Will Gray

Tech Talk: Pirelli have changed F1 for the better, but are they being forced out?

Will Gray

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Pirelli tyres in the paddock (Reuters)

After more tyre dramas for Pirelli in Belgium and growing rumours that Michelin is in line for a possible return, time is ticking for a decision on 2014 and it could mean major changes to the sport...

It is an understatement to say that tyres are important in F1. Over the last three years, Pirelli’s high-degradation approach has resulted in some great racing dominated by unpredictability over the tyre wear. They, more than anyone, have shaped the current style of F1 racing.

So it is somewhat astonishing they weren't handed a supply deal for the 2014 season many months ago.

They are believed to already have agreements with all but one team, and also have a commercial agreement in place, but they have not yet officially been signed up by the FIA.

Why that is, and who is stalling, is open to debate – but the public face of Pirelli, Paul Hembery, appears to be as in the dark as everyone else.

It seems that the answer is buried somewhere within the FIA.

In tyre design, the combination of construction and compound determines just how the tyre performs and how it wears. The decision on how those two factors are combined is currently entirely up to Pirelli – but they are steered by the direction the sport has been trying to take.

When they arrived, it was on the understanding that they would meet the requests of teams, fans and F1’s organisers for tyres that degraded quickly, thus requiring lots of pit stops and leading to exciting and strategic racing. They were gutsy to take on that brief since it creates an image of their products that, fundamentally, is the exact opposite of what they want to portray to their customers.

Why do it, then? The theory is that being ‘the company who made F1 interesting’ gives them likeability, and that intelligent communication will get over any misunderstandings over the reasons for this tyre performance.

But this year has been tough. Some say they have gone too far, and the fact they were forced to revert to old specifications after the blowout issues at Silverstone did not wash well. Nor did more tyre issues – although now explained away – in Spa last weekend.

It would be understandable if the top bosses at the tyre firm were thinking twice about committing themselves to such a heavily resourced and costly programme if it does not have positive PR benefits. That said, they have invested a lot into 2014 already.

A Michelin return has been rumoured for a while, but suggestions that it could actually happen in 2014 sent the rumour mill into overdrive.

F1 is committed to having a single tyre supplier, to avoid engaging in a competition between rival companies that would increase speeds and danger and also escalate costs.

Even if the FIA were to bend on that single manufacturer stipulation, the fact that Pirelli and Michelin have such different philosophies on their F1 involvement means it wouldn’t work.

Michelin want to deliver high performance but hard wearing compounds. It'll look better in their marketing when it comes to selling their normal road tyres, but it's completely at odds with F1’s current approach to racing.

Quite understandably - just like the car manufacturers who wanted away from the sport because of a lack of relevance to their products, but have since helped shape a new era of more relevant 1.4-litre turbo engines - Michelin would want to shape future tyre strategy around their company ethos and aims.

The French manufacturer, which is involved in Le Mans and World Rally, aims to use its involvement in motorsport to demonstrate the durability of its products and to demonstrate road-relevant technology and innovation.

By managing the compounds and construction, it is entirely possible for them to deliver similar performance with much longer lasting tyres, but that would reduce the number of pit stops and take tyres out of the equation in terms of strategy.

That said, the 2014 regulations will add in a whole host of new strategic elements related to the use of different energy supplies from the hybrid powerplants. Having a more predictable tyre situation could actually end up being a good thing by reducing the complication for the strategy teams, and making it clearer for fans exactly where the new hybrid technology is having an effect.

And that is why the next week or two is so important.

Reports suggest that Michelin would be in a position to supply tyres for 2014 if an agreement is made imminently – which suggests they have already put in some decent development in preparation for this potential opportunity.

If there is any sign of unrest with Pirelli from inside the sport, then F1 may actually need Michelin as its get-out clause. If not, it might actually want to choose Michelin in any case to take the sport in a new direction.

Either way, the possibility of a tyre switch leaves F1’s rulers with some serious thinking to do...

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