In The Driver's Seat

Formula One: Tyre spat may prompt switch to Michelin

Sebastian Vettel blew up at supplier Pirelli after a tyre failure during the Belgian GP cost him a podium finish and raised safety concerns.
Sebastian Vettel blew up at supplier Pirelli after a tyre failure during the Belgian GP cost him a podium finish and raised safety concerns.PHOTO: REUTERS

As Sebastian Vettel lambasted Pirelli after the penultimate-lap failure of his right rear medium-compound tyre cost him a podium finish, and Ferrari defended their gamble in trying to venture into uncharted territory with a 29-lap run, motorsport director Paul Hembery adopted a philosophical attitude.

In some quarters, there was surprise that Ferrari should indulge in such a ploy, following the nervousness after Nico Rosberg's Mercedes was lucky to avoid a crash after a tyre explosion in the 190mph Blanchimont corner during Friday afternoon practice.

No cause was identified while Pirelli suggested an external origin such as a cut rather than a fault in the tyre itself.

That prompted Vettel, still furious after dropping from third to 12th, to accuse the company of always suggesting that such faults lay with the drivers or the teams.

He was also extremely vocal in drawing attention to the fact that he could have been in very serious trouble had his failure occurred 200 metres earlier.

After Rosberg's incident and Marcus Ericsson's ensuing crash in a Sauber, many teams complained that they had not been able to conduct a full tyre assessment. Going into the race, nobody could be sure how long either the soft-or medium-compound tyres would last.

Then, he was negotiating the flat-out swerves and compressions of the infamous Eau Rouge corner, which remains one of the most challenging in Formula One.

Ferrari's gamble fell a lap short of success in a race in which they, Williams, Force India, Red Bull and Toro Rosso had a similar performance. After Rosberg's incident and Marcus Ericsson's ensuing crash in a Sauber, many teams complained that they could not conduct a full tyre assessment.

Going into the race, nobody could be sure how long the soft - or medium-compound tyres would last. While Ferrari boss Maurizio Arrivabene insisted that the one-stop plan, with Vettel switching from soft to medium compound tyres on lap 14 of the 43, was feasible, Hembrey said the failure was not due to a cut, as Rosberg's had been, but to excessive wear.

Arrivabene countered that Ferrari had decided on their strategy that morning, not as the race unravelled, had based it on their data, and that they had a Pirelli representative in their pit whose specific job was to help with such critical decision-making.

"We are not so stupid or crazy to take a risk for the driver if you are not reading quite well the data," he said. "What do you think that engineer is doing? He's not there to chew chewing gum, he's there to check the tyres and to read the data from the team."

It's worth pointing out that Ferrari are kind to their tyres, but also that Mercedes were even considering a three-stop race at one stage.

Why is a spat over tyres important, apart from the resultant negative publicity?

Clearly, there is the safety issue, which is of prime concern to everyone for obvious reasons.

But one should point out that Pirelli very quickly got on top of their problems with exploding tyres from Silverstone in 2013 by issuing strict parameters to the teams which covered things such as camber angles, tyre pressures and a ban on running the tyres in the opposite direction to that intended by the manufacturer.

But there's another aspect to all of this. The tyre supply contract is up for renewal at the end of 2016 and Bernie Ecclestone will make the decision soon.

Pirelli are in a cleft stick in some ways because they were asked some years back specifically to supply tyres of varying compounds which were "made to degrade".

In other words, the tyres would go off quite quickly, enlivening the show and making teams and drivers look after them carefully in order to preserve their efficiency.

Pirelli did this but, inevitably, the fact that drivers moan about their tyres "going off" is hardly conducive to building the sort of publicity for performance and reliability upon which many buyers base their decisions.

Further controversy could result in Ecclestone opting for Michelin as a tyre supplier for 2017.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 25, 2015, with the headline 'Tyre spat may prompt switch to Michelin'. Print Edition | Subscribe