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Why Pirellis, Not Michelins, Are the Right Tyres for Formula 1

Neil James@NeilosJamesFeatured ColumnistMay 15, 2015

HOCKENHEIM, GERMANY - JULY 17:  A general view of Pirelli tyres during previews ahead of the German Grand Prix at Hockenheimring on July 17, 2014 in Hockenheim, Germany.  (Photo by Drew Gibson/Getty Images)
Drew Gibson/Getty Images

Tyres are a big deal in Formula One and have been since the start of 2011. Pirelli's rapidly degrading rubber has divided opinion. Some love the increased drama and unpredictability it brings; others hate the artificial nature of the racing.

But Paul Hembery and co's future in the sport may be in doubt. Rival tyre giant Michelin has expressed an interest in returning to F1 in 2017, but only if certain conditions are met.

The French manufacturer has no interest in following the short-life route the sport currently demands Pirelli takes. Its rubber would be designed for performance, not spectaclean advertisement of its engineering prowess, not a potential PR liability.

However, it's not the first time Michelin has indicated it would like to come back. James Allen reported a similar story two years agoand Bernie Ecclestone's response to the company's latest comments was one of dismissal.

And on this occasion, the commercial-rights chief made all the sense in the world.

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - JUNE 29:  (L-R) F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone talks with Pirelli Motorsport Director Paul Hembery following qualifying for the British Formula One Grand Prix at Silverstone Circuit on June 29, 2013 in Northampton, England.  (Photo by
Paul Gilham/Getty Images

The 2010 Canadian Grand Prix marked a turning point in the history of F1 tyre evolution. We already had the choice of four compounds, with then-supplier Bridgestone selecting two for each event. As today, each driver had to use both compounds in every race.

Though Bridgestone tended to bring compounds at least one step apart in an effort to shake up strategy, the rubber tended to be sufficiently durable for one-stop races.

But Canada was different. Substantial resurfacing work on the semi-permanent Montreal circuit saw the super-soft tyres annihilated after just a handful of laps. They were paired with the medium compounds, which themselves didn't last as long as usual.

The result was a fantastic, unpredictable race. Drivers had to carefully look after their tyres and positions flipped as different teams encountered varying degrees of tyre performance. F1Fanatic readers voted it the race of the season, and Lotus technical director Mike Goscoyne told Autosport:

If you were going to write the tyre rules for how you wanted races to be, they would be like Canada. You had changing strategies, overtaking and lots of excitement. It was exactly what F1 needs, and it's proved that the argument for one tyre being very marginable is very strong.

Just look at the different way people used the tyres. Some used the super soft at the start and we ran it for 18 laps at the endwhich was fine. [Vitaly] Petrov stopped five laps later than us, he came tearing up to us and we thought we were in troublebut by the time he was up to us his tyres had dropped off and we were able to defend. That was good racing.

The Japanese tyre manufacturer was leaving F1 at the end of the year but attempted to replicate the Canadian conditions at further races, going so far as to pair the super-softs with the hards for the 2010 German Grand Prix.

Pirelli replaced Bridgestone in 2011, with an agreement in place that it would produce tyres engineered to wear rapidly in order to improve the show.

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - MARCH 29:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP makes a pit stop during the Malaysia Formula One Grand Prix at Sepang Circuit on March 29, 2015 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
Mark Thompson/Getty Images

With few exceptions, Pirelli has done what was asked. Tyre management and strategy is now a key part of the sport, and a lot of the overtaking we see today is, either directly or indirectly, down to the tyres.

The downside is that the pure, racing performance of the rubber has suffered.

If they're pushed hard for more than a couple of laps, the tyres lose a lot of grip and are essentially at the end of their useful life. The drivers of today are often forced to lap at speeds carefully calculated by their teams to be the best compromise between pace and tyre life.

Radio messages along the lines of, "find two tenths but look after the rears" have become common.

Tyre management has always been a key part of motor racing, but even the most ardent supporter of Pirelli would have to admit it has gone a little too far. Ideally, an F1 driver should be judged on how quickly he can make his car go from A to Bnot on how much tyre life he has left when he gets there.

Mark Webber, who quit F1 for sports-car racing at the end of 2013, certainly feels that way.

Mark Webber @AussieGrit

Blood's boiling watching most single seater categories including F1 become completely dependant on extreme tyre management Let drivers push.

But if multiple pit stops and strategic variation are sought, there's little Pirelli can do. Unless it is fitted with a distance-triggered self-destruct mechanism, a tyre designed to last just 20 laps cannot be made to produce excellent grip for each of those laps. Were it possible, someone would have done it by now.

If Pirelli is awarded a new contract, the general characteristics of the rubber from 2017 onward will not change. Pushing hard for lap after lap will continue to be but a pipe dream, and multiple pit stops will remain.

But Michelin is also interestedand it has an entirely different philosophy.

