x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Pirelli have a balancing act to do on tyres in Formula One

Conservation of tyres may add to the strategic quotient but the sport is also about fast cars, writes Gary Meenaghan.

Every team from the winner in Spain, Ferrari's Fernando Alonso, top left, to Red Bull Racing struggled with the tyres. Getty Images (2), Reuters, EPA
Every team from the winner in Spain, Ferrari's Fernando Alonso, top left, to Red Bull Racing struggled with the tyres. Getty Images (2), Reuters, EPA

There is a fine line between a procession and a pit-stop pantomime. Pirelli, Formula One's official tyre suppliers, lost their equilibrium in Spain on Sunday and provided vulnerable rubber that produced a complex, confusing race that featured an absurd 82 pit stops.

Criticism from drivers, team principals and bemused spectators was fierce and the Italian tyre manufacturers responded by promising to change their rubber compounds.

Few people who genuinely understand the sport blame Pirelli for the situation F1 finds itself in - fighting to find balance between speed and strategy.

The company are merely following the brief set by Formula One decision-makers, and in the weeks between now and the British Grand Prix, when altered tyres will likely be introduced, caution is crucial. Critics must be careful what they wish for.

More durable tyres will mean fewer pit-stops and less puzzlement, but it will also run the risk of flipping the problem on its head and seeing one team dominate.

Are our memories really so bad that we cannot remember 2011, when Red Bull Racing's Sebastian Vettel, cocooned inside the quickest car, wrapped up his title defence with four grands prix to go, finishing the 19-race season with 17 podiums, 15 pole positions and 11 race wins?

The 66-lap Spanish Grand Prix saw frustrations vented regarding the fact nobody is capable of pedal-to-the-metal, knife-in-teeth, second-place-is-first-loser racing.

The tyres deliberately degrade quicker than ever, forcing teams to drive slower to conserve their compounds and limit the number of stops required.

Christian Horner, the Red Bull team principal, called the increasingly strategic racing "too confusing for fans", while his three-time world champion Vettel called it "a different game".

One fan likened it to tennis duo Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal being incapable of hitting the ball at full power because the strings might snap. In many ways, it is an apt analogy.

Formula One famously features the fastest racing cars in the world, yet drivers are being forced to be more cautious because of their compounds. Like the famously erratic adidas Jabulani football at the 2010 Fifa World Cup, there is little point attracting the best athletes in the world, if you provide them with tools that so substantially alter their abilities that it makes them look average.

For every ballooned free kick or flapping goalkeeper we saw in South Africa, now we have a world champion driving in reverse or a driver being told not to fight for position.

Take Lewis Hamilton, for example: undoubtedly one of the greatest talents in the sport, and yet, despite starting in second place, he found his Mercedes GP was practically moving backwards.

Unable to manage the tyres, his team advised him to look after the degradation. He finished the race in 12th position.

Spectators do not pay excessively expensive ticket prices to watch a talent such as Hamilton being told to drive slow.

Neither do they wish to attend a race and be forced to spend the majority of the two hours with their face buried in their iPhone trying to figure out who still needs to pull into the pits and why Jenson Button is not driving defensively when under attack.

Anoraks will continue to adore this new style of F1, arguing that all 22 drivers have the same tyres and the onus is on the teams to design a car that manages the rubber better. If a driver still cannot manage his tyres, then maybe he is not actually as adept a driver as first thought. After all, there have been three race winners this season and it is the same trio that fought for the drivers' title last year. Cream always rises.

Yet the majority of those who tune in to watch F1 on TV, be it in the traditional European base or the emerging markets such as the USA, Asia and Middle East, are not fanatics who understand every rule, acronym and minute detail.

The majority are casual observers: fans of high-risk, high-reward racing. If they do not understand, they don't tune in.

Nobody doubts that something needs to change. Even Fernando Alonso, the race winner in Barcelona, conceded it was impossible to follow.

"If I am sitting in the grandstand without any radio or telephone or whatever, you only see cars passing," he said.

Alonso will be well aware that Pirelli's balancing act is as delicate as the tyres themselves. While the Spaniard and his team will be in no desperate rush for substantial changes, vocal Red Bull staff stand to benefit the most from any major alteration.

The next phase of development is crucial to the season. Pirelli must listen to the most important voices and take their thoughts on board.

But they must be careful with the criticism. This week may have been a pit-stop pantomime, but a predictable procession is just a nod of the head away.

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

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