One of the notable stories in the background of the Belgian Grand Prix weekend was the renewed push on Michelin to come back to F1, either to compete with or to replace Pirelli.
And in yesterday’s Le Figaro newspaper in France, the current boss of Michelin sport, Pascal Couasnon, confirmed that the company was ready to come back to F1, as long as the decision is made by the end of October and the FIA is willing to change the character of the sport, away from fast degrading tyres. Michelin also wants an undertaking that during its tenure F1 would move towards 18 inch wheels; in other words towards a lower profile tyre.
Meanwhile current supplier Pirelli is spending significant money on developing its 2014 tyre and say they “have to assume that it’s going to be okay.”
Whereas Michelin has previously insisted on an open competition against another tyre maker, that condition of entry has now been dropped,
“We have always said that the presence of a competitor interests us,” said Couanson. “However we have evolved our thinking on this and now the absence of a competitor, which would have been a problem in the past, isn’t any longer. Today we are ready to go in alone, as long as there is a technical challenge, even as a single tyre supplier.”
The story of Michelin gazumping Pirelli has ebbed and flowed over the last few months, but this interview in France is quite a strong statement and follows strong indications last week that the return of Michelin is now a real possibility. “It’s real,” one of the F1 team bosses told this website in Spa on Sunday.
The current situation is that Pirelli has a commercial contract with Bernie Ecclestone’s company and with most of the 11 F1 teams, including Red Bull. It was eight before the summer break but Pirelli’s Paul Hembery said at the weekend that he had been busy signing other teams (without saying who) and Le Figaro claims that now 10 teams are signed up. Force India is certainly one that has not signed.
But crucially Pirelli does not yet have a contract as tyre supplier to the FIA. This has been something of a consistent battleground between Ecclestone and FIA president Jean Todt, who made a public rapprochement in Hungary, promising to sign a new Concorde Agreement soon.
Michelin were the other bidder last time the tyre supply contact came up, but the teams went with Pirelli, partly on a cost basis – the tyres cost each of them in the region of two million euros a year.
However the debate over fast degrading tyres – leading to more pit stops and different strategies and exciting finishes – has polarised the sport and many of its fans. Speaking to teams over the weekend, even ones who feel aggrieved by Pirelli’s mid-season switch to more durable tyres, there is a certain anxiety about returning to the processional racing of the past, on “perfect” tyres that barely degrade lap after lap.
“We really don’t like the way F1 is presented today, not at all,” he said. “It disappoints me and even angers me. You don’t create a good image of such an important automotive product, a tyre, by changing it every few laps or even every few corners.”
This last point and particularly the way it is expressed with obvious exaggeration, is interesting. Couanson is clearly dismissive of Pirelli and its willingness to risk its image for the sake of a sporting show. Of course the Italian company has also run into problems with tyre failures this year after the disastrous experiment with the steel construction, which led to the worrying scenes at Silverstone with a series of high speed tyre failures.
These occurred partly because of the way the teams were operating the tyres, swapping them around, running extreme camber angles and low tyre pressures, which Pirelli tolerated earlier in the year, but no longer.
It is interesting and instructive to speak to teams like Lotus who have not had any problems with the tyres and even Force India, who had a failure on Paul di Resta’s car in Spain, but otherwise were performing well on the steel belted tyres and have struggled since the change. Although they mastered the difficult tyres, there is also concern about going back to a perfect Michelin tyre and the risk of F1 becoming a procession again with the outright fastest car at the front every time.
Even engineers whose job is to pursue excellence, admit that F1 isn’t always very exciting when there is nothing to throw a spanner in the works and upset the natural order, beyond the odd rain shower.
It is a debate F1 needs to have quickly as time is running out for Pirelli or Michelin to produce the tyres for 2014. As the incumbent with a realistic expectation of remaining so, Pirelli has had to do extensive work on 2014, which may go to waste if F1 turns its back on them and embraces Michelin.
“We are working towards 2014 and are spending a lot of money for 2014,” said Pirelli motorsport boss Paul Hembery in Spa. “We have contracts in place and hope people will want to adhere to them. It’s a bit farcical really; it’s September in a week’s time. We are obviously working for next year with the teams who are on board and the promoter on board. So you have to assume that it’s going to be okay.”
It’s not just a discussion over who supplies the tyres, it’s about what kind of sporting show F1 wants to project to the world.
Tyres have been too big a talking point over the last few years, sometimes for the wrong reasons,