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War of words over tyre wear heats up

13 May 2013

After 82 pits stops in Barcelona as a result of tyre degradation at the Circuit de Catalunya that required most drivers to make four changes during the course of the 66-lap Spanish Grand Prix, even Pirelli was admitting that enough was enough.

"It's clear that four is too many," admitted Pirelli motorsports director Paul Hembery in Spain after the race. "We'll be looking to make some changes, in time for Silverstone, to make sure that we maintain our target and solve any issues rapidly."

Hembery went on to tell ESPN that he would be in favour of making the adjustments even sooner: "I'd prefer to do it for Canada," he said. It's not quite as aggressive compared to here."

That will be music to the ears of those at Red Bull Racing, which has been a prominent critic of the impact of this year's tyre compounds on the race day action.

"This has nothing to do with racing anymore, this is a competition in tyre management," Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz was quoted as saying this weekend. He went on to point out that qualifying was no longer about fighting for pole but about saving sets of tyres.

"It's too confusing for the fans," added Red Bull team principal Christian Horner. "When we're saying to Sebastian Vettel, you're racing Kimi Raikkonen for position, but you're not and don't fight him, that's not great."

But while Red Bull might be happy to hear that change is on the way in time for the British Grand Prix, some significant other top teams are opposing any rethink by Pirelli that might jeopardise their early season momentum.

"Lotus and Ferrari don't want to change the tyres," admitted Hembery. "And we don't want to be accused of wanting to make Red Bull win the world championship."

And sure enough, Lotus team principal Eric Boullier was quick to wade into the debate after the Spanish Grand Prix, in which Kimi Raikkonen secured a third consecutive second place for the team.

Boullier said there is nothing wrong with the current Pirelli tyres, and added that it would be unfair the currently successful teams like Lotus to start making changes to the compounds midway through the season to benefit those that are struggling.

"In some ways it's not fair, but we have to deal with it," he pointed out. "The question is not the tyres. If our car can do it, it is because we did something to allow our car to do it.

"It's the same tyres for everybody," he continued. "There was some slight change here that was supposed to please the complaining teams. I don't think Pirelli is going to change anything. They were asked to bring tyres that last 20 laps and they did it."

Other teams such as McLaren are somewhere in the middle of the debate, aware that there is a problem that can be "a bit frustrating" for the teams and the drivers, but not wanting to make it worse by overreacting with crude solutions.

"Pirelli knows we're right on the cusp of being too delicate," said McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh in Barcelona. "Some people would say it's part of the show, and I don't want to criticise because it's very easy to do so, but we have to be a bit careful.

"There will be some teams that are slightly more miffed than we are and it's tough," he added. "You can't always get it right and we have to give credit to Pirelli that there have been some races that have been enhanced by the tyre challenge - but also some races that have been degraded."

Fan reaction to the pitstop-tastic spectacle at the Circuit de Catalunya this weekend was been broadly negative, and the majority of the sporting media has been scathing in their Monday morning editions.

UK newspaper The Guardian said the current rules were making the sport "contrived and tedious" with only the start and the finish of the race being worth watching. "You may as well watch a football match for the 90 minutes in between times," wrote Paul Weaver after this weekend's race, adding that even the F1 star drivers are "growing increasingly fed up with engineers warning them to back off to save tyres."

Britain's Daily Telegraph called the race a demonstration of "the tyranny of the tyre," with journalist Oliver Brown opining that "once again this season, the race was mired in a complex subtext of tyre degradation, as the narrative of the afternoon became clouded by an astonishing 82 pit stops and uncertainty over how quickly a set of medium compounds might shred to pieces."

London's The Times declared that "F1 racing is in danger of becoming Fred Karno's Circus, featuring drivers trained for perfection but reduced performing every instruction of their engineers."

The paper's correspondent Kevin Eason said that by hobbling F1 cars to speeds little better than those in the GP2 support event, the current tyre rules had left the Grand Prix races with no structure as drivers yo-yo'd up and down the timescreens with little apparent reason.

"The anoraks will get it and love it, but the casual observer watching on television was probably utterly dazzled by the frenzy," he wrote.

Judging from the social media reaction even the 'anoraks' are at their wits' end with the situation. But some media pundit are flying Pirelli's colours in the debate and insisting that the situation isn't as bad as it's painted.

"F1 loves a villain and this year Pirelli has been cast into this pantomime role," wrote NBC Sports pit lane reporter Will Buxton after covering the race in Spain. "Hermann Tilke used to get the blame for ruining the show for his apparently dreadful circuit design. But is it not the job of the teams to design a car for the circuits on which the championship races? Of course it is. Just as it is the job of the teams to design a car that maximizes the tyres on which it runs.

"Pirelli has become too easy a target," Buxton added. "What Ferrari showed in Barcelona was that yes you may have to make more pitstops than we've seen in the past, but that it is possible to push from the moment the lights go out to the moment that the flag falls. That so much of the press is decrying the race shows, I believe, a disappointing cynicism."

Writing on his blog, Buxton declared this weekend's race a "game changer" because the victory had gone to the team that had set aside the tyre tactics game and just gone all-out for the win right from the start - just like the good old days that everyone says they want to see return.

"Did they drive to a delta? Did they try and make one fewer stop than their rivals? Did they hell. They went out and they pushed. Every. Single. Lap," he wrote. "It was an absolute joy to behold."

It seems that whichever way the tyre battle goes on and off the track for the remainder of 2013, there are going to be some unhappy people at the end of it. Which makes this a pretty typical year in F1, all things considered.


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