Undercut: It’s the tires, stupid

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So the old adage is again apt. Anything can happen in F1 and it usually does. Ferrari lost their chance at the dominant 1-2 on their home track in their backyard, and Lewis Hamilton despite the odds pulled off the upset win.

Lewis is further burnishing his legacy into the annals of F1 history. But wait folks – that is not all….

Just as impossible as a Ferrari loss at Monza was, equally as impossible was the announcement that Kimi Raikkonen, beloved by both the Paddock and the fans, was being shown the door in Maranello.

Part of me thinks it was a while coming, but still, he just set the fastest lap in F1 history and from the standpoint of constructor points and his relationship with the wunderkid, it was still a surprise.

In almost the same moment or right before that moment if you were watching Kimi’s feed, came the announcement that he would be driving for Sauber Alfa Romeo. Can anyone say whiplash?

Other musings in F1, Alonso tested a Indy car, Stoffel Vandoorne got the boot (also), Grosjean looks to be on the bubble, Ocon looks out of a seat and Dietrich Mateschitz has stated if the Honda partnership does not produce championships rather quickly, then the energy drinks company will exit stage left, right, up, down, sideways, just gone period. I’m not sure I actually believe this threat, but I suppose it could happen, what’s the old adage? (see above)

What else – oh yes I am starting to see some headlines concerning Sebastian Vettel’s, ah, lack of focus or rather, to state it another way – is the pressure too much for the four-time Champ? If the Italian press skewered him for the gaff in Germany then he was eviscerated for his first lap driving in Monza.

Truth be told, I am uninterested in expanding on any of these points even though they are relevant and what is currently is at the top of the news cycle.

Instead I want to bring back an issue that I tried to write about a few races back and missed my deadline (sorry for that one Negative Camber), and that is the issue of tires which now have determined the outcome of two races in dramatic fashion – Austria and most recently in Monza.

One could make the argument that tires determine the outcome of every race, which I of course agree with. However, most teams shade the tire strategy of their rivals or close to it, which in the ends up cancelling each other’s strategies out except in a few cases where for some bizarre reason a specific team or driver will experience blistering or faster deg where it is so much more punitive or rewarding depending on who the driver or team is.

This is exactly what we saw in Austria and Monza and I for one feel it is just not right that Kimi could not fight “the fight” with Lewis toward the end of the race. Lewis still might have won due to his car at that point looking a bit quicker, or just being quicker as a driver, but at the very least he would have had to race Kimi not just wait for the right time to execute a pass a la DRS or until Kimi’s car understeered off the racing line…

Tires you say, yes I say. I say the tires, this US, SS, S, M, H and now HS are really starting to get to me – I’m over it quite frankly. Some of the drivers are as well. We have heard some rumblings already this year haven’t we? This is Daniel Ricciardo giving his two cents right around the Spanish Grand Prix:

“I don’t know why we can’t have the hypersoft at every race,” he said. “Or at least we qualify on it and maybe figure it out after that. But at least we’ve got, like, a qualifying tire and then bigger differences in the race to create a bit more opportunity.”

“Because as I say, for the top six it was already obvious from Friday [in Barcelona] we were going to qualify on the soft and try to do a one-stop with the medium. That’s no secret. I think that’s what it is – just trying to create more options, more surprises, because it’s a bit predictable for now.”

I think Ricciardo has hit the nail right on its head. It becomes so predictable on Sunday, unless there is a VSC or a real safety car or retirements or rain.

Note: In regards to Ricciardo, he is lobbying for the fastest of fast tires for Saturday and then let the strategies play out Sunday on different tires. I however am lobbying to go even further. HS’s (or the grippiest tire for that particular track surface) on Sat and one type of tire period for Sunday all race long. Take the tires out of the equation. Let it be the driver, the team, the aero, the engine power, the fuel consumption, the serendipity of 20 cars racing all for the same bit of tarmac, just not tires that lose grip.

Hamilton echoed this sentiment as well although in a different context. The Briton was responding to a question post-Monaco and the lack of pace of his Mercedes. However, when I hear drivers say they were on cruise mode, you have to wonder…. Here is that quote:

Journo: Today, we saw you lapping four, five, six seconds off the pace for pretty much the entire race. How do you feel about that?

LH: We were probably just cruising around from lap six, maybe. Literally cruising. So it wasn’t really racing.

And this now sets up my complaint concerning Austria which otherwise was a damn fine race and Monza which could have been much more exciting at least for Ferrari. Back to Austria for a moment: It was Raikkonen’s race engineer that sent him a message along the lines of; Max is nursing his tires…

Precisely on lap 50, a transmission from Red Bull’s strategist/race engineer to race leader Verstappen is broadcast and here are the words that triggered my displeasure “Everyone is nursing till the end here, a lot of people concerned.”

This was almost the same context of the Sky commentary box with Martin Brundle explaining exactly why Kimi would be in trouble and why Hamilton was now in the catbird seat.

There were other factors at work surely; Bottas playing the perfect wingman [butler?], rain in the practice sessions which didn’t allow the teams to fully understand the tires and how they would perform, Kimi pushed too hard in the second stint at the beginning, and while valid, I feel all circumstantial in my opinion.

And with that I was left thinking as I watched both races unfold in those final laps, “How did we get here? I say that a lot when it comes to F1. Why are drivers in the pinnacle of the motorsport puttering around the track saving tire-life, hoping that they see the checkered flag before they see the guy behind in their mirrors? Or watching a driver in first place lose one, two, several positions due to a different tire? Is that racing?? Or to put it another way, why is a driver’s win contingent on the lead car’s tires not making it to the end of the race? Is that racing???

