Friday Analysis: Shanghai
The talk of the paddock after Fridays two practice sessions were no longer about the Red Bull driver fall out – but instead the high degradation of the tyres brought to Shanghai.Each tyre in the Pirelli range have all been made a step softer for 2013 and have brought higher wear rates and higher degradation at all of the Grands Prix so far, much to the chagrin of most drivers and teams. In China the teams are experiencing massive front left graining, all due to the Shanghai International Circuits long right handers, including Turns 1, 2, 8 and 13. These turns are putting a huge strain on the Pirelli soft compound tyre more so than the medium tyre.
The softer tyre is also significantly quicker over one lap; early predictions suggest it could be as much as 1-1.5 seconds per lap, meaning it will be the ideal Qualifying tyre for Saturday’s Q3 session. Jenson Button actually went so far to proclaim the soft tyre was the “perfect tyre over one lap, it’s more like a Qualifying tyre.” The tyre did pose a problem for Jenson though when at the end of a 13 lap stint on a relatively high fuel load, he locked under braking for the Turn 14 hairpin and the tyre tread dissolved on the track surface, leaving Button to crawl back to the pits with a slowly delaminating tyre. Despite the softer tyres ability to deliver one quick lap, the pace fades away very quickly. A closer look of a 9 lap soft tyre stint during Free Practice 2 looked like this:
Lap 1: 1m 48.5
Lap 2: 1m 43.9
Lap 3: 1m43.4
Lap 4: 1m 44.1
Lap 5: 1m 44.3
Lap 6: 1m 46.2
Lap 7: 1m 46.8
Lap 8: 1m 48.3
Lap 9: 1m 49.5
These times are suggesting that the tyres are very quick straight out of the box. Managing the tyres first lap pace ensures that the stronger lap times have lasted for longer, for example by taking a slower lap 1 pace, the driver has managed to get his fastest lap on lap three of the run. But once the meat on the tyre has been used for one or two quick runs, it enters a realm of no return. The tyre drops off very quickly, and although manageable at first, towards the end of the stint (just lap 8) the tyre will be useless and in need of changing given its lack of pace. The simulations all suggest that after a 3 lap run on the softer tyre in Quali 3 on Saturday, the tyre may only be serviceable up to lap 7, anything after will result in huge loss of grip and subsequently, time.
The issue of safety could now be where the teams voice their concern to Pirelli. Several teams like Red Bull in Malaysia have already said the tyres are impeding the cars overall speed, as the drivers are having to drive slower to preserve the rubber. Free Practice 2 in China saw Jenson Buttons tyre delaminate and Lewis Hamilton hitting out by saying, “The life of the tyre, it’s the worst I’ve ever experienced with bits flying off all over the place…It doesn’t feel like the right tyre for this circuit. I did a couple of laps and the tyres just disintegrated.” Other drivers too have voiced their concerns and rued the rubber brought to Shanghai. However Pirelli boss Paul Hembrey hit back by saying the softer tyre was doing as it is intended, “If the medium did the same then I’d be concerned, but it doesn’t,” he said. “It’s a qualifying tyre. It’ll be a bit like Melbourne I guess where the top teams are going to be forced to qualify on the softer tyre because it’s such a performance advantage and within the first 10 laps they are going to have to pit.”
The medium compound tyre has a more structured wear rate and will be the ideal tyre to last around 15-20 laps during the race. This will be the tyre the drivers will want to be on for most of the race, despite its lack of grip compared to the softer tyre it can still offer a lot of durability. Enough to stretch to a risky two stop strategy.
The soft compound drop-off is very large and will have a significant impact on the race come Sunday. All of the top 10 qualifiers will all be on the yellow marked softer compound, because of the significant advantage it will yield in Q3, they will require that tyres grip to hoist them up the grid. Those starting from 11th backwards, will almost all certainly start on the white marked medium compound and try as hard as possible to eke out towards a two stop strategy, they will also be hoping to pick off a few of the front running cars whilst they are getting serviced in the pit lane.
We could end up seeing a scenario come race day where the weakest tyre wins. What that means is, whoever has to pit first may well come out on top over the long run, despite having the disadvantage of pitting so early. This is due to the overlap that they benefit from when receiving new rubber. Say a driver, in this instance Nico Rosberg was running third just 3 seconds behind the theoretical race leader Felipe Massa. Nico could pit on lap 7, a seemingly early and stupid lap to pit, but only for him to benefit from fresh medium tyres, which could run quicker than Massa’s Ferrari. After just 1 lap Nico would take the lead of the race, the degradation of the softer tyre really can be as much as 3 seconds a lap, if you stay out and get it wrong.
All the talk of extreme tyre graining, wear and degradation could all be elementary of course. We have seen in the past extreme tyre conditions on Friday for the scenario to change completely for the rest of the weekend. Given that the track conditions should remain largely the same as we are not expecting any rain over the course of the weekend and there are no significant support races to upset the chemistry of the track surface, there may well be a track evolution which could favour both compounds of the Italian manufacturer’s tyre. This would leave all previous criticisms unfounded and a fairly undramatic and straightforward race…but then nothing is straightforward in Formula One.