One driver whose coat is on a shoogly peg is Sébastien Bourdais. After a strong Australian Grand Prix, Bourdais’s season has been rather disappointing to say the least. He is completely anonymous during races. While this at least means he isn’t making many mistakes, the fact is that he is being utterly outclassed by his team mate Sebastian Vettel.
Bourdais has excused his performances, explaining that he will come good when slick tyres make their long-awaited return to F1. The Frenchman is of course used to slick tyres having used them for several years in ChampCar.
For the past decade Formula 1 has been unusual among motor racing categories for its use of grooved tyres in dry conditions. Slicks were abandoned in 1998 in a bid to reduce speeds amid a newly-ignited tyre war between Goodyear and Bridgestone. The powers that be were in no hurry to do away with grooves as the tyre war between Bridgestone and Michelin was even more intense. But now that Formula 1 now effectively has a control tyre with one supplier, the need to curb tyre development is no longer there.
Grooves were always unpopular among fans who prefer to look of a proper racing car with slick tyres. Drivers also tend to dislike grooves because of their reduced grip and the safety issues this entails. Grooves also reduced the role of mechanical grip which in turn put the emphasis on aerodynamics. This has led to a perceived reduction in the amount of overtaking.
Jacques Villeneuve was particularly outspoken about the introduction of grooved tyres.
Later on that year he said “the new rules are bluntly shit.” For those comments, Villeneuve was punished by Max Mosley (whose vanity project grooved tyres was) through the FIA’s World Motor Sport Council.
It was always rather strange that a driver would come through the ranks from an entry-level series through to F3 then F3000 / GP2 always using slick tyres, then be expected to use grooved tyres when he reaches F1. Given that Sébastien Bourdais feels that he has not been able to show his true potential without slicks, has the past decade been a lost decade for top-level grand prix racing?
Which other F1 drivers might have been awesome if only they had slicks?
Would Pizza Boy have been the best thing since flattened bread? Not likely given that he even struggled in other formulae with slicks.
But perhaps a decent case can be made for some other drivers. Perhaps Robert Doornbos would have been slick on slicks. He did well in F3000 and even scored a couple of wins in ChampCar. Maybe Justin Wilson couldn’t get into the grooves. He has also had a strong career in the USA where slicks are the norm.
The reverse seemed to happen for Mika Häkkinen. When grooved tyres were introduced in 1998, Häkkinen’s hitherto dormant career exploded into action. His first win did come in 1997, on slicks, but that was effectively gifted to him. On the other hand, Häkkinen’s talent was plain for all to see even before 1998.
Do I think Sébastien Bourdais will improve on slick tyres? My feeling is that tyres have a small role to play. But it’s not a very significant role. I think it would be closer to the truth to say that the standards of driving in ChampCar are much lower than in F1 and Bourdais simply doesn’t have the talent to hold his own at the highest level.