Quite a few column inches over recent weeks have been dedicated to seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher’s rant about the current situation with tyres in Formula one racing. His concerns, that in races drivers have to drive to delta times in the early laps so as to maintain enough rubber for the latter part of the stint, so as to avoid tyre “drop off” has launched divisive debate in the motor racing community at large.
Putting aside the obvious point: that old Mike might not complain so much were his Mercedes WGP-W03 a little easier on tyres, the debate is something relatively new to the sport. In the past, racing to deltas has been important for a number of reasons: the main one being tyre wear. At various stages of the sport, tyre wars have caused manufacturers to push tyres to the limits to gain optimal performance from them, this has resulted in unexpected situations, where a given circuit’s abrasiveness or surface variation has meant drivers have to look after their tyres if they are to make it through the race. At other times, there were rules imposed to manage tyres, such as the 2005 season, when tyre stops were banned mid race, and drivers had to make one set last the distance.
But this is different, in 2011 and 2012 Pirelli have been asked to spice up the show, to present tyres that will give the teams a headache. In the past tyre manufacturers were making the best tyres they could, sometimes that would not work out, other times it would. It was a judgement call for Michelin in 2005 to bring tyres to the US Grand Prix that would be as fast as possible, if they could not cope with the loadings through the banked 200mph turn then they would find out on the day, which they did, and they were wrong. They made a mistake and the tyres did not work.
Now, Pirelli are essentially making tyres that do not work, and for some this goes against the spirit of the sport, but for many it is not that defined. Many, it seems, feel that the spirit of the sport should entail the drivers driving balls out, every lap, and never having to be concerned for the longevity of their tyres.
Whereever you stand on this debate, it is hard not to appreciate that since the very beginning of motor racing, drivers have always been concerned with their tyres. It is fair to say, I think, that during a race the average racing driver thinks about their tyres more than just about anything else. Perhaps F1 should be the pinnacle, and this should not be a concern, the best tyre technology should be available. But, maybe, the best drivers in the world should be challenged in more areas than in sheer pace?
Working, as it is my want, this post around to the simracing world, it is quite clear from watching the best simracers in the world on live broadcasts that they run balls out, and whilst tyre temperature could be a concern, they are rarely concerned about wear. Pit stops in iRacing World Championship GP Series are always for fuel, and even though new tyres are always fitted, the general consensus is that they could go the distance with relatively little drop off in performance.
This seems to be a theme in iRacing, particularly with the NTM. Having run races in the LMP2 Honda ARX (which admittedly, would have longer lasting endurance tyres) and the Dallara Indycar, it seems to be that I can run a full tank of virtual fuel through these cars and still have very strong tyre life. Is this right?
Well, not in my real world experience, where I have always found tyres go through a wear cycle naturally, and after a certain number of kilometres are good for nothing but bolting on to practice car control on a skid pan. The only sim that truly reflects this, in the current market, is netKar Pro. Other sims make a stab, and in many a sim you have to manage tyres, but in netKar Pro the tyre’s lifecycle is there to see. You head out of the pits on a cold set, then on your first flying lap there is solid and reliable grip, it feels great, but then, with every passing lap the tyres slowly deteriorate and you have to adapt your driving.
Last year, when I was racing with the guys over at Race Department netKar Pro club in the very impressive Formula KS2, I fell victim to more experienced drivers in my early races due to this. I could extract the pace needed for a great grid position over one qualifying lap, but as the race wore on I lost pace, and had to learn how to adapt my style and drive the car in slightly different ways, to maintain reasonable laptime on tyres that were slowly degrading. My inexperience meant that in the mid-point of races I was losing time as it took me a few laps to adapt my style, then the pace would come back, only to find the tyres going away more and more in the final laps, and more adjustment needed. In other words, doing exactly what you see drivers in GP2, Formula Renault 3.5, Indycar and any other race series with notable race lengths.
This added to realism, this added to immersion, and presented me with a challenge as a virtual racing driver that was far above the challenge of nailing the same apex, lap after lap on good tyres. As the fronts start to wear, the turn in point for any given corner changes, as does the braking point, the point at which you get off the brakes, and the speed you can carry through the turn; as the rears start to wear you have to adjust how early and how hard you get on the throttle. If the tyres don’t wear, you do all of these things at the same time every lap, particularly when there is no variance in track temperature and grip. So your sim-race becomes more about muscle memory than anything, favouring those drivers with more practice time to hone their perfect lap over and over. In real life, tyres are organic and change all the time, replicating this in a sim is the challenge of a lifetime for David Kaemmer, Stefano Casillo et al; It may never be perfect, but representing this variance in performance and behaviour should be a factor in any sim.
Having spoken to a few iWCGPS drivers on this subject, it was to no great surprise that many disagreed. One particular driver was quite effervescent in his disagreement “Look at F1 now” he brayed, in his dulcid, posh tones, “exciting drivers like Lewis Hamilton have been castrated, we should be watching them at the peak of their skill on every lap, pushing the car to the edge.” Perhaps Lewis would agree, but would Jackie Stewart? Or Stirling Moss? Surely an ability to control tyre performance should be part of the top line grand prix driver’s armoury? “Maybe JD” responded my suave opponent “…but no one wants that in their simracing do they? You want to go balls out, every lap pushing, on the edge, anything else just isn’t fun. And tell me this JD, isn’t simracing supposed to be fun?”
It’s a fair point, but it’s also fair to assume that fast drivers will always prefer a situation that allows them to go faster, and oppose a situation that causes them a headache. The curious thing, is that at the same time many of the same fast drivers push for more and more realism in their sims, pointing to, once again, that crucial dichotomy between competition and realism in simracing.
Those of you that know me will know that i always fall on the side of realism. But, if you ask me, regardless of what Michael Schumacher has to say, F1 has thrown up some surprising races this year, paradoxically, the iWCGPS has not. Would a heavier aspect of tyre management add some spice?
I’m willing to bet it would.