It was the 2010 Canadian Grand Prix that changed the direction of Formula One for the next few seasons. Bridgestone tyres were durable, leading to many one stop races that weren’t hugely exciting. But on that Sunday in Canada, Lewis Hamilton won a race that featured several tyre stops. The first fifteen or so laps were breathless. The powers that be in Formula One decided that races like Canada 2010 were what they wanted. Bridgestone departed the sport at the end of 2010 and Pirelli entered at the start of 2011. What followed was two exciting seasons of a sport that was suddenly intent on working out how to deal with these tyres.
After initially thanking Pirelli Motorsport Director Paul Hembery for his company’s contribution to Formula One, we asked him whether they looked at the sport and decided that it needed spicing up. “It was a mix really”, he says as we stand in a corner of the Pirelli stall at the Autosport Show. “We were approached to make it a bit different with a different approach and we bought into that. It was quite brave in many ways at the start, but if you just follow everybody else you’ll just be like everybody else and become part of the wallpaper so we wanted to take a little bit of a different approach. We had a fall-back position, a plan B in case it didn’t work, but I’m happy to say it did work.” Fortunately it did work, because Plan B would have been to return to the Bridgestone days, “Plan B was just do what everyone did in the past, which would be to be conservative and not be so visibly involved in the races”.
Pirelli re-entered the sport a year after refuelling during races was outlawed. Hembery believes that the absence of in-race refuelling made Pirelli’s job harder, but has been beneficial in the long run, pointing to comments made by 2007 world champion Kimi Raikkonen.
“It helps us, the way the car changes in terms of handling from 150 kilos [of fuel] to zero, that changes. If you talk to the drivers they say they can feel the difference every lap, that’s the impact. [Refuelling] would help us as it makes things easier, but do we want things easier? We probably want the challenge for everybody. I was talking to Kimi [Raikkonen] about it and he drove last time when there was refuelling, and he came in now with no refuelling and new tyres and he said that it’s a big difference, if others had to do what you’re doing now, I think some of the other people might have had a different comment to make but he enjoys it, says it’s all in our hands and it’s down to the drivers to get the maximum out of it”.
Michael Schumacher was publicly critical of Pirelli after the Bahrain Grand Prix last year, claiming that managing tyres wasn’t in the essence of Formula One. That was a rare moment of criticism for Pirelli, so does Hembery think that a relative lack of criticism by the drivers helped Pirelli?
“Better because it would be more publicity! At the end of the day they’ve all got the same product and it’s down to them. Michael’s fine; I had a long chat with him many times. I remember in Japan we drank a bottle of vodka together and discussed the meaning of life - and no, it wasn’t before the race it was after the race! He uses Pirelli on his cars and motorbikes. He knows very well that we could do what he was asking if we were asked to do that, but our point of view was ‘look Michael, we know what you’re saying, we understand, but unfortunately that’s not what we’re being asked to do. He was looking to get things in a direction that maybe suited him a bit better, he’s a great champion, he had a different point of view and you respect that.”
Schumacher and Bridgestone developed a close relationship throughout their dominant period a decade ago, but Hembery believes it was a different era for the sport.
“It was a different era. You go through the eras of Formula One and there’s always been a different challenge at a different point in time. In the early 2000s it was always about getting everything maxed out: engines, tyres, the whole package. You look at lap times and they’re the quickest times. 2003 was when most of the lap records were set; it’ll be a long, long time before we get near those times again.”
The end of the 2012 season seemed as if it was a repeat of 2011 as one stop races returned and Sebastian Vettel stormed to the top of the standings. Hembery believes Pirelli was assisted by external factors in the final few events as mundane races in India and Korea were soon forgotten after the thrill of Abu Dhabi and Austin. “At the end of the year we were actually in negative degradation, the fuel coming off was compensating for tyre degradation. To be honest we were having a lot of boring races, we were saved in Abu Dhabi by the two safety cars, Texas was maybe saved by the fact it was a new track and maybe the braking points were a little bit uncertain”.
Twenty-four different opinions are given to Pirelli on a regular basis in terms of feedback, so how do they make sure that preferential treatment isn’t given to certain drivers or teams? “You look at data”, Hembery says immediately. “At the end of the day, you talk to drivers, but Formula One’s all about data. Drivers’ comments are important, but it’s really the data, you look at the numbers. I don’t want to negate the comments from drivers, but you have to be a little bit factual and work in a pragmatic way and that means comparing the cars”.
So what’s going to change in 2013? “You’ll find the tyres will heat up a lot quicker”, says Hembery. “They’ll be a lot more aggressive in the corners so that’ll put the compound under pressure. We hope we’ll get a little more degradation, but they’re learning to manage it and they’re learning to temperature manage the tyres, so the chassis this year is very similar to last year so there’s no big changes. We’ve made our changes to try and create a challenge, but it won’t be as big as what we made last year. 2012 was a combination of our changes together with the dramatic changes on the cars, particularly at the front and with the blown diffusers. 2014 will be the big year.”
With the rule changes and new engines arriving in 2014, what does that mean for Pirelli? “If we’re still in the sport, we haven’t renewed the contract yet! But if we come forwards in the sport, I hope so. We want to bring some innovations and differences as well.”