MANAMA, April 15 (Reuters) - Pirelli are coming under pressure to make longer-lasting Formula One tyres after Sunday’s Chinese Grand Prix saw drivers lifting off the throttle rather than go flat-out to the flag.
Australian Mark Webber started from the Shanghai pit lane and pulled back in again after just one lap to get rid of his Red Bull’s quick-wearing soft tyres as soon as he possibly could.
After seven laps, there had been a confusing four different leaders.
McLaren’s Jenson Button, who had described his Saturday qualifying as being more of a “driving Miss Daisy” pootle, found himself asking his team during the race whether he should fight those ahead of him for fear of wearing out the tyres.
“It was excruciating, if you are involved with a car that’s got to drive at that pace...I would hope for the fans it was OK,” commented McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh.
Pirelli have introduced new compounds this season to encourage more overtaking and more pitstops to shake up the strategy.
That was seen as a good thing, to prevent drivers going for long stints on one set, but the new generation now lose performance so fast at some tracks that teams have had to take drastic measures in response.
The ‘team orders’ controversies that exploded at last month’s Malaysian Grand Prix were due mainly to teams ordering drivers to hold station because they feared the tyres would not last if raced hard.
“I don’t think it’s great for all the drivers to be cruising around at 70 percent for large percentages of the race,” Christian Horner, boss of champions Red bull, told reporters.
“They want to push and drive as hard as they can. They don’t want to drive percentages. Pirelli are a very capable company and I‘m sure they’ll get that resolved hopefully quickly.”
Whitmarsh said he thought the Italian company was already “doing some rethinking”. The next race is in Bahrain this weekend.
”I prefer it when Formula One is a sprint from stop to stop. I’d much rather, from a personal perspective, where you have tyres and you pull out and go for it flat out. Then, when they are worn out, you jump on another set and go flat out.
”I hate it when my drivers are out there and you know they are driving at nine tenths,“ added the McLaren principal. ”But my job and the team’s job is to maximise the opportunity of scoring points and that’s why we did it.
“I would like more durable tyres that we can absolutely attack on flat out.”
Drivers had a choice of soft and medium on Sunday, with the soft degrading after barely a handful of laps. Button and Red Bull’s triple champion Sebastian Vettel qualified on the medium while the top seven on the grid all started on softs.
Button was in the lead after 15 laps but ended up fifth at the finish while Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso won from third on the grid and pole-sitter Lewis Hamilton led but then dropped to third.
With the new tyres, qualifying is no longer the crucial element it once was and the fastest car is no longer necessarily the winner.
“The tyres are the dominating factor at the moment,” said Horner.
“We are seeing that qualifying is paying less of a premium than trying to preserve the tyres...a quick car abuses the tyre more, and the tyres can’t cope with that. So obviously we have to adapt our approach and set up and the way that we operate the car to ensure we get more out of the tyres.”
In Pirelli’s defence, the drivers’ mindset is also having an effect with the tyres confounding expectations.
Whitmarsh said Button had been looking after his tyres in his second stint, assuming from experience that they would not otherwise last.
“We then said step the pace up. Within three laps he was going two seconds a lap quicker and the tyres actually held in there. Upon reflection...he could have leant on them a lot heavier than his instinct (told him),” said the boss. (Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Justin Palmer)