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A Mercedes mechanic holds a tire in the pit at the Gilles Villeneuve racetrack, in Montreal at the Canadian Grand Prix. (June file photo). (Luca Bruno/AP Photo)
A Mercedes mechanic holds a tire in the pit at the Gilles Villeneuve racetrack, in Montreal at the Canadian Grand Prix. (June file photo). (Luca Bruno/AP Photo)

Motorsports

Did a mid-season tire change make the F1 season unfair? Add to ...

After nine months, 19 countries and 5792.35 kilometres of racing, the 2013 Formula One season went in the books on Sunday. But the question is: Should it logged with an asterisk?

Although the season started out with five different winners in the first 10 races, 2013 became the Sebastian Vettel Show as the Red Bull driver blitzed the competition in the second half, winning the last nine grands prix to cruise to his fourth consecutive title by a whopping 155-point margin.

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Vettel could have given away six of his 13 victories and he still would have beaten the second-place driver Fernando Alonso of Ferrari by five markers. Drivers get 25 points for a win.

Unfortunately, the question of an asterisk arose after the sport allowed F1 rubber supplier Pirelli to change its tire construction following some high-profile failures at the famed British Grand Prix in July. The switch back to 2012 construction seemed to affect Ferrari and Force India most, with both teams struggling to find the form they’d shown in the first half.

The Lotus squad, which also performed well at the start of the year, seemed unfazed by the swap. Throughout 2013, the team was able to put in more laps on the rubber than its rivals at almost every track. The team that saw the biggest gain was Red Bull, with its star driver Vettel winning 10 of the 11 races on the new construction tires, while he or teammate Mark Webber started on pole in eight of those grands prix.

And yes, Red Bull brought updates to its car that helped it maximize the performance advantage it already had gained through clever exploitation of the blown exhaust, helping it find the added rear downforce that its rivals lacked. But thinking that Red Bull’s dominance was only due to the technical genius of Adrian Newey’s design crew would be simplistic.

Ferrari didn’t deliver the right upgrades to its car after the tire change, and it couldn’t keep pace with the high-flying Red Bulls. But it’s tough to lay the blame completely at the Scuderia’s feet, when the parameters were changed after its design path was chosen, likely in mid-2012. When the 2013 season opened, it looked like fans were in for another spirited, year-long Alonso-Vettel battle.

In fact, Alonso was only 21 points behind Vettel before the rubber switch, despite a retirement in Malaysia and two disastrous outings in Bahrain and Monaco.

Even with the rough outings, 2013 looked like it might see a repeat of last year, where Alonso battled Vettel down to the wire despite a less capable car.

That all went out the window when the sport’s governing Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile okayed the rubber modifications that effectively ended Alonso’s title challenge. The key here is that it’s difficult at best to change horses mid-stream in F1, and the decision punished those who got things right with their car design and rewarded teams that didn’t. Ferrari’s planned upgrades didn’t work as well as expected, and it lost ground to Red Bull, which was in the enviable position of improving a package that already worked well with the old tire construction.

Although Lotus continued to see good results after the switch, no team was affected more severely by the rubber change than Force India, which only managed to score 18 of its 77 constructors’ points in the 11 races after the new boots were fitted to their cars, compared to its first eight starts with the original tires.

Ferrari got a double whammy from Pirelli, which moved to use harder compounds in the second half to help reduce the chances of more embarrassing failures in races, such as the spectacular blow-ups in the British Grand Prix . That played into the hands of Red Bull and also Mercedes, with its silver cars using the tires more than Ferrari in the early going. The change may have also contributed to Mercedes’ being able to pip the Maranello squad for second overall in the constructors’ standings.

On the other hand, the tire change saw the season come to Vettel, who continued to rewrite the record books. The young German established a new mark of nine consecutive wins in a season and helped him tie seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher’s record of 13 total victories in a single F1 campaign.

Vettel was almost invincible in his Newey-designed car, and with his team’s track record, it’s easy to argue that he was going to earn his fourth title easily, with or without the mid-season tire change.

But if F1 and Pirelli had kept the tires constant, the season might have been more closely contested. And let’s be honest - last year’s battle to the last race of the season was more exciting to watch than this year’s cake walk.

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