Barcelona has never been a racing circuit where there have been great Formula 1 battles. The design of the track is such that it usually shows the attributes of a car rather more than the skill of the driver. In the old days, one got used to seeing grids that were team by team by team. It is a good place for testing, but the races were not often spectacular. Overtaking was not impossible, but you needed a big car advantage to get ahead of a rival.
Eighteen years ago I wrote a race report from Montmelo which ended with the following sentence: “But for all the celebration at Benetton – this was only the team’s second ever 1-2 finish, after Japan 1990 – the race was eminently forgettable and very dull to watch. “Who won the race?” said a fellow pressman 90 minutes after the race had ended, as he tried to focus on writing a report. It had been that kind of an event.”
Nine years later, in a report called “The train in Spain”, I concluded the following: “If the Spanish GP did anything, it alerted the F1 world to the fact that even at a track where overtaking is usually possible, there wasn’t any.”
One year I recall all the red top newspapers in the UK decided that Formula 1 must be boring after one of the Barcelona races. Today they are all squawking about tyres. It is this week’s squawk. Lewis Hamilton did not do very well and so they have all got together and decided that “the story” is the tyres. And, believe me, this I how they do it. They work together so that no-one can be accused of missing the story. It is like the wagon trains forming circles when the Indians attacked. It is self-preservation.
The point that they are all missing is that we had action all the way through the race and while they may have found it all rather too confusing, it does not mean that Pirelli does not know how to make tyres. It is quite the opposite in fact. The Italian tyre company deliberately builds tyres that fade because they want to show their expertise. The F1 teams asked for better racing, after the boring Bridgestone “concrete tyre” era, and this is exactly what Pirelli has delivered. Designing tyres that fade at the right point is not an exact science, as we know some cars are harder on tyres than others. But teams that complain only complain because their cars don’t work on the tyres. So today we have lots of whingeing from Red Bull and Mercedes. Hmmm… I wonder why? This is how F1 teams operate and one should ignore them. We did not hear Red Bull whingeing about the tyres after Bahrain, did we? The reality is that the team does not really appear to understand how to make them work. This is presumably why they have recently taken on a Sauber engineer called Pierre Waché, who they seem to think was the reason that the Swiss team was so good on its tyres last year. Waché is a former Michelin engineer who was in charge of vehicle dynamics at Hinwil.
I truly believe that whatever the rules of the competition the same teams will be at the front, whether they are building soap box racers or Formula 1 cars. This has actually been proved a few years ago at the French Grand Prix when a “Pinewood Derby” was organized in the Paddock Club. The Pinewood Derby is a competition developed by the Boy Scouts of America to teach youngsters basic carpentry skills and to promote father-son relationships. Each year around two million cars are built from regulation blocks of wood, four plastic wheels and four nails, which act as axles. In the F1 version there were a total of 15 entries, eight from Formula 1 teams and seven from the Boy Scouts. The FIA’s Charlie Whiting was the official starter. The urge to compete was such that the Ferrari team produced some spectacular cars using the latest technology, including CAD-CAM design and manufacture, heavy-metal ballast and carbon composite fins. Not surprisingly one of the Ferraris won (just!) but to show just how much they cared, even the then Technical Director Ross Brawn turned up to help out. The three Ferrari “Pinewood” cars (there was a T car as well) are worth an absolute fortune now. They are almost unique.
The top teams win because they are cleverer than the opposition and have the resources that they need. The battles between them ebb and flow, but the same organisations are always there or thereabouts. Occasionally one will fade or a new challenger emerge.
There are some who think that the tyre rules today are a little too much. I disagree. I think that Pirelli deserves a huge pat on the back for producing tyres that make for interesting races. We have had five races this year and each has its own very distinct story and this is the kind of uncertainty that makes for great sport. Those who say it is too artificial should take note of the fact that the top four in the World Championship standings are all former World Champions, proving that it is the best drivers who emerge, no matter what the circumstances. I would question the tyre compounds a little more if there were winners so unlikely that the races had become contrived, but I do not believe that is the case.
Yes, it is a balancing act and it is hard to get it perfect, but Pirelli has done a great job.
Better still, the company is staying alert. After the race in Spain Paul Hembery tweeted the following: “A popular winner. Nando in Spain. Not our best race, we aim for 2 or 3 stops, never 4. Been too aggressive, so will need to have a rethink for the rest of the season, certainly in time for Silverstone, maybe Canada.”
This is exactly the kind of tyre manufacturer a modern racing series needs.