Wednesday, Aug 1 04:54pm
AUTHOR: Richard Gee

Column: Brendon Hartley and the tales of two tyres

Tyres. The thing that many people forget about Formula 1.


They can make or break a lap, a stint or even a whole race. They come in lots of compounds and occasionally even at the very top level there is variation between the sets of identical compounds.


In short, they are one of the biggest headaches for a Formula 1 team. A black art of mystical proportions.


The Hungarian Grand Prix at the weekend had us all focussing once again on Brendon Hartley and his Toro Rosso adventure, and I'm pretty sure we all came away from watching it wondering just a little bit more about tyres and tyre strategy.


But let’s start positively. For our flying Kiwi, Hungary brought more good cheer. After a great performance in Germany – where his tyre conservation ability combined with tyre strategy to completely eclipse his team mate – Brendon was on a high. It showed right from the first session, when the Toro Rosso cars demonstrated solid front-of-midfield pace, no doubt helped by the driveability of the Honda engine. The most powerful in the field it may not be, but it is improving and it's characteristics, like that of the car, were clearly well-suited to the tight and twisty challenges of the Hungaroring. Both Brendon and Pierre Gasly were revelling in it.


Come qualifying it was one of those very rare, but highly entertaining sessions where conditions were different on different parts of the circuit; wet here, dry somewhere else, and changing by the lap for all of the runners out there. In short, a bit like a long endurance race with all of the weather changes but all rolled into three quick fire qualifying sessions. Perfect then, for an endurance racing world champion.


It’s fair to say that both Toro Rosso boys performed extremely well. Brendon edged Gasly in the first session with both moving into Q2, and both drivers then put in really solid laps in the first few moments of the second session as others around them failed to get themselves into Q3 and a top 10 starting position.


They had another crack in that final session too, sixth for Gasly and eighth for Brendon represented a collective victory for skill, judgement and car driveability for both drivers and the team. It turns out that was the first time in 42 years that a Kiwi would start a Formula 1 race inside the top 10. And the last one to do so was the late, very great, Chris Amon back in 1976.


Amon as we know, whilst regarded by many including Enzo Ferrari himself as one of the most gifted drivers of his generation, was also one of the most unlucky when it came to the races themselves. And I couldn’t help but draw a parallel or two watching Brendon’s race unfold over the weekend.


He made a great start, and could have had a pop at his team mate down the inside of turn one. Discretion – correctly in my opinion at least – was the order of the day though and he tucked in behind and avoided any chance of a catastrophic Toro Rosso team clash. In the hustle and bustle that followed over the first lap, in which there were plenty of taps, bangs and flying bits of carbon bodywork, Hartley kept it super clean and emerged in the top 10. And he stayed there too, slugging it out with the two Renaults – Carlos Sainz in front and Nico Hulkenberg behind. Gasly scarpered off in sixth, but both Toro Rosso's clearly had good pace and I was looking forward to another points haul for Brendon. And pretty much at the moment I thought it was definitely on the cards, it all started to unfold.


The undercut is a celebrated move in Formula 1 these days. A pass without passing. Dip into the pits, put on some fresh rubber, make a good getaway and use the new tyres to gain more over the car you were chasing as its tyres deteriorate before it in turn pits. Net result, when your rival emerges from the pits after you, he re-joins the race track behind you. That was the Hulk's plan to get past Brendon and Renault brought him in early for a change.


Hindsight is indeed a wonderful gift but looking back I do wonder why Toro Rosso reacted as they did and brought Brendon in immediately afterwards. He had been holding off the Renault pretty easily, had not really come under serious pressure and both were moving away steadily from the pack behind and effectively moving away from the bottom ten along with the Gasly led group of sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth. It didn’t seem like a gamble at the time to be fair to the team, but Brendon is pretty darned good at conserving his tyres and getting performance out of them for longer. I reckon one of the best in Formula 1, purely because it's a skill he had to have in buckets when driving long endurance races that were often close run things. Maybe, just maybe, he could have fended off the undercut.


What was worse, however, was the decision to put him on medium tyres for the remainder of the race and that, for me at least, was a black mark for the team and a strategy ‘fail’. Most of the best lap times were being put in on ultra-soft compounds and the teams were almost reluctant to use the (harder) soft compound as several drivers were wary of it simply taking too long to get up to working temperature. So there were quite a few two stop strategies to make the most of two sets of ultra-softs and one set of softs given the rules require use of two compounds. Mediums, it would turn out, were simply too hard, took too long to release any performance and when they did of course, that performance was still inferior to anything but very well worn softer tyres.


Brendon spent the majority of the race on mediums. And that's why he didn't get points. Not because he didn’t drive well, but all around him better strategies from slower cars played out against him. The Haas drivers, both McLarens and one or two others. All leapfrogged him on tyre strategy. It wasn't until right at the end in the final four or five laps that the performance and durability of his mediums crossed over the deteriorating speed of the ultra-softs and softs to give him an advantage. In those last few laps he took almost six seconds off Carlos Sainz.


We can only wonder what might have been had a more aggressive strategy befitting of his tyre management skills been deployed by his team. Actually we don’t need to wonder. He had all but matched Pierre Gasly all weekend and Pierre finished sixth. 'Nuff said.


Eleventh was scant reward. Error free again was our boy, and definitely worthy of more points. But let's remember that stellar qualifying performance and how it was achieved. It made my day and I reckon lots of other Formula 1 fans down here too.


One hopes it was noted by Toro Rosso and let’s be kind at this point and assume that they would be big enough, privately at least, to fess up to Brendon and admit they blew it for him in the race.


With testing at the Hungary track being undertaken this week by the Formula 1 teams, I noted the Toro Rosso social media machine singing the praises of Brendon and his testing abilities on a couple of occasions, as he hammered round the track for more than 100 laps on Tuesday testing, testing, testing. He clocked up more miles than anyone and the team will be better next time out as a result of his work.


Let's hope they work as hard for him next time out and let our wizard weave his magic in the black art.