F1 frontline with Mark Hughes

Straight talk

Might there be a glitch in the drive for stronger tyre performance?

The subterfuge behind the disagreement about an extra pre-season Pirelli test was actually very funny, a sit-com of known characters behaving in a wholly predictable way as they tried to get the jump on the others. But behind the comedy lies an underlying worry – whether or not Pirelli is going to be able to meet the brief it was given by the FIA for a tyre that can be raced hard. There are signs that in 2017 we could end up back where we are now, with super-high minimum pressures and the fastest way to cover a race distance being to drive slowly…

Niki Lauda was prowling up and down the pitlane for much of the Sepang and Suzuka race weekends, canvassing support from the other teams to join Mercedes and Pirelli in asking the FIA for another pre-season test – in Bahrain. 

Most teams could see the logic of an extra test. But not necessarily the logic of the venue. So far, the Pirelli on-track testing has been done on adapted mule cars: 2016 chassis with as much extra downforce added as possible – about 10 per cent. Except the 2017 cars are not going to have just 10 per cent more downforce. The new bodywork regulations have opened up a vast array of possibilities. Simulation from the teams has them already at 25 per cent more, with the expectation that it will be 35 per cent by the first race – and perhaps as much as 45 per cent by the end of the season.    

The extra stress this puts upon the tyres, specifically the vertical loads upon the casing, are exponentially greater. But last year, at a meeting at Pirelli HQ, the tyre company assured teams that it had the capability to produce whatever was required, that it just had to receive reasonable notice and clarity. So the team engineers gave estimates of the downforce increases likely from the new regulations, while the FIA stipulated that it wished to see an end to the current extreme heat degradation tyre that cannot be pushed to its limit for more than a couple of laps before it fries and is hopelessly gripless. It specified a tyre with conventional linear degradation through wear. There could still be grippy compounds that wore out quickly and less grippy ones that lasted longer, so as to give strategic variation. Just so long as drivers could push hard on them for the full length of the stint, so that the fastest way to complete a race could once again be to drive as fast as possible. Pirelli accepted the brief. 

But it’s a bloody tough brief. These tyres will be more heavily loaded than any in F1 history, the cars heavier, with a lot more downforce – and with continuing power gains. All that and a major change in philosophy. The overriding first requirement is that the tyres are safe. It’s incredibly difficult to adequately test the structural strength of the tyre without actually doing it on the 2017-spec cars and only one test – at Barcelona – was scheduled. 

The idea of an extra test immediately put up the backs of the smaller teams. Testing costs a lot of money – unbudgeted money to test Pirelli’s tyres. They won’t be testing only tyres, of course, but will be using the opportunity further to develop their cars. Naturally. But still, they’re not getting an advantage from that, for it applies to their rivals too. But Lauda managed to talk most of the small teams around, especially the Mercedes-powered ones. 

But Bahrain? Yes, says, Mercedes. To more accurately replicate the high track temperatures they’ll be seeing for most of the season. A rival team smells a rat. Might Mercedes be needing to finalise its bodywork openings, with the cooling requirements now very different? Testing in the desert would allow them to do that, to make its bodywork as aero efficient as it can be while still having adequate cooling at the hottest venues. Is Merc planning to go extreme in this? So the rival says no to Bahrain and the extra £750,000 it would cost his team. And unanimity is required to get the idea through. 

“Stop being a ***t,” says the voice at the other end of the team principal’s phone. “Go and test in Bahrain.” He replies to Mr Ecclestone that he doesn’t believe it’s about tyre testing at all, but about Mercedes trying to pull a fast one. And anyway, is Mercedes now running F1, he asks. “What do you mean?” Well, there doesn’t appear to be any leadership on the issue, says the team boss, just Lauda bullying everyone into doing what they want to do. So he assumes Mercedes must now be running F1. “No they’re ****ing not. We’re not going to Bahrain.” That’s how it stood at Suzuka. So someone asked the FIA to rule on it. “Sort it out yourselves” was the message that came back. 

If it turns out that the 2017 tyres are not adequately strong for the cars, then to make them safe the only way will be to increase the pressures, reducing the contact patch and the grip, taking strain off the structure, but overworking the compound. Hence making driving slowly (a couple of seconds off what they could do, so as to keep the compound from frying) the fastest way to drive the race…