When Pirelli entered Formula One last year with the brief to shake up the racing, few could have predicted the impact they would have. Opinion is split over whether they have been good or bad for the sport.
Seven time world champion Michael Schumacher has made his decision, describing them as ‘like driving on raw eggs’, in a recent interview with CNN. Mark Webber on the other hand, has praised them for their role in creating one of the most exciting starts to a season in the last decade.
The Bridgestone era became synonymous with processional races. Fans could expect to see two things, races dominated by the front end of the grid, and the back end of Schumacher’s Ferrari as it disappeared into the sunset. One of the principle causes of this domination was the fact that the Bridgestone tyres were designed to last the distance. Therefore drivers only had to pit to refuel, allowing lengthy stints on track and reducing the impact of pit-stop strategy.
The first strides towards addressing this problem were made two seasons ago when a change in the rules to forced drivers to use both compounds of tyre in each race - the ‘option’ (softer, faster but quicker to degrade) and the ‘prime’ (slower, but more durable) tyres during the course of each race. Subsequently, when Bridgestone decided make 2010 their final season, Pirelli were awarded a three year contract to become the sole supplier of Formula One tyres.
One of the key areas of their brief was to create a tyre that would degrade faster, meaning that tyre management became an essential skill for the drivers.
This has had a varying degree of affect throughout the grid. The smoother drivers have dealt more effectively with this change. Jenson Button has been able to apply his easy style perfectly, as has Sergio Perez. However the more aggressive drivers like Webber, and even Hamilton and Alonso to an extent, have suffered from erratic form.
Schumacher himself falls into the latter category. On his way to a record number of world championships his win at all costs mentality pushed the car to its limits. Whilst his struggles on race day have not been entirely down to the tyres, his natural aggression has not lent itself well to the delicate balancing act required.
The German has not been the only Formula One legend to attack the tyres. The ‘Flying Scot,’ Jackie Stewart has criticised them on grounds of safety.
He said: "I don't think that amount of rubber should be coming off the tyres and be left to the side of the track,"
"If you go over that rubber it then sticks to the terribly hot -- above 100C (212F) -- tyres."
"When you get to the next corner your car is now totally unstable, and when you're going to brake you'll probably lose control of your car. If there's a car close to you then that will cause a multiple-car accident -- it has to be improved."
Whilst these concerns from one of the foremost campaigners for increased safety should not be taken lightly, there can be no doubt that towards the end the Bridgestone’s had become too efficient. This was largely due the technological advancements made during the tyre war with Michelin. Therefore, by the time they became the sole supplier they had developed the perfect tyre.
This compounded the long standing Ferrari dominance and the more recent Brawn and Red Bull eras. Bland racing was the order of proceedings. Those who stared at the front, barring mechanical failure or driving errors, finished at the front, opening the sport up to accusations of being boring and predictable, backed up by dwindling TV audiences at the time.
One of the great ironies of this situation has been that whilst the Bridgestone’s should have complemented the aggression of the sports more edgy drivers, it is the introduction of the high wearing Pirelli’s that has brought more overtaking than was ever seen previously.
This is a stance reiterated by Pirelli boss Paul Hembery.
On the James Allen F1 Podcast, he said: ‘You have to bear in mind what we were asked to do. We were asked to create these challenges. If the sport wants us to go to a one change, zero degradation tyre we can do that as well. But maybe people have short memories, the sport was in huge decline - no-one was watching it. There was no overtaking. We know that the majority of fans like to see overtaking."
Hembery points to the Bahrain Grand Prix as an example of the increased overtaking his company's tyres have produced - 73 compared to 15 in 2010, the last time the race was held.
This season has seen four different winners in four races as well as some chaotic action in the pits. A point in case is Kimi Raikkonen falling ten places in two laps after staying out too long in China, after his tyres 'fell off the cliff.' Knowing when your tyres are spent can be the difference between a colossal points haul and a non-descript midtable finish.
Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg joined Webber in his praise of the impact the tyres have had on the excitement of races. Rosberg was keen to stress the importance of competition and was delighted to have out performed McLaren in Bahrain.
He said: "Bahrain was probably the toughest conditions tyre-wise we've had until now and there we were beating teams like McLaren, who until then had been dominating the season."
Whilst Schumacher’s criticism is not without some validity, it does have the distinct air of a man struggling to keep pace with some of the younger drivers in the field. Desperate to close the gap, he appears to be pushing too hard and his tyres are degrading much faster.
Furthermore, Schumacher is not the only one who has had to manage the new tyres. They are the same across the board and other drivers are managing to understand their intricacies far better.
Hembery was keen to stress this point, stating, ‘Drivers are under pressure; they want to succeed and if they are not then these things get said. It’s the same for everyone and it will still be true that the best drivers and engineers will always win."
"Look at Raikkonen, he’s been in rallying for two years so he’s suffered the biggest change and he’s got a 2nd place straight off," he added.
However, even the effortless Button, who has been in supreme form so far, has had his struggles. Although his penultimate lap puncture in Bahrain could be largely attributed to the searing heat, there is a strong feeling in the paddock that the tyres have seismically shifted from too conservative to playing too big a role.
That we have had four different winners this season is both exciting to watch and revealing. The tyres have been far from perfect and have arguably formed too big a part of the debate surrounding this year's championship.
However this must not detract from the fact that the racing had suffered from Bridgestone’s strive for perfection. Whilst nobody wants to see drivers unable to take their cars to the edge for fear of losing control, the added consideration of the tyres has without doubt breathed new life into a previously stagnating championship.