There is no doubt that Formula One is currently going through a difficult period in its long history. Smaller teams are struggling financially despite more money than ever being in the sport. Worldwide television audiences are in decline. And worst of all, the competition on track is far too predictable. In a desperate search for solutions even qualifying has seen a shake-up before reverting to its 2015 format. But there is an easier way to fix the problem on the track – and it’s a method we’ve seen before.
The reintroduction of multiple tyre manufacturers would be a game changer and an injection of sporting challenge that F1 needs. The negatives against are grossly outweighed now by the potential positives. The current drive to alter, or even deliberately randomise the grid, comes from a realisation that there is no way to reduce Mercedes’ vast advantage in a short space of time.
The recent regulation changes follow a long line of modifications that all had the intention to remove power from a dominant team’s design, only to fail in the long term as they make the corridor for experimentation smaller. Once a team like Mercedes, or Red Bull before them, crack the code, the other teams can only play catch-up. The problem is they are always two moves behind.
This is coupled with another downside to modern day F1 racing. Drivers are no longer flat out, lap-after-lap, trying to squeeze every last bit of life from the car. Instead, they have become micro-managers that worry about everything from tyre life, to gearbox wear and engine use.
A tyre war changes this.
No longer would drivers be nursing tyres through to pit stop windows. The suppliers would design tyres that encourage them to be driven hard while maintaining performance. Indeed, a tyre that fell off the cliff too soon, or was fractions of a second slower when being pushed hard compared to a rival brand, would be embarrassing for the company in question.
Those design corridors that have been getting smaller, suddenly open up to new interpretation. Certain tracks would suit one tyre manufacturer over another. Performance in one area heightened, thus, designers make sacrifices in certain downforce set-ups if over the season they see large gains elsewhere.
Suddenly the small strides Ferrari have made over the summer become leaps at one circuit, before the Williams has the fastest car for one weekend at a unique track, and so on. The desired grid shake-up would occur organically.
During a race, this unpredictability aside, we’d also see entirely different pit stop strategies. Rather than knowing all the cars that start on the same compound will pit roughly the same time, allowing for the undercut, we’d have cars on track racing with tyres in different stages of life and performance.
The main concern for a tyre war is cost. One supplier is seen as a way to ensure costs remain low. This is a false economy. F1 has finally embraced the idea of cost saving. It’s not like ten years ago (the last time there was multiple manufacturers) when the talk of budgeting was mere lip service.
The current in-season restriction on the number of test days prevents too many ancillary tyre costs. Also, at the moment teams are having to make their overall package work around Pirelli’s rubber. For some this will cost more than having the freedom to understand and maximise a tyre design to be pushed hard, in the knowledge the car can only have maximum effectivity on certain tracks.
It would be a good chance to reduce the penalties for gearbox and engine changes. Clearly this cost saving measure has merit but it doesn’t really work in its current form. Teams take the hit and still find themselves investing more than was expected. If a tyre war returns, all components would be pushed harder. The production should then be allowed to shift from finite life to maximum performance.
Remaining with the sole provider has been a commercial choice. It gives Bernie complete control over a company he can lean on and place under pressure. When Pirelli headed into a Monza GP with a Spa problem on their shoulder, the spectre of the 2005 US Grand Prix hung over the sport. They didn’t consider halting the race. Ecclestone won’t want people back around the negotiating table that could derail his spectacle – even if it means risking safety.
That’s the real money issue here. The danger to commercial interests. Despite the long term health of F1 looking bleak, decisions are continually made for the here-and-now. The rich teams continue to get richer, the small ones continue to have less. It seems only probable the rule makers would only allow a second tyre supplier if it gave away cheap, less effective rubber. This way they could claim to be offering a budgeted choice while ensuring favoured teams – like Ferrari – remain at the top of the pile.
Rather than admit defeat with the current car specifications in a few years’ time, the choice could be made now to terminate the Pirelli contract. This way the current design parameters can remain the same whilst their application gets a reboot.
In a technically complicated sport, sometimes the simplest choice is the most effective. Right now F1 is blessed with a promising generation of drivers and team’s dedicated to competing. It is being held back by monotony.
Breaking the new status quo doesn’t require cars with radical new shapes or ways to manipulate the starting grid.
Just change the boots and let the teams go racing. Drivers should be racers, not component fatigue life managers. Make the pinnacle of motorsport about flat-out driving once again. If they do, it will become less predictable.
It will become the product we pray for every race weekend.