Why Formula 1 Tyre Controversies Look Set to Continue into 2017

Matthew Walthert@@MatthewWalthertFeatured ColumnistJuly 17, 2016

Pirelli's time as F1's sole tyre supplier has been plagued by controversy.
Pirelli's time as F1's sole tyre supplier has been plagued by controversy.Peter J Fox/Getty Images

Formula One is trapped in some sort of Goldilocks storyline when it comes to tyre durability: First they are too soft, then too hard, then too soft again. The only difference is that F1 never seems to find a level of tyre degradation that is just right.

And, based on Pirelli motorsport director Paul Hembery's recent interview with the official F1 website, the controversy and bickering surrounding the tyres looks set to continue into 2017—a symptom of the sport's convoluted rule-making process, where the teams have an equal say to the FIA, the supposed governing body.

Understandably, the teams are looking out for their own best interests, which sometimes clash with what is best for the series as a whole. This leads to ad hoc and reactionary rule-making, rather than a carefully considered suite of changes to improve the sport.

When Pirelli became F1's sole tyre supplier in 2011, the Italian company was given a mandate to produce tyres that degraded quickly, to spice up the racing and provide more strategic options. When some teams and drivers complained they were too soft, Pirelli made the compounds more durable.

For 2016, Pirelli introduced a new ultrasoft compound which, combined with the teams' increased tyre-selection flexibility, has led to more variations in strategy. In terms of durability, though, Lewis Hamilton complained in the Canadian Grand Prix post-qualifying press conference that, "The ultrasoft is not particularly soft for whatever reason, they’re just such hard compounds; it takes us so long to get the temperature into them."

Just four races earlier, in China, Romain Grosjean said the tyres degraded too quickly, per ESPN F1's Laurence Edmondson.

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Pirelli cannot win.

Looking ahead, according to Hembery, "We will have much less degradation in 2017 and tyres will—if we achieve what we are trying to achieve—have a wider operating window. And yes, that in itself will take away some level of strategy—or at least variations between teams."

Pirelli motorsport director Paul Hembery.
Pirelli motorsport director Paul Hembery.Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Over the last few years, though, there has been a push to create more pit stops and more variety in strategy calls. All of a sudden, that is set to be dialled back, at least in part because the new technical regulations will lead to faster cars and more stress on the tyres, which then need to be more durable.

The concern is that the new regulations, including those changes to decrease the level of tyre degradation, will make the cars more aesthetically appealing but hurt the racing action.

"I think it's like an Instagram filter," Grosjean told Bleacher Report in Montreal. "So we're going to use a very modern technology but try to put a filter to get to old-style cars.

"And obviously they will look cool, aggressive. We want to have fast cars; it's a challenge to be driving the car. We want to be tired at the end of the grand prix. But we still don't have a good show. We want the fans to enjoy the race."

Despite Mercedes' three-year (and counting) run of dominance, the overall level of competition has never been closer, as the Telegraph's Daniel Johnson demonstrated last year.

Will the new regulations and more durable tyres improve the sport's competitiveness? Maybe, but no one knows for sure.

The "wider operating window" that Hembery mentioned should help, as the tyres will be easier to warm up but less prone to overheating, particularly when drivers are closely following each other.

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One thing we do know is that if all the races become single-pit-stop affairs, there will be a loud chorus saying the strategies are too boring and the tyres are too durable (at least until there is another high-speed blowout—then they won't be durable enough).

Part of the reason you hear so many complaints from teams, drivers and fans is that people do not have confidence in the rule-making process. If everyone knew that tests had been carried out and there were specific reasons why this or that change was being implemented, they might be more willing to give it a chance.

Instead, we have the secretive, cartel-like Strategy Group, which spits out ill-conceived gibberish like awarding double points for the last race of the season or this year's short-lived qualifying revamp.

Maybe they will get lucky and the new regulations will lead to the best racing we have seen in years. If that does not happen, though, there will be calls to change the rules again.

But before that happens, F1 should change its rule-making process. Limit the teams' role to consultations and ensure any changes are tested and the benefits clearly explained to all stakeholders, including the fans, before they are implemented.

That may not be possible—at least not right now—but we can hope. Just like the sport's rule-makers are hoping their new regulations will spice up the on-track action.


Matthew Walthert is an F1 columnist for Bleacher Report UK. He has also written for VICE, FourFourTwo and The Globe and Mail. Follow him on Twitter:


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