POWER PLAY

The sto­ries F1’s big­wigs would rather you didn’t know…

F1 Racing (UK) - - KING OF THE HILL - DI­ETER RENCKEN

Re­mem­ber the De­cem­ber 2015 is­sue of F1 Rac­ing? Our cover de­clared, with jus­ti­fi­able ex­cite­ment: ‘TECH FU­TURE SHOCK! FAT­TER SLICKS, SEXY AERO, MORE POWER…’

We had ac­cu­rate ren­der­ings of new-look rear wings and wider, delta-swept fronts; there was bullish talk of six-se­cond lap-time gains – info gar­nered from lead­ing F1 tech­ni­cal sources. It was enough to make any F1 fan a bit sweaty­palmed as they picked up the mag, ner­vously hop­ing against hope that the sport might at last be head­ing in the right di­rec­tion.

Sadly, it seems this ex­cite­ment was pre­ma­ture, for now the signs are that while down­force will be in­creased, it will be a much smaller in­crease than planned. En­gines will have no ma­jor power boost (just reg­u­lar yearon-year gains) and tyres will de­grade more than even in the re­cent past. Lower lap times? Reckon on three sec­onds, if all goes to plan…

It’s sober­ing to re­flect that our De­cem­ber cover was based on com­ments and in­sights from lead­ing F1 stake­hold­ers, ut­tered dur­ing in­ter­views or in press con­fer­ences. In fact, in Septem­ber 2015, F1 tech­ni­cal di­rec­tors spoke of gain­ing three sec­onds solely from low­er­pro­file tyres, with the rest split equally be­tween en­gines and down­force. So what went wrong?

Fol­low­ing a two-day Strat­egy Group/ For­mula 1 Com­mis­sion sum­mit in Jan­uary, com­ments on ‘faster F1’ were con­spic­u­ous by their ab­sence. Team bosses are usu­ally vo­cal about de­ci­sions taken in such meet­ings, but af­ter this most re­cent gath­er­ing all were oddly mute. Only a lit­tle later did it emerge that we’d have to halve our ex­pec­ta­tions of how much faster F1 might be­come.

The shift is in­dica­tive of the reg­u­la­tory malaise from which F1 seems un­able to ex­tract it­self. What looked good on pa­per (who wouldn’t leap at the chance of re­set­ting lap records that have stood since the sport’s late V10 era?) sim­ply can­not be put into prac­tice, pri­mar­ily due to warn­ings on down­force lev­els is­sued by Pirelli.

It’s tempt­ing to point fin­gers at the tyre sup­plier, but blame must be ap­por­tioned else­where, for not only are their prod­ucts ham­pered by (cost-driven) test re­stric­tions, which curb such ac­tiv­i­ties to a hand­ful of days an­nu­ally – usu­ally im­me­di­ately af­ter grands prix – but 50 per cent of their yearly F1 spend (es­ti­mated at £75m) ends up with com­mer­cial rights holder FOM for ‘bridge and board’ cir­cuit sig­nage. That rather lim­its what’s left for R&D into ex­per­i­men­tal F1 tyre tech­nol­ogy.

When the 2017-19 tyre con­tract was up for grabs last Oc­to­ber, Miche­lin ten­dered along­side Pirelli, but are said to have lost out af­ter plan­ning to “in­vest in de­vel­op­ment, so

Pirelli CEO Marco Tronchetti Provera and mo­tor­sport di­rec­tor Paul Hem­bery with FOM’S Bernie Ec­cle­stone we can make the show even bet­ter, rather than com­mer­cial mat­ters”. As one Miche­lin source re­cently put it to F1 Rac­ing: “The FIA told us the choice from FOM is Pirelli.”

Our Miche­lin man also said his com­pany had pre­pared pre­sen­ta­tions for tech­ni­cal di­rec­tors that demon­strated 1.5-se­cond lap-time gains from tyres, so long as 18-inch wheels with low-pro­file tyres were adopted to re­place the ar­chaic 13-inch, high-as­pect combo that harks back to 1993. He said tech­ni­cal di­rec­tors were ad­vised that ex­ist­ing side­walls could not cope with tar­geted down­force in­creases.

Yet Pirelli say “there is no ap­petite for low­pro­file tyres among teams”, which they put down to the cost of re­design­ing sus­pen­sion and other dy­namic com­po­nents to bring in larger rims. That said, the World En­durance Cham­pi­onship and World Rally Cham­pi­onship had no such is­sues, so clearly they have gen­er­ous com­mer­cial masters. A year’s sup­ply of F1 Pirellis costs £1m.

The up­shot is that shortly be­fore the Jan­uary sum­mit, Pirelli warned that the 2017 pro­pos­als re­quired re­vi­sion for safety rea­sons. Ei­ther that or un­ac­cept­ably high tyre pres­sures would be im­posed to cope with side­wall stresses. This led to fears that the req­ui­site pres­sure in­creases would negate any per­for­mance gains! Wel­come to the fab­u­lous logic of Planet F1.

Thus cau­tioned, the Strat­egy Group re­turned the pro­pos­als for re­vi­sion, rather than rub­ber­stamp­ing the fruits of the Tech­ni­cal Di­rec­tive. Pirelli re­quested a meet­ing with the FIA, FOM, teams and driv­ers to frame fu­ture F1 tyre tech­nol­ogy and test reg­u­la­tions. As a sup­plier bound to de­liver what the cus­tomer or­ders, it would be un­fair to blame Pirelli for this farce.

The fi­nal de­ci­sion on 2017’s reg­u­la­tions is due at the end of Fe­bru­ary. Af­ter that date, F1’s gov­er­nance de­mands unan­i­mous agree­ment on any changes sched­uled for the fol­low­ing year. Yet some tech­ni­cal di­rec­tors are talk­ing of post­pon­ing the regs re­set to 2018. Not just di­luted, then, but fur­ther de­layed.

By which time, dear reader, there’s even a slim chance that Miche­lin may be back in the frame for F1’s tyre-sup­ply con­tract, as Pirelli’s con­tract ex­ten­sion for 2017-19 has yet to be for­malised. You read it here first…

“As one Miche­lin source put it to F1 Rac­ing: “The FIA told us the choice from FOM is Pirelli”

F1’s fu­ture sud­denly seems much slower

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