Tyre failures return in dramatic British grand prix
Anyone predicting that Formula One’s tyre supplier Pirelli could settle in for a quieter end to the 2013 season had a rude awakening at the British grand prix. Three rear left tyre deflations in the first 15 laps decidedly different in character from the delaminations seen earlier in the season led to a lengthy safety car period. During these laps race marshals rushed to clear debris from all around the track, while FIA race director Charlie Whiting was reportedly on the verge of red-flagging the race on safety grounds. But the race continued to a highly compelling conclusion for a passionate crowd of over 110,000 after Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel rolled to a standstill on the home straight, an event that lifted the spirits of a partisan home crowd. They were denied a British victory, though home favourite Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton produced a season’s-best drive to claim fourth following his early tyre failure from first. Mark Webber also pushed the victorious Nico Rosberg close in the final stages, marking an apt last British grand prix for the popular, perennial nearly-man. The fans surrounding Tyres & Accessories near the home straight, who had been more than murmuring their discontent at Pirelli following the early tyre deflations, raised their voices to a crescendo as Hamilton and Webber improvised a tyre strategy to allow them to work their way through the grid.
The tyre deflations started by Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes on lap eight also included Ferrari’s Felipe Massa on lap 10, Toro Rosso’s Jean-Éric Vergne on lap 14, McLaren’s Sergio Pérez on lap 46, all of whom lost their rear-left, and Sauber’s Esteban Gutiérrez on lap 49. Hembery said: “There have obviously been some issues with rear-left tyre failures which we have not seen before. We are taking the situation very seriously and we are currently investigating all tyres to determine the cause as soon as possible, ahead of the next grand prix in Germany.”
Pirelli’s investigation comes ahead of a pre-planned FIA working group meeting on Wednesday. Suggested causes include kerbing at Silverstone’s turn four, which is placed just before the site of some of the tyre failures, but Pirelli Motorsport director Paul Hembery resisted defining this as a contributing factor. The subject of the FIA meeting, just two days before Formula One will meet again at the Nürburgring for the German grand prix, will now turn pronouncedly towards tyre safety, and what can be done to insure against a repeat of this weekend.
Hembery’s post-race statement continued: “At the moment, we can’t really say much more until we have fully investigated and analysed all of these incidents, which is our top priority. However, we can exclude that the new bonding process, which we introduced at this race, is at cause for the tyre failures we have seen today. There might be some aspect to this circuit that impacts specifically on the latest version of our 2013 specification tyres but at this point we do not want to speculate but will now put together all the evidence to find out what happened and then take appropriate next steps should these be required.”
Pirelli introduced the new bonding process in the manufacture of its P Zero Formula One tyres for the British grand prix. This followed the abortive attempt to achieve consensus agreement amongst the teams to alter the specification of the rear tyres to replace 2013’s fully radial steel belt with a Kevlar belt closer to the 2012 part-cross ply specification P Zeros. As Hembery explained above, Pirelli has ruled out this new bonding process as a cause of the Silverstone tyre failures – indeed some commentators, such as the BBC’s chief F1 writer Andrew Benson, have suggested that the way the tyres failed showed that this had worked, in as much as the tyre deflated rather than lost its tread.
Pending the outcome of Pirelli’s investigations into what the causes were, it seems likely that the responsibility lies in a combination of: the low pressures initially utilised by teams at Silverstone to try to increase durability; the higher running temperatures of the steel-belt radial tyres over its 2012 counterparts; the internal shockwaves caused by drivers running their rear-left tyres over rough concrete on some of Silverstone’s corners, such as the exit of Becketts; and the sharp kerb at the Aintree corner, which looks likely to have come into contact with tyre sidewalls immediately before their failure.
What now for Pirelli’s F1 tyres?
While Pirelli will bear the brunt of criticism for the tyre problems during the British grand prix in the short term, there is a significant opportunity now for the company to forge a new, clear path for F1 tyre development, while continuing to engage followers of the sport in explaining the technology that goes into its highest performing products.
In the immediate future, the exclusive tyre supplier appears to have a mandate to end the will-they/won’t-they saga of the month and a half since the Spanish grand prix, as the three teams who opposed changing the tyre specification – Ferrari, Lotus and Force India – have climbed down from their previous position citing increased driver safety concerns. Red Bull has supported a change in the tyres since Barcelona, and its technical chief Adrian Newey suggested to motorsport magazine Autosport’s Jonathan Noble that some F1 teams had been “short-sighted” in their opposition. The three teams were concerned that the apparent advantage they had over other teams in their ability to run the tyres more reliably would be voided by altered tyre specifications.
The roots of this are also found in Pirelli’s macro-strategy for tyre specifications this year: it wanted to provide softer tyres to give the teams more options during races in line with F1’s desire for the spectacle of more overtaking. Arguably the most successful aspect of Pirelli’s tenure as F1’s exclusive tyre supplier has been its ability to move with the series’ new focus on the spectators’ experience while making tyre strategy accessible and interesting to F1’s many followers. Pirelli has had its critics over the past two and a half seasons, but the coverage it has received from the BBC and latterly Sky Sports in the UK has been the envy of the industry. BBC chief F1 analyst Eddie Jordan told Pirelli’s guests at Silverstone as much when he praised what the tyre supplier had done for the sport in the face of complaints from drivers, whom he suggested were pushing their own agendas when they criticised.
Having said this, it could be argued that Pirelli acted with similar hubris to the nay-saying teams when it came to the discussions about changing the tyre specification post-Spain. The manufacturer was at pains to insist throughout the discussions that any change to tyre specification was linked to delamination, and was therefore not a safety issue. Due to FIA regulations, the only way to impose a tyre change on F1 teams without their consent is on the grounds of safety. In terms of public relations, publically saying that its tyres were unsafe and needed to be changed was clearly unattractive. But then, what manufacturer of a safety critical product would ever want to do this in public? And wasn’t Pirelli’s position – that delaminating tyres didn’t pose a threat to drivers’ safety – factually accurate?
The extensive politicking apparently necessary for a tyre supplier to alter the construction of its tyres could indicate that the FIA’s regulations governing tyre specifications need some revision. Nobody wants to see teams’ hard work to make their cars work best with the tyres they have undermined. However, if the tyre supplier is under pressure to achieve finely balanced performance characteristics with limited testing opportunities, it only seems fair to allow more wiggle room on both in-season testing and alterations.
Pirelli’s previous attempt to get around the regulations was the Barcelona test with Mercedes, for which both parties received an FIA rebuke following a tribunal. Conducted by Pirelli, the test was said to be mainly a preliminary look at the development 2014 tyres, though later it became apparent that Pirelli’s proposed changes to the 2013 specification had been run too (see Mercedes, Pirelli reprimanded over Spain tyre test).
Lewis Hamilton, who lost a good chance to win his home grand prix, told the BBC after the race: “we had that tyre test to develop and improve the tyres and stop this from happening, and after that tyre test they didn’t do anything about it.” Of course, Hamilton has an axe to grind too – with more durable tyres his Mercedes team would at least match the leading Red Bull team for pace on the evidence of qualifying performances. Without the regulations making in-season testing – and in-season specification changes – more feasible, the tyre supplier will be forced into more compromises by the plots and sub-plots of F1 politics.