Tyres were once again the talk of the Formula 1 paddock in China as teams chose to sit out much of qualifying to save rubber while in the race, those who started on the soft tyre were forced to pit as early as lap six because their rubber fell off the cliff. Jenson Button had to ask whether to fight another driver mid race as lap time consistency was more of a priority.
The performance difference between the two compounds also prompted a mix of strategies, with the front seven cars starting the race on the soft tyres, while the likes of Jenson Button and Sebastian Vettel didn’t set a competitive lap in qualifying so they could start on the more durable medium.
That meant it wasn’t until those who started on the medium tyre stopped for the final time to put on a set of the softs – and in doing so set up a thrilling grandstand finish with Vettel hunting down Lewis Hamilton for the final podium place – that we saw the true pecking order.
While the mix of strategies provided an exciting end to the race, in the early stages the likes of Button and Vettel were forced to manage their tyres to make their strategy work, and in doing so couldn’t push to make up ground and at times they had to let people through to avoid losing tyre life defending their position.
The paddock is split as to whether the new brand of Pirelli tyres are actually good for the show.
Positive about new tyres
Former team boss and BBC pundit Eddie Jordan is supportive of the new range of Pirelli tyres. “What Pirelli have served up is unpredictability and unpredictability gives excitement – and that’s what we got in China,” he said. “I didn’t know for sure whether Vettel could pass Hamilton or not. The intrigue went right through the race and that’s what we want.”
Meanwhile former Jordan technical director Gary Anderson agreed, adding that if Pirelli had chosen the hard, rather than the soft, alongside the medium in China, we would have seen a one-stop race: “In terms of the tyres themselves, I think they make teams think harder,” he told the BBC. “Some make it work and some don’t. There’s nothing wrong with that.
“You have to drive the car within its limits and the tyres are part of the car. If Pirelli had gone to China with the medium tyre and the hard rather than the medium and soft, the most critical tyre would have done 25 laps. So it would have been a one-stop race. Is that what people want?”
Former Red Bull driver and BBC commentator David Coulthard who won 13 races said: “I’m reluctant to end up being the guy who says: ‘Shut up and get on with it.’ But it’s difficult for me to understand why tyres are supposed to be a more fundamental part of the overall success of a team than they were before.”
In Pirelli’s defence, the Italian company’s motorsport director Paul Hembery said: “It was degradation, rather than actual wear, that dictated the strategy but we still saw consistent lap times from the medium compound, even on a long run of 15 laps or more.
“Once more we saw a very wide variety of race strategies, with Button and Vettel opting to run on the soft tyres at the end. This gave us a thrilling finish, with a battle for the final podium place between Hamilton and Vettel that went all the way to the chequered flag.”
There was also an interesting comment from JA on F1 reader Tim B, someone who has followed Motorsport a long time , which we thought was worth re-publishing. He said: “I’ve been following motorsport in general and F1 in particular for 40 years, and I compete in amateur motorsport in a purpose-built race car. I know a little bit about motor racing and what it takes to drive a car fast on a track.
“I happen to like the variables that have been introduced by the tyres. I also don’t mind DRS as a way of compensating for the effect on a following car of the turbulent aerodynamic wake of the leading car. However, I am getting tired of being characterised as a shallow or uninformed fan, or a “magpie”, or any one of a number of sneers, for holding those views.”
Critical of new tyres
McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh, who saw his driver Button forced to let drivers through rather than defend his position in China so that he could make their strategy work, said: “It’s quite excruciating, trying to save tyres non-stop from start to finish. It seems to go on forever. It feels painful, and however bad it is for me, it must be a lot worse if you have to drive like that.”
Button, who led the race momentarily before going on to finish fifth, added: “It was quite a strange race: there was no point fighting because that was the quickest way to the end. One lock-up, one trip over the marbles and the tyres would have been gone so our strategy wouldn’t have worked and it was a very tight strategy.
“It was so difficult, I would radio in and say ‘Can I fight them?’ They’d come back and say ‘Yes, fight, fight!’ And then ten seconds later ‘No, you need to look after the tyres and get to our target lap.’ You don’t want to look like you’re not fighting but for us the best thing to do was to have clean air and not destroy the tyres. It’s not the most exciting way to go racing but we got 10 points because we did that.”
While Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso stormed to his first victory of the season, his Brazilian team-mate Felipe Massa struggled with graining and finished sixth: “I had amazing graining on the front tyres and after that I was just getting slower and slower because the graining was increasing at the front,” he said. “In the second stint I started to have a lot of graining and I was a bit scared it was too much.”
After qualifying and ahead of the race in China, Red Bull’s Mark Webber, who started from the pit lane and failed to finish the race, said: “It will all look good in the first five or six laps, having everyone fighting, but it’s a little bit WWF [referring to the wrestling sports-entertainment brand] at the moment. Whatever fuel load you have got in the car, if you race people, you are in trouble. So just don’t race, put the tyre on and just try and get home.”
Speaking about the soft tyres ahead of the race, Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg said: “With those tyres it is more of a question of how many corners you are going to get to, rather than laps!”
Meanwhile Mercedes non-executive chairman Niki Lauda told the APA news agency: “You have to wonder if it’s necessary for the tyres to be so on the limit, when everyone has to go in the box just after starting a race. It’s so complicated, especially for the spectators.”