To be clear, if a Seb, or Kimi or Ham cannot manage their tires, bring them up to temp correctly, or over-work them, or have the unfortunate strategy where they are on them for 5,9,11 laps too long, have a blowout, that would not be a problem as long as they are all on the same tire and usually many stints are raced this way. This is the aspect of racing now that I want to drive home. Same tire, all race long.

I can put up with most of F1’s mistakes, missteps, and over-all cock-ups. I have come to terms with artificial passing, the loss of the most beautiful exhaust note at full chat, I even put up with those goofy grooved tires (imagine a race car without slicks, thanks for that one Mr. Mosely), and countless other things over the years, but what I absolutely, positively, with no exceptions will not put up with is drivers that are not racing, I mean really racing – qualy laps for every lap.

I am overhearing on the team radio, “look after your tires Lewis” or “these tires have to last till lap 34 Daniel” or whatever the communiqué is other than “drive as fast as you can…”

Again, I think Ricciardo was on to something. Ditch all the different compounds other than the one specific to each circuit’s characteristics, obviously some tracks are more abrasive and thus need different compounds, but for that compound make it as soft as possible or just choose the softest compound in the range that can be used. This in turn would provide plenty of strategies for the likes of Force India or Sauber or Torro Rosso that usually will choose to drive slower and save a pit stop.

But my thesis is, it would also force all the top teams to just go for it because there would be no advantage to driving slow or doing a one-stopper as was the case in Monza, although I’m sure given the right circumstances the top teams might still give it a try and while that might be the case, since Mercedes for example cannot extend tire life the way Ferrari has been able to at some circuits, this would compel them to make up the difference in outright pace.

Does anyone remember Ross and Michael and what they did in France in 2004??? How many pit stops was that and they still managed to win? Qualy laps people, qualy laps. That is the type of racing I, you, we all want to see, I think. I’m pretty sure anyway, but I am happy to hear what your opinion is without me assuming it.

And while there would still be a need for a team strategist, I propose one type of tire compound would shift some racing back to where it belongs – to the driver. Teams and drivers would be rewarded for flat-out driving and not for the cat and mouse games, or chess matches that are common now in the sport. The undercut, the over cut, etc.

However, lets just say despite the fact that there is only one compound the top teams still continue to putt around trying to save tire-life and the 20-second delta of a pit stop? Fine. What would happen if say Toro Rosso or Haas decided to throw caution to the wind, take the extra pit-stop, drive like hell and then end up on the podium or even with a win against the top teams? How do you think that would go down in the Monday morning debrief???

I ask you this: Austria was great, as was Monza at least for the against-the-odds aspect of it regarding Lewis and how Mercedes out-foxed the Reds, but just think how much more interesting these races would have been if everyone or most everyone were forced into at least two and three pit stops? Think of the different position changes due to traffic and the drivers forced to pass to get back their position? Think of the reshuffling of the cars and what that would do to the likelihood of the drivers really having to push, take themselves and their machinery to the absolute edge – I’m sure we would see many more driver errors and in doing so the top drivers would shine through regardless of their having to come from behind from a grid penalty or a gross error like the one that basically took the win out of Sebastian’s hands. It might also negate the importance of being on pole for some of the tracks where pole is all-important. Just think about how on the limit some or maybe all the cars would have been in the last twenty laps – all driving on soft fresh grippy Pirellis, some maybe a few laps younger?

Note: Monza might not be the best example of this, due to the high speed nature of the track vs. the pit delta but Sebastian had how many pits stops and he still only finished sixteen seconds adrift of leader Hamilton and pretty darn close to Valtteri Bottas in third.

The racing is good, great sometimes; it could be better a lot of the time. This is just one idea that could possibly get us a bit closer to that goal. One type of tire, and drive as fast as possible, that is how racing used to be. Old school. I guess I’m old school … nuthin’ wrong with that …

PS. Singapore, the second crown jewel of the F1’s circuit, commences this weekend and I can’t recall what the tires were doing last year. Probably due to the fact, it did not matter as Sebastian made an early exit from that race as well with a couple of other blokes – Kimi, Max, Fernando. This left Hamilton with very little to worry about including managing his tires.

This year I hope everyone gets past the first few corners and we are talking about the title contender’s car balance and stability, not the amount of tire left in the last stint. I hope we see two or three cars battling it out in the last laps, sticking each other nose down the apex, trying to force the issue, get by or cause an error for their competitors. I hope as I always hope that we get see the stuff that makes F1 the great sport that it is and it has nuthin to do with the tires…

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johnpierre riveraMIEbikenerdTim C. Recent comment authors

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Tim C.
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Tim C.

Very well said . . . very well said indeed!

johnpierre rivera
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hey Tim

Thx for that…

bikenerd
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bikenerd

100% agree. Whether it’s F1, indyCar, NASCAR, or amateur racing, if you’re driving to save tires or fuel you’re no longer racing. There need to be cars, tires, and rules that allow every driver to push as hard as he/she needs whenever desired.

Isn’t that the object of racing, to go as fast as possible?

johnpierre rivera
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hey Bikenerd the original intent of the different compounds was to spice up the racing (make it more fair) and if im not mistaken all this started in response to Michael and Ferrari – such was their collective dominance. that is usually the motivation for all the different things F1 try’s over the years – to improve the show, and while i am on board in theory, as usual there are alway aspects of the tinkering around that both the FIA and F1 never account for or just don’t see coming. now this is what we have all these tire… Read more »

MIE
Editor

F1 through its history has had an element of car preservation. These are not ten lap club races, but ones where you need to take care of the brakes, tyres, engine, gearbox etc. For this reason Fangio always tried to win at the slowest possible speed.
Only for a brief time during the refuelling era did the reliability improve to allow drivers to not need the skill to preserve the car.