Monday, March 18, 2013

F1's competition-enhancing approach: bad tires

Mark Glover’s AutoGlo car reviews can be seen on the Business page of The Sacramento Bee’s website – via the “GALLERY: Reviews of new cars” link at

Sacramento, California – I tuned in Sunday to see the first race of the 2013 Formula One series from Australia, and my head is still spinning from what I saw.

Let me start by saying that, despite its flaws, I have long been a fan of Formula One, with its over-the-edge technology, its exotic missile cars and its money-drenched glam.  But there are some things that Formula One does that drive me crazy.  They usually involve the rules.

Or “the sporting regulations” as they say in the proper F1 world.

Again this year, Pirelli is the tire supplier.  Last year, I was stunned at the sometimes super-fast degradation of the soft tires Pirelli was supplying.  Turns out those were marathon skins compared with what’s offered this year.

The softest of the super-soft tires Pirelli produced for the Australia F1 race might best be described as chewing gum.  By lap 7, cars were coming into the pits in numbers.  Seemed to me like the drivers couldn’t get rid of that deteriorating rubber fast enough.

Three-time world champion Sebastian Vettel said his tires were “falling apart” two or three laps after the start of the race.

And here’s the kicker: The fast-failing tires were functioning as designed.

Pirelli officials cheerfully said before the race that their compounds were designed to wear rapidly, prompting more pit stops and team strategy.

So, after years of hearing U.S. audiences decry the lack of passing in F1, the Formula One lords apparently have found a way to guarantee competition.  Bad tires.

It worked, I guess.  Vettel, clearly fastest in qualifying, made three pit stops and wound up third Down Under.  Race winner Kimi Raikkonen was more careful with his tires and won with a two-stop strategy.

During the race, the commentators for the NBC Sports Network, making its maiden voyage as the U.S. television home of the international racing series, seemed totally content with the idea of Pirelli’s tires going off after amassing mileage one might normally associate with a daily suburban commute.

At the risk of sounding like a boorish, beer-chugging American race fan who just does not get Formula One, it’s beyond my comprehension how the world’s top-tier racing series, awash in billions of dollars, apparently chose to enhance competition with tires that are virtually guaranteed to go away after only a handful of laps.

In the United States, tire degradation is a sin.  When Goodyear missed the boat and supplied NASCAR teams with quick-to-shred tires for the series' 400-mile race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2008 (prompting MANDATED pit stops every 10 laps late in the grind), Goodyear spent the next year apologizing and vowing that it would produce a more-enduring tire the next year … which it did.

So, what to expect for the rest of the 2013 F1 season?  More cars diving into the pits for tires, I suppose.

Well, that’s certainly one way to bunch up the field.  I guess the tried-and-true “debris caution” will be the next big thing … probably a necessity with all those rubber chunks on the track.

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