How the tyre changes could tilt the title race
Sky Sports F1's Mark Hughes on the potential repercussions of the proposed changes to the Pirelli compounds...
Last Updated: 03/07/13 12:02pm
The move towards more conservative compounds was already underway, as can be seen by the choice of hard/medium for Silverstone. This is already having an effect on the competitive picture between the cars of the four front-running teams Red Bull, Mercedes, Ferrari and Lotus.
Essentially the more aggressive the tyre is for the demands of a particular circuit, the better news it is for Ferrari and, in particular, Lotus and the worse it is for Red Bull and, particularly, Mercedes. The Lotus is very easy on its tyres and was one of the few teams at Silverstone that suffered neither blow outs nor even signs of imminent failure.
The hotter the track is and the more demanding of the tyres is its layout, the more competitive the Lotus tends to be. Its hydraulically-sprung suspension rides bumps and kerbs wonderfully well, it is often visibly softer in spring rate and compliance than other cars and both these things give the tyres a much easier time. In a more stiffly-sprung car the tyre sidewalls are providing much more of the suspension.
The downside is that when the tyre compound is a tough, durable one relative to the demands of the track, the Lotus is invariably one of the first cars to struggle to generate enough tyre temperature. At which point it not only loses performance but the resultant graining means its endurance is not great either. But in most circumstances the Lotus gives the rubber the easiest time.
The Ferrari, with a more conventional springing system, is not quite so sympathetic to the tyre in normal conditions. But the key is that, relative to the Red Bull, it is easy on the front tyre and compared to the Mercedes it is easy on the rear. Fernando Alonso's two victories this year - at China and Spain - came at tracks that were particularly hard on the outer front tyre and where the Red Bull was therefore in some trouble. The Mercedes meanwhile was so hard on its rear tyres that even at the tracks that were for everyone else front-limited, they were still rear-limited.
Since then, Mercedes has made some improvement in reducing the degradation of the rears and Red Bull has made progress with a set up that reduces strain on the fronts. At Silverstone, most teams were finding that they were front-limited and yet the Red Bull was competitively fast: Sebastian Vettel didn't appear to have an answer to Lewis Hamilton's Mercedes but was quick enough to keep it under pressure, and looked to have the other Mercedes of Nico Rosberg under control until his transmission failure nine laps from the end. Mercedes found that for its car the limitation was quite delicately balanced between front and rear - suggesting it is still harder on the rears than other cars, but less so than was previously the case.
What has also happened since Barcelona - when Alonso's Ferrari comfortably beat both the Red Bulls and the Mercs - is that the compound choices have been conservative, allowing the drivers to push close to the maximum at both Montreal and Silverstone.
After the events of Silverstone, but even before then, the direction of compound choices for the rest of the season can confidently be predicted to be conservative. Furthermore, if the Kevlar-belted tyre that Pirelli wished to introduce from Canada but was prevented from doing, is now introduced, it will have the side effect of reducing rear temperatures by around 10-deg C. This will be of enormous help to Mercedes, giving it a much better chance of maintaining its dazzling qualifying form into the races - possibly to such an extent that we may see one or both of the Mercedes drivers coming back at Vettel in the championship.
For reasons the sport would not have chosen, we could ironically be in store for a gripper of a championship battle. But if so, Lotus and Ferrari would have reason to feel hard-done-to.