Straight talk

Why F1’s proposed new rules will be a real challenge for Pirelli

In an ideal world, Formula 1 wouldn’t have control tyres. In keeping with an ethos of technical freedom the biggest tyre companies in the world would be competing to make the best tyre, pushing each other to ever-greater performance, this development process making for competitive uncertainty from one race to the next. But it’s got what it’s got, for all sorts of historical reasons that don’t need to detain us here. Pirelli is F1’s tyre supplier – ostensibly until the end of 2020 (though the contract with the FIA had not been signed at the time of writing, only the commercial contract with CVC). In that case, it would be good to have a tyre that could be pushed to the maximum without frying itself. The heat-degrading mechanism is what Pirelli has used to provide the strategic variability it was tasked with creating when it got the F1 gig. Now, finally – after big pressure behind the scenes from the drivers – the FIA and Bernie Ecclestone have agreed: drivers deliberately driving off the pace in order to get the required stint lengths for the best strategy is not good. That’s quite aside from the nonsense of creating the fastest cars the most creative minds can come up with – and then neutering them. 

So in preparation for 2017 the FIA is preparing to specify exactly what it requires of Pirelli for faster F1 cars. It’s a move Pirelli’s competition boss Paul Hembery welcomes, although he has reservations at the same time. 

“The FIA will lay out very specifically what the task is,” he says, “which is something we welcome. In the past some parties have wanted one thing, others another and we’ve been caught in the middle. We don’t expect any surprises in that document because it’s arisen out of extensive discussions during the winter and there is broad agreement.”

However, the next part – the doing of it – is a huge task. The proposed 2017 cars are going to have more downforce, more power and more weight. The combined effect of all that is the greatest load any F1 tyre in history has had to withstand. This from a company whose worst nightmare unfolded with the multiple shoulder failures on live TV at the 2013 British Grand Prix. Furthermore, it all has to be accomplished in an incredibly tight timeframe and with relatively little testing.  

“We need tyres for the post-Abu Dhabi test [November this year]. We expect to be on track with our own car from June, but there’s still a question mark about that. We will see what we’ll use to duplicate loads. Ballpark estimates suggest it will be subject to an 18 per cent increase in vertical load compared to this year’s tyres. We are working on a number of solutions with the FIA to perform our work on the wider tyre.

“The initial work is conceptual and a V8-era F1 car would be ideal at the outset. But by September we really need to be as close in performance to the real 2017 cars as we can, probably some sort of hybrid version of a current car changed to replicate the relevant aspects of a 2017 car.” The wind tunnel models of the tyres have already been completed and will be available to teams soon. Internal testing – on rigs rather than actual cars – has already begun. 

“It is going to require a very different tyre concept,” admits Hembery. “The technology will be very different from what we have now. We are going to have to do something quite exceptional, but from the work we’ve done initially we are very confident that the numbers being talked about – lapping Barcelona about 4.5sec faster than currently – are achievable.” 

Let’s hope that confidence is justified. Having an appropriate tyre – one that can properly be raced – is arguably the single most important thing F1 has got to get right. Everything else is built around the authenticity of what happens on track. This tyre is carrying a heavy load in more ways than one.