Sebastian Vettel may have led team mate Mark Webber home in a triumphant 1-2 for Red Bull yesterday, but behind the scenes feelings are running high between the team’s technical chief Adrian Newey and the F1 tyre supplier Pirelli about the safety of what Vettel did yesterday.
Pirelli were unhappy with Red Bull for running extreme camber angles, outside of their recommendations. The reason for doing this is to get better turn in to the corners. But the problem is that with the unique vertical loads every time the car goes through Eau Rouge and then the high wheel rotation speeds on the Kemmel Straight leading to Les Combes, the inside shoulder of the tyre overheats and there is a risk of it coming away, which at 310km/h would be an aircraft accident.
“Around 5pm yesterday evening Pirelli came to us and said that having looked at our tyres from qualifying they were concerned about the safety of the tyres and that they could be suffering structural damage in the junction between the sidewall and the tread,” said Newey. “They felt that failure of the tyre could be imminent on both cars. It was very concerning… We then entered into a lot of debate with Pirelli about what we should do. They recommended that higher front pressures would make the tyre safer, as would reduced camber – but without permission from the FIA, reducing the front camber would be in breach of parc ferme regulations, so we would have to start from the pitlane.”
“We took that risk,” said Vettel after the race. “We had as much confidence as we could get before the race. We had some long discussions straight after qualifying, yesterday night and this morning. Now we are sitting here it all went well and we finished one-two but it wasn’t an easy decision to make and not an easy race especially at the beginning to manage. You are driving into the unknown.”
Pirelli’s point was that they should not have been in this situation in the first place and it was only because of Newey’s push it to the limit attitude to racing that it arose. It must be said that Newey has always pushed design to extremes and as a result has had significant success in his career, such is the way of F1.
But when it comes to safety, it’s a different matter. Newey tackled this head on in an interview post race with the BBC in which he said that they had taken a risk but had got away with it.
“I have to say, it is one of the scariest races I have been involved in ever. It is heart-in-the-mouth stuff, because first and foremost our duty of care is to the drivers’ safety, and you are trying to make that call or making sure the car is safe while not excessively handicapping ourselves from a performance point of view.
“I found it quite a difficult judgement to make, and at the end of the race I was very relieved that both our drivers were safe.”
As the FIA pushes its Make Roads Safe agenda, this kind of thing isn’t what F1 should be projecting. FIA race director Charlie Whiting was across the situation and the stewards agreed to allow 17 new front tyres to be brought into the circuit, should they be required, as a back up for the start of the race.
Hembery had to make a decision; whether to move the goalposts and give Red Bull and other teams who were pushing the limits on set up a get out of jail free card, or make them work around the situation, such as by running the harder tyre, as Mark Webber ended up doing.
Essentially it boils down to Red Bull saying that the Pirellis were bordering on an Indianapolis 2005 situation, where the tyres weren’t safe for the circuit. In that instance the FIA refused to change anything to accommodate the Michelin teams, whose tyres were not safe for one of the high speed turns. This led to all the Michelin teams withdrawing from the race, leaving six Bridgestone cars only to race.
Pirelli, meanwhile, feels that the situation only arose because everyone has been getting more and more edgy on set up, as is the timeless way of racers. Other teams noticed some blistering in qualifying and in the race, but according to Pirelli, only Red Bull went past the recommended set up limit.
“We were in a little bit of a rock and a hard place situation,” said Pirelli’s Paul Hembery, “Because it was a situation that if we had run with some dry conditions on Friday and Saturday, ordinarily it is a situation that would have been minimised. So were left in a situation where one team in particular was stretching the limits of our recommendations and we felt that that in a race situation would create difficulties, and blistering.
“In the end, what do you do? Do you make a change and end up creating a precedent? Do you make a change that would be seen to assisting one team and all the other teams, particularly with the result we had at the end? If we had, I think today you would not be asking me about this, you would be asking me why we helped Red Bull win the race? So it was a very difficult situation to be in.
“We don’t appreciate being put in that position. It is a slightly unfair position to be put in. Of course it could have been avoided.”
This will carry on for a while; it is likely to lead to more cautious set up recommendations from Pirelli, with Monza the next race, where wheel rotation speeds are even higher than Spa.