x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Inconsistent Pirelli has rejuvenated the tired formula

There have been five different winners in the first five races of the Formula One 2012 season and Gary Meenaghan says tyre wear is the key to the story.

Many are pointing to Pirelli's quick-wearing tyres as the reason the 2012 Formula one season has been so unpredictable.
Many are pointing to Pirelli's quick-wearing tyres as the reason the 2012 Formula one season has been so unpredictable.

Formula One sits on the brink of history.

Sunday, played out against the sport's most beautiful backdrop, a motor-racing series that less than 12 months ago was widely regarded as ominously predictable could potentially provide a sequence of results as unexpected as thunderstorms in Monte Carlo.

At 2pm local time (4pm UAE), here at the Circuit de Monaco, with its jaw-dropping cliff faces, glimmering super-yachts and tight, winding streets, the Formula One World Championship could be just two hours away from seeing its opening six races of 2012 produce six different winners.

Such a feat has never happened in F1's 62-year history.

It is a far cry from the shape the sport arrived in the sun-kissed principality last season.

Pre-race, Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull Racing's German world champion, relaxed on his team's massive floating motorhome safe in the knowledge that even were he to crash out on his opening lap, he would still hold the championship lead, such was his 41-point advantage over his nearest challenger in the drivers standings, Lewis Hamilton of McLaren-Mercedes.

Vettel had won four of the opening five races. In the one race where he failed to take maximum points, he finished second.

He won in Monaco and won a further six races as he eventually secured the title with four races yet to be contested.

The 24 year old's domination largely rendered the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix - the penultimate race of the season - a dead-rubber.

Ironically, he actually did crash out in his opening lap at Yas Marina Circuit when he suffered a punctured tyre.

It is the tyres again that are the primary reason behind what must surely be one of most thrilling seasons in Formula One's history.

Yes, there has been a levelling of quality as the middle-order teams' development flourishes while the traditional heavyweights have less areas to improve, but there is no doubting Pirelli's quick-wearing rubbers have changed the entire concept of racing.

The Italian manufacturers have created a series where the only thing predictable is an unpredictable outcome.

The different ways the tyres react, the loss of performance a driver suffers if his tyres are worn, the benefits of a fresh set of rubbers, everything has played its part in the five enthralling events so far.

Five races, five winners, five different constructors; two maiden driver winners; a first team victory since 2004. This season is the ultimate in the unforeseen.

After watching world champions Jenson Button of McLaren and Ferrari's Fernando Alonso sharing the opening two races in Australia and Malaysia, Nico Rosberg, in what will be remembered as one of the most exciting dry-weather races in more than a decade, drove his Mercedes-GP to victory in China to take his maiden win at the 111th attempt.

Vettel joined the party late, but took the top step of the podium in Bahrain.

And then earlier this month the grandest surprise yet arrived in Spain: Pastor Maldonado, a 27-year-old Venezuelan in only his second year in the sport, converted pole position into Williams's first grand prix victory in almost eight years.

The likelihood of Maldonado triumphing at the Circuit de Catalunya was so miniscule he was ranked as a massive outsider before the start of the weekend.

For Sunday's race, such is the uncertainty regarding the lay of the land, he is being spoken of as one of the favourites.

So, how can tyres impact results so greatly?

In a nutshell, Pirelli,the Italian manufacturers, have changed their compounds in order to ensure more competitive racing and no team is yet to fully understand how they work.

Team principals are desperately trying to discover the optimum set-up in order to extract the maximum potential from the tyres - Ross Brawn, the Mercedes-GP team manager, calls it "the sweet spot" - but the problem is tyre performance changes every race depending on the track, the weather and a host of other factors. Life on the pit wall has rarely been so busy.

"It's true to say you don't always know what you're going to get in the race, even if you've done the work on a Friday and Saturday, and you have to be prepared to react from what you see in the race," Brawn said.

"Sometimes the tyres don't last as long as you anticipated; sometimes they're more consistent than you anticipated. So you need to have the capacity to evolve your strategy while you're on the pit wall." It is not only strategy in the pits that is changing.

Mark Webber, Vettel's 35-year-old teammate at Red Bull, called the introduction of Pirelli "the biggest change in driver technique and style that I can remember, certainly in my career and I've done a few grands prix". Webber has started 181 race weekends.

Fellow veteran driver Michael Schumacher has been arguably the most vocal opponent to the new tyres, arguing that because of the 554f the tyres, drivers are incapable of performing to their optimum. "They're playing a much too big effect because they are so peaky and so special that they don't put our cars or ourselves to the limit," the Mercedes-GP driver said after crashing out of the Spanish Grand Prix. "We drive like on raw eggs."

Pirelli responded by pointing out other drivers were getting on with their job; a retort that could be taken as a veiled reminder that Schumacher's teammate Rosberg has triumphed this season, while the 43 year old's best result so far is 10th. Even his own team principal said criticising the tyres was pointless.

"You either can complain about it, or keep your head down and do a better job than anyone else," Brawn said on Thursday.

"That is what we are faced with, because the tyres will not change dramatically this year."

Which is surely good news for race fans. Monaco is traditionally the most unpredictable race of the season due to its unique circuit, but Sunday's race could be realistically contested by more than 12 different drivers - at least.

It is an unheard of scenario compared to recent years.

In April, Sergio Perez, another driver in only his second season in the sport, came within six laps of taking a maiden victory for both him and his Sauber team in Malaysia. His teammate Kamui Kobayashi is refusing to rule himself out of finishing atop the podium.

"We have seen five different winners in five races," said the Japanese driver. "So you could say almost everything is possible this year. I believe we have a good car and good chances for good results."

Likewise, Force India - a team who have finished on the podium once in 78 races - are aware they have never had a better chance of achieving the unlikely. When asked whether recent races proved anything can happen on Sunday, Vijay Mallya, the team principal replied: "Absolutely."

"The results speak for themselves," he said. "There is a definite sense of unpredictability. The usual front-runners aren't front-runners anymore.

"The midfield teams have in fact outperformed the traditional front-runners. So there is something going on there which I think everybody is trying to understand better."

If there is one negative aspect to the new tyre management battle, it is that the final qualifying session has suffered.

Spectators pay large sums of money to watch the world's best drivers compete in qualifying yet several drivers have recently opted to remain in their pit garage and save a set of tyres for the race rather than wear them down while trying to post a fast lap.

Fresh tyres in the race appear to hold more importance than a high grid position.

The result is the potential introduction of a tyre solely for the final part of qualifying where the top 10 on the grid is decided.

Sir Frank Williams called it a "good idea" while Sauber chief executive, Monisha Kaltenborn, dismissed it as unlikely to change anything. Brawn said he has no strong opinion, but would willingly accept the idea if it was proposed.

"Of course people are here to see cars run and even when there's some teams that don't go out, you've got six or seven cars still competing hard for pole position," he said.

"Is the show spoilt by the fact some of the cars at the back of Q1 don't run? I'm not sure it is. I think everyone's focused on what the guys fighting for pole are doing."

The fight for pole today in Monaco will be more fascinating than ever.

While the five winning constructors all fancy their chances, it is widely accepted the fastest team this weekend is Lotus, who are yet to win this season.

A sixth winning constructor? It cannot be ruled out. But nothing can this season - as a thunderstorm Friday evening in Monte Carlo proved all too aptly.

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

twitter Follow us @SprtNationalUAE