He said what?! – British Grand Prix edition

There is only one thing everyone is talking about following the British Grand Prix: the tyres.  Of course, they have been a hot topic all year, but the multiple high-speed blow-outs we witnessed over the weekend have made Pirelli and their tyres the story of the week.

5471323040_8a74b0c043_zPhoto credit: Gil Abrantes via Flickr

For anyone who has not been following the story closely, here is a quick run-down: four different drivers suffered left rear tyre failures during the race (for Sergio Perez, it was his second of the weekend, having also suffered one in free practice on Saturday); race director Charlie Whiting admitted that he almost red-flagged the race; the teams complained (rightly so); the FIA agreed to revise the upcoming Young Driver Test to allow current race drivers to test new tyres from Pirelli; Pirelli announced solutions (the tyres that were supposed to be tested in Canada for Germany next weekend, 2012 tyre constructions thereafter), while at the same time essentially blaming the teams for the tyre failures; Pirelli apologized.

The biggest problem, though, is not car set-ups or tyre constructions, it is the lack of in-season on-track testing.  Will Buxton alluded to it, and the FIA obviously agrees (see the last paragraph).  Pirelli is so desperate for on-track testing with current F1 cars that we ended up with Mercedes called before an FIA tribunal to answer for a secret test conducted on Pirelli’s behalf.  Next, Friday practice in Montréal was turned into a tyre test (or it would have been, if not for the inclement weather).  But even had it been dry, how much running would the teams have been willing to do on the new tyres?  After all, they still had to set their cars up for qualifying and a race on the old tyres.

In the push to save money and appear environmentally friendly (two ideas for which F1 is really the antithesis), testing was abolished for the 2009 season.  Now, we have reached what might be the inevitable result of that decision: driver safety has been compromised.  Fernando Alonso was lucky to escape serious injury when Perez’s tyre exploded during the race and all the drivers who suffered high-speed failures were lucky they did not end up in a wall (their skill no doubt also played a role in keeping them safe).  The fact is, Pirelli was hamstrung by the testing ban and had very few chances outside of the race weekends (when teams are understandably focused on other things) to get any data on the tyres.

That is going to change.  In addition to relaxing the regulations for this year’s Young Driver Test, the FIA has announced that the in-season testing ban has been lifted for next year (the announcement came on Friday, before any of the weekend’s tyre failures, and was part of a number of changes to the sporting regulations).  This only makes sense.  No matter how good a simulator is, it  cannot simulate everything – for example, it cannot know whether a particular tyre will disintegrate if it is inflated to a certain pressure and hits a kerb just so.  Only on-track testing can demonstrate that.

8522284296_fccb628b47_zCaterham testing at Barcelona before the 2013 season.
Photo credit: CaterhamF1 via Flickr

This change has many benefits: Pirelli (or whomever the 2014 tyre supplier is) will no longer have to beg the teams for cars to test their tyres; teams will not have to worry about skirting the testing rules; reserve drivers will get meaningful time on track during the season; and teams will have a better feel for how to get the most out their cars and the tyres, which should lead to better racing.  Most importantly, though, it should help avoid repeats of the several near-disasters we saw at Silverstone.

British Grand Prix notes

  • Romain Grosjean had another first-corner incident, this time cutting sharply across the track and removing some of Mark Webber’s nose for him.
  • Despite winning two races, Nico Rosberg is still seven points behind his teammate Lewis Hamilton, who has not finished above third place this season.  Wonder how that could happen?
  • Overshadowed by the furor around the tyres, Mark Webber announced that he is leaving F1 at the end of the season.  I saw him with Nick Heidfeld at a BMW Williams promotional event at the 2005 Canadian Grand Prix and, even in a staged Q&A, his candour came through as he mixed a few off-colour words into his answers.  At the end, each of the drivers threw a few autographed caps into the crowd; I reached up and caught one of Mark’s before someone literally climbed up my back and ripped it away.  TPL will be sorry to see Mark go.
  • Sauber’s struggles are continuing, although Nico Hülkenberg finally scored another point after the team had gone four races without one.
  • Kimi Räikkönen achieved Lotus’s best result since Spain with a fifth-place finish.  The aforementioned Grosjean was out of the points for the fourth straight race and one has to wonder how much longer his seat will be safe, as the team is falling well behind the top three of Red Bull, Mercedes and Ferrari.
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