Opinion: F1 Simply Needs Sturdier Tires

This article also appears on GrandPrix247.com under their Reader Rights section. Many thanks to them for publishing my piece.

The lack of close, compelling racing in Formula One has been evident for a few years now, particularly with front wings becoming more and more complicated in design. What used to be a minimalist front spoiler evolved through years of engineering development and regulation changes into an apparatus consisting of hundreds of tiny flaps and pieces. It has been widely suggested that because of the complicated aerodynamics of a Formula One car, they couldn’t follow each other. I won’t pretend to possess engineering knowledge but the way I see it, a car’s front wings are primarily designed to cut through clean, undisturbed air. Thus, when the wing suddenly meets the turbulent air that a car in front leaves in its wake, the following car experiences reduced downforce and loses grip. As much as the following car wants to continue trailing the car in front, the lack of downforce overworks the tires of the follower and he eventually has to back off and return to clean air. Gotta save those soft, brittle tires, right?

If the problem is seen in this manner, sturdier, low degradation tires could be a simple solution. That way, drivers wouldn’t have to exasperatingly micromanage their tires in order to attack the car in front. Looking back at the 2010 season, Bridgestone was the lone tire supplier and they produced tires with degradation so low that one-stop strategies were par for the course. In the Valencia race, Kamui Kobayashi was on his way to lasting a full race distance on one set of tires before making his mandatory pit stop with less than a handful of laps to go. Back then, pit stops were kept to a minimum and tire choices were simple with just the prime and option compounds. More time on the track meant the racing was left on the track—not on pit lane, let alone Qualifying. Even without DRS, close battles on track, not to mention a thrilling five-driver championship fight over the last few races were still produced.

This is why I’ve always been skeptical about Pirelli’s introduction of the new Ultrasoft tire compound in an effort to reduce lap times. This faster compound may help someone elevate his position in Qualifying but the tires are next to useless in the actual race because of high degradation. This wouldn’t produce the overtaking and risk-taking that spectators want to see. For me, the focus shouldn’t be on lap times in F1 right now. At this rate, we might as well consider Qualifying the actual race and then have the cars parade around the track until 300 kilometers are completed the following day. Although F1 cars are still spectacular to watch, races aren’t anymore the same compelling thrillers that they were a few years back when drivers can trail other drivers for laps on end.

Now that new regulations are imminent, it looks like the rules are still trying to push the cars towards quicker lap times. Single lap pace is not the problem that F1 should be addressing—it’s the quality of racing on Sundays that should be improved. And in my opinion, perhaps low degradation tires that can take a good beating are what should be (re-)introduced.

Pre-season Testing: Barcelona Part 1 Recap

Bulletproof Benz

The world champion Mercedes squad has picked up where they left off last season, in an impressive display of endurance and reliability throughout the first four days of pre-season testing. Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg drove up to 1952 miles between them, more than any of the ten other teams on the field. Rosberg mentioned that the goal was to continue running and log miles until issues or problems come up. No noteworthy breakdowns let alone problems were reported by the champions as they logged lap after lap around the Barcelona circuit, day by day, from green flag to checkered flag.

With unparalleled reliability, Mercedes were at liberty to experiment with some of their components during the test. On Day Four, they rolled out an S-duct, which they had previously tested during a practice session before last year’s Brazilian Grand Prix. The S-duct is nothing particularly new to F1 cars, having already been implemented before by Red Bull, Force India, and others. Aside from that, they also introduced toothed barge boards, which they named “Floor-W”.  Testing these package upgrades shows that Mercedes are keen to continue improving, perhaps ever more sensing the encroachment of closest rivals Ferrari towards their throne.

Chart-toppers

While Mercedes opted not to join the time attack party, the charts were dominated by Ferrari, where Sebastian Vettel posted the fastest lap times on Days One and Two, and Kimi Raikkonen on Day Four. Back with a “revolutionary” SF16-H, the Scuderia owned four of the ten fastest times posted in the four-day test. Vettel’s Day Two scorcher was the quickest overall in the first four days, achieved with the Ferrari shod in Pirelli’s new Ultrasoft tire compound.

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Nico Hulkenberg of Force India was the Day Three pacesetter. He also has a new green lid. Photo credit: Official Formula One website

Joining Ferrari at the top of the time sheets were Force India and Red Bull, with three each of the ten fastest laps. On Day Three, it was Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg who topped the charts. While Red Bull seem to still have aerodynamic prowess, Force India’s performance may suggest a continued improvement on their impressive finish last season. Hulkenberg’s Day Three chart-topper was set on the Supersoft tire compound and was the second fastest time overall, just 0.3 seconds behind Vettel on the theoretically faster Ultrasofts.

Nonetheless, with lap times hardly representative, no proper pace comparisons can be made as of yet, given that the world champions Mercedes and third place Williams focused on mileage rather than lap times. But the results of the first four days of testing seems to reveal that Ferrari may have better pace than last year, as does Force India. It’s still early to predict, but this bodes well for closer battles at the higher end of the grid this season.

Statistics from Pre-season Testing Part 1

Up and Down for McLaren and Renault

The four-day test was a tale of two halves for both of these teams. Renault struggled with reliability on the first two days, compromising rookie Jolyon Palmer’s running. McLaren meanwhile, enjoyed high mileage and reliability on Days One and Two, split between both Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso. After seemingly reaching their testing zenith, McLaren plummeted after suffering from various issues during the final two days, severely limiting Alonso to only three laps on the final day. While McLaren struggled mightily, Renault bounced back by logging lots of mileage on Days Three and Four with the returning Kevin Magnussen.

