The Pirelli Problem


During practice for the 1975 Austrian Grand Prix, where he was competing for Penske, Mark Donohue left the circuit, suffering injuries which claimed his life two days later. Almost a decade after the incident, in 1984, a court found tyre supplier Goodyear responsible for the crash awarding 14.4million (the equivalent of 39.25million in today's money) in damages to Donohue's family.

Goodyear maintained throughout that there was no manufacturing fault in the tyre and that the failure was the result of metallic debris on the circuit. In court both Penske and Goodyear were found responsible for the crash and each ordered to pay 7.2million in compensation. However, the judge overruled the verdict stating there was no evidence Penske could have been responsible for a tyre defect. Goodyear, he ruled, was solely responsible.

Tyres are a critical component of the car, perhaps the most critical part of the package since it is through them that the driver has any control. While thankfully we've not experienced anything close to the situation since Donohue's crash, tyres have been in the headlines with worrying frequency. It is a serious issue.

During 2013 a series of failures were largely blamed on Pirelli. The Italian company cried foul, citing the fact it was told to develop high-wearing tyres only to be given no means to test them. It's a fair argument and this is why it's unfair to point the finger too accusingly.

Pirelli's frustrations centred on the ban which prohibits teams from running outside of officially sanctioned sessions. The company has an old Renault at its disposal, but as the sport has moved on since it was developed the car is hardly representative of the current machinery.

However, last week Pirelli was allowed to go testing in Bahrain with current-spec cars. The purpose of the test was to provide the company with information on next year's tyres, as well as an opportunity to experiment a little. It was also an opportunity to create some positive headlines during a period of relative inactivity outside of teams' factories.

The only problem was a failure, at 200 mph, for Nico Rosberg. The exact cause is not known but the fact of the matter is any tyre that explodes without warning in a straight line is a critical concern… and not just for Mercedes dry-cleaners. The response from Pirelli was predictable; silent at first it finally released a brief statement acknowledging the spin without ever really saying much.

The failure on Rosberg's car raises serious concerns, not just because it happened at speed but because of the year Pirelli has endured and the fact it is the sole tyre supplier. In an exclusive arrangement there is little need to push the envelope in terms of development. It is only competing against itself while standing alone centre stage - there is no opportunity to succeed, but plenty to fail. Pirelli can afford to be conservative with its development - it should be conservative with its development - because there is simply nothing to be gained and legal precedent as a result of Donohue's crash if it gets it wrong.

So why did the company feel the need to develop a tyre in the laboratory and bolt it on to Rosberg's Mercedes? What was it hoping to gain? Perhaps, when presented with the opportunity to test with current-spec cars, Pirelli became like a child in a candy store and lost sight of the bigger picture.

The failure on Rosberg's car was a PR disaster, reinforcing the perception which was unfairly created during the year that Pirelli doesn't produce a good product. It was presented, by way of the Bahrain test, an ideal opportunity to gain some positive media coverage. Instead Nico Rosberg had a tyre failure at 200 mph.

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Published: 23/12/2013
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