Bar a handful of races, the Circuit de Catalunya has never been a good venue at which to showcase Formula 1 racing.
Despite several layout changes to try and improve the show, it has – if anything – had the opposite effect, and given it is a familiar testing ground for the entire field, it tends to showcase a designer, rather than a driver’s, skills.
To overtake here, you needed a significant car or tyre advantage to get by a rival. Overtaking was not impossible, but it tended to be extremely difficult. It was not uncommon to see less than half a dozen passing moves at some Grands Prix, and the starting grids were typically ‘Noah’s Ark’ formation, further underlining that the circuit rewarded aerodynamic and mechanical grip than sheer driver skill.
In today’s Formula 1 era, it is completely different. Bolt on some super sticky and soft tyres, activate a bit of KERS and DRS, and you can typically make your passing move stick. It’s no different to how overtaking was done in the 1980s turbo era, it’s just with different technology.
What we witnessed in Barcelona last weekend was a race full of overtaking and excitement right through the field.
At times, the running order and constant pit stops – over eighty of them – made the race confusing for fans (never mind the journalists and teams!), and the blow-up against Pirelli for failing to produce tyres that were durable enough was quite astonishing.
Pirelli does know how to make tyres, they wouldn’t be in the business if they didn’t. The Italian tyre company returned to F1 as the sport’s sole tyre supplier in 2011, and took the opposite path trod by their predecessors at Bridgestone and Michelin: to make tyres with vast performance drops to encourage overtaking and wheel-to-wheel racing.
The F1 teams and fans demanded better racing, and that’s exactly what Pirelli has delivered. All of the teams are given the same sets of tyres and compounds over any given weekend, and for one or more teams to complain about the tyres is very rich: the winning team had exactly the same rubber, and they simply made a better job of managing the race. It’s that simple.
Of course, designing tyres is a black science (no pun intended), and trying to determine at what point the tyres should ‘hit the cliff’ is a huge challenge.
Of course, some teams, cars and drivers are much harder on their tyres than others. On some weekends, they will get it right, and on others they won’t.
And when you visit the Circuit de Catalunya – which is among the hardest circuits on tyres on the calendar, it’s quite likely that more teams will suffer than those who don’t. You could have brought the hardest rubber possible to the circuit and the tyres still would have fallen to pieces.
So on Sunday afternoon we had plenty of complaints from Red Bull Racing and Mercedes, with Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz even going so far to say that Formula 1 was no longer a sport.
Rich words indeed. He certainly wouldn’t be saying those words if his cars had claimed victory, as Sebastian Vettel had managed two weeks previously in Bahrain. On this given weekend, the team couldn’t understand how to make the Pirelli tyres work.
Those who complain will do so because they can’t get their tyres to work. That’s an issue that these teams own, and to throw the toys out of the pram because you went down the wrong engineering path in comparison to others who took the right path screams of hypocrisy. To blame Pirelli is disingenuous.
If you want some evidence, go and find a clip of the same race here in 1999 (pictured left), which had just three – three! – overtaking moves over the entire race. I would never trade that kind of procession for the action we had on Sunday.
Pirelli deserves enormous plaudits for taking a risk in producing tyres that have given us exciting racing. Of course, not every Grand Prix will be a classic and nor should they be.
Pirelli was good enough to admit that four and five pit stops per driver (as an average) was a little too much, and even they were perhaps caught out by what transpired on Sunday. Perhaps this will necessitate a slight rethink to encourage more action on the track (instead of the pits), but one hopes that they don’t stray away from their brief to encourage the best racing possible.
But we have had five completely different races to-date in 2013, each with very distinctive themes, side-stories and action that continue to make Formula 1 exciting and entertaining.
The best drivers on the day – all World Champions, you may note – have stood atop the podium so far, so the end results haven’t been wildly unpredictable or utterly contrived. The best drivers and teams will continue to emerge, consistently, at the top of the pile, and that’s exactly the way the sport should be.
Pirelli has contributed to that in spades, and for that they should be praised.