Paul Sancya/Associated Press

Michelin exited F1 at the end of the 2006 but now wishes to return. In its previous stint, it was involved in a "tyre war" with Bridgestone. This time around, it'd be a sole supplier.

But it would not be interested in taking over from Pirelli if all it would be doing was creating "gimmicky" tyres. Asked by Italian publication Autosprint (h/t Planet F1) if his company would consider a return to Formula 1, Michelin motorsport director Pascal Couasnon said:

Why not? We are open to it. But there must be certain conditions.

Formula One needs to change the technical regulations. The tyre must again be a technical object and not a tool for a spectacular show. We want 18-inch tyres that we will use in Formula E, and also in other series.

If F1 wants to consider our proposals we are here, fully open, with a strong will to return. If things stay as they are, we are not interested. We will tender our application, then it's up to [Bernie] Ecclestone and the FIA whether they accept or not.

MICHEL SPINGLER/Associated Press

What the company is offering is plain to see. Rather than create tyres that degrade quickly in order to force teams into multi-stop strategies, Michelin would aim purely for the best possible performance. F1 would be a showcase of the company's abilities, a test of its engineering excellence.

Its tyres, as F1 tyres were in the mid-2000s, would be highly durable and offer up plenty of grip. Working on the assumption the "must use both compounds" rule would remain, races would, almost without variation, be one-stop affairs for all concerned.

They are the sort of races the current tyres were designed to avoid. The day after Michelin's interest was reported, Bernie Ecclestone spoke to Autosport and made his viewpoint quite clear:

All Michelin would do is make a rock-hard tyre that you could put on in January and take off in December because they don't want to be in a position where they can be criticised.

That would make absolutely 100 per cent sure, if there was a question mark about Mercedes winning, it would be removed. It would be all the things we don't want, and goes against all the things Pirelli have had the courage to do from what we have asked, which has made for some bloody good racing.

If we had a rock-hard tyre, we could just forget about that.

On the positive side, Michelin would provide tyres drivers could truly lean on. With more grip, the lap times would be lower and we might see the cars looking "on edge" again in races as drivers push hard for every tenth.

They may be able to follow closer behind a rival if they have less fear of "destroying" their tyres in dirty air. Robbed of the possibility of substantial grip advantage later in the stint or race, a chasing car may also be more inclined to attack at the earliest given opportunity rather than sit back and wait.

The undercut would still work, but there would only be one opportunity per race, and it would not be as effective as it is with the Pirellis.

JAVIER BARBANCHO/Associated Press

To a racing purist and many casual fans alike, the idea of having "proper" tyres back in F1 is wonderful. But before we get carried away, Michelin's vision would not lead to flat-out racing.

Some degree of tyre management would still be needed, and the idea that Fernando Alonso or Lewis Hamilton could bang in 10 consecutive "qualifying laps" in the style of Michael Schumacher is blown away by the current need for significant fuel-saving and energy management.

Naturally aspirated engines with on-the-fly refuelling strategies allowed that sort of driving; turbo hybrids with a single tank of fuel to last the whole race would not.

Of course, the cars would be a little quicker, but would a small speed increase be worth a return to one-stop racing and the removal of so much of what has made F1 exciting in recent years?

Vincent Thian/Associated Press

No, it wouldn't.

If anyone thinks F1 is boring now, with Mercedes dominating (and Red Bull before them), think what it would be like if the team could just bolt on a set of tyres and zip away without a care in the world.

Recall the Russian Grand Prix last year, where Pirelli supplied tyres that were far too hard. Or compare this year's dismal Australian Grand Prix to the brilliant race in Malaysia.

It's true that they're a bit of a gimmick—the racing isn't 100 per cent pure, and the drivers don't particularly like them. Considering them in isolation, we'd probably struggle to find anyone who does.

But stick them on an F1 car and send it out on track, and the positives outweigh the negatives. The Pirelli tyres, like DRS, are a necessary evil in the sport's current era.

HOCKENHEIM, GERMANY - JULY 17:  A member of the Infiniti Red Bull Racing team pushes tyres into the garage during previews ahead of the German Grand Prix at Hockenheimring on July 17, 2014 in Hockenheim, Germany.  (Photo by Adam Pretty/Getty Images)
Adam Pretty/Getty Images

The rapidly wearing rubber was brought in because the tyres they replaced just weren't working any more. Good races had become the exception rather than the rule, and something needed to be done to improve the show.

Maybe if another, less offensive gimmick was found, we could go the Michelin route. But for now, F1 needs the extra bang provided by the Pirelli tyres.

Five years ago, everyone was thinking about how to make the tyres do exactly what they're doing today. That race in Canada showed us what F1 could be on a regular basisfilled with drama, excitement and overtaking.

In part thanks to the Pirellis, we get far more of those things now than we did before, and the fanbase as a whole appears to appreciate it. Looking at the F1 Fanatic rate-the-race polls, average scores have risen since the rapidly degrading tyres arrived in the sport.

Yes, they're artificial. But surely an artificial race is better than a purified procession?