Michelin in for 2014?: It’s All or Nothing

Michelin has recently expressed a possible interest in becoming Formula One’s tire supplier for the 2014 season. Whether this is in place of Pirelli, who have yet to sign a contract for next year, or alongside is yet to be revealed. Here is why the situation is either all or nothing.

A tire war starts off with goodhearted intentions. To promote quality, the FIA and FOM would set out to promote a competitive, but constructive environment in which both suppliers are able to use their competitive spirits to the benefit of their product’s quality. That is a sound argument to make in this Pirelli day and age where the memories of exploding tires and shards of carbon fiber flying through the air from a month ago are still fresh in Formula One’s psyche. If quality is improved, then surely incidents like those in Britain would not happen again? Right?

That is a completely fair assumption. Even without the competition from another tire manufacturer, Pirelli would not have for a second allowed for any more tire failures. The events from the British Grand Prix are those that we only imagine happening terrible dreams. The lives of the drivers and spectators alike were in danger that day, and the presence of another company wouldn’t have changed Pirelli’s desire to right their wrongs.

Think back to the early 2000s when tire culture was in an entirely different spectrum. Back then, tires’ impact on a race were minimal to irrelevant because of the fuel factor. As long as the tires lasted longer than a fuel stint, you would be alright. This very fact prompted tire manufacturers to construct tires that would not only last a little longer than the fuel would, but would stay intact for eons beyond that. To completely reduce the amount of time lost due to degrading tires, companies like Bridgestone and Michelin, who supplied the teams in the 2000s, would make rock solid tires that lasted far beyond their required distance.

This culture of indestructible tires went as far in 2005 that the regulations stipulated that one set of tires would have to last a whole Grand Prix distance. That seemed like a pretty terrible idea at the time, and it does now, especially when you consider that happened at the United States Grand Prix that season when the Michelin tires were so unstable that only the Bridgestone-shod teams partook in the race. It was a farce that would not be allowed to happen again.

The 2010 Formula One season was a bit of a shocker for the sport. While it was a fantastic demonstration of technological achievement and was host to one of the most thrilling title battles ever, the individual races were often quite boring. Here’s why.

In the regulations overhaul of 2009, refueling was kept. This kept the type of racing we saw that year relatively similar to that of the previous generation of Formula One. In 2010, however, refueling was banned yet the tires stayed the same. Bridgestone took it upon themselves to create tires that were a bit more unpredictable for that season, because they knew that the tires would play a much larger role in the development of the championship. Unfortunately, Bridgestone didn’t go nearly far enough. Races were easily done in one stop, barring the extremely hot or wet races, and the amount of overtaking was underwhelming due to Bridgestone’s lack of daring.

Enter Pirelli.

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The Italian tire company was told that the tires needed to play a larger role in the races. Not enough to alter the competitive order, but enough to wake people up. That is exactly what they did. Apart from Sebastian Vettel dominating most of the races, the 2011 season of races was one of the most engaging and exciting. Teams were challenged by the new forms of strategy involved with racing fast-degrading tires. It was a challenge, though, that would need some time for the fans to warm up to. Pirelli has been a very polarizing entity of late, and the type of racing that comes with high-degradation tires is either hit or miss with people. There is not a whole lot of room in the middle.

I will admit that in all my admiration for the job Pirelli is doing under the often laughable conditions presented to them, they have gone overboard at times. Though, I will not accept that Pirelli have done anything other than improve the sport. You know how every action has an equal and opposite reaction? Well, the argument against Pirelli during this year’s British Grand Prix has an equal, if not more potent, argument FOR Pirelli. Or is it perhaps against the teams?

The practice this season has been to swap the left rear tire with the right rear tire. This, for reasons unknown to me and out of my realm of technical knowledge, aids in cornering, handling and tire conservation.

That is, until they blow up.

You see, swapping the rear tires puts undue stress on the sidewalls that would not otherwise be seeing so much action. As a result, the sidewalls that weren’t used to the strains of cornering could not cope with the “pressure”. *Cue British Grand Prix*

With all of this in mind, here is why a tire war would not work.

Just as the culture of the early 2000s was to race ironclad tires, the culture of the 2010s is to race high-degrading tires. That is the mindset we as fans approach a race. Pirelli have done a great job with what they have, yet many seem unable to accept the type of racing that has resulted from their hard work.

This year’s Spanish Grand Prix was highly criticized for featuring four stops. Heavens to Betsy! Four stops? The racing world cringed and strained in agony at the thought of having to keep up with such a rate of stoppage for the rest of the season. What many failed to recall, however, was that the uncriticized 2011 Spanish Grand Prix also featured a winning four stop strategy.

A common sentiment throughout this season is that the races are too hard to follow. The 2013 tires are supposedly so fragile that the amount of stops the drivers has to make are too many to keep track of. Why then, is the idea of a tire war a bad idea? Just take the fans’ current confusion about race strategy and double it.

I personally would be fine with having another tire manufacturer come into the sport. That is a personal preference of mine. I do know, though, that I am one of a relatively small group, and I know that having double the amount of tire compounds at a race would only further exacerbate the issues currently plaguing the sport at the moment.

Michelin would be given the same briefing that Pirelli got in 2010: Make the racing exciting. More pitstops, more strategy, more excitement.

If you ask me, all we would get is more frustration.

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