Formula One and the tiring talk about tyres

Nico Rosberg’s second win of the year for Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton’s magical pole position lap were relegated to mere subplots in the storyline of the British Grand Prix as, not for the first time this year, tyres were the major talking point following the race.

Yes, the spate of high-speed tyre failures -- with tyres letting go at close to 300 kilometers an hour in some cases -- spiced up the race around Silverstone, as safety cars bunched up the field, and set us up for a final six laps of flat-out racing that culminated in a nail biting finish.

But crucially, they also raised several questions and concerns for the sport to mull over and address.
For one thing, the tyre failures were downright dangerous. Silverstone is a high-speed track and tyre failures like the ones we saw with Jean-Eric Vergne, under braking into Stowe, or with Sergio Perez, as he rocketed down the Hangar Straight, could easily have pitched the cars off the track and sent them careering into the barriers in a massive shunt.

Mercedes Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain enters the pit with a puncture during the British Grand Prix. Reuters

Mercedes Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain enters the pit with a puncture during the British Grand Prix. Reuters

But perhaps more at risk than drivers whose tyres failed were their rivals following close behind when a tyre let go, or the marshals who ran on to the track to clear away pieces of rubber.

The onboard shot from Kimi Raikkonen’s Lotus, which was behind Vergne’s Toro Rosso when its tyre exploded, makes for very uncomfortable viewing and clearly shows the Finn getting a faceful of debris as chunks of rubber fly into the cockpit, pelting the Finn’s helmet.

Onboard footage from Alonso’s Ferrari, tucked in close behind Perez’s McLaren, is equally scary, as the Spaniard is forced jink to the right at close to 300 kilomteres an hour to avoid collecting the tread from the McLaren as it comes off its left-rear tyre.

“There are potentially two issues. The car that has the failure, but also suddenly you have three kilos of tread flying around,” Adrian Newey said after the race. “If that hits a following driver in the helmet it doesn’t bear thinking about.”

In fact so serious was the situation that the governing FIA’s safety delegate Charlie Whiting actually considered stopping the race.

“It was quite close to being red-flagged. It did occur to me to do that," Whiting said.

“I'm not going to give a specific number. Obviously to clear up all that debris was putting marshals at risk, and it is not satisfactory.”

Like I said, there’s a lot for the sport to consider following Sunday’s race. To begin with, let’s not be hasty and lay the blame for the multiple tyre failures over the weekend at Pirelli’s door.

To be fair, most of the tyremaker’s track testing is done using a 2010 Renault. Pirelli have repeatedly asked for a representative car to use during their tests as the pace of development in Formula One means that the 2010 car they are using is now outdated.

But Formula One teams, paranoid about a rival outfit gaining an advantage if their car is used by Pirelli for their tests, have been unable to reach agreement on which team’s car the tyre company should use.
Secondly, following the delaminations seen in Bahrain and Spain, Pirelli decided to tweak the construction of their tyres, opting to go back to using a Kevlar belt pack as opposed to the high-tensile steel belt pack introduced this year.

Pirelli gave the teams sets of the new tyre to try out in practice for the Canadian Grand Prix with a view to introducing them at Silverstone, but didn’t get the required unanimous backing from teams to do so as Force India, Lotus and Ferrari, who have adapted well to the 2013-spec tyres, were afraid of losing their advantage.

In a sensible move, the governing FIA put out a statement on Monday saying it would seek approval from the World Motorsport Council to change the wording of article 12.6.3 of the technical regulations which would allow the governing body to step in and ask for a change to be made to the tyres on safety grounds without requiring the unanimous backing of the teams.

The FIA also decided to open up the young driver test – scheduled to take place at Silverstone from July 17th-19th – to race drivers provided it is clear their running will be focused on testing tyres for Pirelli.

“Our priority is to ensure safety for all in Formula One and we believe the incidents at Silverstone represent a genuine safety concern for the drivers,” FIA President Jean Todt said.

“I believe it is fitting to carry out this work at the circuit upon which the issues were manifested.”
But what of the immediate solution? Formula One races at the Nurburgring in less than a week’s time and it’s clear that the current spec of tyres are not safe to race on. Drivers have raised the prospect of boycotting the race while some team bosses have suggested using tyres from last year.

But that again depends on whether Pirelli have the older rubber in stock as with just days to go before cars hit the track for Friday practice, they would be up against it to cook up a fresh batch of tyres.

"We've just got to say to Pirelli you should do whatever you can do by Germany," McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh said. “They know what tyres they have in stock and what options they can practically do before Germany and they should do whatever they can to enhance the safety and durability of the tyres.”

If there’s one thing for certain it’s that Formula One needs to learn its lessons from this episode. Sure, the teams are all there to be the best and to compete and are constantly looking for any competitive advantage they can get.

But at the end of the day it is in the sport’s best interests for all the key stakeholders to find a way to work together especially when the debate moves beyond ensuring a level playing field to that of ensuring the safety of all those involved.

"…We've really got to work together,” Whitmarsh told Sky Sports. “This is not a time to point fingers. It's a time to work together, find the solution, get on with it."