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Natural Selection?

July 9, 2013


The Formula One World Championship is, in its most basic form, a competition. There’re many aspects to it which set it aside from other competitions and many arguments to say that it’s not altogether fair, as one might think a competition should be.

There’s clearly no parity when it comes to the financial might between teams and that translates directly into obvious advantages for the wealthier competitors.
The larger teams can afford better facilities and technologies, the best engines, the best staff and the best drivers. The groups of teams further back can often barely afford to go racing and are forced to make the best of what they have.
Formula One as a whole, does very little to address this and it’s generally accepted as the way things are and have always been. The result is that a Grand Prix consists of, not just a race or competition for first place and the winners trophy, but a number of battles throughout the field with each team fighting for position and status within their own ‘financial’ group.

Occasionally in the sport, there are certain elements which are standardised and supplied to all teams by an external third party and in these cases, it’s a rare opportunity for a level playing field in F1.

In the past we’ve had things like the pitlane refueling equipment, supplied by a French company, Intertechnique, to all teams in a standard form. With pitstops being so crucial to a race, teams occasionally tried to come up with ways of modifying the kit to make it more usable or efficient, but the regulations, and the company themselves, did their best to ensure everyone was using equipment of exactly the same spec and that no-one could gain or lose out in that area.
Today, we have a standardised ECU and driver display unit for all teams. They’re supplied by McLaren Electronic Systems Limited (MESL) and strictly controlled and monitored by the FIA to ensure that everyone has the same. They quite rightly can’t be tweaked or changed and have no influence on the sporting outcome of F1.
Similarly, on board timing equipment’s provided to all teams by FOM. It’s all identical and can in no way provide advantages to any teams over any others.

The most obvious and prominent example of standardised equipment, provided by an external supplier, is of course Formula One’s tyres.
Pirelli have a contract with Formula One and with the teams to provide a range of tyres suitable for the task in hand at each Grand Prix. As we know, the range consists of different compounds and tyre types to cope with the varying track, temperature and weather conditions found, as the championship winds its way around the globe.
The biggest difference between the tyres and other third party products, is that they not only have a direct, varying and substantial impact on car performance, but that there’s a choice on which of the tyres is brought to each race weekend.
With the ECU, teams know how it works, they’re given the kit at the start of the season and know that it’ll stay the same, provide them with what they need and can to a certain degree, be forgotten about for the majority of the time. It doesn’t give them headaches in terms of car performance. Re-fueling rigs were the same, timing transponders and so on.

With Pirelli’s tyres however, they’re crucial to car set up, race strategy and of course lap time. Unlike the other ‘bought in’ products, the tyres aren’t a constant, they can change in type from race to race. That variability, along with their importance in transmitting the grip levels between car and track surface, means that some cars, some drivers, some teams, on some days, fair better than others with their use.
We all now know that certain teams’ cars work better with certain compounds and in certain temperatures and that knowledge is what puts the tyre supplier in a slightly awkward position.
At the beginning of the season, Pirelli selected their compound choices for the first few tracks that F1 visits. The circuit characteristics, tyre loading, surface abrasion and the likely temperatures seen in those countries at the time of year, all affected the decisions, but back then, no-one knew how the selections might affect each car.
They were briefed by Formula One to try and deliver races that consisted of two to three pitstops in the interests of creating the best show for fans and so that’s exactly what they tried to do.
That’s fine and whilst there were a number of inevitable complainers about the degradation levels of the new tyres, Pirelli had done pretty much as they’d been asked.
As is always the case, some teams excelled with the 2013 range of tyres, some struggled more so and the arguments raged on about whether it was the right thing for the sport or not. That’s still really up for debate, but as with any standard parts, equipment or regulations, it’s the teams’ job to make the best of them and try to use them to their advantage.

As this season, and any season, progresses, the drivers, teams, fans and of course Pirelli gain a better understanding of the products and how they effect each competitor differently. We all now know, for example, that the Lotus E21 is particularly easy on it’s tyres. It’s secured great race results in the first half of the season by managing to get through a race at a decent pace, yet often doing one less pitstop than the likes of Red Bull’s RB9. Other teams like Force India and Ferrari have also produced cars able to manage their tyre usage better than some rivals.
As the nuances of each teams’ tyre useage becomes clearer to all, it raises the question about the impact of compound selection on the competition. Pirelli currently choose which two dry weather tyres from their range to take to each GP and that decision can have a major impact on the way each team performs and therefore potentially the outcome.
Not for one minute am I suggesting that there’s any wrong doing on Pirelli’s part, but armed with the knowledge they inevitably now possess, should they be put in the position of having to take such an influential, and often subjective, decision with Formula One’s stakes so high?