Flying Under the Radar

Williams, Toro Rosso, and Sauber were all far from lighting up the time charts but none of them had any major problems either. The three teams logged lots of miles nonetheless, especially with Toro Rosso enjoying their new (albeit one-year-old spec) Ferrari engine and logging the second largest total mileage among the teams. Williams hardly flexed their muscles and still remains a mystery, although Felipe Massa reported that the FW38 has “more grip and more downforce.” Sauber hardly had anything to show after participating in the test with their 2015 car but they did have the third best mileage among all teams. They are expected to roll out their 2016 model come next week’s test.

Recap from Sky Sports

Other Notes

***Newcomers Haas experienced a couple of issues here and there but also managed to produce a respectable amount of miles for a completely new squad. Esteban Gutierrez’s best lap was sixth fastest in Day Two while Romain Grosjean took the VF-16 on Soft compound tires to second place on Day Three.

***There was nothing noteworthy on Manor other than Pascal Wehrlein outpacing his teammate Rio Haryanto by over two seconds on the Soft tires.

***Digressing to the visual aesthetics of F1, Red Bull’s subtle changes on their color scheme have produced a fiercer livery on the new RB12. Equally stunning was Nico Hulkenberg’s mean green Hulk-inspired helmet design, which stands out on the Force India.

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Red Bull’s revised livery. Photo credit: Official Formula One website

Setting the 2016 Formula One Grid

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Mercedes F1 reserve driver Pascal Wehrlein steps up to a race seat with Manor F1. Photo credit: The Guardian

A returning driver and two rookies complete the grid of 22 drivers this season. Throughout the winter, up to 20 slots were confirmed leaving only Manor Racing’s two seats unoccupied until just recently. However, a surprise move came from the returning works Renault Sport F1 team—fresh off purchasing the Lotus F1 outfit—when they decided to release incumbent driver Pastor Maldonado in favor of ex-McLaren driver Kevin Magnussen.

Returning as a works outfit, Renault seemed to see Maldonado and his PDVSA financial backing expendable. That meant they could slot in Magnussen alongside rookie Jolyon Palmer, creating a young lineup with only one year of F1 race experience between them. Maldonado leaves the sport as one of the more notorious drivers in recent memory with a lengthy record of crashes and gaffes but of course, there’s also his lone race win with Williams in the 2012 Spanish Grand Prix.

Unlike the five-year veteran Maldonado, Magnussen brings tremendous upside after a promising start to his F1 career when he finished second in his grand prix debut in Melbourne two years ago. The Danish driver couldn’t follow up this result with another podium finish, eventually flying under the radar for the rest of the season. After a rather pedestrian rookie campaign, McLaren relegated him to a reserve driver role when Fernando Alonso took his race seat and then late last season, Magnussen was released. He will look for redemption with Renault, although the works team is adamant to aim for strong results this season.

Personally, I don’t think Renault can match Lotus’s performance from last year, predicting that Toro Rosso may be faster. I’d see Renault mainly competing against Haas or McLaren, or possibly Sauber towards the bottom of the grid, given that it’s difficult to predict Haas’s debut season performance and McLaren’s sophomore effort with the Honda power unit.

Another team that could catch some eyes this season is Manor. Having recently acquired Mercedes power units and technical support from Williams, there could be possible opportunities for last season’s back-markers to improve their grid position. They are set to field an all-rookie driver lineup to start the year, first announcing Mercedes reserve driver and 2015 DTM champion Pascal Wehrlein and then giving long-time GP2 racer Rio Haryanto the other seat. Both drivers bring with them some F1 testing experience.

Wehrlein’s signing was predictable since late last year when Manor inked a deal for Mercedes engines. The German driver took DTM by storm last season by becoming the series’ youngest ever champion, contributing to Mercedes’ dominant year in racing. Moving up to F1 immediately following a title-winning DTM season, Wehrlein becomes the first one to do so since Paul di Resta debuted in 2011 for Force India. Held in high esteem by Mercedes, I expect Wehrlein to be the lead driver for the rebuilding Manor team. If there’s anyone who can bring home strong results and maybe even points-scoring finishes for Manor, it must be Wehrlein.

Alongside the young German is Haryanto, who would become the first Indonesian driver in F1, finally graduating after years of racing in GP3 and GP2. Last year was his strongest season in GP2, finishing fourth in the championship with Campos Racing. He started out strong with numerous Sprint Race victories but his performance tapered off towards the end, succumbing to Sergey Sirotkin’s late season charge and narrowly surrendering third place in the championship.

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Rio Haryanto driving for Campos Racing in GP2. Photo credit: sapujagat.com

Financially backed by Indonesia’s state oil company, Haryanto edged out Alexander Rossi and Will Stevens for the last available race seat. There was speculation that the three of them were to share one race seat across 21 races but with Haryanto’s recent signing, it is unclear whether he would contest the entire season by himself with one car or could share his seat with either Rossi or Stevens. Even though Rossi drove well for Manor last season, it still seems quite a surprise to have Haryanto take the final grid slot instead of the American. Haryanto’s GP2 campaign last year was a breakthrough for the young Indonesian, so hopefully he can take his momentum with him as he graduates to F1.

Now that all grid slots are occupied, Formula One is just about ready to return as the first round of winter testing in Barcelona starts on Monday, February 22.