The return of Pirelli to the grand prix grid in F1 2011 could be set to usher in a 'vintage' era in the top flight, believes Virgin Racing technical director Nick Wirth – and with the tyres' rapid degradation likely to play significantly into the hands of the smoother drivers, he predicts a Jenson Button benefit.
Following Bridgestone's departure from the sport at the end of last season following a 14-year stint – since 2007 as the sole supplier – Pirelli has rejoined the fray for the first time in two decades, with a strict brief from governing body the FIA to produce two compounds of dramatically different durability.
The catalyst for this was the 2010 Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal, when Bridgestone's super-soft rubber deteriorated badly on the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve's abrasive track surface – generating one of the most exciting and unpredictable races of the season.
“What I think is great for the fans is that the governing body saw the spectacle of Canada last year and said 'this is a blueprint for the future',” Wirth remarked, speaking at the London launch of the new Virgin Racing MVR-02. “Everyone thought 'this is what we want', some tyres that fall apart. Bridgestone tried to repeat that towards the end of the year, but Pirelli have really understood.
“We want tyres that are good and safe, but lower in performance during races – and I think by all accounts, that's what we've got. I hope Pirelli don't get lambasted for it – although I fear they will. They have been asked to do it, so I hope they don't get bad publicity for it now.
“It will be a real job for the guys behind the pit wall to keep up with the degradation, but I think it will be fantastic for the fans and I'm looking forward to it. I think the general public are in for an absolutely corking year in terms of the spectacle, and with the noise of the tyres going haywire too, I think it could be an absolute vintage.”
Acknowledging that 'at the end of the day, the single biggest variable is the driver...when you've got rear tyres going off, it's down to the old right foot', Wirth quipped that McLaren-Mercedes star Button – whose famously silky-smooth style and deft touch behind the wheel has played dividends in such circumstances before – 'will be absolutely rubbing his hands together'. As to Virgin's own lead driver Timo Glock, the Englishman insists he has no concerns.
“Timo didn't cover himself in glory last year in Canada when the tyres fell apart, but he is a great driver and very intelligent and he will figure it out,” he assured. “It's the ones who keep calm when everything is falling about all around them who will really benefit.”
Glock himself has first-hand experience of the Pirelli rubber from testing in Valencia last week, and whilst praising the Italian manufacturer for the progress it has made in such a short timeframe thus far and for fulfilling its stipulated brief to the letter, the German joked that in terms of the super-softs, at least, it could be a drifting contest rather than a battle of racecraft over the coming months.