After coming under so much criticism from many areas, it’s been suggested recently that their compound selections for upcoming rounds are overly conservative. On one hand, one might say that’s understandable, the company doesn’t need any more bad press about their tyres not lasting very long, so by selecting the harder, more durable of the range, it perhaps minimizes that element. The poor public perception of a Pirelli tyre may well translate to the core business of their road car products and that goes against the entire reasoning for them entering the sport in the first place.
On the other hand, by making such selections, it’s clear that some teams will benefit and others will lose out and everybody now knows who they are, including Pirelli.
Of course it works both ways if tyres in the softer end of the range are chosen, but the point is should we be looking for a fairer way to make the selection?

What are the alternatives?

If we assume that the current regulations and guidelines will remain, in terms of having a range of tyres to suit all conditions and each driver having ‘primes’ and ‘options’ to use at each event, there aren’t too many ways around this.

a) Pirelli could make selections for the entire season before round one, based on the technical aspects of each track and the teams know what they’ve got right from the start. The problem with this is that, as the cars get faster and more understanding’s gained, the loads put through the tyres as the season progresses can increase. Pirelli might want to modify their selections in response and then we’re back to where we are now.

b) The FIA could make the selection. This at least takes the pressure off the tyre supplier and removes any speculation of third party influence.
In reality though, if the FIA had the responsibility, they would only make their selections based on advice from the tyre supplier, but at least could perhaps do it solely on a technical basis and not off the back of any potential PR connotations.

c) A third option could be to allow the teams to make their own selections for each race.
There are obvious logistical complications here for the tyre supplier, so selections would have to be made by each team in accordance with a strict deadline, but at least there couldn’t be the same complaints we see today. The likelihood is that most teams would actually make the same selections, but they could, if they wanted to, tailor it to their own strengths and weaknesses. We could still see great racing and Pirelli would be back to being simply a non-influential supplier.

I’ve simplified the arguments here of course, but it surely can’t be right or fair, that a company can come into Formula One and either have the ability to, or be tasked with, making subjective decisions which influence so enormously, the outcome of races and the championship.
Perhaps it’s time for a rethink in the interests of fairness to the competition and fairness to the sport’s outside contractors?

Marc Priestley


From → Formula One

  1. David permalink

    Can you tell us why some cars are easier on tires than others? For example, why are Lotus able to get more life out of a tire and still be fast? And why is Merc so fast, but so hard on tires? Surely it can’t be just a tweak of downforce otherwise they would have quickly figured that out.

    • It’s not a straightforward answer I’m afraid. It’s a combination of things.
      It’s to do with how each car delivers its grip ie. aero/mechanical, how the car dynamically loads the tires, how the car’s able to control temps etc.
      Some cars can’t generate the heat they need without running excessive toe-in on rear tyres for example, that helps generate the grip, but equally exaggerates wear &/or thermal deg.
      It’s far more complex than that, but hope that helps a little.

  2. floodo1 permalink

    awesome article! fascinating comparison between spec fuel rigs and tires!

    This whole tire thing for me boils down to the fact that Pirelli has had problems keeping their tires together (delaminations and cuts leading to blowouts). I’ve seen no real problems with the compounds or durability as we’ve had a nice mix of races with different numbers of pitstops. It is always bout Pirelli needing to change this or do that in order to address some safety concern. Far easier said than done, but Bridgestone showed us that it’s quite possible to make a tire that doesnt have safety issues.

    All I can say at the end of the day is that I’ve been a fan of formula one for a decade or so and I’ve never before longed for different tire suppliers. But today, I yearn for Michelin or Bridgestone.

  3. Tom permalink

    I like the idea that teams could choose their two compounds for each race and they could select which compounds they want for the next track (say) two weeks in advance. Pirelli can provide technical information but dont have to make the decision for all teams which pleases almost no one.

    Do you think this would push teams towards a one stop strategy or all teams towards a single strategy perhaps? What would you say is the optimal number of stops for most races? two stop?

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