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Jenson Button at a qualifying session for the Canadian Grand Prix. (OLIVIER JEAN/REUTERS)
Jenson Button at a qualifying session for the Canadian Grand Prix. (OLIVIER JEAN/REUTERS)

Motorsports

F1 teams racing to get a grip on 2012 tires Add to ...

Definitely, maybe.

That’s about as close to a clear-cut answer as Formula One teams can come up with these days, when it comes to figuring out this year’s Pirelli tires.

The 2012 rubber has kept just about everyone in the F1 paddock scratching their heads in frustration as they try to hit a constantly moving target that seems to defy them at almost every turn – literally.

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“Have we got enough data? Yes. As you can imagine, we have a huge amount of data, as everybody else has,” said McLaren managing director Jonathan Neale.

“In terms of making sense of it, it’s not a trivial question. The interaction between track temperature, the vehicle dynamics of the car, the driving style, the ability of cars – we’ve seen at different circuits different people have been able to switch the tires on very quickly and others are taking much longer to warm up.

“We’re all chasing the same thing, which is [to be ]the first team to become consistent and get them in the ‘sweet spot’”.

Get it wrong and the car struggles for grip – either because there’s not enough heat in the tires for them to work properly, or there’s too much heat and the rubber degrades quickly. Essentially, anything outside the rubber’s narrow optimum operating window spells disaster.

As the sole rubber supplier to the sport, Pirelli makes four dry-weather compounds: super soft (with red sidewall markings), soft (yellow markings), medium (white markings) and hard (silver markings). The manufacturer brings two of the four different compounds to each race, chosen based on the characteristics of the particular circuit. The harder of the two compounds used at each race is referred to as the “prime” tire, while the softer one, which allows the cars to be faster but also degrades much more quickly, is called the “option” tire.

Pirelli began the season with all-new compounds that are all softer than the comparable tire in last year’s offerings. In addition, all of the different rubber types are closer in performance compared to the 2011 tires.

Although the unpredictability brought about by the changes certainly wasn’t by design, it is understandable.

Although Pirelli tests the tires extensively, no team will give them a 2012 F1 chassis to use, so they rely on a two-year old car to gauge the rubber’s performance. And, simply put, with the cars changing significantly from season to season, the results are far from definitive.

Apparently, the teams are in favour of handing over a 2012 car to the tire supplier for testing, but the drivers are opposed – unless, of course, their car is the one that’s used.

With no team finding the magic rubber bullet so far this year, the 2012 season has turned F1 on its head. A record seven different drivers from five teams have won the first seven races, and even perennial mid-field outfits can be a threat on any given weekend.

A prime example was last month’s Spanish Grand Prix, when Pastor Maldonado scored his maiden F1 win and the first for his Williams team since Juan Pablo Montoya took the chequered flag at the 2004 season finale in Brazil.

The trouble is that the sweet spot in the tire not only changes from race to race, but also from session to session at each grand prix. So even if a team gets it right in practice and qualifying leading up to a grand prix, there is no indication that they will be able to perform well on race day. And teams can win a race one weekend and then be relatively lost the next.

Things are so unpredictable that even two drivers in one team may see vastly different results in races. In last weekend’s Canadian Grand Prix, McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton put in a superb drive to win the 70-lap race, while his teammate Jenson Button played moving chicane as he slithered to a disappointing 16th place finish.

“It seems that everyone can win and everyone can lose,” said Button.

“It’s really exciting for the sport, but I think most of the teams that have won probably, including us, don’t know why we were quick on that day and not quick on another. That’s the most frustrating thing and the most difficult thing to work out.”

To find the solution, the engineers must take countless factors into account as they target the tires’ optimal operating window at each race track.

A short list of the things examined during the track sessions would include the specific tire compound, the car’s characteristics, the aerodynamic package needed for the track, the circuit’s surface, the ambient temperature on the day and the different styles of individual drivers.

“It’s an incredibly complex problem,” said Mark Gillian, Williams F1’s chief engineer.

“The tires are very non-linear, and something that we’re all chasing, so you go from track to track – even with the same compounds – and you have to be very careful not to assume anything and collect all the data.”

The tires are so sensitive that the drivers often refrain from using the Drag Reduction System (DRS) in practice until they get the rubber heated exactly right, or as right as possible, because even a small change in downforce can upset the delicate balance between speed and sloth.

The DRS is a software-controlled system that flattens the rear wing to reduce a car’s drag and increase its top speed. While the use of the system is limited to one designated area during races, the drivers may deploy it whenever they wish in practice and qualifying.

In the end, with some of the world’s smartest automotive engineers helping the best drivers on the planet figure out the tires, it should be a safe bet to think the top teams must be close to coming up with a solution and restoring a definite pecking order on track.

But the way things have gone so far this season, Neale advised against putting money on it.

“We’d love to be the first to figure it out and get some kind of advantage,” Neale said. “I don’t think it is going to quite solve itself like that. It’s still a meritocracy.”

Finding the handle on the tires would go a long way towards helping Button rebound from four non-points-scoring results in the first seven races, including his frustrating race last weekend in Montreal.

More predictability as the season progresses would help the 2009 world champion get back in this year’s title fight, he said.

“Getting the car consistent everywhere we go is massive,” said Button, who won the 2012 season opener in Australia.

“We still have a very good car, but so are 18 other cars on the grid. It’s tricky and we just have to keep working.”

For more from Jeff Pappone, go to facebook.com/jeffpappone (No login required!)

Twitter: @jpappone

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