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