Pirelli changed its 2018 tyres only to cure Mercedes overheating issues. That is the claim of Red Bull’s Dr Helmut Marko after the controversial Spanish Grand which left some teams puzzled in terms of tyres.
Mercedes played only second fiddle behind Ferrari over the season-opening quartet of flyaway races, especially in Bahrain, China and Azerbaijan where Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel dominated the proceedings. Just two weeks after Vettel’s commanding qualifying and race pace in the Baku round, Mercedes secured the front row in the Barcelona qualifying and then smashed the rivals in shivers in the race with some frightening pace.
The Circuit de Catalunya-Barcelona played arguably into the hands of Mercedes’ 2018 car which already excelled there during pre-season testing, but Pirelli’s special tyres which were introduced at Barcelona may have highlighted Mercedes’ strong presence on the aerodynamically demanding Spanish race track.
Following overheating issues during winter testing, Mercedes recommended to Pirelli to reduce the thickness of the tread of its tyres. The Milan-based company then introduced a Barcelona-specific family of tyres which had a 0.4mm thinner tread. The change might sound trivial, but the fact that the thinner tread led to a decrease of weight of one kilogram on one single tyre shows how big the change is in reality.
Though Pirelli is adamant the change was needed, it did still result in some unhappy teams.
"If you have a high level of blistering affecting all or most of the cars, you have a lottery not a race," said Mario Isola.
"It's not the right approach and we, as a sole supplier, have to provide the same product to everyone that is a safe product, suitable for the circuit and so on. I don't think that the slight modification in the tread thickness changed the balance of the performance of different cars. The compound is exactly the same and the construction is exactly the same, the difference is the thickness".
Ferrari which usually enjoys softer compounds was completely lost during the whole weekend. For the first time of Pirelli’s latest endeavour in F1, Ferrari could not switch the softest compound available on and had to qualify on softs instead of supersoft. In the race, the SF71H was sliding and wearing its tyres more than its rivals.
"You don’t have to be a genius to understand that the tyres get harder when you scratch off 4 millimetres. That’s how other teams got on better than we did," said Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel after the chequered flag fell on Sunday.
"Apparently, the changes that were made did us more harm than it did our opponents. Fortunately, there are normal tyres again for Monaco."
Helmut Marko was even more critical about Pirelli’s new tyres, claiming that it was a pure reaction to Mercedes’ overheating issues during pre-season testing.
"The tyres were changed at the request of Mercedes.’
"When you’re a team and a manufacturer at the same time, you can do that. We produce energy drinks. Of course we cannot influence as much compared to a maker of passenger cars," he said.
It should be noted that Sebastian Vettel backtracked on his comments on Tuesday, after testing the thicker soft tyres at Circuit de Catalunya, saying that Ferrari would have been worse off without Pirelli's specification change.