Drunken Speculation

Pirelli and Engineers

IMG_0101Engineers are a bunch of whingers, aren’t they?

Before I launch into my tirade, for the non-Formula 1 fans out there, I can’t stress enough how important tyres are to a racing vehicle. It may seem wonkish to get caught up in the black rubber things but they’re the path the engine’s horsepower takes to get to the road. In short, all the power in the world is useless if you ain’t got no grip.

To provide some historical context, in the naughties, F1 had a tyre-based arms race between Bridgestone and Michelin. The outcome of a typical grand prix would be decided by which marque’s tyres suited which track. Between ’09 and ’11, only Birdgestone provided tyres, taking the view that they should produce the best rubber possible – grippy and long lasting.

In 2011, Bridgestone walked away and Pirelli stepped up. Pirelli preferred to design their tyres to deliberately degrade. The worn tyres make it more difficult for drivers to control their cars and so the racing spectacle would improve.

Since the introduction of Pirelli tyres, the racing in F1 has improved, at a conservative estimate, a billion-fold. Normal people can now watch a race and actually be entertained. In my twelve years of watching the sport, this is unprecedented.

As of time of publication, we are four races into the 2013 season. So far, the season has been dominated by complaints about tyres:

“It’s quite excruciating,” McLaren team boss Martin Whitmarsh is quoted by the Telegraph

Reports emerged during the Malaysian Grand Prix weekend that Red Bull had been urging Pirelli to change their tire compounds as they feel they are keeping them from running flat-out during races.

“It was the worst tyre I’ve ever experienced,” said Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton, who described the situation as ‘hardcore’.

1997 world champion turned TV pundit Jacques Villeneuve agreed: “I saw a few corners of action and then everybody taking care of their tyres. “That’s not real racing,” he said on Canal Plus.

That’s four instances I found after fourteen seconds of searching. Of course, it really depends on whether your car deals with the tyres well or not as to whether you’re in favour of changes or blocking them.

The funny thing is that I see this all the time in my own workplace. Often, a client or another consultant will put obstacle in the path of the engineering design, usually for nebulous concepts like “aesthetics” and “I don’t understand what you’re saying, so I’m going to disagree”.

While I hate this as much as anyone else, probably even more so, these challenges tend to lead to more refined designs. Yes, it takes a bit more effort and yes, you have to get out of the box a bit but the end result is, usually, better.

At the end of the day, the tyres are the same for everyone and they’re good entertainment value. The expectation of the team sponsors, who fork over millions to engineers to build fast cars that they can paste their logo on, is surely that you would design the car around the tyres so it goes fast and wins, not take a stab, get it wrong and then bitch and moan until you get your way. “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday”, as the old saying goes; not “lobby for changes Saturday, Sunday and Monday”.

The whinging, then, is the typical complaint of an engineer who can’t be bothered to alter their design. It’s easier, but not a better result, to stick with what they have and change the world to suit.

As one project director said to me recently, “What a bunch of ninnies. Just get on with it!”

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