Column: Vettel aside, tires are star F1 performer

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PARIS (AP) - Sebastian Vettel and his Red Bull aside, the star of this Formula One season has been Pirelli for being brave enough to supply teams with tires that wear out cleverly _ something easier said than done.

No offense intended, but Vettel has sucked the suspense out of the driver’s championship by being so successful.

Starting on pole for 11 of the 14 races and winning nine of them, he has left only crumbs for everyone else. Since Vettel needs just one more point to do it, you can all but bet the house that the young German will win the world title in Japan next weekend, effectively making dead-rubbers of the last four races in Korea, India, Abu Dhabi and Brazil.

In years past, when nothing much happened in too many F1 races, that might have been our cue to switch off the TV and turn to more interesting pursuits like watching grass grow or paint dry.

But not this season. The paradox is that even as Vettel stormed away, more often than not, the racing behind him has still been too enthralling to miss.

Thanks, Pirelli.

The easier and arguably safer path for the Italian manufacturer would have been to supply F1 with tires that just ran on and on, that wouldn’t lose grip and speed, wouldn’t need changing in a race. After all, who wants to be associated with a product that doesn’t last?

But that would have been zero fun.

Instead, at risk of staining its reputation with potentially bad publicity, Pirelli accepted the challenge of delivering tires that would wear out after roughly 10 or 20 laps (depending on the type used), forcing drivers to pit more and to use their brains to fit the right tire at the right time.

Tires, in other words, packed full of key ingredients for good entertainment _ interest, action and uncertainty.

We have been treated to the sight of world-class drivers struggling to control their cars and dramatically losing speed as their tires wore out. We have seen them caught by drivers with fresher tires. The chess game of tire strategy has brought the entire field alive. Some purists may find it silly to deliberately throw a spanner in the works of such finely engineered cars by fitting them with such capricious tires. But the result has been a more absorbing spectacle.

The same goes for the overtaking aid _ a go-fast moveable rear wing _ fitted to F1 cars this season. F1’s governing body has got the balance with those about right. The wings generally haven’t made overtaking stupidly easy, which would have undermined the credibility of the racing. But nor is overtaking as ridiculously difficult as it too often was without them.

Together, the tires, the wings and the electric power booster that many teams use have all combined to give F1 the extra oomph it so badly needed.

Which is good because Pirelli could have switched to a more conservative approach if the gamble it took with the tires had backfired. Thankfully, it didn’t.

“We always had a plan B,” Pirelli’s motorsport director Paul Hembery said in a telephone interview. “We could have run in very quickly with tires that lasted the whole race. We prepared ourselves for all eventualities. … If we felt that the public didn’t buy into it, or the sport didn’t buy into it, and it wasn’t working, we could have just gone back to what had been termed before as ‘boring.’”

The first tires Pirelli tested preseason were so durable they could have lasted for three races; “we were too conservative by far,” Hembery added.

The teams and F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone wanted tires that would require about 2 or 3 pit stops per race. That required tire compounds that would wear neither too quickly nor too slowly, and “it took us a lot of time to understand how to do that,” he said.

“It would have been far easier from our point of view to have made something that just lasted the weekend,” for the whole Grand Prix, he said.

Hembery promises more of the same next season, with “2-3 pit stops average,” and only modest tweaks to the tires. One of those is to encourage teams to make more use of Pirelli’s somewhat harder “medium” compound tire.

At the moment, cars running those more durable tires can expect to be about 1-1.2 seconds slower than cars with the less durable but faster “soft” tires, he said. So that, in layman’s terms, is roughly a choice between sprinting for a short distance or running a little slower but over a greater distance.

Hembery wants to close that gap to 0.7-0.8 seconds, so cars on the harder tires aren’t penalized so much for using them. The hope is that will give teams a greater variety of viable tire strategies to play with. Pirelli tested tires for next season last week in Spain.

“The idea is to close the gap, maybe, some of the gaps, in performance,” he said.

Vettel’s audacious overtake of Fernando Alonso at the Italian Grand Prix in September, in itself, proved him to be a worthy champion. With two tires on the grass, Vettel was brave, decisive, quick and error-free _ everything you want the world’s best driver to be.

But Pirelli should take a bow, too. Hembery says they’ve been getting fan mail. Deservedly so.

“I get people randomly coming up to me and just saying, ‘Brilliant, well done, thank you, I’m finally watching Formula One again,’” he said. “That, certainly, in my motorsport career, has never happened before. That is gratifying.”

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John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at twitter.com/johnleicester

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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