Formula One Has a Serious Exploding Tire Problem

Five massive tire failures plagued this past weekend’s British Grand Prix at the Silverstone circuit, and all eyes are on Pirelli — the series’ tire supplier — as the teams, the drivers, and the fans question whether this latest breed of rubber is up to the rigors of the top tier of motorsport.

After a scant eight laps into the 52-lap race, Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton was running in first when his left rear tire blew at around 120 MPH. Halfway around the circuit, he was forced to drive on what was left of his splintered tire and into the pits, losing a dozen positions in the process.

A few laps later, Ferrari’s Felipe Massa suffered a similar tire failure, followed by team Toro Rosso’s Jean-Eric Vergne who’s tire exploded in a rain of shrapnel at over 180 MPH. Two more drivers — McLaren’s Sergio Perez and Sauber’s Esteban Gutierrez — both endured their own ruptures, at which point there were questions whether the race would even continue or be red-flagged.

In F1, tires are everything. They dictate every facet of each team’s strategy. And these latest compounds finally give fans what they want: drama. Not only can each team only use tires from one manufacturer (Pirelli) and only have a choice of four compounds to run (two dry and two wet), the tires have been engineered to endure the hellish race conditions for so long. As soon as they start degrading, they’re useless. So tire selection and pitting tactics aren’t just important, they’re the key to winning.

Photo: Lars Baron/Getty Images
But this weekend’s ordeal is eerily reminiscent of the U.S. Grand Prix in Indianapolis in 2005, an embarrassment of a race where only six cars out of 20 took to the track. Michelin, one of the primary tire suppliers, told the teams that their rubber wasn’t up to snuff for the entire race, leaving only a half-dozen cars wearing Bridgestone tires to compete.

As Sunday’s race at Silverstone wore on, the engineers frantically attempted to rectify the situation, analyzing tires after pit stops and increasing tire pressures by a few PSI in an attempt to mitigate further ruptures.

Radio chatter between the driver and the pits instructed drivers that cuts were appearing on the tires and that running over the curbing — the ribbed, raised, red and white sides of the track — could exacerbate the situation.

This isn’t the first time Pirelli has come under fire for its tires during the 2013 F1 season. Similar failures have taken place at both the Malaysian and Bahrain Grand Prix, and a meeting over the weekend of the Monaco Grand Prix between FIA president Jean Todt, race director Charlie Whiting, and several drivers to discuss the ongoing issue.

The tires supplied by Pirelli are a new construction for the 2013 season. Rather than relying on a radial/crossply hybrid that was both stiffer and used a Kevlar belt (running around the circumference of the tire, beneath the rubber), Pirelli opted for a pure radial tire with a softer sidewall and a steel belt. There are also questions surrounding the bonding method used between the tread and the carcass.

Even more questions remain about whether Pirelli had enough time to test the tires before deploying them on the cars. And to make matters worse at this weekend’s race, the tires didn’t simply shred, but completely deflate, which lead to massive chunks of rubber and metal flying onto the track and into the path of drivers.

With the German Grand Prix coming up this weekend at the Nurburgring GP circuit, there’s a possibility that we could see a spate of teams withdrawing if the issue isn’t addressed.

“Now, our greatest concern revolves around safety,” says Ferrari’s Felipe Massa. “Because even if I can’t really tell what happened today, it’s unacceptable having to drive knowing you are not safe.”

And Massa should know. He took a chunk of debris to his head at the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix and suffered a near-fatal injury.
By Damon Lavrinc

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