Tyred out?

Pastor Maldonado won the Spanish Grand Prix last weekend. Maldonado drives for the Williams team, who have been struggling somewhat in recent years. Maldonado himself largely got a drive at Williams on account of the significant amount of sponsorship he brought with him from his home country of Venezuela. And yet somehow a pay driver in a down-on-their-luck team managed to fend off all the other guys and win a grand prix.

This is, of course, a massive over-simplification which I will go on to elaborate in a minute. But judging by the Facebook, Twitter and message board postings I’ve been reading, it’s not too much of a stretch to summarise that Maldonado’s win has divided race fans somewhat. Have the Pirelli tyres – seen as hugely unpredictable but having a huge bearing on race results – turned F1 into a lottery? Nobody wants to see processional racing, but is what we are seeing now too much of a contrived show? I would argue that we are just, just, just on the right side of the line between sport and entertainment.

There are in my view three key reasons why the sporting elements of Formula One are still alive and kicking:

1. Stability in the rules

It’s been a good few years now since the last radical rules overhaul in F1 – you know, the one where they banned the wide wings and silly fins, followed by a refueling ban the following year? It seems that stability in the rules has helped to close the whole pack up. Put simply, the big spending teams that got it right straight off – Red Bull, McLaren et al – are now being caught by the midfielders with smaller budgets like Sauber, Force India and Williams. Nearly everyone’s figured out how to interpret the current rules to their maximum potential, so there are fewer ways for the big hitters to innovate and stay ahead. Further, most of the loopholes – F ducts, double diffusers and so on – have now been closed. The upshot of all this is that the cars are getting closer and closer in terms of dynamics and performance – leading to more competitive and open grids;

2. High quality in the lower formulae

The standard of talent in F1 is now embarrassingly high. Feeder formulae such as GP2 and Formula Renault 3.5, with their own feeders like GP3, mean that young drivers right now are arriving at Formula 1 level with unparalleled levels of race craft, skill and fitness. It might have been technically correct to call Pastor Maldonado a ‘pay driver’ given the sponsorship he brought with him to Williams last year, but let’s not forget he was the GP2 champion. Other ‘pay drivers’ of the calibre of Sergio Perez, Vitaly Petrov and Bruno Senna similarly have race records that speak for themselves. Gone are the days of a big sponsor alone buying you a seat on the grid (Narain Karthikeyan aside). Nowadays you’ve got to be quick as well. In fact, I reckon that every single driver on the grid (with no more than 2-3 exceptions) has the skill set to win a race if they happen to find themselves in the right car at the right time. When in the past has one been able to say that with such confidence?

3. Tyres

Ah yes, the Pirelli tyres. Undoubtedly these have contributed a heck of a lot to racing in 2012 with their apparent unpredictability – Perez in Malaysia, Maldonado in Catalunya, etc etc. But what is crucial to remember is that the tyres still have to be connected to a car, that itself is connected to a soft, squidgy bit otherwise known as a driver. And – in my humble view at least – whilst the tyres have added an awful lot to F1 2012, that is only because the technical conditions and breadth of driving skill have given the perfect context for this to happen.

I’d just like to add a note of caution at the end here. It is great to see a new name on the podium or a declining team returning to form. A topsy-turvy race of course sets the heart racing. It is utterly fantastic for motor sport that in one of the top-line series, such a wide range of contestants start each race with a realistic chance of reaching the top step of the podium. Nevertheless, a race win for a driver has to be the culmination of the playing the right strategy cards, being on the pace, and – of course – sometimes a dash of luck. The winner must be able to look back on their victorious weekend and pick out the points where they and their team made the right calls or found themselves able to react positively to whatever breaks came their way. As long as there is logic to what is happening with the Pirelli tyres, then such conditions will prevail. If not, then things could start to look a little too contrived.

In short, a race win for a driver has to remain a special thing. Jean Alesi, for instance, won just one race in his career, and kept the Ferrari chassis that brought him his win in his gym as a motivational reminder for the rest of his career. Aside from winning the Monaco GP or one’s home race, the next step up from being a GP winner is being a World Champion. And nothing should be allowed to devalue this.

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