F1 tyres: Round, black and slow

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It's a popular motorsport pun to say tyres are a black art. Yet that seems an appropriate summary this weekend as the Pirelli picture becomes no clearer and quotes from relevant parties here at Monza have become an exercise in damage limitation and political correctness; much as you would expect when someone in authority takes renegade drivers to one side and tells them to button it.

Formula One Management (FOM) followed up by taking the unprecedented step of issuing a show of support for the tyre supplier (and also one of FOM's biggest advertisers). Then we had Pirelli F1 boss Paul Hembery, under questioning in the official press conference, blaming the fuss on the media by saying everything was "rather exaggerated".

Pirelli would appear to be on a hiding to nothing. As sole supplier, they earn no compliments at the end of each grand prix and receive comments that are negative in the event of a failure.

Pirelli have been asked to provide tyres that degrade for the sake of 'the show'. It's an absurd situation in a business focussed on producing cars that are the ultimate in performance, only to put on tyres that are several seconds off the potential pace. It's a bit like Mercedes High Performance Powertrains extracting every conceivable fraction of horsepower from within their jewel of an engine, only to be told to run it with a couple of twin-choke Weber carburettors.

Given that the tyre situation is what it is and the teams have to deal with it, the Pirelli failures during the past three seasons sit rather uncomfortably within the history of F1 tyres. Even allowing for drivers running at full bore over the kerbs at Spa (regardless of Sebastian Vettel's curious assertion that he didn't) and a kerb causing trouble at Silverstone in 2013, the instances of flailing rubber beg the question of whether or not a tyre manufacturer should be capable of taking such untidy driving into account on high-speed tracks. Or, looking at it for another important angle, whether or not F1 ought to assist Pirelli by allowing them to test; a safety requirement as basic as putting a car through a crash test.

Yes, there have been failures in the past. Nigel Mansell's celebrated blow-out in Adelaide in 1986 was caused by the power and downforce of his Williams-Honda wrong-footing Goodyear when they examined similar tyres discarded from Alain Prost's less powerful (and therefore less downforce) McLaren-TAG and advised Williams a non-stop run would be feasible.

Mansell was also the victim of another failure (a very scary high-speed incident which I witnessed first hand) on the Mistral straight during free practice for the 1985 French Grand Prix at Paul Ricard. I never did discover the reason but, whatever the cause, Keke Rosberg was satisfied enough to put the sister car on pole later that day. And there were no more failures either that weekend or for the remainder of the season. (Ironically, the French race was won by Nelson Piquet's Brabham, giving Pirelli their first victory since returning to F1 four years earlier).

Better remembered, perhaps, is Ralf Schumacher's huge off during practice for the 2005 United States Grand Prix. Michelin were caught out by the diamond-cut surface that increased grip on the banked Indianapolis oval. The fact that Michelin had no back-up and the six-car race descended into chaos is another story. But at least the French tyre company put up their hands and paid out to disgruntled spectators.

At no point during the many tyre wars over the years has there been a spate of failures. In 2005, when drivers had to make a single set of tyres go the distance, they may have struggled with a lack of grip in the final laps, but the tyres held on (even to the point where Kimi Räikkönen's flat-spotted right-front vibrated badly enough to break the suspension as he tried in vain to bring his McLaren home at the Nürburgring.)

This weekend, tyre pressures have been increased, a measure that, in layman's terms, adds curvature to the tread and the shoulders. It may be a precautionary measure but it does not improve what some see - but seem reluctant to talk about - as the serious shortcoming of the fastest drivers in the world being unable to drive fast. And that's a fact, not an exaggeration.