F1 frontline: August 2018

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It is not yet clear who will supply Formula 1 tyres beyond the end of 2019, but there are rather more pressing problems to address

We are not interested in extending just for one year and would only be interested in supplying in 2020 as part of a longer-term deal,” said a Pirelli spokesman when questioned about the likelihood of the company supplying tyres to Formula 1 after its current deal expires at the end of 2019.

The complicating factor is that from the new formula of 2021, F1 intends to move to low-profile 18-inch tyres. So that any company bidding for the tyre supply would, as things stand, have to supply one size of tyre for the first year of the contract and a different size for the subsequent ones. Meaning, of course, different moulds and constructions – adding enormously to costs and complications.

Michelin – which has for years heavily favoured the low-profile route for F1 – remains favourite to land the 2021-onwards contract. But it is understandably less interested in making a current size tyre for one year only.

Elsewhere, meanwhile, Hankook is understood to have made a bid so big that Pirelli feels it couldn’t possibly compete with it. “We would like to continue in F1,” Pirelli boss Marco Tronchetti Provera told shareholders, “but not at any cost.”

So Pirelli is using that no-man’s-land year of 2020 to stake its position. Liberty and the FIA are understood to have asked the company if it could extend the current contract for a year – and they have responded as outlined in the opening quote.

Whichever way F1 finds out of this particular jam, it needs also to resolve the current problem of finding a tyre that is simultaneously soft enough to allow strategic variation yet tough enough that it obliges the driver to push flat out – rather than cruise a couple of seconds off the pace to conserve the tyre. That is not an easy equation to solve – but Michelin and Bridgestone used to achieve it in the tyre war days.

The background to this was that prior to 2017, drivers were up in arms behind the scenes about how the Pirellis forced them to drive whole seconds off their potential for the whole race, just in order to save the time of the extra pit stops that would otherwise be necessary. Press hard for just a few corners and they would overheat and harden – and would essentially be fried and useless. F1 in the Pirelli years 2011-16 was essentially a ludicrous contest where the fastest way to complete a race was to deliberately drive a few seconds off the pace. Fans may have thought they were watching a race, but it was just different strategies weaving into and out of one another while the drivers drove to a set delta time.

Tasked by the FIA to change those traits for 2017, Pirelli came up with a much tougher range of constructions and compounds. Not necessarily harder in compound, just more resilient, with a lower content of the plastics that were responsible for the ‘frying’ phenomenon. They could be pushed harder for longer and, even if you did get them too hot, you could simply back off for a few corners to bring the temperatures back under control without permanently damaging the tyre. F1 became once more about pushing flat-out.

But with that came a new problem. Making them this resilient to heat meant their performance didn’t degrade much with wear – and so the fastest way to run a race invariably became a one-stopper. Even the introduction of softer compounds, and the difficulties that imposed upon naming them (the ‘super-soft’ was actually the hardest tyre in the two most recent races, harder than the ‘ultra-soft’ and much harder than the ‘hyper-soft’), hasn’t changed that. So, no strategic variation as well as the aero-dominated lack of overtaking…

As Pirelli desperately tried to encourage multi-stop races they introduced a yet-softer range of compounds for this year – but the introduction of the hyper at both Monaco and Montréal revealed that not to be the answer. Not only was one-stop still the fastest way, but the compound was so soft the tyre lost the resilience that allowed it to be pushed hard. So it was the worst of both worlds – drivers forced again to drive whole seconds off the pace and no strategic variation.

It is possible to have racing tyres with compounds soft enough that their life is limited by wear (to ensure short stints and multiple stops) but which can be pushed to their limit for the whole of the stint, and where backing off to get the extra laps of stint length would lose you more time than you’d gain. Michelin has shown this in sports car racing. But such a tyre is not made by Pirelli – at least not within the cost constraints imposed by the money required to get the contract. Varying the use of non-organic plastics within the compound is a cheap way of giving variable wear rates – and it allows the tyres to be extruded in automated form rather than built up in the traditional hand-crafted way of a racing tyre. But these materials have very short polymer bonds – they cannot be stretched far before snapping and so are inherently less ‘bendy’ and grippy.

The Pirelli era of racing has shown that this cost-effective way of making racing tyres does not make for a product that’s ideal for current F1. But it is not Pirelli’s fault that it cannot get F1 out of the hole it has made for itself by allowing the aerodynamics to evolve in the way they have.

That is the true root of the lack of close racing – and it is unfair to be asking a tyre company to find a way around that and at a cost so high that the tyres have to be produced cheaply.

That – rather than who can step into the supply breach for one year in 2020 – is F1’s real tyre conundrum.

This is what the new aero regs of 2021 really need to solve.

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