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Is Pirelli really to blame?

FEATURE BY MATT SOMERFIELD
17/05/2013

The Spanish GP, held at the Circuit de Catalunya, has for years been a forgone conclusion; rock up on a Saturday, duke it out for the front row of the grid and you're guaranteed to take victory on Sunday. This year that changed and for the first time in years I didn't find myself drifting off in front of the box a third of the way through the race. You will all know I am both a fan of strategy and a defender of Pirelli but perhaps what isn't clear is why the Grand Prix became a four stopper.

I would also like to say that although Social Media has led to my own rapid rise it may also be the reason we are seeing Pirelli take the brunt of the criticism this year. If I may borrow a line from the film Inception:

"An idea is like a virus. Resilient. Highly contagious. And even the smallest seed of an idea can grow. It can grow to define or destroy you."

A symbiotic relationship arose during last season whereby the mainstream broadcast and journalistic media used Social Media to interact with the fans in order to understand their needs and listen to their thoughts. Formula One though, to my eyes, is still behind the curve in terms of Social Media and so a protracted view can rear up. Armed with these views and the wanton need to be both relevant and portray what they feel is the view of the many broadcasters and journalists who have been critical of the tyres. The teams have, of course, also seen the wide-sweeping effects of Social Media and the manipulation of the mainstream media as a way of changing the minds of the fans to suit their agenda. Think about when one team finds an aerodynamic advantage that others haven't, their first thoughts are can we replicate it? If we can't replicate it, can we get it banned? With life being made difficult for the teams by the 2013 Pirellis it seems some are now going for the latter...

So when we look at the facts are these views justifiable? Firstly we must understand that FOM/FIA conducted a survey several years ago in order to get an idea of the general perception of the sport. One of the key areas that was highlighted as an issue to people and the key reason people didn't necessarily watch the sport was the lack of overtaking.

A decision was made to rectify this and in 2009 the sport went through regulation changes to try and solve the problem of overtaking. Part of these changes involved a change from grooved tyres to the slicks we have now. The supplier at the time, Bridgestone, had already furnished us with two compound choices from 2007 onwards but unlike the static compounds we have at present the Japanese manufacturer would alter their hard and soft compounds tailoring them for each track.

When Bridgestone was asked to supply the Slick tyres in 2009 the idea was to return an element of mechanical grip back to the sport which had been taken away by the grooved tyres however, the hard and soft compounds continued to be tailored for each event. Bridgestone always felt that its inclusion in the sport needed to show some road relevance and with the re-introduction of slicks it pulled out of the sport at the end of 2010.

Enter Pirelli, its brief from the FIA was simple produce a tyre that mixes strategy and encourages drivers to overtake. Using Montreal 2010 as the benchmark the FIA had realised that engineering a challenge for the teams could once again produce close racing.

But why are we seeing such a difference this season over previous years? Pirelli was criticized during 2012 as its tyres were often seen to be the differentiator and so it set about changing its 2013 line-up in order to alleviate some of these grievances. The 2012 tyre tended to wear on the shoulder of the tyre and so even though the tyre still had grip it wasn't available to the driver as it was on a section of the tyre unavailable to him. The new construction features a much softer sidewall allowing the platform of the tyre to stay in contact with the track, enlarging the contact patch. In line with this the tread platform was beefed up, as otherwise it would wrinkle under load leading to a non-uniform level of wear. The 2012 construction also led to tyre warming issues (mainly a problem for the front tyre) as the whole surface of the tyre wasn't being aggravated enough and with the stiffer sidewall, energy wasn't being pumped into the tyre.

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