“…a serious amount of management today…and I don’t think that’s what the fans want. That’s not what a racing driver wants to have to manage behind a car, multiple seconds behind, because the tires are not good enough.” That’s what Lewis Hamilton had to say in a post-race interview after a dominant but admittedly uneventful Spanish Grand Prix in 2020.
How exactly had we gotten to the point where drivers were no longer willing to be that subtle about the fact that they weren’t enjoying racing at the pinnacle of motorsport? I ask because this is how I felt right before the Gasly-Norris collision during the much-hyped Miami GP.
I felt the race starting to get boring, and even the suspense over how the safety car would influence both Mercedes drivers’ races wasn’t enough. Furthermore, after the short-lived on-track battle between the two, I had to listen to the commentators pretending we didn’t know the late Verstappen-Leclerc battle wouldn’t have a twist either.
Now don’t get me wrong, while I may be rooting for one side in every battle, it’s no fun if we all know there’s no fighting chance for one of the sides. It can be pretty satisfying seeing the opponent make an error or some other race incident inadvertently turning the tables.
Flukes have a unique sweetness to them, but we shouldn’t have to wish for them this early in the first season of new regulations primarily geared towards closer racing.
A recent evolution of tire strategy
Before the 2010 season, a considerable part of race strategy revolved around refueling. Some teams would carry as little fuel as possible to lap faster than their opponents and build enough of a gap to refuel and come out of the pits while still in the lead. Cars with incredible race pace would carry more fuel, trusting that they would still be in contention later in the race, and maybe refuel lightly to avoid running out while also protecting a higher position.
Refueling decisions were also affected by other factors like track temperature forecasts, weather, qualifying positions and the way other drivers looked after their cars during the race. When refueling was removed, the Canadian Grand Prix served as an eye-opener on how tire degradation could fill the entertainment void created by the fading refueling strategies.
The previous mandatory one-stop for changing tire compounds produced plenty of boring races, so when conditions required more than one stop, things got more entertaining. Pirelli sought to make this more common by providing a faster degrading tire for later seasons.
However, they often went too far and faced pushback from drivers and teams regarding the safety and drivability of the cars. They eventually fell in line with the new turbo hybrid regulations starting in 2014. And with dirty air affecting the ability to follow closely for long and overtake, boring races were back, with a few DRS-assisted overtakes sprinkled in.
How can the races be spiced up?
One of the possible remedies is moving further down the tire compound levels. For instance, where C1, C2 and C3 would have been ideal, FIA can switch to C3, C4 & C5. This approach isn’t new, but it depends on track conditions and can result in the same complaints about tire wear. I believe tire allocations and regulations on tire usage could use some revision.
Sometimes a team doesn’t make a specific strategy play because they don’t have that particular tire. But looking at tire strategy as a factor that influences entertainment, wouldn’t it be nice if teams didn’t have to worry about running out of tire options?
Especially since there are other eventualities like in-race punctures, flat-spotting during free practice spins and lockups, and other incidents. And let’s be honest, is it fun trying to keep up with who’s wasting their tires and who’s conserving them during the build-up to the race?
Too bad we can’t have as many tire sets; that would be a lot of rubber to carry around the world. The other option is the sprint route, a short stint on the softest tire to see who can go fastest for the longest time. It’s worked, but it always ends in complaints about the race being too short to close gaps and taking advantage of an opponent’s faster tire drop-off.
Personally, I still believe it is important to shorten practice time to the absolute minimum. I think when teams have too much data, they can make way more accurate projections of how things will go during qualifying and the race. Obviously, this makes races less interesting. Think of limiting data gathering as equivalent to changing weather conditions.
It definitely creates more uncertainty, produces more communication between drivers and their engineers during races, and has you tensely waiting for who’ll blink first.
Aijuka Duncan Ngabirano is a motorsport junkie with a passion for storytelling through various media, and hodling crypto.