stops. This was partly because the lead drivers chose to avoid the hard compound for as long as possiblerace winner Lewis Hamilton did only five laps on them.

The Ferraris in Spain.
The Ferraris in Spain.Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Bahrain and China dropped from three to two, and the difference in Spain was markedfrom four stops in 2013 to two this year.

We've also seen the tyres are capable of surviving massive lockups without becoming dangerous or unusable. Nico Rosberg in Canada provided a good example.

So on the surface it looks like they're doing it right, but there are and always will be critics.

Alonso, whose comments over the years have made it clear he'd like the pre-2011 tyres back, said in Monaco, per Andrew Benson of BBC Sport:

They are too hard. There are no secrets. When they bring normal tyres with good grip, we finish the tyre in two or three laps. When they bring harder tyres we finish the tyre in eight or nine laps but we go very slow.

This is what we haveit is the same for everybody. The tyre is what it is and what it has been for the last four years unfortunately.

And Sergio Perez said at the same race, according to Ben Anderson of Autosport, "They can maybe go a step softer into the compounds because if you analyse it, in many races we have done this year we could have brought the softer compounds."

But then, Perez would say thathis team, Force India, have proved the class of the field as far as tyre management is concerned this year.

Pirelli would probably love to properly showcase their technology with super-grippy, super-durable tyres. But they're not allowed toif they want to continue as the supplier, they have to toe the FIA line and produce the gimmicky tyres we see today.

They're not perfect, and never will be.

But they're certainly better this year than they were in 2013.

slash iconYour sports. Delivered.

Enjoy our content? Join our newsletter to get the latest in sports news delivered straight to your inbox!