MEDLAND: Spinning a vicious circle

Image by Steven Tee/LAT

MEDLAND: Spinning a vicious circle

Insights & Analysis

MEDLAND: Spinning a vicious circle


The Formula 1 season might have ended — in terms of racing at least — on December 1, but it didn’t take long for a common, frustrating theme to resume after the final round.

Pirelli-bashing has been a favorite pastime of the teams since pretty much 2011, when the Italian manufacturer secured the tender to become the sole tire supplier in F1. Since then, there have been all manner of complaints, some completely justified and some not so much.

After a sample of the 2020 specification tires was tested at the United States Grand Prix back in November, teams raised a few concerns about their performance, but much of that was written off as a temperature issue. Austin was extremely cold for the first few days of the race week, and by Friday morning it still hadn’t quite picked up (the F1 paddock was often dealing with freezing temperatures in the early part of the working day).

So Pirelli had an excuse for any performance issues and told the teams to wait until the Abu Dhabi test to see a true representation of what the new tires were capable of.

Now let’s not forget, these were tires that had been developed over the year including plenty of track testing during the season before the compounds were finalized and homologated. The last bit is important, as it means they were approved as the 2020 tires, and to change from them would require approval from 70% of the teams.

Opinions about the planned new tires were negative from the outset of testing. Image by Jerry Andre/LAT

Then the tires hit the track at the Yas Marina Circuit in hot conditions, and the feedback was instantly negative. The initial complaint was that the tires were much slower than the 2019 version, which of course is always going to annoy drivers. But that shouldn’t be so much of a problem if they make for much better racing, or are greatly improved in other areas. The problem is, they didn’t appear to be.

Valtteri Bottas was not impressed after a full day in the Mercedes, while Esteban Ocon bit his tongue as it was his first day driving for Renault. But Romain Grosjean was the telling opinion, as he tried his best to remain positive and not be critical of Pirelli or the tires — after all, Haas could really do with a positive change after its struggles this season — but in the end he couldn’t manage that.

After looking for the positives, Grosjean had to admit: “…but it’s not what you would dream of.”

His comments were backed up by basically every driver and team member who spoke during the test. In the end, that vote that needed the support of 70% of the teams to stick with the 2019 tires ended up being unanimous. It was confirmed this week that not one of the 10 wanted to give the new compounds a go.

For a team like Haas, it should actually come as no surprise that it would vote against. Struggling massively with the tires throughout this season, a challenging new product to deal with has no guarantee of solving that problem. But it has a season’s-worth of data on the 2019 compounds to work with next year. Better the devil you know.

Now, you could say it is a massive waste of money for Pirelli to have developed new tires that will never be raced, but to implement a much worse product just to justify the outlay in terms of development costs when there is a ready-made version everyone prefers would be false economy.

Pirelli should at least be applauded for giving the teams the option to choose and prioritizing what is going to the better option for the sport next season.

But that’s not to say it isn’t a significant concern that the final product did not match expectations and led the whole grid to believe the previous option was far superior. After all, there were talks about returning to 2018 tires at one stage earlier this season, much were the initial difficulties with the 2019 offering.

And on a wider level, it raises the pressure on Pirelli ahead of 2021 (pictured above). The changes to Formula 1 in 12 months’ time will be sweeping, with a huge technical shift as well as the introduction of a budget cap. 18-inch wheels will adorn radically different cars, and that should just be a small part of a dramatic overhaul.

But the latest failings with tire development do not fill the teams with confidence that the changes — from a technical point of view designed to make the cars much more raceable — will be allowed to have their desired impact. It matters not if you create cars that can follow extremely closely, if even a 1% loss in downforce for the following car requires them to ask too much of their tires.

It is part of the vicious circle right now. A following car loses aerodynamic performance, leans on the tires more, but they can’t cope, The tires overheat, the car loses more performance and has to drop back.

Pirelli knows just what a big task it has on its hands with the development of the 2021 tires, using Formula 2 as a test bed with 18-inches next year as well as having already been track testing on modified F1 cars. This year’s failings it can recover from, but there can’t afford to be a repeat.

Pirelli has to use this setback as a learning opportunity. 2021 has the potential to be a massive change of direction for the sport but all the research, analysis and development of the new rules could be in vain if it delivers poor tires.

I’ve often been defensive of Pirelli because it is an easy scapegoat. It’s the one aspect completely out of the teams’ hands — they don’t get to choose or change the tire suppler like they can any other supplier of parts to their car — and it has a massive impact on performance. But this latest episode has done nothing to instill confidence that it will rise to the 2021 challenge.

2020 is the first year of a new tire supplier contract for Pirelli, one that conveniently required a single season on 13-inch wheels before the switch to 18-inch. That put off many (but not all) suitors to the contract as it required development of two very different tires simultaneously, with the first specification to be used for just one season.

That Pirelli starts the new deal by failing to deliver an improved product for the first year despite the knowledge of 13-inch tires it has had over the past nine years is concerning, and just increases the possibility that this contract could be its last.

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