Could Sauber win a Grand Prix this year? To answer simply: Yes, they could. However, the question this year should be something along the lines of: Can Sauber hit the Pirelli sweet spot? This year in F1 is so unique in the way that it revolves mostly around the tires. As always in F1, the chassis development does play a massive role in determining the championship. But for the 2012 season, it is more critical than ever to be able to manage tires in their optimum temperature zone.
Take McLaren for example. The 2012 Canadian Grand Prix demonstrated exactly the ‘issue’ of tires playing a dominant role in F1. Lewis Hamilton was setting blistering lap times throughout the whole Grand Prix from start to finish. Jenson Button on the other hand struggled to get any pace at all in his McLaren. Button did miss out on practice on Friday, but this would not cause him to be overlapped by his team mate while running in 16th position in the lower midfield. The problem was the tires; Button was unable to work the tires into their correct operational window, and therefore had no pace at all.
The Canadian Grand Prix provides us with an interesting perspective from which we can either criticize or praise the role of tires in F1. In 2011, Jenson Button won the race in what many fans claimed was the best drive of the year. He was in last place at over half-distance, and came through the pack to overtake Sebastian Vettel in the final sector of the race. Some fans were expecting a similar performance from Button in 2012; they expected him to bounce back after wasting away behind the Caterham of Heikki Kovalainen in Monaco. The tires squelched what could have been another strong performance from Button in Canada.
Should tires have such a commanding role in F1? Of course, they should determine race results to an extent; drivers such as Sergio Perez, who manages his tires exceptionally, should be rewarded. In my opinion, the tires this year have gone too far in determining which drivers are winning races. People have referred to this season as a ‘lottery,’ and it seems to me that tires have somewhat negated driving talent. This year, drivers who are able to keep their tires in their optimum temperature window are the ones who win races. We know how skilled Jenson Button is, we saw it in 2011. Now we are seeing him being punished terribly for being unable to find maintain the operational window for his tires.
Then again, one could argue that tires in F1 are fair as long as each driver has identical tires available to him. It should be the driver’s job to adapt to the tires. Some fans claim that it is a driver’s job to optimize their tire use and strategy in order to be as quick as possible. But in my opinion, the role of tires in F1 has grown too large. Stellar drivers are being relegated to the midfield by failing to work the tires up to temperature, and drivers who happen to be able to turn their tires on are winning races. When one team mate is overlapping the other, the dominance of tires over a Grand Prix has gone too far.